In a 2012 interview with leading members of Mexico's Knights Templar -- including Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias "El Chayo" -- the organization's territorial grasp had seemingly reached its zenith. Their confidence in stating that "here, we are the law" stemmed from a feeling of unprecedented control from a group that had forged a unique identity thanks to the messianic leadership of a self-styled "narco-saint."
At the time of the interview, the "bloody battle to expulse the Zetas" -- as "El Chayo," called it in his 2010 autobiography, "They Call me the Craziest One" (Me Dicen: El Mas Loco) -- had been won. The internal struggle against Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias "El Chango," a former ally and co-founder of the Knights' predecessors, the Familia Michoacana, had been won after two months of "cleansing".
According to Servando Gomez Martinez, alias "La Tuta" -- the man widely believed to now lead the Knights following El Chayo's death -- El Chango had committed treason by withholding support during the federal offensive of December 2010 that resulted in El Chayo's first "death," and by subsequently attempting to "take over" the organization. El Chango was also accused of not abiding by the group's proclaimed prohibition of predatory practices such as kidnapping-for-ransom.
This, said the leaders, was the main motivation for the move to rebrand the organization as the Knights Templar -- to "get rid of the stained name" of La Familia. The challenge posed by the Jalisco Cartel - New-Generation (CJNG) -- their latest rival for territorial control in Michoacan -- did not represent a major concern. "Them, we can handle," said La Tuta.
After six years of frontal opposition and personal animosity to President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) and his all-out "war-on-drugs," in 2012 the political climate showed signs of improvement for the Knights. Supporting the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power promised quieter times. "If you have three playing pieces [and] you know that one will lose, one you can't [support], and one will win: who do you bet on?" said El Chayo. In the words of La Tuta, "an understanding" had been reached.
SEE ALSO: La Tuta Profile
The Knights, and the Familia before them, survived and thrived through their own unique methods. The dysfunctional presence of a state widely perceived by local populations as corrupt, abusive, and unwilling to provide solutions to public insecurity and poverty, served as the basis for the advancement of a project of alternative governance. By taking over functions such as the administration of "justice", mediating disputes, and the provision of material support to local communities, the Knights invested in becoming perceived as "the least bad solution" for social order. "We are a necessary evil... we protect them [civilians] and they protect us," said La Tuta.
La Tuta blamed deviations from the Knights' professed rules and ideology on hard-to-control younger members: "we can't cure all the muchachos ["boys"]," he said. Abuses notwithstanding, a significant part of local populations showed a posture of pragmatic tolerance paired with inertia: "At least we know them ... and if you don't mess with them, they don't mess with you," said one local.
The Knights also served as a vehicle for El Chayo's zeal to realize what he saw as a "divine calling" -- "curing" society in the same fashion he had been cured himself. Even if this meant he had to "kill to do good." How many he has killed, he said, "is between me and God."
A keen follower of evangelical ideals that supposedly helped him to overcome vices such as a severe drug addiction and a proneness to violence, El Chayo delivered self-empowerment seminars to locals. Referred to by some Michoacan natives, as well as lower ranking members of Knights, as "El Señor" ("sir" but also "lord"), El Chayo seemed to have partly achieved the recognition he was striving for.
In 2010, El Chayo's reported death served as a key building block in the Knight's strategy to take their legitimacy to the next level. Conscious of the state's eavesdropping, El Chayo instructed members of the group to diffuse the news of his death via radio following the shootout with government forces, and to refrain from the usually applied language coding. The federal government was swift to take the bait and claim a badly needed victory against the country's criminal organizations, and government pressure on the Knights was effectively mitigated as intended.
After his "death," El Chayo designed his own sanctification. Shrines equipped with statues of "San Nazario" -- modeled after El Chayo -- were set up across the region and a prayer praising his powers was created: "Give me blessed protection... Protector of the poorest, Knight of the People... Give us life, Oh sacred eternal señor... Give us health and more work, Abundance in our hands, That our people shall be blessed, I ask you, San Nazario").
SEE ALSO: El Chayo Profile
This unparalleled auto-sanctification followed, according to the (then) living saint, a three-fold logic: satisfying locals' "need to have a space to believe"; supporting his mysterious aura ("people say I'm everywhere and nowhere"); and showing the government "how fucking strong we are [sic] and how much support we have."
This discursive climax was advanced in El Chayo's autobiography. Portrayed as a posthumous publication, El Chayo's death is presented as the ultimate sacrifice inevitably concluding a life dedicated to the "greater good". However, El Chayo recently realized, according to local sources with access to the Knights, the limited success of his auto-sanctification, with locals amused that "this time, they really went over the top."
Nonetheless, he also sought a second pathway to satisfy his ego, and appeared to be set on establishing himself as a revolutionary hero. "What few people know but what is really important to me: I used to be a soldier. I still think like one and I see myself mostly as a military mind," he said. He recently chose the pseudonym of Ernesto Morelos Villa, claiming a place in history amongst Latin American revolutionaries such as Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Francisco "Pancho" Villa, and Jose Maria Morelos.
El Chayo even went as far as retreating to the mountains to form a guerrilla group trained by experts from around the Americas. His aim, as stated in his autobiography, was to use the Knights to unite "all the isolated social struggles developing in Mexico and other countries... to make one sole, powerful, and inexorable social earthquake which would once and for all liberate all the peoples of the world."
While such an objective was worthy of El Chayo's messianic ego, it surely died with him. All that remains now is to see whether the Knights Templar's model of a mafia grounded in spiritual teachings will also die along with the organization's patron narco-saint.
Even if the Knights can withstand the joint pressure by the region's rapidly proliferating self-defense militias and federal forces, the killing of their ideological mastermind and organizational architect will likely translate into a reduction of ideological influences. These are not shared to the same degree by other key figures. Tellingly, in the 2012 interview the man who has since inherited El Chayo's position, La Tuta, labeled himself a "narco by heart" and referred questions about religion and ideology to "our boss [who knows better] about those things."
*Falko A. Ernst is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Essex and member of the steering committee of the ECPR Standing Group on Organised Crime