World

Servando 'La Tuta' Gomez, most-wanted drug kingpin, captured in Mexico

Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, a former school teacher who became one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords as head of the Knights Templar cartel, has been captured by federal police, according to a Mexican official.

Mexican government had offered $2M reward for his capture, and he was wanted in U.S.

Servando "La Tuta" Gomez," leader of Mexico's so-called Knights Templar cartel, appears in a television interview in December 2013. (Associated Press)

Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, a former school teacher who became one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords as head of the Knights Templar cartel, was captured early Friday by federal police, according to a Mexican official.

Gomez was arrested in Morelia, the capital of the western state of Michoacan, without a shot fired, said the official spokesman, who talked on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

The 49-year-old leader of the Knights Templar, a quasi-religious criminal group that once ruled all of Michoacan, controlling politics and commerce, evaded capture for more than a year after the federal government took control of the state to try to restore order. The Mexican government had offered a $2 million reward for his capture, and he also was wanted in the United States for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.

It was not immediately clear who, if anyone, has taken over the cartel in Michoacan, where deadly conflicts continue between former "self-defence" groups and clashes with federal police.

Mexico's government has been trying to demobilize the vigilante movement that largely expelled the Knights Templar cartel when state and local authorities couldn't. (Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press)

The arrest is a badly needed win for the Mexican government. President Enrique Pena Nieto has faced a political crisis since 43 college students disappeared last fall at the hands of local authorities, and conflict-of-interest scandals emerged involving the sales of luxury homes to his wife and the country's treasury secretary from a government contractor.

Gomez is the latest in a string of top drug lords to be arrested since Pena Nieto took office in December 2012, including last year's detention of the biggest capo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

"It's a very significant capture and (Gomez) is a very important player," said Eric L. Olson, an analyst specializing in Mexican security and organized crime at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

"The bottom line is these captures are important, but one has to keep them in perspective," he added. "They can unleash a lot more conflict and violence — although it's kind of hard to imagine in the case of Michoacan things getting any worse."

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto announced a new anti-crime plan last year. (Eduardo Verdugo/The Associated Press)

Folksy and charismatic with puffy cheeks and a large nose, Gomez rose from schoolteacher to one of Mexico's most ruthless and wanted cartel leaders, dominating the lucrative methamphetamine trade for a time and controlling his home state through extortion, intimidation and coercion of business and political leaders.

Outspoken and particularly crafty, Gomez often appeared in videos wearing his signature baseball cap and salt-and-pepper goatee that were leaked during his time on the run. The recordings showed him meeting with elected officials, journalists and other influential people, including the son of former Michoacan Gov. Fausto Vallejo, a member of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party. Vallejo resigned last year for health reasons.

Vallejo's interior secretary, Jesus Reyna, and other officials, have been jailed for alleged connections to the cartel.

Though his gang started with drugs, it eventually took over the Port of Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico's largest seaports, and made millions from illegal ore mining.

(Google)

Gomez gave a British television crew an interview in January 2014 even as the government was mounting a major assault on his gang. He told the reporter that his illegal work was all about business.

"As we told you, we are a necessary evil," Gomez is seen telling a group of townspeople. "Unfortunately or fortunately we are here. If we weren't, another group would come."

Gomez's long reign was untouched by several earlier attempts by the federal government to send troops and police to regain control of Michoacan, and only began to unravel when vigilantes decided in early 2013 to take up arms and do what the local government wouldn't.

The "self-defence" groups, made up of farmers and ranchers as well as alleged rivals and former cartel gangsters, marched through the Knights' territory, taking town after town and finally pressuring the federal government to mount a sincere offensive to find Gomez and other cartel leaders.

The Mexican army beefs up its security presence in Tijuana, one of a handful of border cities overwhelmed by violent turf wars among drug cartels. ((Luis Arau/CBC) )

Gomez accused them of being sent by a rival cartel in neighbouring Jalisco state.

Gomez called the Knights Templar a "brotherhood," and boasted of its Robin Hood-like quality, saying the gang's members were on a mission to protect the people and give back what was rightly theirs.

In truculent videotaped statements, Gomez regularly accused the federal government of supporting his rivals and offered to strike peace deals with authorities. He often popped up to harangue troops on radio broadcasts or by phoning in to a local TV or radio station.

Born Feb. 6, 1966, Gomez started as a grade-school teacher in the Michoacan hill town of Arteaga, and was still listed on a payroll at a school there as recently as 2009. Hence his additional nickname of "El Profe" — The Professor.

Hundreds have taken up arms to defend themselves against killings and kidnappings by drug gangs, in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero.

In his hometown, some residents praised him as a humble man who ambled about in sandals and would give poor people money for food, clothing and medical care. They said he mediated disputes such as a traffic accident or child-support battles.

Gomez apparently started out transporting marijuana before becoming in the mid-2000s a top leader of La Familia, another cult-like cartel and predecessor of his Knights Templar. He continued his populist tendencies while acting as a sort of de facto spokesman for that gang, which was led by Nazario "El Chayo" Moreno Gonzalez, Jesus "El Chango" (The Monkey) Mendez Vargas and Dionicio "El Tio" (The Uncle) Loya.

La Familia initially portrayed itself as a crusader gang, protecting communities from the Zetas cartel. Witnesses say La Familia trained its recruits in ultra-violent techniques like beheading and dismembering victims, and it frequently ambushed soldiers and federal police.

A U.S. Justice Department indictment in 2009 said Gomez might be behind the murder of 12 Mexican federal law enforcement officers whose bodies were found in July of that year while he still operated under La Familia.

After the government claimed that the cartel's top leader, Moreno, had been killed in a shootout with police in late 2010, the gang weakened. One faction sought help from its old foe, the Zetas. Gomez turned on his old bosses and started the Knights Templar. He continued to work with Moreno, who was not killed as the government had claimed. No body was found.

'High-class' criminal

Moreno was killed last year in a second assault by the government, which this time produced the body. The other leaders of the gang have been arrested or killed, and Gomez was the last hold-out, leaving speculation that maybe he had negotiated a deal with the government.

As the leader of the Knights Templar, Gomez claimed he was a "high-class" criminal. He issued pocket-size booklets of the cartel doctrine that were distributed in buses in 2011 as the cartel sought to create a social base. The "code of conduct" claimed it was fighting a war against poverty, tyranny and injustice, while being blamed for murders, extortion and drug trafficking.

In an interview with MundoFox, News Corp.'s Spanish-language network, Gomez acknowledged he had committed many crimes but said he never killed an innocent person. He also said he was not scared of dying, because he would choose being killed over going to jail.

With files from Reuters