Citizens of the Mexican state of Michoacan woke on Thursday morning to banners hanging from bridges, monuments, and school gates proclaiming the emergence of a new group, the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios), who are apparently taking the place of the brutal Familia Michoacana cartel.

More than 30 signs, addressed to the people of Michoacan, declared the group’s intention to take over the “altruistic work” of the Familia. They promised that the group would keep order in the region and protect the people, preventing robbery, kidnapping, and extortion, as well as the intrusion of rival groups.

This is the first that has been heard from the supposed new organization, and raises questions about the fate of the Familia, which announced its disbandment, also via large public banners, in January. InSight suggested at the time that this might be a sign that the cartel’s leaders were seeking a lower profile in order to concentrate on the profitable extortion and methamphetamine businesses with less interference from the authorities. The Knights Templar’s splashy debut would appear to show that at least one part of the Familia does not want to follow this publicity-free strategy, with an attention-seeking new name and high-impact means of communication signalling a desire for maximum media attention.

Several things about the banners follow the style of the Familia. The choice of name, for one, echoes the Familia's co-opting of religious language. The Knights Templar were a medieval military-religious order who defended pilgrims in the Holy Land, and were known both for their piety and for being bloodthirsty in battle. The sect has been brought to the public's attention in recent years through featuring in best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code.” The name would be attractive to the Familia, who like to portray themselves as a vigilante group, shrouding their ultra-violence in mysticism and religious rhetoric.

The Knights’ promises to keep order and protect the people of Michoacan are also reminiscent of the Familia’s efforts to play on regional pride in order to bolster their image with the local population. The group has often claimed to be defending Michoacan from outsider, competitor criminal groups, most notably the Zetas, believed to be present in the state since 2001.

After the death last December of ex-Familia boss Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias 'El Chayo' or 'El Mas Loco,' it's possible that the most ideological wing of the Familia is attempting to reassert itself in Michoacan under the banner of the Knights Templar: same vigilante discourse, different name. The real question is whether the old guard has remained in command, including Jose Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias 'El Chango,' and Servando Gomez Martinez, alias 'La Tuta.' 

The fact that a successor has announced itself within weeks of the Familia's purported disbandment illustrates again the shortcomings of the Calderon government’s focus on taking out cartel heads. This focus on capturing or killing the leaders of the country's big criminal organizations, at the expense of targeting the middle levels of command, has in many cases caused the cartels to fracture into smaller groups. Far from reducing crime, this can often lead to a rise in violence as these fragments battle for control.

The fracturing phenomenon can also be observed in the state of Guerrero, which borders Michoacan to the south, where a spate of killings followed the arrest last week of Independent Acapulco Cartel head Benjamin Flores Reyes. The emergence of this cartel, in an area traditionally controlled by the Familia, is itself a product of the splintering of Mexico’s big cartels, and was accompanied by a wave of violence in January.

A translation of the Knights Templar announcement is below. The text, reprinted in various Mexican media, varies slightly in different banners.

To the society of Michoacan we inform you that from today we will be working here on the altruistic activities that were previously performed by the Familia Michoacana, we will be at the service of Michoacan society to attend to any situation which threatens the safety of the Michoacanos.

Our commitment to society will be: to safeguard order; avoid robberies, kidnappings, extortion; and to shield the state from possible rival intrusions.

Sincerely, The Knights Templar

Investigations

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