The Dangerous Faith of a Notorious Drug Lord

So opens Pensamientos (Thoughts), the book penned by Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, the late leader of two of the most brutal narcogangs of Mexico, La Familia Michoacán and its spinoff the Knights Templar. Also known as El Más Loco (the Craziest One), Moreno was one of the most wanted and most perplexing of all the narco leaders in a nation that has been rife with internecine warfare among factions, cartels, and vigilante groups.

From his rise to prominence in 2006 to his death in 2014, Moreno managed to grow and run La Familia and the Knights Templar while simultaneously establishing a cult of personality that merged Catholic devotion, evangelical rhetoric, and a foundation of divine judgment. To this day, indeed, many people in Mexico contend that he has not died—seeing his wake as a conspiracy and his dead body as a hoax—but believing that his spirit continues to protect and guide those of Michoacán. Even his name, Nazario, seems to play into his construction of a narco holy image: It means “one from Nazareth,” a clear parallel to Jesus.

Central to the story of Moreno was his book, Pensamientos. It was one of the mandatory reading materials for new recruits into La Familia and the “Bible” of the organization. With a subtitle that reads, “Michoacán is a land of liberty and the home of brave men,” and an acknowledgement for “God: to whom I owe everything that I am,” Pensamientos is 101 pages of aphorisms, pixelated images, short essays, and motivational quotations composed by Moreno.

In his trip to Mexico in February, Pope Francis stopped in Michoacán and chastised Catholic bishops, priests, and other religious leaders for not fighting harder against groups like La Familia that offer a life of violence, extortion, and vice. After receiving a traditional souvenir sombrero, Pope Francis urged the faithful of the terror-stricken Western state to reconsider violent choices. “Jesus would never ask us to be assassins,” he said. “Instead, he calls us to be disciples.”

Yet in Mexico the general feeling is that the business of fear and extortion will continue as though it were normal. “I thought that the impact [of the Pope’s visit] would be greater,” said Raul Perez Lopez, a psychologist who has worked with the police in Michoacán for 8 years. “But really, the church has lost a lot of credibility.” People remain wary of all institutions, from gangs to the police, and from the church to the government.

Amid this chaos, there is the creation that Moreno left behind: a new cult of devotion that has proven to be both dangerous and powerful. With his book, Moreno outlined a vision that melded religion and violence, adding to the complicated associations and loyalties in a country torn apart by conflict.

Do not cry on behalf of the world that fights, but fight on behalf of the world that cries. Nazario Moreno, Pensamientos

Most analyses of the origins of La Familia trace its beginning to a nightclub, a message, and a collection of severed heads. On the night of September 7, 2006, a group of masked men tossed five bloody heads onto the packed dance floor of a club in Michoacán, with a message that read: “La Familia does not kill for money, does not kill women, does not kill innocent people. Only those who should die are killed. May everybody know this: This is divine justice.” It was at this point that Moreno formally broke his ties with Los Zetas, the predominant narco force of the Northeastern regions of Mexico, and began to build his own order in Michoacán.

Michoacán, Moreno’s birthplace, is just west of Mexico City and is currently known for both its drugs and its violence. The state has a long history of cultivating marijuana, poppies, and coca, and is also home to a significant freight port. As a result, Michoacán has been a crucial area for the shipping out of drugs and other contraband—much of which makes its way into the United States. In addition to its strategic geographic location, Michoacán has witnessed some of the most violent episodes in Mexico’s decade-long drug war. Tens of thousands have been killed, several thousands more have been displaced, and almost all in the state live amid crossfire since the Mexican government declared war against organized crime and narcotrafficking in December 2006. Indeed, just 48 hours before the pope’s arrival, a U.S. citizen was found dead with signs of torture, having suffered burns, and a gunshot wound in the spine.

It was in this context that Moreno sought to develop his own source of order, one that would revolve around a religious cult of personality built on his image and actions. The union of religion, violence, and the cults of saints has a long and complex history in Mexico. Cults of devotion, for instance, are common forms of practice in Catholic expression in the country, and they range from the very small and local—think dedications to regional saints or figures—to the large and global, such as the devotion to La Virgen de Guadalupe. With a wide array of practices, displays, and devotions, these cults are part of the creative nature of lived Catholicism in Mexico.

For many in the illicit worlds of Mexico, therefore, devotion to saints and figures are just a common part of social and spiritual life. There is La Santa Muerta, a skeletal figure with a black robe and hood similar to that of the Grim Reaper, who has become the unsettling patron saint of drug dealers and sex workers. San Jesús Malverde, another favorite for those who trade in illegal markets, is a Robin Hood figure recognizable by his mustache and handkerchief. And while these popular figures are not recognized nor sanctioned by the Catholic Church, there are particular devotions to the Church’s more mainstream saints among the down-and-out of Mexico. Saint Jude, known as the patron saint of hopeless causes, has become one of the favorites among gangsters, drug users, and the urban poor. And even Saint John Paul II has become a part of this mix. “For some border patrol agents,” said Jennifer Hughes, a professor of history at University of California, Riverside, who studies lived religion in Mexico, “an image of John Paul II on your car could be a sign that you are narcotrafficking.”

Drugs and violence aside, Michoacán is also known as one of Mexico’s most religious states, in a country where more than 90 percent of people identify as Christian (83 percent claim Catholicism). Although Pope Francis chastised the churches in Mexico, their cultural and social power still remains strong in places like Michoacán.

If you would like to become a good Christian, remember that you should not focus on building walls or barriers, but rather in uniting communities. Nazario Moreno, Pensamientos

“He was Christian, not Catholic,” emphasized Father Germán Cobos, a 75-year-old priest in Michoacán who has lived and served in the state his whole life. This distinction, he said, is key for understanding El Más Loco’s religious underpinnings and the ways in which he grew the organization of La Familia. Although Moreno was raised Catholic, he was deeply influenced by evangelical Christianity, especially during his time trafficking cocaine in the United States.

As a narco leader in Mexico, Moreno bypassed many of the prevalent Catholic symbols in the country and opted to create his own religious vision, which supported his cult of personality. He had new recruits read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, for instance, which is a popular book among American evangelicals and extols what scholars label as “muscular Christianity.” The book centers around the image of men as heroes who go in to fight battles, save, and protect the women in their lives, and live a life of adventure. Underlying all of this, of course, is a deep devotion to God.

Moreno coupled Eldredge’s book with his own, Pensamientos, as part of the introductory exercises for joining La Familia. Every spread of the book is split in two. The left pages throughout the text include an image—typically of low quality and almost certainly copied-and-pasted from the Internet—with a quotation from Moreno. For instance, one page shows a picture of a family of four on a beach (not Moreno’s family) and is followed with the quote, “I have been given the most beautiful gift from life: my family. Nothing else is important.” Another picture, of Joseph Stalin, bears the statement: “Only those who construct the future have the right to judge the past.” The right pages bear the longer statements by Moreno, such as poems and short essays. Unlike the pithy sayings on the left, which go unsigned, Moreno’s longer writings always end with “El Más Loco.”

After reading this book, Moreno’s recruits had to swear an oath of allegiance, one that emphasized courage, dedication, morality, and strength. “He put in the religious element to add the mystical side to his group,” Father Cobos continued. “This is how he managed the group. He gave it a Christian bent—fighting for a good cause, fighting corruption—but it was just the simple words.”

I asked God for strength, and he gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for wisdom, and he gave me problems to resolve.
I asked for prosperity, and he gave me a brain and muscles to work.
I asked for valor, and he gave me obstacles to overcome.
I did not receive anything that I asked for, but I have gotten everything that I needed.

Nazario Moreno, Pensamientos

This emphasis on books and words made Moreno’s efforts unique in a nation that has such a rich history of religious iconography. “What’s interesting about El Más Loco is that he’s pursuing the text over image,” Hughes said. “But I think that it maybe gives him a certain authority and control over practice precisely because the religious images in the nation belong to others, they don’t belong just to the cartels.”

And while setting Moreno’s leadership and cartel apart, this dedication to text has also fostered a strong devotion to La Familia even after his death, which in another religiously loaded turn, technically happened twice. Officials from the Mexican federal police proudly claimed that they had killed Moreno back in 2010, but residents of Michoacán still said that they saw him walking the streets. Saint Nazario statuettes began popping up in homes and storefronts as word spread of his immortality. Other rumors spread about his continued leadership of the Knights Templar. Either way, police finally caught up with him in 2014. Although his death was confirmed with pictures and broadcast throughout the nation, many in Michoacán still believe he could be alive. If the federal government was wrong about his death in 2010, they could be wrong yet again.

As the cartels continue without Moreno, his book, Pensamientos, endures. With platitudes such as “Nothing is so hard that it cannot be overcome with strength,” and “It is preferable to be a man blessed by God who lives in peace than to be a rich coward,” the text encourages the poor, the lost, and the disenfranchised to take up arms and fight with religious zeal. It is, as Daniel Hernandez, author of Down and Delirious in Mexico City, told me, “some kind of syncretic religious belief that permits them to maintain a religiosity while being involved in organized crime.”

As Mexican authorities contemplate what to do about the rising violence and the incessant market for drugs and other illicit goods, there is the question of what to do about the religious elements among some of these groups. With Moreno’s successes could come similar tactics among other rival groups. Police and state authorities alike must grow to understand the roots of these religious elements in order to counteract their appeal. But in the meantime, there will still remain the codes, the rules, and the books. “I invite you all to reflect with me and to see that the life that we used to lead was not a life at all and that we should continue forward with FAITH in God,” states the final page of Pensamientos. “He will give us wisdom, grace, and forgiveness.” With the acts that Moreno and his organizations have perpetuated, it seems that forgiveness may remain far off.

Alfredo Garcia is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University.