By Tim Johnson
Apatzingan — As the leader of one of Mexico's most ruthless criminal gangs, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez is the mastermind of hair-raising brutality in his native Michoacán state. He also would like the world to know he has a pious, loving and huggy-kissy side, and so he's penned a booklet titled "Thoughts."
"If you want to say 'I love you!' to those who surround you and to your friends, say it today," the drug lord exhorts readers.
In the 104-page booklet, published this year, he offers advice on personal empowerment, Christian living and proper deportment.
"Manners are a way of showing respect for others," he writes. "If you don't have them, don't expect to be respected."
If it seems bizarre for the leader of a drug gang that beheads or quarters enemies to offer advice on Christian living, well, maybe. However, the gang known as La Familia Michoacana is a pseudo-Christian posse that mixes zeal and inspiring slogans in its pronouncements. Members are ordered to study the Bible and pray the rosary, even as they gun down police, dismember opponents and manufacture highly addictive crystal methamphetamine.
Unlike other Mexican drug cartels, La Familia portrays itself as religious and patriotic and deeply tied to the mountains and plains of Michoacán state. The group has a U.S. distribution network and funnels marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine to more than a dozen cities, including Seattle.
La Familia's thousands of members often are recruited from drug- and alcoholism-rehabilitation centers and sent to training courses at secret safe houses in Michoacán.
"They bring in motivational speakers to their indoctrination sessions. Again, it's the U.S. Army 'be-all-you-can-be,' 'you can take your life in your own hands,' 'you can chart your future,' " said George Grayson, a scholar of contemporary Mexico at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Grayson said the religious aspect of La Familia "is all propaganda."
"Nazario touts the Bible-pounding and often excuses their savage acts as being the work of the Lord, but I don't think there is an iota of religious conviction."
One might gain a different idea upon reading "Thoughts," filled with images of the Bible, crosses and Jesus. "If you want, you can become a good Christian," it says on one page. "Remember not to build walls or barriers but instead build bridges to unite people."
Like most of the short essays, it's signed "El Mas Loco," or "The Craziest One," a nickname often used by Moreno. He's also known as "El Chayo," a common nickname for people named Nazario.
A cult of personality has developed around Moreno, 40, who stands about 5-foot-6, and according to a Mexican military-intelligence report has a metal plate in the left side of his head that gives him frequent headaches.
Why he needed the plate is unclear. His headaches also may arise from the $2 million bounty on his head or the federal drug-trafficking charges in the United States and murder charges in Mexico.
At the entrance to his hometown, Guanajuatillo, a town of 572 people 15 miles south of Apatzingán, a bronze bust hails him as a patriot, according to a journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid joining a long list of journalists slain by Michoacán narco gangs.
Moreno apparently gleaned some of his ideas from U.S. evangelist John Eldredge of the Ransomed Heart Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo., whose book "Wild at Heart" has been found in translation in raids on La Familia safe houses.
Eldredge preaches a muscular version of Christianity that urges men to summon their authentic masculinity, an aspect of the Bible that he says is often overlooked. Eldredge couldn't be reached for comment, but he neither condones violence nor is linked to the cartel.
The "band of brothers" mentality of La Familia appeals to jobless young men in a state with a tattered social fabric. Legitimate jobs are scarce, and some 1 million Michoacán residents have migrated to the United States.
The drug gang has bought many legitimate businesses that range from mango and avocado farms to drug and hardware stores and carwashes. The group's appointed delegates serve as a shadow power behind local governments.
"They have become substitutes for the police and the authorities. They tell people when to keep noise down at night," said Juventino Bravo Rojas, a deacon at the local Catholic parish.
He said the group "doesn't see its own evil," even though many members are "assiduous readers of the Bible."
The group's control is extraordinary. To grasp the extensive system of lookouts that La Familia operates, one only has to climb aboard an army-patrol vehicle with a mounted .40-caliber machine gun in the cargo bed and cruise.
During a lengthy ride with a radio scanner blaring, one could regularly hear hidden cartel sentries reporting on the passage of the vehicle.
The sentries would sign off with a religious phrase: "May God repay you."
"They believe they are the saviors of Michoacán. They control 87 of the 113 municipalities in the state," the veteran journalist said. He said the cartel's recruits come under lengthy indoctrination. "They make them watch 'The Godfather' One, Two and Three to understand the concept of family."
The group has grown bolder in its attacks on federal law-enforcement agents. On June 14, gunmen armed with high-caliber rifles and grenades ambushed a federal police convoy in rural Michoacán, firing on the patrol from two directions. Twelve officers were killed.
Since last year, La Familia has been locked in a bloodcurdling battle with Los Zetas, a one-time allied cartel that once was the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, a syndicate on Mexico's Gulf Coast. Scores of low-level enforcers have been slain, and usually beheaded, in the settling of scores.
The erstwhile theology of La Familia irks Los Zetas, which a few months ago hung a cloth banner along a roadway accusing La Familia of moving toward "practices of Islamic fundamentalism."
For his part, Moreno claims he acts only out of love.
"Intelligence without love makes you perverse," he writes. "Money without love makes you greedy. Power without love makes you a tyrant."