The Knights Templar appear to have evolved from a mere spliter group of the Familia Michoacana to assuming control of the latter's powerhouse in Michoacan, paying for community works and effectively becoming the de facto authority in some parts of the state.
The 3,000 members of Mexico's 51st Battalion in the western Michoacan city of Apatzingan who are tasked with monitoring the western Tierra Caliente Valley, cannot leave any of the five exits of their base to go on patrol without lookouts who work with the Knights Templar reporting their movements via radio. According to an investigative report by the Associated Press, which spent two days with the military unit, the area is almost entirely under the control of the criminal group.
Military personnel there, the AP reports, carry two radios while on patrol: one to communicate with each other, and another to overhear the Knights' internal radio transmissions. Soldiers in the area are given laminated cards with the group's radio codes printed on them; "53" stands for military, "69" stands for a Humvee convoy, and "56" is for military intelligence unit.
Because of these tactics, military officials in the area speak of the Knights Templar almost like an insurgency. "Especially here in [Apatzingan], thanks to their level of organization and their careful surveillance that is so well done, they can operate in the city with relative ease," Lt. Col. Julices Calzada Gonzalez told the wire service.
Like any good insurgency, and like their predecessors in the Familia Michoacana, the Knights Templar carry out public works projects in the area to win the hearts and minds of locals. The AP reports that the Tierra Caliente Valley is dotted with newly-constructed athletic fields, stadiums and cockfighting rings, all of which the army says were paid for by the Knights Templar. Officials also believe that the Knights pay for road maintenance in rural areas of the state, and confirmed reports that the group has negotiated price controls on basic goods in the area with local vendors.
InSight Crime Analysis
This report is an alarming update on the status of the Knights Templar, which first announced its emergence in March 2011, three months after the Familia's leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, was killed. Since then the group has been enmeshed in an internal struggle with leftover factions of the Familia, and has declared war on the Zetas in the north of the country. With all of this conflict, it has not been clear whether the Knights Templar had been properly able to follow the Familia in casting themselves as the defenders of Michoacan.
The tactics described by the AP, however, (paying for community projects, negotiating food prices and running an extensive network of informants) are exactly the kind of tactics once employed by the Familia. This suggests that the group has successfully obtained the same brand recognition that the Familia once had, at least in parts of the state.
In turn, this also indicates that a drop in violence in Michoacan following a security surge in late 2011 may have more to do with the Knights' strengthened presence than the deployment of soldiers to the state.
One variable in this is what will become of the various cells of the Familia still active in Michoacan. As much as they may try to maintain that they are the true inheritors of the Familia's legacy, the Knights seem to have them beat. Ever since releasing narco-banner announcing that they would be taking over the work of the Familia, the Knights have consistently cast themselves as its successors. In one town in the Tierra Caliente Valley, for instance, the AP reports that the Knights have even built a small shrine dedicated to Nazario Moreno Gonzalez. The Knights' current leader, Servando Gomez Martinez, alias "La Tuta," was Moreno Gonzalez's second in command, another factor that helps them.
This leaves the Familia with no recourse but to join with the Knights' most powerful enemies: the Zetas. There were rumors of such an alliance in June 2011, but now that the Knights have cemented their power, it looks even more likely.