Military personnel and federal policemen guard an area where the dead body of Mexican drug lord Nazario 'El Chayo' Moreno Gonzalez remains, in Apatzingan, Mexico, March 9, 2014.
March 11, 2014 2:53 PM EDT

When drug lord Nazario Moreno was a child sharing a shack with his 11 brothers and sisters, alcoholic father and violent mother, he took refuge reading the cult Mexican comic book Kalimán. In the stories, the superhero Kalimán defeats his enemies using martial arts and telepathy while reciting one-liners of wisdom. Later, when Moreno became a millionaire meth trafficker, he authored his own book of “wise” phrases, which are strikingly similar to those of Kalimán. His life story also became as surreal as that of a comic book; he commanded a bloodthirsty cartel that he called the Knights Templar, dressed up in white robes (as did Kalimán), and faked his own death at the hands of federal police.

But the tale of Moreno, alias “The Maddest One,” reached the final chapter last weekend, when Mexican soldiers really did appear to shoot him dead as he celebrated his 44th birthday. The take-down of Moreno was another victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose government also oversaw the recent arrest of trafficker Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. “Today we are observing a Mexican state with better capabilities and strengths,” Pena Nieto said Monday following Moreno’s death. “Important criminals from different organizations have been arrested and been stopped.”

For thousands in Mexico’s western Michoacán state, the suffering under Moreno’s tyranny was no comic book adventure. Knights Templar gunmen kidnapped, extorted and raped, dumping severed heads in village squares and on disco dance floors. Confronted with this terror, Michoacán residents rose up in vigilante militias and drove the gangsters out of towns, pressuring the army to take action. Vigilantes and soldiers finally closed in on Moreno’s mountain hideouts last week, cornering him on a highland ranch. His death, confirmed with photos and fingerprints, was an embarrassment for former President Felipe Calderon, under whom federal police claimed to kill Moreno in 2010. On that occasion, police said Moreno’s gunmen escaped with his body.

As the vigilantes further ground away at the Knights Templar, bizarre details of Moreno’s cult-like leadership emerged. Moreno’s followers venerated the drug lord as a saint and kept statues of him in medieval armor decorated in gold and diamonds. Some had copies of his book of phrases, entitled Mis Pensamientos (“My Thoughts”) or of a memoir entitled Me Dicen el Más Loco; El Diario de Un Idealista (“They Call Me the Maddest One; Diary of an Idealist”), which TIME had access to.

In the autobiography, which was self-published and distributed exclusively inside the cartel, Moreno describes growing up so broke that refried beans were a luxury and he thought the rich drunk Coca-Cola instead of river water. The comic Kalimán was an inspiration to escape from this, he writes. “My brother and I dreamed of being great characters, helping the people and bringing justice to the poor.”

At the age of 16, Moreno describes leaving Michoacán to sneak into the United States, which he refers to as “gringo-landia.” He soon sold marijuana from San Jose to the Indian reservations of Humboldt County and guarded the safe-houses of more experienced traffickers. When African American and Chicano dealers threatened Moreno, he says he was quick to fight back with a knife or a gun, earning his “maddest one” nickname. This propensity to rumble eventually led him to being beaten repeatedly in the head, giving him permanent brain injuries, including hallucinations, making him even more loco.

Moreno also confesses to suffering alcohol problems like his father. He finally escaped his angry drunken ways, he says, when he discovered evangelical Christianity through Latino preachers in the United States and began to read and pray obsessively. But rather than leaving crime, he brought his religious beliefs into it. Returning to Michoacan, he built a meth-trafficking cartel that also claimed to espouse righteous Christian values and wrought Old Testament justice on rivals. They identified with the Knights Templar, a medieval crusader order of brave and holy warriors.

An agent for Mexico’s federal anti-organized crime division says the memoir is authentic and largely corresponds to facts police had already established about Moreno’s life. The agent, speaking to TIME on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give public statements, says that Moreno probably believed his own propaganda, but also saw the quasi-religious elements as a way to discipline his troops. Quizzed about Moreno’s alleged death in 2010, the agent says that federal police really believed they had killed him in a firefight. Moreno then took advantage of their claims, pretending to be dead while encouraging his followers to venerate him.

As the vigilante militias have reclaimed towns from the Knights Templar, they have recruited many of Moreno’s old henchmen over to their side. These former templarios also offer insights into the drug lord’s rule. In the town of Antunez, a man named Hilario confessed that he was a gunman for three years for the Knights Templar before joining the vigilantes in January. He describes going on a week-long course in which they studied Moreno’s writings. At the end, Moreno came to speak to them clad in white robes. “He was dressed as God. His balls went too far up into his head,” scoffs Hilario, who served time in a U.S. prison for cooking meth. Hilario also describes guarding a meeting with Moreno and one of his lieutenants: “He would suddenly flip. One second he was talking about religion and the next he was ordering a hit on somebody.”

Other vigilantes suffered the brutality of Moreno firsthand. A lime farmer in Antunez named Elias described how Knights Templar thugs kidnapped him for failing to pay extortion quotas and held him for three days in the mountains. After he was beaten on the lower back with a wooden board, he said that he saw Moreno coming into the room. “Every time I remember his face I remember my pain and my anger,” says Elias, while carrying a Kalashnikov and scouring the hills for Templar gunmen.

Despite the cruelty of his cartel, Moreno insisted in his writing he was a social fighter. As well as claiming to be Christian, he hails Latin American revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara. Moreno argues that drug trafficking is a result of Mexico’s unequal system that gives the poor no opportunities. “They say that each society has the government it deserves,” Moreno writes. “I would also say that each society and government have the criminals that they deserve.”

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