Mexico confirms killing of 'dead' drug capo

Mexican marines and soldiers guard the surroundings of the morgue where the alleged corpse of Nazario Moreno remains in Apatzingan, Michoacan, Mexico on March 9, 2014.

MEXICO CITY - A Mexican drug lord mistakenly reported dead more than three years ago was killed Sunday in a clash with armed forces in western Mexico, officials said.

The killing of Nazario Moreno, nicknamed "El Mas Loco" or "the Craziest One," is another coup in Mexico City's battle against organised crime, following the arrest last month of the world's most wanted and single most powerful drug lord.

Soldiers discovered Moreno early Sunday near a town in western Michoacan state and tried to arrest him, said Monte Alejandro Rubido, the executive secretary of Mexico's National Public Security System.

"But he attacked the federal forces, who were forced to repel the aggression, thus killing the presumed criminal," Rubido said at a press conference, giving no further details of the incident.

Authorities spent most of the day seeking to confirm that the dead man was indeed Moreno, the founder of the La Familia drug gang and a leader in its spinoff group, the Knights Templar.

The criminal's identity was confirmed by comparing his fingerprints with those they had on file, the authorities said. To be extra sure, they are also carrying out genetic testing on the body.

Back from the dead

La Familia burst onto the scene in 2006 when gang members rolled five severed heads onto a nightclub dance floor. Their message was: "The only ones to die are those who should die."

The previous Mexican administration of President Felipe Calderon announced in December 2010 that Moreno was killed in a gun battle. But his body was never located and reported sightings fueled speculation he was alive.

La Familia crumbled after Moreno's disappearance, leading to the creation of the Knights Templar.

The government deployed more than 9,000 troops and federal police in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente ("hot land") region in January after new gunfights erupted between the cartel and vigilantes.

Michoacan is known as Mexico's lime-and-avocado heartland, but it is also the country's top producer of iron ore, extracting four million tonnes in 2012, or 27 per cent of national output, according to the economy ministry.

The Knights Templar gang snatched the underground riches to diversify its business, which includes the production of crystal meth and extortion rackets against fruit growers, tortilla makers and municipal officials.

The drug cartel has illegally extracted iron ore, using the Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas to export the mineral to China, officials say.

At the same time, the gang imports chemical precursors from Asia to make crystal meth in makeshift mountain labs.

Moreno was considered the cartel's spiritual leader, having penned the "Gospel of La Familia" - a sort of gang bible with rules barring its members from consuming drugs or alcohol.

The Knights' current leader is Servando "La Tuta" Gomez.

A holy criminal

After Moreno's reported death in 2010, he was turned into a saintly figure in Michoacan, with shrines built in his honour.

Yet people in Michoacan were always convinced that Moreno had survived the 2010 shootout, and citizen vigilante militias that formed last year pressed the government to arrest him.

Moreno justified his violence as "divine justice" to protect Michoacan from other criminal groups.

A US security official several weeks ago had told AFP privately: "El Chayo is alive, hiding in the mountains and leading the Knights Templar.

"He sees himself as Che Guevara, dresses up in Knights Templar outfit with the Maltese cross and even a sword," the official added.

Asked why Moreno had kept himself out of the limelight, the official said:

"If he showed his face, it would be so humiliating for the government that it would have to go after him."

Moreno's slaying is another coup for President Enrique Pena Nieto in the war against Mexico's drug gangs.

It follows the February arrest of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Confederation and the world's most wanted and single most powerful drug lord.

In July 2013, authorities arrested Miguel Angel Trevino, also known as "Z-40" and head of the paramilitary Zetas criminal gang.