MEXICO CITY — Cartel kingpin Nazario Moreno Gonzalez knew how to play dead.
It was the perfect alibi, delivered by the Mexican government itself: The head of the vicious cartel based in the western state of Michoacan had been killed in a shootout with federal police, officials announced in December 2010.
Not only did Moreno change the name of his organization, he became more powerful operating from the shadows, eventually using extortion and intimidation to control the lime, avocado and mining industries in the mineral- and agriculture-rich state.
"He was the biggest beneficiary of his anonymity," said Alfredo Castillo, the federal commissioner who was sent in January to take back control of the violent state. "It kept him playing the game."
The game ended early Sunday when Mexican soldiers and marines confronted Moreno in Timbuscatio, a town in the remote mountains. Officials said the troops fired to respond to an "aggression" as they tried to arrest him. Authorities had something Sunday that was missing the first time: his body.
Tomas Zeron, head of the criminal investigation unit for the federal Attorney General's Office, said his identity had been confirmed by fingerprints, but added that tests would continue.
In Mexico's campaign to take down top capos, the killing of a supposedly dead man was the most bizarre event yet, even after the capture two weeks ago of Mexico's most-wanted and powerful drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, another near-mythical figure who surrendered without a fight after 13 years on the run since escaping from prison.
Residents of Michoacan had reported seeing Moreno, known as the "The Craziest One," around the state. The Templars distributed literature and preached faith in God and a moral code, even as they became major traffickers of methamphetamine to the U.S. and ruled Michoacan through stealing and murder.
"He went around in his tunic with his Bible under his arm, like a priest," said Ramon Contreras, a town official in La Ruana and member of one of the self-defense groups that eventually rose up to fight the cartel. Contreras said Moreno lived in a cave that had a huge library, where he wrote his books.
"It was great theater to show that you were a follower," Contreras said. "To be in good with him, there had to be an altar to him in almost every town."
Castillo told Milenio Television that it became an open secret among Michoacan residents that Moreno was alive. But the only things authorities had to go on for a long time were composite sketches made from people's reports and a few photographs taken from long distance.
Moreno, who spent his teenage years in the United States, founded La Familia cartel, which was the first target of former President Felipe Calderon's assault on Mexican drug trafficking. While Calderon touted Moreno's supposed death and his dismantling of La Familia as a victory, Moreno and his cartel morphed into the more ruthless Knights Templars.
La Familia reportedly took its inspiration from an odd source: the book "Wild at Heart," by American evangelical author John Eldredge of the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Ransomed Heart Ministries. A Mexican government profile said Moreno "erected himself as the 'Messiah,' using the Bible to profess to poor people and obtain their loyalty."
He set a code of conduct that prohibited using hard drugs or dealing them within Mexican territory.
Moreno reportedly wrote his own religiously tinted book of values for the cartel, sometimes known as "The Sayings of the Craziest One."
He lived up to his nickname in many ways.
Moreno announced the emergence of his La Familia cartel by having his gang roll five severed heads into a Michoacan nightclub.
Only when the vigilante groups took up arms in February 2013 and began driving the Knights Templar from much of the state's Tierra Caliente farming region did the federal government assign a commissioner to take over the state.