It’s rarely said that Mexican cartel kingpins have nine lives, and most people involved in the drug business know that their predicted life spans are dramatically shortened by their chosen line of work. But it’s even more rare for a capo to actually fulfill the common legend attributed to so many narco leaders slain in the drug war–that he was actually living in the shadows after his presumed death, and possibly still running the show.
This is exactly what happened with Nazario “El Mas Loco” (or “El Chayo”) Moreno Gonzalez. On March 9, 2014, the Associated Press reported that Moreno was killed in a confrontation with Mexican marines in the Michoacán municipality of Aguililla, and that a forensic team had confirmed his identity. The problem is that he was supposedly killed by the Mexican military in December 2010.
Moreno was the evangelical and revered leader of the drug cartel known as La Familia Michoacana when they formally emerged on the scene in 2006. They had violent tendencies from the beginning, announcing their intentions to rid the state of Michoacán of kidnappers and extortionists by rolling five severed heads across a dance floor in a Uruapan, Mexico dance club that year–with an attached note, of course. They were a cult of personality centered on the quasi-religious teachings of Moreno, who actually developed a sort of bible, or manifesto, for the cartel that outlined what they should believe and how they should behave.
This indoctrination was very effective in recruiting people to Moreno’s cause, both voluntarily and coercively. Although La Familia initially eschewed methamphetamine as evil and the scourge of their communities, it wasn’t long before Moreno and his following evolved into some of the busiest meth traffickers in the business. They initially formed a coalition with the brutally violent Los Zetas cartel for protection, and to help their business expand their small corner of southwest Mexico. Their tendency toward extreme violence only grew with increased exposure to Los Zetas’ experience with beheadings and dismemberments.
Then in December 2010, “El Mas Loco” (which means “the craziest one” in Spanish) was reportedly killed in a firefight with Mexican authorities. His body was never retrieved, which led immediately to rumors that he was never actually killed, despite all the formal pronouncements my former President Felipe Calderón’s government. However, his presumed death led to dramatic changes within the organization–specifically, a split that would plunge Michoacán and neighboring states into heightened levels of violence that would persists for years.
After Moreno’s death, the popular Borderland Beat blog reported that control of La Familia was left in the hands of Enrique “La Chiva” Plancarte Solís and José de Jesus “El Chango” Mendez. By early 2011, a conflict started between the two. After the dispute ended, Plancarte and Servando “La Tuta” Gómez renamed the original cartel loyal to Moreno as the Knights Templar to fight Mendez’s breakaway faction, which kept the La Familia name. The activities of La Familia remained very low profile, while the Knights Templar were announcing to society that they were a new “vigilante group.”
In late June 2011, Mendez was arrested by Mexican authorities without incident. The Mexican government touted this arrest as the end of La Familia, while drug war observers began to speculate on what would become of the cartel. Some believe the Knights Templar would absorb what was left, and that would be accomplished with minimal bloodshed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. La Familia continued to survive through alliances with other cartels and sheer determination, and conflicts with the Knights Templar ensured the blood continued to run in the streets of Michoacán.
Over the next two years, both the Knights and La Familia expanded their operations into the neighboring states of Jalisco, Guerrero, and even into the State of Mexico. The violence perpetrated by the Knights in Michoacán and Guerrero has gotten so bad that it has inspired a popular uprising of vigilante groups. These militias are made up of mostly local men and women who are tired of the violence, and have armed and organized themselves in an attempt to drive the Knights out of their communities. The Mexican government, mostly unable to control the Knights’ activities on their own, has actually begun to enter into formal agreements with some of the militias.
But now, it looks like while all of this has been going on, “El Mas Loco” has been the Wizard behind the curtain. Two main questions arise from this discovery: who knew he was alive all along, and what measure of control–if any–has Moreno had over the actions of The Knights Templar?
To be sure, the narco landscape in Michoacán has changed considerably since Moreno’s first “death.” The communities actually supported the original La Familia under Moreno because they felt protected under his leadership. The evangelical aspect of the organization resonated with a largely religious populace that may have not necessarily been satisfied with the guidance of the Church. La Familia also provided a good deal of support and social services to Michoacán communities with their considerable drug wealth. In turn, the community provided the most valuable commodity of all in the drug war–silence. When the police or military would ask questions about La Familia, everyone conveniently became blind and deaf.
Working under the assumption that the uppermost levels of the Knights Templar knew Moreno was alive, and were perhaps receiving guidance from him, his actual death could be a considerable blow to morale. It’s important to remember that the original La Familia–which was comprised of the Knights–practically worshipped Moreno and his teachings. Losing him for real is not the same as losing a kingpin who was more of a corporate boss, or even a close friend.
This being said, Moreno knew how crucial it was to maintain ultimate secrecy. It’s possible that only a few top and most loyal Knights leaders knew where he was. As such, it would have been difficult for Moreno to be involved at any operational level without risking discovery. His role, if any, would likely have been that of a personal advisor to La Tuta and maybe a few others.
Unfortunately, this means that the day-to-day operations of the Knights will likely be unaffected by Moreno’s actual death. It might actually serve as an inspiration, as his followers could be invigorated by the loss of their spiritual leader at the hands of the Mexican military. News of his veritable death will probably paint former President Calderón in a bad light for failing to take to the trouble to confirm the initial killing, or to find the body. It will also be another huge boost for current President Enrique Peña Nieto, coming hot on the heels of the marines’ capture of the Sinaloa cartel’s notorious leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán just two weeks ago.
Now we wait and see how events will unfold in Michoacán and neighboring Guerrero state. Will the Knights start to crumble in the face of a united front posed by the military, police, and vigilantes? Or will they fight even harder to honor their now-deceased leader? Only time–and sadly, the body count–will tell.