With the capture of one of Mexico’s most-wanted drug lords, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, the government has created a power vacuum that could be filled by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).
The 49-year-old leader of the Knights Templar was arrested in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, on Friday, February 26.
The government had been hunting La Tuta for years, and had offered a US$2 million reward for his arrest. In November, Michoacan security specialist Alfredo Castillo Cervantes said the capture would be the “cherry on top.”
A ruthless criminal operator, La Tuta’s rise to infamy was an unconventional one. For years, he worked as a teacher in the hilly town of Arteaga, and was still listed on the payroll of a local school as recently as 2009.
President Enrique Peña Nieto congratulated the security forces on the result. He also revealed that he had been woken in the night by a text message from the Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
“I thought to myself, now what?” the President said. “But it was good news. I had told him that he could wake me in the night if he needed, but on the condition that it was to give me good news.”
The arrest is a much needed win for the president, who has been rocked by a series of scandals and faced mass protests over the forced disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero. The government followed this success with another high-profile capture, in Monterrey, of Zetas leader Omar Trevino Morales only five days later.
Nevertheless, United States security analyst Eric L. Olson points out that such arrests can also cause problems.
“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.”
La Tuta’s capture could spell the end of the Knights Templar, the quasi-religious criminal organization that he fronted. All of the group’s principal leaders have been arrested, as well as 225 public servants who are accused of protecting the cartel.
Yet as La Tuta himself publicly proclaimed, the Knights Templar were responding to demand and incentives.
“As we told you, we are a necessary evil,” the gangster told a British television crew last year. “Unfortunately or fortunately we are here. If we weren’t, another group would come.”
The gradual weakening of the cartel has actually led to an increase in violence in the region.
When the Knights Templar was at the height of its power in 2011 there were 773 homicides, while 904 were recorded in 2014.
One criminal gang who has benefited from its decline is the Jalisco based CJNG, which has been looking to take advantage of the region for years.
Michoacan is a strategically important site for drug gangs because it is a coastal state, and Lazaro Cardenas is the largest seaport in the country, providing drug dealers with a vast supply of chemicals which are then turned into methamphetamine and shipped to the United States.
The Knights Templar’s reign began to unravel in 2013 when vigilante groups took up arms against the organization. La Tuta accused them of being sent by rival gangs and in fact, some evidence of infiltration exists.
“The story of armed vigilantes turning into violent crime groups is nothing new in Michoacan,” said Luis Felipe Rosiles, a reporter for Quadratin. “The signs are already there: the infighting, the lack of transparency and the fact that it’s now clear there are criminals among them.”
Analysts, including Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam have accused the CJNG of arming self-defense groups in an effort to consolidate their position in the area.
The capture of La Tuta, although loudly celebrated by the government, may accelerate this process, as the CJNG move in to snatch the revenue streams left in his wake.