Nazario Moreno. EstrellaTV screencap

The Undead Drug Lord of Michoacan

Nazario Moreno, once a powerful Mexican drug trafficker, is most likely dead. But don’t tell that to his followers.

A powerful Mexican drug lord who was killed in a gun battle more than two years ago now commands his forces from beyond the grave. That is, if you believe the myths that have flourished in the kingpin’s wake.

Dudley Althaus, a researcher at Latin America crime monitoring group Insight Crime, recently traveled through the Mexican state of Michoacán researching the state’s vigilantes — local militias which have sprouted in recent months to fight invading cartels. While there, Althaus found a cult had formed around deceased drug lord Nazario “El Más Loco” Moreno (or “The Craziest One”), and that some gangsters now venerate him as a living saint, including building shrines and hosting ceremonies to his image. Even some of his enemies think the crime boss — who was allegedly killed in a gun battle more than two years ago — is still alive.

“The common belief in Michoacán that he survives may be no more than the pipe dreams and urban legends that often surround underworld figures in Mexico,” Althaus writes.

But the legends persist. “[Moreno] even baptizes people,” one vigilante leader in the town of Coalcoman told Althaus. “He’s a nut.” During a visit to another village controlled by the vigilantes, the researcher came across a defaced shrine to the drug lord. The vigilantes had recently kicked cartel gangsters out of town. “Of course he’s alive,” vigilante leader Buenavista Tomatlan said.

According to an intelligence analyst and state security adviser based in Morelia, the state capital, Moreno now lives in the mountains and presides over religious ceremonies. “He has made himself into a God,” the analyst said. Which is not something you normally want to hear about a drug lord. Especially a supposedly dead one. Moreno is also rumored to occasionally dress as the 12th-century Italian friar St. Francis of Assisi, while “tending both to his pillaging gunmen and his spiritual flock,” Althaus writes.

That’s right: an undead drug lord who leads his army of gunmen from a mountain hideout. But Moreno, once the head of Mexico’s La Familia cartel — and who also went by another pseudonym “El Doctor” — is most likely truly dead and these are merely myths. In December 2010, more than 2,000 federal police officers surrounded a rural village in the state of Michoacán. Moreno was reportedly killed in the confrontation and his body was believed to have been dragged away by his own fleeing soldiers and buried.

Both the Mexican government and his own cartel believe Moreno is, in fact, dead. “Remember guys that although our maximum leader is no longer, as it were, ‘The Doctor,’ God rest where you are,” La Familia lieutenant Servando Gómez said in a videotaped message days after the battle. “We must go forward, we have to do it for our family and our people are going to be cautious and careful.”

While it might seem odd, superstition around Mexico’s drug lords is not entirely uncommon. Some drug traffickers venerate Santa Muerte, a folk saint that resembles a skeleton wearing a robe; or Jesús Malverde, a mythical outlaw from the early 20th century.

Another reason for the myths around Moreno, according to Althaus, is the persistence of the Knights Templar, a successor cartel which split from La Familia after Moreno’s death. It has since become the state’s largest organized crime group. The cartel fashions itself as a religious-military order complete with their own manifestos.

Police raids on the cartel have uncovered white robes and helmets modeled the medieval order of knights — along with AK-47 type rifles and ammunition. The cartel has also hung banners in public with declarations to “preserve order and prevent robbery, kidnapping and extortion, and protect the state from interventions by rival organizations,” according to CNN.

In way, that could make them more dangerous. Instead of killing or capturing a cartel leader, and the cartel moving on or promoting someone to take the leader’s place, they've turned the leaders into saints that give the gangsters a sense of meaning and purpose to crime.

“Whether he’s alive or dead, Moreno’s ascendance to the pantheon only enhances the risks,” Althaus writes.