A series of government takedowns of leaders of the Familia Michoacana drug gang seemed to herald the end of the group. But recent events suggest that the organization, one branch of which is now calling itself the Caballeros Templarios, remains a potent and unusual force in Mexico’s underworld.
Familia boss and spiritual bedrock Nazario Moreno was killed by the security forces in December 2010. He was often described as the driving force behind the Familia’s evangelical mysticism, though even with him out of the picture, his criminal heirs seem to remain attached to the gang’s strikingly odd approach to organized crime. Even the name of the Caballeros Templarios is Spanish for the Knights Templar, a group of medieval religous crusaders.
A new report from the Associated Press provides excerpts from the Cabelleros’ code of conduct, which includes such imperatives as to “fight against materialism, injustice and tyranny.” Most of the requirements seem to have little connection to the gang’s operations in reality; fighting tyranny and materialism is hard to reconcile with extortion, drug trafficking, and murder, all three of which are frequently employed by the Caballeros, as they were by the Familia before them.
The AP reports that the pamphlets outlining the gang’s code were handed out to the public in Michoacan earlier this summer, which demonstrates another Familia trait that is evident in the Caballeros: an obsessive focus on public relations. In addition to the publicly disseminated code of conduct, the Caballeros are frequent users of “narcomantas,” banners hung in public thoroughfares that are used to taunt enemies, explain the gang’s actions, deny responsibility for certain crimes, accuse the government of misdeed, or make demands of the authorities. As InSight Crime reported last week, the Caballeros also seem to aggressively court the mainstream media, in an effort to influence the news agenda and get their point of view represented.
This makes sense, given that the leader of the Caballeros, Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," used to be a Familia boss best known for the close attention he paid to his gang’s image. He became even more widely known when he called in to a television show in 2009, attempting to justify his gang’s existence and tar the reputation of his adversaries -- especially the Zetas.
Following the arrest of Gomez’s rival Familia boss Jose de Jesus Mendez in June, the Caballeros now appear to be the strongest gang in Michoacan. Gomez's forces have been battling both the Zetas, located in his home state, as well as federal forces intent on preventing the full recovery of the Familia’s forces under a new brand name.
Federal forces have also uncovered a whole catalogue of Caballeros paraphernalia in recent days, ranging from posters with a medieval knight to garments stamped with a red cross, the group’s logo.
It remains unclear exactly what the Caballeros are trying to accomplish with all of the merchandising and the rosy picture of their group promoted in the code of conduct. Presumably, the vast majority of the public sees the Caballeros for what they are -- an organized crime syndicate -- and any fealty they pay to Gomez’s crew is due to fear, and not to the transparently self-serving arguments put forth in the pamphlet.
The following are a few of the rules laid down in the Caballeros' code of conduct, as reported by the AP:
"The Knights Templar will begin a challenging ideological battle to defend the values of a society based on ethics."
"I swear and promise to always seek to protect the oppressed, the widow and the orphan."
"That Knight who betrays the Templars will be punished with death, and all his properties will be confiscated, (and) his family will suffer the same fate."
"It is prohibited to abuse the innocence of chaste women, and minors, using power or trickery to seduce them."
"For the use of deadly force, the council's authorization is required."
"When a Knight ... breaks the vow of silence of the Knights Templar of the state of Michoacan, he will receive a death sentence."