Mexico arrests fugitive drug lord, head of Knights Templar cartel

Servando 'La Tuta' Gomez Martinez, founding commander of Mexico's La Familia cartel, arrested

What distinguished drug lord Servando “La Tuta” Gomez was the way he courted the spotlight. From his not-so-secret hiding place, the fugitive former teacher released numerous videos and audiotapes, many featuring him with local politicians and police officers and implicating them in his criminal doings.

What distinguished Gomez’s organization — La Familia, which morphed into the Knights Templar — was its insidious ability to dominate an entire state, Michoacan on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, penetrating city halls and police departments and intimidating agricultural businesses. And all the while, it built and monopolized a booming methamphetamine industry.

Gomez, one of Mexico’s most-wanted fugitives and the last founding commander of La Familia still on the lam, was captured Friday morning by federal police in the Michoacan capital of Morelia, 180 miles west of Mexico City.

Some Mexican news reports said he was detained while eating hot dogs at 3 a.m. in downtown Morelia, but others said he was captured in a house there that he had been occupying for months.

President Enrique Peña Nieto, his government much-criticized for failing to confront the country’s destructive waves of violence and insecurity, confirmed Gomez’s arrest and quickly took credit.

“This is the result of intense intelligence work by the security institutions,” Peña Nieto said via his Twitter account. “With this detention, the rule of law in the country is being fortified, and we continue advancing toward a Mexico in Peace.”

The Knights Templar and its precursor were as ruthless as any of Mexico’s numerous drug cartels. But the cartel created a cult-like, pseudo-religious mystique around its dogma and its actions, portraying itself as the savior of a Michoacan under siege from rival gangs. One of its slain leaders is still revered by followers as something of a dark saint.

But for many in the state, the organization was a source of deadly terror, intimidating a frightened population with kidnappings, rapes and extortion. The cartel’s control was so absolute that it could control Michoacan’s thousands of lime and avocado farmers, telling them when to plant, harvest and go to market, and what they would be paid.

Gomez’s hold on the state began to slip when vigilante “self-defense” militias, complaining that the government could not protect citizens, rose up against the cartel. Members of the militias, many of them migrants returned from California, were able to drive Knights Templar units out of several Michoacan cities. Still, a sense of lawlessness reigned.

Michoacan and La Familia, and later the Knights Templar, have long held a unique place in Mexico’s deadly war with drug traffickers. It is the home state of former President Felipe Calderon, and where he first launched military forces to combat the cartels in late 2006, a tactic that would come to dominate his administration and claim tens of thousands of lives.

When Peña Nieto took over from Calderon in 2012, he eventually found himself adopting much the same tactic, pouring troops into Michoacan last year as the region veered out of control.

Gomez, 49, seemed to delight in releasing his videos and audiotapes, on which he cajoled, baited or offered to negotiate. “We are a necessary evil,” he said in one of his many video rants, posted on YouTube.

The government had offered a bounty for Gomez equivalent to about $2 million. He was also wanted in the United States, where the Drug Enforcement Administration on Friday congratulated Mexico for his capture.

His arrest represents a rare boost for the beleaguered government. Also on Friday, embattled Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam was forced to step down after months of blistering criticism that he had bungled the investigation of the abduction and apparent killings of 43 college students five months ago.

This is the first major Cabinet change for the government, which has been struggling to restore its credibility after a series of damning controversies, including allegations of conflict of interest involving the president and his inner circle. Murillo Karam became a lightning rod for questions about how the government was handling security issues, violence and corruption.

Murillo Karam was to be sworn in Friday as secretary of agricultural and territorial development, one of the lowest-profile portfolios in the administration. His replacement was expected to be Sen. Arely Gomez, a longtime member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party said to have family links to the powerful television near-monopoly Televisa. Already, her ability to be impartial was being called into question by some.

Murillo Karam was criticized in human rights circles and by the families of the missing college students for seeming too hasty in his efforts to close the case and for deflecting blame from federal forces and placing it on local police and government officials in cahoots with drug gangs in the state of Guerrero, where the incident took place.

He became a source of anger, not to mention a hashtag craze on social media, when at the end of a news conference to explain what happened to the students, he cut off questioning from reporters. His offhand remark — “Ya me canse,” or “I’m tired now” — went viral. For many, it reflected callousness that he and, by extension, the government, showed with regard to the students, from poor, rural and mostly leftist families.

The government, facing its worst political crisis since coming to power just over two years ago, has been under pressure to make significant changes that might restore public confidence. Peña Nieto’s approval rating is at its lowest. But he had resisted heeding the demands.

Follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter for news out of Mexico 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:28 p.m.: This article has been updated with new details and background information.

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