Image: Fiery roadblock in Morelia
Quadratin  /  AFP - Getty Images
Mexican federal police stand by a blockade set up by gunmen overnight in Morelia as the government hunted down La Familia drug cartel leaders.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/10/2010 9:02:58 PM ET 2010-12-11T02:02:58

The eccentric leader of the notorious La Familia drug cartel was killed in a shootout during two days of fighting between federal police and gunmen that terrified civilians across a western Mexican state, the office of Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Friday.

The death of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez — nicknamed "The Craziest One" — is a major blow to a drug cartel that burst into national prominence four years ago by rolling severed heads into a nightclub and declaring that its mission was to protect Michoacan state from rival gangs and petty criminals.

Police believed that the 40-year-old 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.

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"Diverse pieces of information obtained during the raid all indicate that Nazario Moreno Gonzalez was killed yesterday," Poire said in a televised news conference.

In a brief statement, Calderon's office confirmed Moreno's death.

Cartel gunmen have been fleeing with their causalities, and police believe that Moreno was among the dead, Poire said. He 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 the city of Apatzingan and fired on cars.

The gunmen torched vehicles across Michoacan and used them as barricades, even blockading all entrances into its capital of Morelia to prevent federal police from sending reinforcements.

Moreno is 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 has written a religiously tinted book of values for the cartel, sometimes known as "The Sayings of the Craziest One."

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The U.S. government added Moreno and six other reputed La Familia leaders to its "Kingpin Act" list in February, a move that prohibits American citizens and firms from having any business dealings with them and freezes any U.S. assets they may have.

Poire said Moreno emerged as the leader of La Familia in 2006, when the gang — then known as "The Business" — broke off from the Gulf cartel and declared its independence by rolling the severed heads into a disco in the mountain town of Uruapan.

A message left with the heads declared: "La Familia doesn't kill for money, doesn't kill women, doesn't kill innocents. Only those who deserve to die will die."

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who was born in Michoacan, responded by deploying tens of thousands of soldiers to the state to crush the cartel — an increasingly bloody fight that has since expanded to other drug trafficking hotspots across the country. More than 28,000 people have been killed in drug-gang violence since.

La Familia has since become one of the biggest methamphetamine traffickers to the United States. Meanwhile, the cartel has proclaimed in banners and even newspaper advertisements that it is trying to protect Michoacan from other cartels and common criminals.

The government claims that that La Familia has been severely weakened after four years of fighting off its rivals and security forces.

Several leading La Familia traffickers have been arrested in recent months. One of those suspects, Sergio Moreno Godinez, said under police interrogation last month that the cartel is in decline.

He confirmed the authenticity of a letter, e-mailed to journalists and dropped on the streets of several towns, saying the cartel is willing to disband if the government can improve security for Michoacan.

"What we have seen in the last days is a criminal organization repudiated by the population, and which has been significantly weakened," Poire said. "This is demonstrated by its false calls for a truce and the confessions of its members."

Mexican authorities put a $2 million bounty on Moreno's head in March 2009. His official wanted poster — featuring a fuzzy photograph of a middle-aged man with a thin face and a mustachio — accuses him of drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder.

In 2006, El Universal newspaper said it had interviewed two La Familia leaders, identifying one as "The Craziest One." He was quoted as saying: "There is a new policy: We are going to expose those who sell drugs, to those who steal, to those who kidnap, anybody who is out of line. This is the policy of The Business."

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 official."

Mexican authorities believe La Familia operates "by means of an executive council" compromised of both drug traffickers and government officials, according to the DEA.

In 2009, the Calderon government arrested more than 30 Michoacan state and local officials — including 12 mayors — accused of protecting La Familia in a highly touted sweep meant to show no politicians are immune from prosecution. The cases have since unraveled for lack of evidence in one of the biggest setbacks of Calderon's drug war. Only one of the officials — a former mayor — remains in prison.

The other reputed La Familia leader is former school teacher Servando Gomez. He is described as the operational chief of the cartel in an October 2009 Justice Department indictment for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine to the United States.

The indictment says Gomez is in charge of acquiring weapons for the cartel and may be behind the murder of 12 Mexican federal law enforcement officers whose bodies were found in July 2009 following the arrest of another La Familia leader.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Mexico violence

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  1. Doctors and nurses of the Medical Specialties Hospital hold a candlelight protest against violence in Mexico's Ciudad on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Last Dec. 2, Dr. Alberto Betancourt Rosales, a trauma and orthopedic specialist from this hospital, was kidnapped and his body was found two days later. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An investigative police officer stands by a vehicle that was allegedly abandoned by assailants suspected of shooting two of their fellow officers in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Dec. 6. One investigative police officer died in the shooting, according to police. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The bodies of three men lie together after being placed in the back of a funeral home's pick-up truck after they were killed by unidentified gunmen in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico, Dec. 5. At least 11 men were killed during the first weekend in December in drug cartel violence, authorities say. (Bernandino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A soldier escorts Edgar Jimenez Lugo alias "El Ponchis" as he is presented to the media in Cuernavaca, Dec. 3. Soldiers arrested the 14-year-old suspected drug gang hitman in central Mexico late Dec. 2 as he attempted to travel to the United States. Jimenez, a U.S. citizen, is believed to work for the South Pacific cartel in Morelos state, outside Mexico City and is allegedly part of a gang of teenagers committing brutal murders to eliminate rivals. (Margarito Perez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Members of a forensic team work in a mass grave Nov. 29 in Palomas in Chihuahua state, just across from the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Troops, acting on information obtained from several captured drug hitmen, dug out 18 bodies from 11 graves, police say. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexican federal police escort Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 32, the alleged leader of the Aztecas cross-border drug gang, Nov. 28. The gang is suspected in dozens of killings, with Gallegos linked to last January's killing of 15 youths at a Ciudad Juarez party and in the March murder of a U.S. consulate employee in that city, regional security chief Luis Cardenas Palomino said. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Mexican soldier crouches inside a tunnel found under the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Nov. 26. U.S. border agents said they had found a half-mile-long tunnel under the border and seized a significant amount of marijuana at the San Diego area warehouse where it ended. That tunnel, which measured 1,800 feet and was equipped with a rail system, lighting and ventilation, yielded some 30 tons of marijuana, one of the largest such seizures on the border in recent years. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A forensic worker places stickers reading "Impact" around bullet holes on a car window at a crime scene in Guadalajara, Nov. 22. According to local media, three men riding in the car were shot by unknown assailants. (Alejandro Acosta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Christians pray for peace at the Macroplaza in downtown Monterrey on Nov. 13. More than 30,000 people have been killed across Mexico in drug-related violence since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led crackdown against the cartels. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Galia Rodriguez, 8, daughter of reporter Armando Rodriguez who was killed in Ciudad Juarez, takes part in an anniversary in the journalists's park in the border city on Nov. 13. Two years earlier, suspected drug gangs fatally shot Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks by a banner hung by suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang at a pedestrian bridge in Monterrey, Nov. 6. Suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang hung messages between trees and over bridges in Reynosa and in cities across northeastern Tamaulipas state, celebrating the death of rival Gulf Cartel gang leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas, who was shot dead by marines a day earlier. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A forensic investigator looks in a car where bodyguard Carlos Reyes Almageur lies dead on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, Nov. 4. Carlos Reyes Almageur, a body guard for Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia, was shot to death by unidentified assailants, according to police at the scene. (Carlos Jasso / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Family members and friends mourn during the Oct. 25 funeral of a victim killed at a family birthday party, in Ciudad Juarez. Families mourned the victims of the massacre, one of Mexico's worst shootings, as Ciudad Juarez residents expressed outrage at the surging violence. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People clean a blood-stained patio at a home in Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 23. At least 13 young people were shot dead and 15 wounded in an attack on this house during a 15-year-old boy's birthday party. (Raymundo Ruiz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Morgue workers place a coffin containing an unidentified body into a grave at the San Rafael cemetery on the outskirts of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 22. The bodies of 21 men and four women, killed in drug-related incidents, were buried after being held in the city morgue for several months without being claimed by relatives. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Seized weapons are shown to the press in Mexico City on Oct. 22. The arsenal, allegedly seized from the Zetas drug cartel and found hidden in a horse trailer, included high-power rifles, grenades and ammunition. Two people were arrested in connection with the seizure. (Miguel Tovar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Soldiers unload 134 tons of marijuana to be incinerated at the military base Morelos in Tijuana, Oct. 20. Soldiers seized the drug earlier that week in Mexico's biggest-ever pot haul, the army said. Heavily armed soldiers raided a series of homes in a poor suburb of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif., and came under fire at least once as they took the drugs and arrested 11 suspected traffickers. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People gather around a peace dove made out of candles in the patio of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon during a protest against violence and in memory of slain university student Lucila Quintanilla in Monterrey, Oct. 15. Once an oasis of calm, Mexico's richest city has become a central battleground in the country's increasingly bloody drug war as cartels open fire on city streets and throw grenades onto busy highways. (Edgar Montelongo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A forensic expert looks at a bag containing a human head with a written message on it outside the newspaper Frontera in Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 12. (Alejandro Cossio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mexican police agents look at a man's corpse on a street of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 4. Since the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels in late 2006, violence has claimed nearly 30,000 lives. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    The blindfolded and hand-tied bodies of 72 people thought to be migrant workers lie at a ranch where they were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Aug. 26. The marines came across the bodies after a series of firefights with drug gang members. (Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents attend a downtown public funeral service for Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of the tourist town of Santiago, some 18.6 miles away from Monterrey, Aug. 19. Drug hitmen have killed at least 17 mayors across Mexico since early 2008, according to media tallies. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A gold-plated, engraved and diamond-inlaid handgun is on on display at the Museum of Drugs in Mexico City, Aug. 18. Gold-encrusted weapons, children clothes decorated with LSD-laced stickers and religious paintings packed with cocaine offer a glimpse into Mexico's growing drug culture in this unique museum. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The grandmother of police officer Jose Ramirez grieves over his body after he was killed by unidentified gunmen while on patrol in Las Joyas neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, July 17. Ramirez's grandmother did not give her name, citing security. Three other officers in the vehicle were also killed in the attack. (Bernardino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tape used to cordon off a crime scene lies surrounded by blood in Ciudad Juarez, Jan 31. Suspected drug hitmen burst into a party and killed 13 people, most of them teenagers, in one of the world's deadliest cities. (Alejandro Bringas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Police officers investigate the scene of a car bomb attack on a main avenue in downtown Ciudad Juarez, July 16. An armed commando set off a car bomb near three police patrol vehicles patrolling the border town, killing two police officers and wounding 12 others. Another grenade exploded when paramedics and journalists arrived, leaving three medical assistants seriously injured and a cameraman with minor injuries. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: Mexico's drug-trafficking landscape

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