Knights Templar Test Narco-Insurgency Theory

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In their fight against Mexico’s government and their rivals, the Knights Templar employs a multifaceted strategy that targets all levels of society, offering the clearest illustration of what some analysts have termed narco-insurgency.

The Knights Templar, an offshoot of another criminal organization known as the Familia Michoacana, have earned notoriety for their sudden outbreaks of spectacular violence, their unusually concerted public relations efforts, and their tactics that make the civilian population part of their modus operandi.

These traits have been particularly evident in recent weeks. The Knights have an ongoing blockade of five towns in the state of Michoacan controlled by vigilante groups opposed to them, impeding the arrival of basic staples like food, gas, and medicine.

The Knights have employed blockades as a tactic against the vigilantes repeatedly over the course of the year; in July, federal attempts to remove such blockades in Michoacan led to 22 deaths.

SEE ALSO: Knights Templar News and Profiles

The Knights have also continued their efforts to communicate with the public. In one of his more recent appearances, their leader, Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” says his group has a “congress,” and obeys the will of “the people.”

“We don’t do what I order,” he says. “We do what is in the interest of what we believe is in the interest of the majority of the people. Forgive us if we harm any third parties.” (See video below)

In the past, the group and its leaders have deployed the mass media to communicate on multiple occasions. In 2009, for instance, “La Tuta” called a TV show and implored federal forces not to interfere with their family members. As noted by InSight Crime in 2011, a series of recorded phone calls between different members of the Knights offers evidence of how they seek to manipulate the news media in their coverage of organized crime in the region.

More recently, however, La Tuta’s group has relied on the traditional medium of drug traffickers: the narcomanta, or banner signed by a criminal group. In October, the group posted narcomantas in three Michoacan towns threatening the vigilante groups. One month prior, they promised to initiate a “limpieza,” or social “cleanse,” of a portion of southeastern Tabasco — on the coast opposite the group’s native Michoacan, and where they have previously had little activity — in which they promised to target the Gulf Cartel.

InSight Crime Analysis

Over the past several years, the scale of the criminal violence in Mexico and the sophistication of the groups behind it has led many analysts to suggest that Mexico is suffering through something resembling a criminal, or a narco-insurgency. According to the proponents of this theory — which include former law enforcement officers such as John Sullivan, academics like Robert Bunker, and journalists like Ioan Grillo — the gangs in Mexico today represent something different.

Essentially, they are now competing with the state, seeking “to remove themselves from state control,” as Sullivan says, and, in some instances, seeking to set up a parallel state. While they do not aim to overthrow the government, this larger ambition represents a fundamental shift from traditional groups.

Nonetheless, there are several ways in which the insurgency paradigm falls short. While criminal gangs seek to control areas of state function that affect their work — namely, law enforcement — even in the most blood-soaked regions of Mexico, examples of a gang eliminating other areas of government are quite limited. Notwithstanding some high-profile but isolated examples, drug traffickers have had little impact on public education, municipal transportation, sanitation, and various other purviews of government. The same is all the more true for functions of the federal executive branch like the conduct of monetary policy, foreign relations, and industrial policy.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Furthermore, while traditional insurgency depends on a coherent alternative to the government, in Mexico the trend has gone in the other direction. On an individual level, the dominant gangs have not accrued ever more power in their effort to overtake the government. Rather, they have splintered and fractured, thanks to years of unrelenting pressure from government forces and from one another. In this sense, Mexico looks less capable of producing an insurgent group capable of rivaling the state than it did five years ago.

To be fair, the criminal insurgency theorists are not advocating a strict definition of the term insurgent.

“Criminal insurgency is different from conventional terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over territory,” Sullivan writes in a recent report in the Small Wars Journal. “They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to secure freedom to maneuver.”

And while many of the traditional underlying elements of an insurgency do not translate to Mexico, in so far as they do, these elements are visible in the Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios, as they are known. They have a quasi-religious patina, which evokes connotations not only of the Islamist insurgencies in the Middle East, but also of the famous Mexican religious insurgency, the Cristero War. Many theorists have written of the spiritual facet of insurgency, which this aspect of the group demonstrates.

The Knights are also plainly more focused on influencing the broader population than are their rivals. Other groups seek to intimidate the locals into tolerating their presence, but none of the Knights’ rivals has gone to such lengths to affect its image before the general public. None has invested as much into distinguishing their group’s operation from that of their rivals either. From its emergence in the mid-2000s, the Familia Michoacana celebrated its code of behavior that governed its members’ activities, and embraced its role as a savior of the people of Michoacan, its birthplace.

From there, one can draw parallels to insurgency as a population-centric form of warfare. Classic theorists of insurgency, from revolutionaries like Mao Zedong to counterinsurgent leaders like France’s David Galula, have recognized that the battlefield in an insurgency is not a literal piece of terrain. The winner of the conflict is instead determined by the support of the local population.

That isn’t entirely true in Mexico — the general population is firmly against the gangs as a whole, which spend more time alienating hearts and minds than winning them. But though the differences between a classic insurgency and Mexico’s security challenges are more relevant than their similarities, the Knights Templar is the best case of that distinction becoming blurred.

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