La Tuta's Knights Templar and the Rise of Narco-Religion in Mexico

03/03/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

The recent capture of La Tuta (Servando Gomez), the head of the Knights Templar drug cartel, reminds us that the lethal mix of religion and terrorism isn't peculiar to the Middle East. Mexico is home to the world's second largest Catholic population and third largest Christian one, behind only the U.S. and Brazil. So just as ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorize the Middle East and beyond in the name of Islam, certain drug cartels have appropriated both folk saints, such as Santa Muerte (St. Death) and Jesus Malverde, and even Catholic ones, such as St. Jude. El Chapo Guzman, the imprisoned capo of the Sinaloa cartel, is a devotee of his fellow Sinaloan, Jesus Malverde, while Arturo Beltran Leyva (aka "La Muerte") who led the Beltran Leyva cartel was devoted to Santa Muerte. Whereas rival cartels invoked the saints for both protection and harm to others, La Tuta's Knights Templar developed a messianic ideology based on Old Testament principles and the Evangelical Protestantism to which both he and fellow Michoacan kingpin Nazario Moreno had converted while working in the U.S. in the 1990s.

While former public school teacher La Tuta broke bad long before the fictional narco Heisenberg did on our TV screens, it was his associate Nazario Moreno, known both as El Chayo and El Loco who developed and codified the cartel's messianic ideology. Unique among narco capos, El Chayo integrated an idiosyncratic type of Evangelicalism into the original organization, La Familia Michoacana, which was reborn as the Knights Templar after former president Felipe Calderon struck a severe blow to the syndicate. Cartel foot soldiers were issued bibles and Knights Templar costumes along with orders to present the organization as noble defenders of Michoacan from the incursions of both rival cartels, especially the Zetas, and law enforcement.

la tuta

A native of Morelia, the state capital where La Tuta was apprehended on February 27, 2015, without a shot, former president Felipe Calderon launched his war against the cartels, or at least some of them, in early 2007 by sending the army to crush La Familia Michoacana in his home state. At first, the cartel that specialized in methamphetamines was largely able to evade the troops and continue daily operations. However, the news in 2010 that government forces had killed El Chayo in a firefight seemed to give the Calderon administration the upper hand and cast doubt on the future of the brutal cartel.

santa muerte

Just as a significant number of Mexicans, especially Sinaloans, don't believe that the man paraded in front of cameras last year was really El Chapo Guzman, at the time of Moreno's reported death, many, especially in Michoacan, doubted the government's story. And the lack of a cadaver raised even more suspicion. It would seem (with emphasis on "seem" since all is not what it appears in Mexico's surreal drug war) that El Chayo was killed, again, a year ago in a gun battle as he was surprised celebrating his birthday in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan. This time, however, there was a body, and the Mexican government claimed to have positively identified it as Moreno's.

Not even Garcia Marquez could have penned a more surreal story than that of the sanctification of El Chayo as a folk saint among Knights Templar members and other Michoacanos. "Saint Naza's" sanctification is even more extraordinary than that of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (San Hugo) because it took place while he was still living! Throughout the Tierra Caliente region, which was largely controlled by the Knights Templar, the ruthless cartel erected chapels dedicated to their patron saint, San Naza. It would seem now that Moreno is probably really dead his stock as a folk saint will rise. Many of the towns, however, where devotion to him has been strongest are now under control of the self-defense groups who have dislodged the Knights Templar.

The death of El Chayo and capture of the folksy La Tuta, who used to hand out cash to residents in the plaza of his hometown, Arteaga, would seem to spell the demise of the messianic cartel that went beyond the mere adoption of patron saints to propose a New Order based on Evangelical Protestant interpretations of the Old Testament. However, since many of the objective conditions that gave rise to the messianic meth producers haven't changed, there's a good chance that narco-evangelicalism will be born again in Michoacan. Meanwhile several roadside Santa Muerte shrines at the entrance of Arteaga welcome visitors to La Tuta's notorious hometown.