MEXICO CITY — Known as "The Craziest One," he indoctrinated gang members in a pseudo-Christian ideology, and purportedly wrote a book of moral values for his cult-like cartel — all the while gruesomely decapitating his foes and selling cocaine and methamphetamine by the ton.
In many ways Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, who the government says was killed during two days of shootouts between his gang and federal police in the western state of Michoacan, was the most bizarre of Mexico's drug lords.
He announced the emergence of his La Familia drug cartel four years ago by having his gang roll five severed heads into a Michoacan nightclub and vowing to protect President Felipe Calderon's home state from rival cartels.
Calderon responded by deploying thousands of federal police into Michoacan seeking to crush La Familia, warning that the cartel was corrupting local officials, extorting businesses and terrorizing the population.
The crackdown has expanded to trafficking hotspots across Mexico and brought down seven top cartel leaders over the past year, three of them arrested and four of them killed.
But Moreno was the first from La Familia to fall during the bloody war against drug cartels that has at times turned pockets of Mexico into battles zones and seen 28,000 deaths since it began in late 2006.
Police learned that Moreno — also known as "El Chayo" or "The Doctor" — was killed in a clash Thursday between cartel gunmen and federal police, said Alejandro Poire, the government spokesman for security issues.
Poire said cartel gunmen fled with several of their casualties and Moreno's body has not been recovered. But a statement from the presidential office said his death has been confirmed.
Poire said police recovered the bodies of three other suspected La Familia members and detained three others.
Five officers and three civilians — including an 8-month-old baby and a teenage girl — were also killed in the shootouts, which began Wednesday night when La Familia gunmen attacked federal officers in Moreno's home city of Apatzingan and fired on cars.
The gunmen torched vehicles across Michoacan and used them as barricades, even blockading all entrances into the state capital of Morelia to prevent federal police from sending reinforcements.
Moreno, 40, was considered the ideological leader of La Familia, setting a code of conduct for its members that prohibits using hard drugs or dealing them within Mexican territory. He purportedly wrote a religiously tinted book of values for the cartel, sometimes known as "The Sayings of the Craziest One."
According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration profile, La Familia members are believed to undergo a three- to six-month training camp in Michoacan.
"They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor," the profile says. "La Familia Michoacana also gives money to school and local officials."
The Mexican government profile said Moreno "erected himself as the 'Messiah,' using the Bible to profess to poor people and obtain their loyalty."
The cartel reportedly takes inspiration from an odd source: the book "Wild at Heart," by American evangelical author John Eldredge of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Ransomed Heart Ministries.
Last January, authorities in Michoacan seized a car with 23 guns, four grenades — and nine copies of "Wild at Heart." The books had inscriptions signed by "The Craziest One."
His wife, meanwhile, hosts self-improvement seminars in Michoacan, including one in April at a club in Apatzingan that was promoted with posters titled "Let's help create a better future," according to the Mexican government.
In February, the U.S. government added Moreno and six other reputed La Familia leaders to its "Kingpin Act" list, a move that prohibits American citizens and firms from having any business dealings with them and freezes any U.S. assets they may have.