The Knights Templar announced their arrival to Mexico's criminal underworld in March 2011, when they hung banners throughout Michoacan state saying that they would now be carrying out the "altruistic activities that were previously performed by the Familia Michoacana." This came after the December 2010 death of Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias "El Chayo," the Familia's spiritual leader, and the subsequent announcement that the group was being disbanded. Nevertheless rumors persisted that El Chayo remains alive and some believe he even heads the Knights.
The group takes its name from a medieval military-religious order charged with defending pilgrims on their journey to the Holy Land, whose members were known both for their piety and for their fearlessness on the battlefield. The choice of name is part of the Knights Templar's bid to be seen as more than just a drug gang -- members use Roman warrior-type helmets during induction ceremonies, and distribute propaganda promoting themselves as champions of the fight against “materialism, injustice and tyranny.” The group even announced a temporary ceasefire ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Mexico in March 2012.
The Knights are believed to be led by Servando Gomez Martinez, alias "La Tuta," a former schoolteacher who was El Chayo's second-in-command in the Familia. In a rare video appearance in August 2012, La Tuta described his organization as a "a brotherhood, founded by a set of statutes and codes," dedicated to protecting the people of Michoacan from organized crime, and singled out the Zetas as one of the criminal groups "causing terror" in the country.
The Knights are currently involved in a bitter conflict with the remnants of the Familia, fuelled by defections of Familia lieutenants. The group are believed to have entered into an alliance with another Familia splinter group, Guerreros Unidos (Warriors United).
At the end of 2012, the Knights welcomed incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto with "narcomanta" banners offering to lay down their arms if Peña Nieto kept his campaign promises. However few believed it was widley derided as not a serious offer.
Despite their claims, the Knights Templar are heavily involved in drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping, having taken over many of the operations once run by the Familia. While they are mostly based in their home turf of Michoacan, the Knights are also active across central Mexico, particularly in the states of Guanajuato, Morelos and Guerrero. The advantage of controlling Michoacan is that it gives the group power over the major port city of Puerto Lazaro Cardenas. From here, the Knights Templar have access to cocaine shipments from South America as well as methamphetamine precursor chemicals from Asia, which the group either uses or sends north to the border with the United States.
Their location, however, is also the group's main weakness. Like the Familia before them, the Knights' power base in Michoacan means that they have relatively little control over the cross-border drug trade. As such, they are forced to negotiate with other cartels in order to move illicit products north.
In addition to drug trafficking, the Knights receive a large amount of income from extorting businesses in their areas of influence. This is yet another legacy of the Familia, which at its peak was estimated to have charged "protection fees" from an estimated 85 percent of legal businesses in Michoacan state. The Knights' extortion activities are aided by its influence over local government officials, achieved through intimidation, and handing over kickbacks from drug profits.
However, in some ways the Knights have more in common with an insurgency than a classic mafia organization. They are deeply entrenched in the communities that are their strongholds and have far-reaching surveillance operations and networks of informants. Like the Familia before them, they also ingratiate themselves in these communities by paying for community projects and public works and have even negotiated price controls on food on behalf of the populace. This has led to the Knights becoming the de facto authorities in some parts of the state.
"Knights Templar Fill Familia's Shoes in Michoacan," InSight Crime, November 5, 2012
"Inside the Moral Code of the Caballeros Drug Gang," InSight Crime, July 20, 2011
"New Cartel Announces Takeover From Familia Michoacana," InSight Crime, March 14, 2011
"Crusaders of Meth: Mexico's Deadly Knights Templar," Ioan Grillo, July 18, 2012