Gangsters certainly crowd the ranks of the more than 26,000 people said to have disappeared amid Mexico’s criminal wars. And at the front of the line stands Nazario Moreno, spiritual guide of western Michoacan state’s Knights Templar gang.

Mexican federal police say they killed Moreno, then head of Templar predecessor the Familia Michoacana, in a gun battle in December 2010. One of his top lieutenants quickly confirmed the death in a You Tube video aimed at followers. 

End of story, right? Not even.

Moreno’s body has never been recovered, no autopsy performed. Instead, police say, it was spirited away by followers and buried secretly.

The infighting that erupted among his followers after Moreno’s disappearance split his movement, which mixed drug trafficking and other vice rackets with a Christian message and a promise to defend Michoacan‘s people from outsiders.

Publicly led by Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, a former school teacher who also helped found La Familia, the Templars have largely replaced their predecessors as Michoacan‘s dominant criminal force. 

Yet many in Michoacan insists that Moreno — variously called “The Craziest One,” “El Chayo,” or “San Nazario” — walks among them still, directing his bizarre and often brutal band from the shadows.

“Behold the temple of a living saint,” smirked a vigilante leader in Buenavista Tomatlan, one of four Michoacan lowlands towns that expelled the Templars this year, nodding at a defaced roadside shrine to Moreno. “Of course he’s alive.”

In another one of the rebellious towns, Coalcoman, a second militia leader said that Nazario, sometimes dressed as St. Francis of Assisi, continues tending both to his pillaging gunmen and his spiritual flock.

“He even baptizes people,” said the vigilante boss, a local cattle rancher, like most everyone else speaking of Moreno in the present tense when InSight Crime visited the area recently. “He’s a nut.”

And in Morelia, Michoacan‘s high-country colonial capital, an intelligence analyst who advises Mexican state and federal officials says Moreno presides over Templar public events and holes up at a remote mountain bunker near the town of Aguililla, not far from Buenavista Tomatlan.

“He has made himself into a God,” the analyst told InSight Crime. 

Moreno’s widely believed to have appeared in Morelia last year after his son was killed in a vehicle accident.

Various versions of the incident circulate. As the analyst tells it, Moreno’s sister first showed up at the morgue to reclaim the young man’s body, insisting that it be released without an autopsy. When the coroner refused the request, Nazario himself paid a visit, more successfully persuading the official.

Under Templar threat, local media neither reported the younger Moreno’s death nor the incident at the morgue, the official said. The people in the car that crashed with the younger man’s motorcycle disappeared soon afterward, the analyst said, and reportedly were killed.

San Nazario remains dangerous, even as a ghost.

InSight Crime Analysis

There’s no concrete evidence that Moreno is dead. Then again, neither is there proof that he’s alive.

The common belief in Michoacan that he survives may be no more than the pipe dreams and urban legends that often surround underworld figures in Mexico.

[See InSight Crime’s article: “Mexico’s Top 10 Narco-Conspiracy Theories“] 

Loyal gunmen also reportedly spirited away the body of Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano, alias “El Lazca,” from a funeral home after he was presumably killed by Mexican marines at a small town baseball game in the border state of Coahuila last year. Not a few believe El Lazca‘s death was staged, that he’s in a witness protection program somewhere. 

Some also still believe that Juarez Cartel boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the “Lord of the Skies,” who reportedly died while undergoing identity altering surgery in 1997 also survives, choosing retirement over prison or a gangster’s normally bloody demise.

The Mexico City doctors who performed the surgery were later found murdered and stuffed in barrels on a toll highway to Acapulco. The doctors may have been killed for botching the operation. But they presumably would also have been able to describe what the crime boss would look like after surgery.

Yet no one has made a religious cult of Lazcano or Carrillo. Neither did they of Arturo Beltran Leyva, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel or Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen — all kingpins of various gangs killed by security forces in recent years.

Members of the Templars and the Familia carry psychological baggage that may lend itself to mythologizing Moreno. Templar gunmen adhere to a code of ethics and read spiritual guides written by him. They portray themselves as the Middle Ages Crusaders who are their namesakes, defenders of their communities against all comers.

That spiritual element has always set Michoacan‘s gangsters apart and in many ways made them a far graver challenge to the government and its hold on society. Whether he’s alive or dead, Moreno’s ascendance to the pantheon only enhances the risks.

“Justice without power is empty, power without justice only generates violence,” advises the message, presumably written by him, on the now bullet-pocked shrine to Moreno in Buenavista Tomatlan. “It’s necessary to be strong to defend the most vulnerable. “

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