MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The suspected leader of Mexico's La Familia drug cartel was gunned down in a raid by security forces, the government said, handing President Felipe Calderon a major victory in his war on drug gangs.
Nazario Moreno, known as "The Craziest One," died in a shootout late on Thursday in the Apatzingan area, a La Familia stronghold in western Mexico, national security spokesman Alejandro Poire said.
Moreno was believed to be the leader of the cult-like La Familia (The Family) drug cartel, dominant in Calderon's home state of Michoacan.
Moreno preached Bible scripture mixed with self-help slogans to gang members and promoted a mystique unique among Mexican gangs by claiming to protect the local population.
"Diverse pieces of information obtained during the raid all indicate that Nazario Moreno Gonzalez was killed yesterday," Poire said in a televised news conference.
At least 11 people died as security forces fought cartel members during operations that began Wednesday evening, including three suspected drug gang leaders and five police. Three civilians were also killed in running battles in which gang members burned cars and blocked roads.
Wanted in the United States and with a $2.4 million bounty on his head in Mexico, Moreno is the second drug kingpin to be eliminated in just over a month. Marines killed the Gulf cartel's Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas on November 5 in northeastern Mexico, although Calderon's fight is far from over and many Mexicans worry he is losing his battle.
Some 33,000 people have been killed since Calderon launched his military-led campaign against drug cartels when he took office in 2006, worrying Washington and some companies who are freezing investment just as Mexico pulls out of recession.
La Familia, a little-known gang before Calderon launched his cartel crackdown in December 2006, has grown to become one of the country's top criminal outfits, taking on security forces with a menacing mix of violence, pseudo-religion and gifts for the poor.
Violence flared on Wednesday night when federal police and security forces streamed into Michoacan in search of Moreno.
Poire said security forces had recovered the bodies of three cartel members but that the bodies of others were retrieved by fellow gang members. He did not mention Moreno.
On Friday, some 300 heavily armed marines moved into remote, marijuana-growing areas around the town of Apatzingan, the scene of some of the worst violence, but the town was quiet in the afternoon, with most shops closed.
"The advance of federal forces has sent the criminals into retreat," Poire said.
Michoacan's state governor called for calm as police towed charred vehicles away from blocked roads around the state capital Morelia after suspected La Familia members set fire to buses and trucks and briefly shutdown the city on Thursday in response to the crackdown.
La Familia was hit last year by the arrests of two top leaders and is fighting the Zetas and the Beltran Leyva cartel for control of Michoacan's coast, where traffickers receive illegal shipments of chemicals to make methamphetamines.
Reporting by Jason Lange, additional reporting by Miguel Garcia in Azpatingan; Editing by Jackie Frank