Mexico captures Knights Templar drug cartel leader

Mexican police nabbed on Friday most-wanted drug lord Servando Gomez, a former schoolteacher whose Knights Templar cartel tormented western Michoacan state, smuggled drugs to the US and illegally shipped iron ore to China.

AFP| Last Updated: Feb 28, 2015, 08:37 AM IST

Mexico City: Mexican police nabbed on Friday most-wanted drug lord Servando Gomez, a former schoolteacher whose Knights Templar cartel tormented western Michoacan state, smuggled drugs to the US and illegally shipped iron ore to China.

The man nicknamed "La Tuta" was detained by federal officers without a shot fired as he exited a house in Morelia, Michoacan`s capital, following months of intelligence work, officials said.

Gomez, 49, was taken to Mexico City and frogmarched in front of television cameras, wearing a black sweater and jeans as two masked federal police officers held him down by the neck and led him into a helicopter.

The balding, goateed kingpin had eluded authorities last year despite a massive manhunt in the mountains of Michoacan with help from a "rural defense" force comprised of former vigilantes, who had taken up arms against the Knights Templar.

With his arrest, the authorities have now taken down all the top leaders of the cult-like cartel, dealing a huge blow to a group that once dominated the agricultural and mining state through murder, kidnappings and extortion.

"Today we have achieved the most important objective in the fight against organized crime: The detention of the most wanted criminal in all of Mexico," Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said before Gomez was presented outside an airport hangar for federal prosecutors.

The capture is a much-needed victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto amid public anger over his handling of violence in the neighboring state of Guerrero, where 43 students were allegedly killed by a gang in league with local police.

His much-maligned attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, stepped down on Friday to take a more low-key cabinet job.

Pena Nieto said the arrest "strengthens the rule of law and we continue marching toward a peaceful Mexico."

US Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart applauded "another win for Mexico in the fight against brutal criminal cartels like the Knights Templar."

But violence has continued to afflict several regions despite the arrests of several kingpins since Pena Nieto took office in 2012.

Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official, told AFP that Gomez`s capture was symbolic and would "not majorly change the criminal scene."

Hope said Michoacan is struggling with the emergence of new armed groups and infighting among vigilantes.Gomez became the de facto boss after the group`s founder, Nazario "El Chayo" Moreno, was killed by marines in March 2014. Moreno had been wrongly declared dead by officials in 2010.

Unlike the more shadowy gangsters of Mexico`s underworld, Gomez was a publicity seeker who appeared in online videos and television interviews.

He nurtured a Robin Hood image in his mountain hometown of Arteaga, where Gomez threw parties and gave out cash.

The gangster always wore a baseball cap, jeans and a gun holstered to his belt.

Some of his videos ensnared local politicians caught casually chatting with him around a table, including a former interim governor who was later arrested.

Appearing in front of cows or surrounded by masked gunmen, he railed against his rivals, but claimed that his gang wanted "peace and calm" in Michoacan.

Gomez told Britain`s Channel 4 News in a January 2014 interview that being a teacher was "a very healthy and honest job, but due to my aspirations and my hyperactive nature, it didn`t satisfy me."

Authorities had a USD 2 million reward for his capture, seeking him for kidnappings, extorsion, murder and drug trafficking, said National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido.

Gomez was wearing a cap and scarf in an attempt to hide his identify as he came out of the house in Morelia before dawn, Rubido said.

Police captured him and eight other people, seizing a grenade launcher and 11 guns, he said. His brother Flavio was simultaneously detained in Yucatan peninsula.

The arrest followed months of tracking accomplices, including a messenger in Morelia who delivered food and clothes.

The raid was launched after police saw "unusual activity" near the residence, with an increase in cartel members who placed vehicles at access points.

At the height of its power, the cartel imported drug precursors from Asia to manufacture crystal meth before exporting the potent drug to the United States.

The Knights Templar, whose members were made to read a religion-tinged codebook, is a spinoff of another gang called La Familia Michoacana.