MEXICO CITY (AP) – Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, one of the most-wanted drug lords and who once terrorized western Michoacan state, was captured early Friday by federal police, according to a Mexican official.
He was arrested in the capital city of Morelia without a shot fired, said the official spokesman, who talked on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
Gomez was the leader of the Knights Templar cartel, a quasi-religious criminal group that once ruled all of the state, controlling politics and commerce. He evaded capture for more than a year after the federal government took over the state to try to restore order.
Known countrywide as "La Tuta," Gomez rose from schoolteacher to one of Mexico's most ruthless and wanted cartel leaders, dominating for a time Mexico's lucrative methamphetamine trade and taking control of his home state through extortion, intimidation and coercion of business and political leaders.
Thought it started in drugs, his gang even took over the state's international port, Lazaro Cardenas, and made millions from illegal mining of ore.
Gomez was a talkative and public cartel leader, a rarity among capos known for keeping their silence. He gave a British television crew an interview in January even as the government was mounting a major assault on his gang that eventually led to its demise. He told the reporter that his illegal work was all about business.
"As we told you, we are a necessary evil," Gomez is seen telling a group of townspeople on tape. "Unfortunately or fortunately we are here. If we weren't, another group would come."
Gomez's long reign was untouched by several attempts by the federal government to send troops and police to regain control of the state, and only began to unravel when a band of vigilantes decided in early 2013 to take up arms and do what the local government wouldn't.
The "self-defense" groups, some of the members farmers and ranchers, others alleged rivals and former cartel members, marched through the Knights' territory, taking town after town and finally forcing the federal government in late 2013 to mount a real offensive to find Gomez and other Knights Templar leaders.
Gomez accused them of being sent by a rival cartel in neighboring Jalisco state.
In truculent videotaped statements, Gomez regularly accused the federal government of supporting his rivals and offered to strike peace deals with authorities. The celebrated outlaw popped up often either haranguing his troops over radio frequencies or phoning in to a local TV or radio station.
The only other fugitive drug lord known to speak to the press is Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, the co-leader of the Sinaloa cartel who has granted a single interview.
Born Feb. 6, 1966, Gomez started as a grade-school teacher in the Michoacan hill town of Arteaga, and was still listed on a payroll at a school there, at least until 2009. Hence his additional nickname of "El Profe" — The Professor.
In his hometown, some residents praised him as a humble man who ambled about in sandals and would give poorer people money for food, clothing and medical care when they were in a jam. They said he mediated disputes such as a traffic accident or child support battles.
Gomez apparently started out transporting marijuana before becoming in the mid-2000s a top leader of La Familia, another cult-like cartel and predecessor of 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 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.
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.
After the government claimed that the cartel's top leader, Moreno, had been killed in a shootout with police in late 2010, the gang weakened. One faction sought help from its old foe, the Zetas. Gomez turned on his old bosses and started the Knights Templar. Many claimed he continued to work with Moreno, whom they said was not dead. Authorities never found his body.
As the leader of the Knights Templar, Gomez claimed he was a "high-class" criminal. He issued pocket-size booklets that were distributed in buses in 2011 as the cartel sought to create a social base. The "code of conduct" claimed it was fighting a war against poverty, tyranny and injustice, while being blamed for murders, extortion and drug trafficking.
In an interview with MundoFox, News Corp.'s Spanish-language network, Gomez acknowledged he had committed many crimes but said he never killed an innocent person. He also said he was not scared of dying, because he would choose being killed over going to jail.
His videotaped speeches hit hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. One of them shows him sitting at a desk. On the wall behind are portraits of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and Mexico's flag. On the table is the manifesto of Moreno.
In his speeches, Gomez seemed fearless and daring, but rambled cynically about his quest to give money to the poor while brutally punishing his foes. He often came off preachy and messianic.
Gomez accused the government of losing sight of the rule of law in Michoacan.
Gomez called the Knights Templar a "brotherhood," and boasted of its Robin Hood-like quality, saying the gang's members were born to protect the people and give them back what was rightly theirs.
The folksy and charismatic cartel leader of puffy cheeks and large nose, known to wear a baseball cap and a gray-haired goatee, was a fugitive also wanted in the United States for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.
Associating with Gomez made for national scandals.
Gomez accused federal Sen. Luisa Maria Calderon, sister of then President Felipe Calderon, of seeking his support through a staff worker when she ran for governor of Michoacan in 2011. He showed a video of himself talking to a man who he said worked for Calderon, but her party said the man wasn't affiliated.
A phone conversation between a federal congressman and the suspected trafficker was taped, leaked and then broadcast by a radio station, showing they expressed support for each other. The lawmaker, Cesar Godoy, was charged with aiding drug trafficking and money laundering and is now a fugitive.