The Narco Who Died Twice

How a Mexican gangster turned a cartel into a cult

A mural of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, decorates the wall of a community center in Colonias, Michoacan, Mexico. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP)

Nazario Moreno Gonzalez—also known as El Chayo, or El Mas Loco, the Maddest One—first died in December 2010. Mexican federal police claimed they killed Nazario, one of Mexico’s most brutal criminal warlords, during a ferocious battle involving 2,000 federal officers and about 500 gangsters. But his henchmen carried his corpse away.

A grave appeared with his name on it. (Apparently, police didn’t want to dig it up and check.) The president at the time, Felipe Calderon, trumpeted the crime lord’s demise as a grand victory in his war on the drug cartels. But after Nazario’s supposed death, his followers began venerating him like a saint, and statuettes and shrines appeared. Even more bizarrely, people reported seeing his ghost wandering around his home state of Michoacan dressed all in white. Under the leadership of this phantom saint, Nazario’s criminal organization, which took the name Knights Templar after the legendary warrior monks of the Middle Ages, became more powerful than ever.

By 2014, sightings of the ghost of Nazario had become absurdly common; on a single day, I spoke to three people who claimed they had seen him. I discussed the testimonies with a fellow journalist. Were these sources really seeing him, or was this a figment of their collective imagination? The former turned out to be true. In March 2014, Mexican marines announced that Nazario was still alive. But they also said that they now had killed him. Really.

* * *

The story of Nazario’s rise from impoverished child laborer to gangster saint, and his ultimate downfall, is a story about the shifting dynamics of Mexico’s drug war. Nazario cultivated a narco holy image, a mix of Latin America’s popular Catholicism with the bling of the drug trade. He hailed from a tight-knit community in a valley blighted by poverty, criminality, and beliefs in the supernatural. These features all helped mold the narco saint and his legend; in the end, his rule was so brutal it ultimately unleashed Mexico’s largest vigilante movement to take him down.

Michoacan, where Nazario was born and built his empire, is one of Mexico’s most religious states. Shrines to saints cover even the most humble villages. Nazario’s name itself, which is an uncommon one in Mexico, evokes Jesus: It means “one from Nazareth.” At the same time, the state’s position in in central western Mexico, alongside the Pacific Ocean and at the foot of the southern Sierra Madre Mountains, makes it strategically useful for anybody shipping goods (or drugs) north along the Pacific Coast.

In his memoir, Nazario dwells on the hardship of his childhood in Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente, a seething valley also known as the Hot Land. He also uses it to justify his life of crime. This is common in Mexico’s drug-trafficking culture. Popular “narco ballads” celebrate the villains, portraying them as poor rebels who have the balls to fight the rich man’s system. As Nazario recalls:

A child grows up in such a bad situation ... only accompanied by misery, by hopelessness and premature death. Is it only him who is guilty of temporarily choosing the path of violence and illegality? ... Is the government not guilty for betraying the people and allowing extreme wealth in the hands of a few, and extreme poverty in others?

The memoir also details the influence the Mexican cult comic El Kaliman had on him. The adventures of the superhero Kaliman, he writes, provided him with a refuge from his violent reality; in the comic, Kaliman is a mysterious crusader who dresses all in white and whose special powers include levitation and telepathy. Nazario also believed that he had psychic powers. Later, he would claim to control people’s minds.

* * *

Nazario discovered drug trafficking in the United States, when he lived in California as a teenager and saw a house on the corner serve up a steady stream of customers with marijuana. “I confess that this drug trafficking in plain sight surprised me,” he writes. “It was evident that they made a lot of dollars practically without any risk.” He started small, selling ganja in the park and guarding stash houses. Later, to help his sprouting enterprise, he got a work permit so he could go legally back and forth from the United States to his homeland—growing marijuana in the hills of Michoacan to traffic it north. Cristobal Alvarez, a businessman who later became a vigilante and who knew Nazario at this time, describes him as short and muscular, as well as a vicioso (vice-ridden) and violent young man.

He would always be drunk and stoned and was either chasing girls or starting fights. He liked to intimidate people, to make them scared of him. But he was also smart. He had this incredible memory and would recall people and things exactly. People would follow him.

So how did the Maddest One turn from a drunken brawler into a self-styled spiritual leader? Two episodes stand out as having a major impact on him. Firstly, four of his brothers were murdered in a series of killings. He writes that he was especially hurt by the 1993 slaying of his brother Canchola, who had taken him on his first trip to the United States. Nazario was furious; he writes that Canchola was killed in an argument with his own friends, an act of treachery.

Secondly, in 1994, Nazario himself suffered a near-fatal beating in an altercation during an amateur soccer game, in which he was kicked repeatedly in the head. Surgeons had to insert a metal plate to bind his fractured skull together. By then, he was already known for his fierce, “loco” temperament; he writes of being threatened by rival dealers and then stabbing them with their own knife, and he had at one point served a year in jail for shooting a doctor who crossed him. The injury made Nazario even more “loco,” and he writes that he had hallucinations and saw visions. Alvarez said the metal plate would make Nazario’s face bulge when he got angry.

“If he was staring at you, his forehead would be swelling. It was freaky. He was a frightening man.”

According to Nazario’s memoirs, the trauma was transformative. “I realized that I had fallen into the dark and scary maze of fantasy worlds and unsubstantiated pleasures,” he wrote. “I admitted to myself that I had become a vulgar alcoholic, physically destroyed, with ghosts in my head.”

Afterward, Nazario moved to McAllen, Texas, where he smuggled in marijuana. Here he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and worked through his 12-step program. In giving up the booze, he was drawn to evangelical Christianity and became a fervent believer. Unlike the Catholicism that Nazario grew up with, evangelical preachers often emphasize improving your lot and fulfilling your dreams. This struck a chord with Nazario. He developed an incredible self-belief, a conviction he was destined to be somebody.

However, Nazario’s dream was to become a brutal gangster warlord.

* * *

Nazario’s rise coincided with seismic changes in the narco world. The first was an expansion of Mexican cartels at the turn of the millennium as they got rich off cocaine profits. Mexican gangsters had reaped the bounty of marijuana and heroin for decades. Then as U.S. drug agents cracked down on the Caribbean trafficking route in the 1980s and 1990s, Colombians turned to the Mexicans to bounce their white powder over their 2,000-mile border. The Mexicans began as paid couriers but ate more and more of the pie. By the 21st century, drug agents believed Mexicans moved 90 percent of the cocaine into the United States, and they made huge profits doing it.

The second change was political. In the 20th century, Mexican trafficking was organized under the one-party rule of the PRI. The PRI’s system for controlling gangsters involved arresting some and taxing the rest. The traffickers were organized into plazas—or drug-trafficking territories—along the lines of police jurisdictions. The plaza bosses paid off cops, who passed the bribes up the system. But that system shattered with the growing strength of Mexico’s democracy movement. In 2000, the PRI lost its grip on the presidency to Vicente Fox, who promised “the mother of all battles against organized crime.” Under Fox, troops rounded up drug lords like never before.

Hundreds of bullets belonging to members of the drug cartel La Familia at the Command Center in Mexico City, Mexico, in 2009. (Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty)

But democracy did not, as people hoped, make Mexican officials honest. The new multiparty system meant competing cliques of politicians ran different states and towns and their police forces. The corruption system became disorganized and turned on itself. Police began competing and actually fighting each other. In 2005, federal officers had a shoot-out with city police in Nuevo Laredo. It was a sign of the violent chaos that would spread across Mexico.

The government lost the ability to be the arbitrator that could control organized crime. Instead, gangsters disputed power themselves under strength of arms. Amid this bloodshed, the mobsters turned from traffickers into warlords. And rather than the police ordering gangsters about, gangsters fought over who could control police forces.

This fighting caused homicides to shoot up at some of the most alarming rates in the Americas. The number of killings by cartels or the security forces assigned to fight them would surge from about 1,500 in 2004 to 6,800 in 2008 to almost 17,000 in 2011. The ensuing conflict became known in Spanish as la narcoguerra, and in English as Mexico’s drug war.

* * *

In 2004, the nation’s central battle pitted the Sinaloa Cartel of Chapo Guzman against the Gulf Cartel and its paramilitary wing, the Zetas. From his base in McAllen, Nazario gradually rose to run United States operations for Carlos Rosales, a Michaocan kingpin allied with the Gulf Cartel. After Fox’s forces rounded up Rosales and other drug lords in Michoacan, Nazario moved back to fill the vacuum.

He sought the Zetas’ backing to eliminate the remains of his local rivals, who had worked with the Sinaloans. Nazario and the Zetas achieved a swift victory that left a string of corpses behind in 2005 and 2006, after which the Zetas thought that Nazario would hand them control of the state. Instead, Nazario turned against them, spreading propaganda that the Zetas, whose home turf was in the east of the country on the Gulf of Mexico, were “foreign invaders,” even though he had invited them in. It was a classic tactic: You create a threat and provide yourself as the solution to it.

In their fight against the Zetas in late 2006, Nazario and his cohorts first called themselves La Familia Michoacana (The Michoacan Family). The name helped rally Michoacan people against the invader. And people seemed to believe the propaganda. Alvarez recalls: “People were scared of the Zetas. We were hearing about how the Zetas were carrying out massacres and kidnapping like crazy. ... And the Familia presented itself as the answer. But we fell into a trap. Nazario and his mob were just as bad as the Zetas.”

The fight was bloody. La Familia stuck bodies on public display with threatening messages. And they began decapitating, at one point claiming in a written message dumped by five severed heads: “LET THE PEOPLE KNOW, THIS IS DIVINE JUSTICE.” Other punishments La Familia meted out against alleged criminals, with the claim of looking after people’s security, had a distinctly Old Testament flavor—people were flogged or even crucified.

Nazario’s tract Pensamientos, or “Thoughts,” which he distributed to his followers from late 2006 after gaining control of the Hot Land, reflects the quasi-religious character of his rule. Some phrases sound like the evangelical preachers he followed. “I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong; I ask him for wisdom and he gives me problems to resolve,” reads one entry. Nazario also spread his message in evangelical temples and drug rehab centers he funded.

This is the obvious contradiction: How could the Maddest One consider himself a follower of Christ while he sold drugs and chopped off heads? But those who knew him tell me that Nazario really believed what he preached. In his mind, he was righteous. And Nazario’s faith served a purpose. His rules kept his troops in line and gave the movement a mission. His narco hit men weren’t just carrying out wanton murder. They were waging holy war.

* * *

By the time of his “death” in 2010, Nazario was making millions off the methamphetamine trade, which had shifted south of the border when the U.S. Congress cracked down on sales of medicines with pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of meth. In doing so, American lawmakers had inadvertently handed Nazario a major business opportunity. La Familia had distinct advantages among the Mexican groups that moved into the meth trade: Many members had spent time in small U.S. towns and knew how to cook meth, and Michoacan is home to Lazaro Cardenas, the busiest freight port in Mexico. Cartel contacts bought precursors in countries including China, India, Syria, Iran, and Egypt and smuggled them in titanic loads through the porous Pacific harbor. Once they had the ingredients, La Familia cooked on an industrial scale in “super labs” hidden in the mountains. Narco economics are hard to calculate, but DEA agents have said that Mexican meth now accounts for 80 or 90 percent of the drug used by Americans.

Nazario, the man who grew up drinking river water, was making money stupidly fast. This made him an increasing megalomaniac. But he was also calculating, investing in the political protection and muscle to keep hold of his business. He paid armed foot soldiers, creating an army of thousands that was becoming one of Mexico’s biggest cartels. When Calderon took power in 2006 and declared a national offensive on drug cartels, he pointed to La Familia as the first mob he wanted to destroy.

Members of La Familia are presented to the press at the Command Center in Mexico City, Mexico, in 2009. (Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty)

The government pressured the federal police to bring in Nazario, which was difficult to do as the kingpin moved in the hills, protected by spies and residents who loved and feared him. When an intelligence tip-off led the federales to a Christmas party the Maddest One was attending, they thought they had killed him in an epic gun battle that by one account resulted in the deaths of some 50 cartel members and five police officers. The Saint Nazario statuettes that began appearing afterward seemed to show that traffickers had turned their fallen drug lord into a saint after his combat death.

But Nazario had escaped in the melee. He could have used his fake death as a chance retire to the Caribbean with his millions. Instead, he took the opportunity to turn himself into a deity. The first action the ghostly Nazario took was to rename his mob the Knights Templar after the Jerusalem-based crusaders who fought for Christendom between 1119 and 1312. The gunslingers became Templars, sacred soldiers. The red Templar cross became an identifiable graphic in safe houses and on guns, a brand symbol. The Maddest One even made up a coat of arms and introduced a pocket-sized book of codes, listing 53 commandments the Knights had to obey.

The Templar concept also allowed the Maddest One to expand his religious-warrior fantasy. He introduced ceremonies with the crusader theme, in which gangsters dressed up like knights to initiate new members or promote operatives. It wasn’t all fun and fancy dress though. Initiates were made to cut up victims. And in some cases, they were made to eat the victim’s flesh.

The myth of Saint Nazario and his Knights Templar spread through the narco ballads popular in Mexico’s trafficking heartlands. One by the band BuKnas de Culiacan saluted the mix of modern and ancient in the cartel:

They combine horses with new trucks,
Swords and shields with Kalashnikovs and bulletproof jackets,
The men are sturdy,
The are from Michoacan,
They were La Familia,
But now they are called,
The Knights Templar,
Their fights are like crusades. ...
They say they were like monks,
And today they are guerrillas,
They have their temples and their camps,
They are brave bastards,
But if you betray them,
Or do stupid things,
They are like the inquisition.

There were also prayers to Saint Nazario, printed in booklets in the style of regular Catholic prayer books that vendors sell at the stoplights in Mexican cities. As one says:

Give me holy protection,
Through Saint Nazario,
Protector of the poorest,
Knights of the people,
Saint Nazario,
Give us life.

* * *

These bizarre details overshadow other features of Nazario’s empire that are important to understanding what Mexican organized crime has become. Nazario moved from drug trafficking to a portfolio of crimes that made him a major player in the local economy—a gangster capitalist. The Knights Templar took over iron mines, ignoring environmental regulations so they could sell record quantities of metal to hungry Chinese factories. They took extortion to new extremes, making cents off every dollar that moved, even from big business. And they waded into the avocado, lime, and cattle industries. For Americans, your guacamole on game day, the metal in your kid’s remote-controlled car, and the beef in your burger may have passed through the Knights Templars’ hands—alongside the meth smoked by your local fiend.

Mexican marines and soldiers guard the surroundings of the morgue where the alleged corpse of Nazario Moreno was stored in Apatzingan, Michoacan, Mexico, in 2014. (Enrique Castro / AFP / Getty)

But meanwhile, vigilantes were organizing to take on Nazario and his Knights. By 2013, the level of Templar abuse was off the charts. The thugs kept extending their extortion demands. They didn’t just limit shakedowns to businesses. They charged people for the right to hold private parties. They taxed people for buying new cars or plasma TVs. They charged them for the number of square meters of their homes. In response, thousands of residents fled to the United States and were among the rising claimants for political asylum.

The vigilantes began their uprising against the Knights Templar in 2013, and attracted new members as they won their first victories. They showed up armed at markets where the Knights Templar would extort people. They built barricades and destroyed Saint Nazario shrines. And they began going after cartel figures.

Nazario’s second death came in March 2014. There are competing accounts of what happened. The Mexican government claims that marines found him and shot him in a hideout in the hills. A version I heard from several sources, which I find more plausible, is that Nazario’s own bodyguards, fed up with his loco ways, betrayed him and coordinated with local vigilantes to kill him, then handed his body to the marines—a move that would make the government look good and saved the vigilantes having to deal with murder charges.

Some conspiracy theorists even say he never died at all, but I am personally convinced he did. This time, there was a body—and a wake. I sped over to a funeral home in the city of Morelia to attend it. It was in a luxury locale with gleaming white pillars and spacious rooms, a screen announced his name simply as El Mas Loco, and guests arrived all in white. A band played drug ballads to a gathering of mostly women and children. Many of his gangster friends stayed away, as soldiers were close by watching. A man in a suit with a scar across his face told me to leave or there would be trouble. I loitered outside, and he told me to leave again in an angrier voice. I left.

This article has been adapted from Ioan Grillo's new book, Gangster Warlords.