Feb 27, 2015 4:47 PM

Mexico official: Police capture top capo 'La Tuta' Gomez

The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) 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 Mexican officials.

Gomez was arrested in a house in Morelia, the capital of the western state of Michoacan, without a shot fired, according to a Mexican official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case. He said the operation was based on months of intelligence work.

The 49-year-old led the Knights Templar, a quasi-religious criminal group that once ruled all of Michoacan, controlling politics and commerce and preaching a code of ethics around devotion to God and family, even as it murdered and plundered. The cartel lost power when the federal government took over the state to try to restore order in January 2014. But Gomez evaded capture for more than a year, while other Knights Templar leaders were captured or killed.

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.

"With this arrest, the rule of law is strengthened in the country and we continue to advance toward a Mexico at peace," President Enrique Pena Nieto said on his Twitter account.

The arrest is a badly needed win for Pena Nieto, who has faced political and security crises since 43 college students disappeared last fall at the hands of local authorities in Guerrero state, and conflict-of-interest scandals emerged involving his personal home and that of the country's treasury secretary.

It coincided with Friday's announcement that Pena Nieto's embattled attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, would leave his post after months of scathing criticism over his handling of the students' disappearance as well as a June case in which soldiers killed more than a dozen suspected criminals after they surrendered.

The week opened with film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu using his Oscar acceptance speech to urge fellow Mexicans to "find and build the government that we deserve." Then, Pope Francis warned drug-trafficking would cause the "Mexicanization" of Argentina and Donald Trump urged people not to do business with Mexico.

The DEA congratulated Mexico on Gomez's arrest Friday, saying he led "one of the world's most vicious and violent drug and criminal networks."

The arrest is the latest by Pena Nieto's 3-year-old government, which has been aggressive in capturing drug lords, including the biggest capo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in 2014. Of Mexico's top criminal leaders, only Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada of the Sinaloa Cartel remains at large.

"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."

It was not immediately clear who, if anyone, would take over the cartel in Michoacan, where former "self-defense" groups continue to battle each other and the military and federal police. The likely result will be an "atomization" of the cartel, said Raul Benitez, a security analyst with Mexico's National Autonomous University. He noted that enforcement in Michoacan already has forced splinter groups into neighboring Guerrero state, where they are fighting to control the heroin trade.

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.

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.

Outspoken and particularly crafty, Gomez often appeared in videos, wearing his signature baseball cap and salt-and-pepper goatee. 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 more money from illegal mining, logging and extortion than it did from narcotics. Mexico's military took control of the port in late 2013.

In an interview with a British television crew in January 2014, Gomez said 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."

In Arteaga, his hometown in the hills of Michoacan, 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.

Born on Feb. 6, 1966, Gomez started as a grade-school teacher and was still listed on a payroll at an Arteaga school as recently as 2009. Media outlets often have interpreted "La Tuta" to be a reference to Gomez's career as a teacher, but in an interview with MundoFOX he once explained that when he was a boy, a Spanish engineer who went by the name "Tuta" was working on a nearby highway. Both had prominent noses and people started using the name to address Gomez.

Gomez apparently started out transporting marijuana before becoming, in the mid-2000s, a top leader of La Familia, a cult-like cartel that preceded 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 rival 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.

The gang weakened after the government claimed police killed the cartel's top leader, Moreno, in a shootout in late 2010. One faction sought help from its old foes, the Zetas; Gomez instead started the Knights Templar and continued to work with Moreno, who was still alive despite the government's claims.

Moreno was killed last year in a second assault by the government, which this time produced the body.

Gomez's long reign was untouched by several federal offensives intended to regain control of Michoacan, and only began to unravel in early 2013 when local vigilantes took up arms to lead the campaign themselves.

Gomez accused them of supporting a rival cartel in neighboring Jalisco state and the government of losing sight of the rule of law in Michoacan.

His downfall was preying on the people, killing innocents and burning businesses to show what would happened if they didn't comply with extortion demands.

"He was a predator," said Benitez, the security analyst. "That explains the survival of the Sinaloa Cartel. It's a business. They don't bother the people ... they have a base of social support."


Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.


Katherine Corcoran on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kathycorcoran


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