Reporting from Mexico City — Mexican authorities said Friday that they believe a top leader of the violent La Familia cartel was killed during two days of pitched fighting in the home state of President Felipe Calderon.
In violence that erupted Wednesday afternoon and raged until early Friday, federal forces deployed in the western state of Michoacan battled scores of gunmen from La Familia who set vehicles on fire and barricaded roads in a dozen cities. At least 11 people were confirmed killed, including five federal police officers and an 8-month-old.
Government security spokesman Alejandro Poire said officials had received information that La Familia founder Nazario Moreno Gonzalez — a.k.a. "El Mas Loco" (the craziest) — was killed in the shooting.
He acknowledged, however, that La Familia gunmen carried away their dead and injured as they retreated, making an exact accounting of who and how many died impossible.
Still, Poire said the group had been "significantly weakened."
"This is the moment to intensify pressure on this organization in order to diminish criminal activity in the region efficiently and permanently," he said.
Moreno's death would be a significant blow to the cartel, which is among the newest in Mexico and one of the most brutal.
La Familia first gained national attention by tossing five severed heads onto the floor of a dance hall in September 2006. Two months later, Calderon sent troops into Michoacan for the first time to take on traffickers. Nevertheless, La Familia swiftly rose to a spot on the short list of dangerous cartels, dominating the methamphetamine trade and steadily diversifying into counterfeiting, extortion and kidnapping.
Based in Michoacan, where it has infiltrated police ranks and city halls, the group has spread into neighboring Guerrero and Mexico states, as well as at least 30 U.S. towns and cities, including the Los Angeles area.
Moreno gave La Familia a patina of pseudo-religious, cultlike mystique. He carried a self-published "bible," recruited members at drug rehab centers and insisted that the group's traffickers and hit men lead lives free of drug or alcohol consumption. He cast himself and the cartel as protectors of Michoacan.
Moreno also had a bounty on his head of about $2 million, placed by the Mexican government. The charges listed on his wanted poster include drug trafficking in Mexico and the U.S., kidnapping and homicide. He was considered one of the two top leaders of La Familia.
The heaviest fighting this week in Michoacan took place around the town of Apatzingan, a La Familia stronghold, where Mexican marines and army troops backed by helicopters fanned out across the countryside, according to witnesses, and were pushing the offensive as late as Friday afternoon. If Moreno was indeed killed, La Familia could retaliate, a prospect that has set residents on edge.
"The situation is very critical," Apatzingan Mayor Genaro Guizar said by telephone. "There is hardly anyone on the streets, and traffic has stopped."
He sent city hall employees home early and told them to stay inside.
In the state capital, Morelia, businesses were shuttered Friday and parents kept their children home from school. On Thursday, gunmen forced motorists from their vehicles and set cars, trucks and buses on fire to block all roads leading into the capital. Parts of Morelia, a picturesque, colonial-era city once popular with tourists, were ringed with black smoke.
La Familia recently used banners and fliers to offer a truce and say it was ready to disband. The government ignored the offer, saying it showed the group was battered and in decline. But others in Michoacan viewed the offer as a ploy that foreshadowed a new offensive by the cartel.
"What we have witnessed in the last few days is the demonstration of a criminal organization repudiated by the public and that has found itself significantly weakened," Poire said. "That has been proved by its false calls for a truce."