How the mob boss turned saint
To win the hearts of the people, the head of Mexican drugs cartel Los Cabelleros Templarios pretended to be a saint.
Vincent Bongers
Thursday 5 March 2020
Illustration Manjarrez

(This article is translated from dutch: De maffiabaas die beschermheilige werd)
One evening in September 2006, three pick-up trucks full of heavily armed men drove to a night club in the Mexican town of Uruapan and – without saying a word – threw five disembodied heads onto the dance floor.

At the scene, they left a narcomanta, a banner with a message explaining their deed: crime cartel La Familia Michoacana does not murder women, children or innocent people – only those who deserve it. "It is divine justice." A few months later, a local newspaper published an advertisement with their mission statement: the cartel stands up for ordinary men and women and challenges any powers that oppress them. Thanks to this "family", everything would be safer. The streets would no longer be flooded with drugs.

"Many different groups are fighting for control in the state of Michoacán", explains Rodrigo Peña González, a political scientist from Mexico. Peña González received his doctorate last week. "Organised criminal gangs, vigilante teams, the native people and local and federal authorities are all competing for power. This, too, is the state where the Mexican war on drugs began, which started not long after the heads incident and the advertisement."

“They pretended to be knights from the age of the Crusades, with swords and everything”

Peña González studied the way in which "La Familia" attempted to give their actions legitimacy. "It was a strange experience: I was an outsider looking in, which is weird when you are in your own country. I wasn’t in any danger – at least, I think not – but sometimes I felt that something fishy was afoot. For instance, I was interviewing someone who grew uneasy when a helicopter flew over: ‘Why’s that thing still circling here?’ Then his nervousness made me jittery. But anyway, I’m from Mexico City, so I’m used to having to keep looking behind me. It was quite hard to gain the confidence of journalists, businesses and farmers in Michoacán, however."

La Familia’s kingpin was Nazario Moreno González, whose nickname El Más Loco means "The Craziest One". He was killed by Mexican federal police in 2010 after the bloody siege of a small town. At least, that’s what the authorities claimed. His body was never found.

After Nazario’s presumed death, La Familia transformed into another cartel, Los Caballeros Templarios (the Order of the Templars). Peña González: "They started wearing white garments with red crosses on them for photographs. They pretended to be knights from the age of the Crusades, with swords and everything. It was almost like a religious sect and had strict rules. It was a group that claimed to be made up of Robin Hoods who helped ordinary folk. "At the time, a mysterious man who looked like Nazario appeared more and more often at certain ranches. Of course, he wasn’t dead and was controlling the cartel behind the scenes. A cult grew up around the cartel, whose boss became San Nazario. Statuettes and altars appeared to encourage people to venerate him like a saint."

Nazario and his cartel published books to show the boss in a good light. "There are at least five titles and they’re all completely different in style."

“Now there are lots of small groups fighting among themselves”

Nazario and his cartel published books to show the boss in a good light. "There are at least five titles and they’re all completely different in style."

In Nazario’s memoires (titled: "They Call Me The Craziest One") he recalls his humble origins and explains his battles with the authorities who have not brought anything but destruction, starvation and injustice. They have also published a Templars’ bible, complete with commandments. Another book depicts the cartel boss next to Che Guevara, Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and sixties’ superhero Kalimán on its cover. Everywhere, the Mexican flag is prominent, implying that Nazario was a patriotic warrior."

Did the "Templars" manage to be build a reputation as a legitimate organisation? "The people I spoke to were not really convinced. There were some demonstrations where people walked around waving banners claiming they missed Nazario but I’m not sure how real those protests were. They might have been forced, or paid, to protest."

The Mexican army caught up with Nazario in 2014 and this time the crime lord did not survive. Nonetheless, eliminating or imprisoning the leaders did not mean an end to the violence. "Now there are lots of small groups fighting among themselves. Things are more chaotic."

Rodrigo Peña González, Order and Crime: Criminal Groups´ Political Legitimacy in Michoacán and Sicily.

Meanwhile in Sicily

"Doing fieldwork in my own country was more of a struggle than my work on Sicily", Rodrigo Peña González recalls. In his dissertation, he compares Mexican cartel violence to that of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. "On Sicily, there is a powerful antimafia movement. It’s fascinating to see how people in Palermo are fighting back against protection rackets, etc. The money shopkeepers are forced to pay the mafia is called pizzo. They have a folder listing the shops that pay pizzo and those that don’t so you know where you can get pizzo-free gelato. It will be interesting to see how this battle evolves in Italy; perhaps their antimafia measures could be exported to Mexico."