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Mexican police hunt leaders of La Familia cartel

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MORELIA, Mexico — Federal police kept up the hunt Friday for leaders of the La Familia drug cartel, and authorities said a top drug lord may be among several people killed in two days of narco-blockades and shootouts that have challenged police and terrified civilians across key parts of Michoacan state.

The shootout began Wednesday night when La Familia gunmen attacked federal police in the city of Apatzingan and fired on cars, using the sometimes-burning vehicles as barricades, said Alejandro Poire, the government's spokesman for security issues.

Over the next 24 hours, gunmen threw up more blockades across the western state and surrounded its capital of Morelia to prevent federal police from sending reinforcements.

At least eight people have died in the violence, according to the Michoacan Attorney General's Office, including five federal police officers, a baby and a teenage girl.

Poire said the fierceness of the response indicates that security forces were on the heels of La Familia's kingpins.

He told a Thursday night news conference that police believe a gang leader was been killed, but on Friday he told W Radio that nothing yet had been confirmed.

"We have information, not just because of the very notorious way they are reacting, that we are in pursuit, that we are very close to the highest leaders of this criminal organization," Poire said. "We have preliminary information, which we are trying to confirm, of the death of one of the top leaders."

The gang is allegedly led by Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as "El Mas Loco," or "The Craziest One."

Federal police spokesman Jose Ramon Salinas said the operation in Apatzingan continued Friday but could not provide more details.

Wednesday's shootings killed an 8-month-old baby who was riding in a taxi with his mother and the teenage daughter of a former Apatzingan mayor who was in another car with her family. Poire said the minors were killed when gunmen attacked their cars to use as barricades.

In Morelia Thursday, gunmen fired into the air to force drivers and passengers from their vehicles, torched the cars and used them to blockade all five roads leading into the city, said Jonathan Arrendondo, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

Later Thursday, armed gunmen in two trucks ambushed a group of federal and state police patrolling a highway outside of Morelia, injuring three.

Drug gangs began using blockades earlier this year in northeastern Mexico, where the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs are locked in a turf war, and recently spread to Michoacan, home state of President Felipe Calderon.

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

After taking office that December, Calderon sent thousands of federal troops and police into Michoacan. He has since deployed thousands more to other cartel strongholds in Mexico, and gang violence has surged, claiming more than 28,000 lives.

Moreno is considered the ideological leader of La Familia, setting rules for its cartel members that promote family values and prohibit consuming — but not trafficking — hard drugs. He purportedly has written a religiously tinted book of values for the cartels, sometimes known as "The Sayings of the Craziest One."

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 U.S. 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.

The Mexican Attorney General's Office posted a $2 million reward for the capture of both Moreno and Gomez in March 2009.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Gomez still appears on the government payroll as an elementary school teacher in Arteaga, a rural town in Michoacan. The Education Department, responding to a report on the documents in El Universal newspaper, issued a statement assuring that payments to Gomez have been suspended since June 2009, when the department conducted "a thorough review of its payroll."

The federal police have recently arrested several key La Familia members.

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 wants to disband and negotiate a truce with authorities. The government has ignored the offer.

Associated Press Writer Alexandra Olson in Mexico City contributed to this report.