MEXICO CITY -- President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government is chalking up quite a tally of captured or slain drug lords even though it promised to abandon the “kingpin strategy” of its predecessor.
For the second time in barely two weeks, the military has taken down a big crime figure, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, leader of an offshoot of the Familia Michoacana crime family known as the Knights Templar, which has bloodied western Mexico.
Moreno’s death Sunday followed the Feb. 22 capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the legendary head of the Sinaloa Cartel, in an oceanfront condo in Mazatlan. He was perhaps the world’s most wanted crime lord.
Pena Nieto and his top aides were once dismissive of the previous government’s policy of hunting for crime bosses, saying the tactic fractured crime gangs and generated more mayhem. He pledged to cut crime rates in half in his first year in office, which arrived last December.
But pledges to slash crime are proving harder to fulfill than nabbing kingpins.
“The policy of taking down the capos continues,” said Jorge Chabat, a security analyst. “It’s part of the security policy.”
Soldiers killed Moreno early Sunday on the outskirts of Tumbiscatio in Michoacan state, where he reportedly had celebrated his 44th birthday a day earlier.
Reports of the killing drew incredulous reactions, since Mexico once before had announced that soldiers had slain Moreno – in 2010. The government of then-President Felipe Calderon repeatedly asserted that Moreno had been killed in a shootout with security forces, even though no body was recovered.
Calderon’s then-security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, issued an apology of sorts late Sunday, saying his earlier claims “were not sufficiently precise.”
To defuse doubts, Criminal Investigation Agency chief Tomas Zeron de Lucio displayed the fingerprints of the man slain Sunday and those collected from Moreno for his voter registration card and military service registry. The prints appeared the same.
“One concludes that it is a 100 percent positive identification for Nazario Moreno Gonzalez,” Zeron said at a news conference.
The government also released a photo that showed Moreno’s corpse on a tile floor.
Moreno, known by the nicknames “El Chayo” and “El Mas Loco,” or “The Craziest One,” held a messianic sway over his crime group, which converted Michoacan into a major source of methamphetamine for the U.S. market.
Armed vigilante groups in Michoacan that rose up last year to fight the Knights Templar supported the latest claim that Moreno is dead.
The Facebook page for the vigilantes in the town of Tepalcatepec said Moreno’s DNA had been compared with that of his son, offering incontrovertible proof.
In efforts to end lawlessness in Michoacan, Pena Nieto has offered to incorporate the vigilantes into rural militias under the army, although they say they won’t disarm without proof that other top Knights Templar leaders have been killed or captured and the group dismantled.
In some ways, the Pena Nieto government hasn’t cut a course much different from the 2006-12 Calderon administration.
Under Calderon, Mexico offered unprecedented access to U.S. counter-drug personnel and trumpeted each capture of an alleged crime boss. Violence spiraled out of control as crime groups battled for domination of smuggling corridors.
At a public session on security on Dec. 17, 2012, barely two weeks after Pena Nieto had been sworn in, his top aides picked apart Calderon’s strategy, saying Mexicans clamored for a reduction in shootouts, beheadings and extortion.
When that administration took down crime chiefs, Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said then, crime groups fragmented and went “from vertical leadership to a more horizontal one that makes them more violent and much more dangerous.”
Pena Nieto contends that he’s brought down the homicide rate slightly, but extortion and kidnappings rates have risen, quite sharply in some areas of Mexico.
As the government fails to fulfill its pledge to reduce crime, however, it’s had a big impact on the criminal underworld, experts say.
Mexican marines last July captured Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, leader of the nation’s most brutal and feared crime group, Los Zetas.
That arrest, coming on top of previous arrests under Calderon, appears to have shattered parts of that organization, the experts said.
“The Zetas will end up splintering,” said Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence official in the Calderon government who’s director of security policy at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, a Mexico City research center.