The Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) emerged in March 2011 as a splinter group of the once-mighty Familia Michoacana. Like their predecessors, the Knights Templar cast themselves as a “self-defense” movement engaged in a struggle with Mexico‘s larger criminal cartels on behalf of the Michaocan population, and frequently employ religious imagery in their public communiques.
The arrest or killing of several top leaders in 2014 and 2015 has put the criminal organization’s future in doubt, but the group has managed to survive these obstacles and continues to maintain a presence in southern Mexico.
The Knights Templar announced their arrival to Mexico‘s criminal underworld in March 2011, when they hung banners throughout Michoacan state saying that they would now be carrying out the “altruistic activities that were previously performed by the Familia Michoacana.” This came after the supposed December 2010 death of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias “El Chayo,” the Familia’s spiritual leader, and the subsequent announcement that the group was being disbanded. However, it was an “open secret” that he was still alive, which was confirmed in March 2014 following his death at the hands of Mexican marines.
Knights Templar Factbox
The group takes its name from a medieval military-religious order charged with defending pilgrims on their journey to the Holy Land, whose members were known both for their piety and for their fearlessness on the battlefield. The name choice is part of the Knights Templar’s bid to be seen as more than just a drug gang — members use Roman warrior-type helmets during induction ceremonies, and distribute propaganda promoting themselves as champions of the fight against “materialism, injustice and tyranny.” The group even announced a temporary ceasefire ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Mexico in March 2012.
The advantage of being situated in Michoacan is that it gives the group power over the major port city of Puerto Lazaro Cardenas. From here, the Knights Templar have access to cocaine shipments from South America as well as methamphetamine precursor chemicals from Asia, which the group either uses or sends north to the border with the United States.
However, like the Familia before them, the Knights’ power base in Michoacan means that they have relatively little control over the cross-border drug trade. As such, they are forced to negotiate with other cartels in order to move illicit products north.
In addition to drug trafficking, the Knights receive a large amount of income from extorting businesses in their areas of influence. This is yet another legacy of the Familia, which at its peak was estimated to have charged “protection fees” from 85 percent of legal businesses in Michoacan state. The Knights’ extortion activities are aided by its influence over local government officials, achieved through intimidation, and handing over kickbacks from drug profits.
In a video appearance in August 2012, a top operative for the Knights, Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” described his organization as “a brotherhood, founded by a set of statutes and codes,” dedicated to protecting the people of Michoacan from organized crime, and singled out the Zetas as one of the criminal groups “causing terror” in the country.
At the end of 2012, the Knights welcomed incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto with “narcomanta” banners offering to lay down their arms if Peña Nieto kept his campaign promises. However, it was widely derided as not being a serious offer.
The killing of the cartel’s leader El Chayo and their second-in-command, Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte in the span of just a few weeks in March 2014 left the Knights Templar’s leadership largely debilitated. Offensives against the cartel — by vigilante groups as well as state security forces — has reduced their power and influence in the region. La Tuta took over the cartel’s central command until he was captured in February 2015 by Mexican security forces.
In June 2017, one of the last alleged leaders of the Knights Templar, Ignacio Rentería Andrade, alias “El Cenizo,” was arrested by Mexican security forces in Michoacán.
In 2020, the Knights Templar and other sub-factions of the group are still active across southern Mexico in parts of Michoacán and Guerrero, battling against the attempted territorial expansion of groups like the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
The Knights were headed by La Tuta, the charismatic leader who frequently used social media to increase his notoriety. However, it is unclear who, if anyone, is waiting in the wings to replace La Tuta since his capture in February 2015. It is unclear who the primary leader of the group was between 2015 and 2017. However, “El Cenizo” reportedly had the largest territorial leadership of the group before his arrest.
While they are mostly based in their home turf of Michoacan, the Knights are also active across central Mexico, particularly in the states of Guanajuato, Morelos and Guerrero.
Now badly fragmented and splintered into other groups like Los Viagras, it’s not clear that the Knights Templar has any clear leader in 2020.
Allies and Enemies
The Knights have been involved in a bitter conflict with the remnants of the Familia Michoacana. However, more recently the Knights were run out of many cities in Michoacan by self-defense groups, who were backed by government forces. A substantial number of Knights Templar members are believed to have defected to other criminal groups, including the self-defense forces.
Splinter factions of the group, especially Los Viagras, are battling powerful groups like the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) for control of key criminal areas.
The arrests and resignations of several politicians in 2014 with alleged links to La Tuta suggested the Knights Templar sill wield a significant amount of authority in the country’s southwest. However, La Tuta’s arrest in early 2015 has put the future of the Knights Templar in serious jeopardy.
And the arrest of “El Cenizo” in June 2017 solidified the end of any kind of broader regional control the group may have wielded in years past. So far the group has been able to push back against the CJNG’s incursions across the border into Michoacán, but it remains to be seen how much longer remnants of the Knights Templar can withstand this fight. That said, the group’s ability to leverage local communities and governments in the areas where they’re active may help their continued survival.