Mexico's government confirmed late Sunday that the leader of the Knights Templar drug cartel was killed in an early-morning shootout with marines although he was declared dead by authorities in 2010.
Tomas Zeron, head of the criminal investigation unit for the federal Attorney General's Office, said the identity of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez had been confirmed 100 percent by fingerprints, but added that tests would continue.
Moreno's death was one of the more bizarre twists in Mexico's assault on drug cartels, in which several of the country's most powerful drug lords have been captured in the last year without a shot fired.
Drug-related violence has killed tens of thousands of people in Mexico since late 2006, when former president Felipe Calderon launched a nationwide crackdown on cartels.
The Mexican military had been tracking Moreno and marines confronted him in Timbuscatio, a town in the remote mountains of the western farming state of Michoacan, his cartel's home base. Officials said the troops fired to respond to an "aggression" as they tried to make an arrest.
Security spokesman Alejandro Rubido said that despite the December 2010 announcement Moreno had been killed in a shootout with federal police, national government officials taking over Michoacán in January discovered reports that he was alive.
"Anonymous tips indicated that Nazario Moreno was not only living, but continued operating at the head of a criminal group conducting extortion, kidnapping and other crimes," Rubido said.
Moreno, nicknamed "The Craziest One," would have turned 44 on Saturday, according to a government birthdate. He led the La Familia cartel when he supposedly perished in a two-day gunbattle with federal police in December 2010 in Michoacán, his home state.
No corpse was found then, however. Calderon's government officially declared him dead, saying it had proof, but some residents of Michoacán had reported seeing Moreno since then.
After the 2010 death report, his former cartel, La Familia Michoacana, morphed into the more vicious and powerful Knights Templar. The cartel under both names preached Moreno's quasi-religious doctrine and moral code even as it became a major trafficker of methamphetamine to the United States.
And since the 2010 claim of his death, Moreno reportedly helped build himself up as folk hero, erecting shrines to himself and to the Knights Templar, which adopted the Maltese cross as a symbol.
The hunt for him spiked last year as vigilantes, tired of the cartel's control of the state and government inaction, took up arms against the Knights Templar, saying they wanted to get the cartel kingpins. All of the civilian "self-defense" group leaders said Moreno was alive.
His killing comes on the heels of the Feb. 22 capture of Mexico's most powerful drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who surrendered peacefully after 13 years on the lam when marines raided his condo in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlan.
In January, authorities captured Dionicio Loya Plancarte, alias "El Tio," or The Uncle, in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, and Ruben Oseguera Gonzalez, known as "El Menchito," in the Zapopan section of Guadalajara.
Another other top drug capo, Zetas chief Miguel Angel Trevino, was captured last summer, also by the Mexican navy's elite troops.
Though Guzman's capture leaked to the press, Mexican authorities waited several hours before announcing it so they could solidly confirm they held the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's largest. They later gave a detailed explanation of how they fingerprinted him, measured his facial features against photographs and analyzed genetic markers from a DNA swab.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press