The capture of yet another high-level target — this time Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” the leader of the Knights Templar — should be cause for celebration in Mexico, but the statistics indicate that the government may need to reassess what success means in embattled states like Michoacan.

Gomez was corralled by an elite police force in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, in the early morning hours of February 27, reported Proceso, the culmination of a nearly two-year long, non-stop manhunt involving thousands of security forces, including the newly formed Gendarmerie.

Gomez’s capture is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the Knights Templar, the criminal organization that was born from a split in the Familia Michoacana (which was born from a split in the Milenio Cartel).

As the Knights Templar’s only remaining military and spiritual leader — his counterpart, Nazario “The Craziest One” Moreno, was killed by the Mexican Navy in 2014, his second “death” in three years — Gomez scrambled for months to stay hidden and keep his criminal group together, no easy task for someone with his profile.

SEE ALSO: La Tuta Profile

By the end, his power was largely symbolic. His cohorts were either dead, in jail, on the run, or had switched sides to other criminal groups, some of whom call themselves “self-defense” groups.

It was the emergence of these same self-defense groups that swung the tide against the Knights Templar. By that time, the Knights Templar had developed an incredibly diverse set of revenue streams which included everything from extortion and kidnapping on a local level, to methamphetamine and iron ore trafficking on an international one.

Beginning in 2013, these self-defense groups — which were a mixture of criminal rivals, desperate civilians, and businessmen — emerged in various parts of the state. They spread quickly and, working closely with federal security forces, drove the Knights Templar from their nominal headquarters, Michoacan’s fourth largest city, Apatzingan, as well as numerous other mid-sized cities and small towns.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

Gomez, a one-time school teacher who also went by the alias “El Profe” (the professor), tried to fight back, mostly via social media and YouTube. He used these social media channels to out his would-be allies and foes alike, as a means of illustrating the hypocrisy of focusing all eyes on just him, while others did similar or even worse things to plunder the state and Mexico’s most vulnerable.

But he was unable to slow the momentum. Dozens of his operatives for the Knights Templar were captured or killed, and a flood of Templar members simply swapped teams. The Knights Templar — which just two years ago had a huge hand in Michoacan’s economic and political fortunes — were done.

Their replacements, however, seem just as bad, or worse. The self-defense groups have splintered and in-fighting has left several dead and many others jailed. What’s more, the government’s attempt to roll some members into the official security fold has largely failed.

The result is that state now has more homicides than when the Knights Templar ruled the roost in 2011. However, reported cases of extortion — a crime difficult to measure as it is widely underreported — appears to be decreasing, after it increased by 85 percent following the emergence of the Knights Templar in 2011. 

InSight Crime Analysis

There are numerous reasons why violence might be rising in Michoacan, despite (or because of) the precipitous fall of the Knights Templar. Firstly, the Knights Templar may have exerted control over common crime in the state. Homicides occurred, of course, but they had to be sanctioned by the Knights Templar themselves.

Secondly, the decline of the Knights Templar may have created a power vacuum. Other criminal groups, most notably the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion – CJNG), have been looking to take advantage of this territory for years, and there is ample reason to believe the CJNG was forming self-defense organizations to achieve this end. The capture of La Tuta may accelerate this process, although the battle for the criminal revenue streams he leaves behind already seems to be well in motion.

Thirdly, neither the self-defense groups or their government counterparts ever really confronted the principal motor of the criminal economy in the region: illegal drugs. Some self-defense groups specifically stated to InSight Crime investigators that they would not interfere with that activity. Without confronting this issue, there seems little chance of slowing the violence and the steady erosion of the state, as it is revenue from drug trafficking that perverts the political process and undermines institutional reform.

Finally, the Mexican government has not implemented institutional reform in Michoacan, or anywhere else. While more troops and specialized troops (e.g., Gendarmerie) make more arrests, that doesn’t necessarily create more stability. The local police — who must be at the frontline in the fight against organized crime — still must be rebuilt, and the judicial system has to be strengthened. Otherwise, it does not matter if they are called Knights Templar or self-defense groups, they are going to take advantage of the huge holes in Mexico’s justice system and victimize the vulnerable.

Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...