Capture of Mexican drug lords changes trafficking but doesn't stop it

It's another big score for the Mexican government, which has been tearing through its list of most-wanted drug lords in recent years.

Still, no one expects drug trafficking or violence to decrease after the capture of Servando "La Tuta" Gómez, a former grade-school teacher whose Knights Templar cartel once terrorized the western state of Michoacán.

Crime will only shift around as the now weakened cartel regroups, or even splinters, as has happened with some of Mexico's drug gangs after the killings or capture of top leaders. Others continue business as usual after top leadership hits.

"Dismantling them was a necessary step, but that does not end the problem of insecurity," Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City-based security analyst, said of the Knights Templar. "The next part is more complicated. There are still small groups, remnants, which will be extorting, robbing and perhaps even producing methamphetamine."

Gómez, 49, was arrested early Friday as he left a house in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, along with eight bodyguards and associates toting a grenade launcher, three grenades, an Uzi machine pistol and assault rifles, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said.

They were taken without a shot fired after a months-long intelligence stakeout, in which Gómez's associates were identified when they gathered for his birthday Feb. 6 with cakes, soft drinks and food.

Rubido said the key break came months ago when agents identified one of Gómez's most-trusted messengers, a group of people who apparently supplied him with food, clothing and medicine when he earlier hid out in the remote mountains of his home state.

Gómez's quasi-religious criminal band once exercised what Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong called "absolute control" over Michoacán. It orchestrated politics, controlled commerce, dictated rules and preached a code of ethics around devotion to God and family, even as it murdered and plundered. But the cartel lost power when the federal government took over the state to try to restore order in January 2014 after vigilantes began fighting the gang.

Other Knights Templar leaders were captured or killed over the past year as authorities kept up the hunt for Gómez, who had a $2 million reward on his head.

Peña Nieto's government, which took office a little over two years ago, has been aggressive in capturing drug lords, including the biggest capo, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, a year ago.

In all, 10 top leaders of various cartels have been captured or killed in the last six years, six of them under Peña Nieto. Of Mexico's top criminal leaders, only Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada of the Sinaloa Cartel remains at large.

"We are advancing, we are responding, we are having major apprehensions of the most wanted, most dangerous criminals," Pena Nieto said Friday, congratulating and thanking the federal forces that helped apprehend Gómez. "Overall, we continue to work toward a Mexico of peace that we all want."

But the arrests, even those hitting the powerful and international Sinaloa Cartel, seem to have had little effect on the flow of drugs. Seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border have fluctuated since 2010, when 2.7 million pounds were seized, to a high of 3.1 million in 2011 and down to 2.3 million pounds in 2014, according to U.S. government figures, the only way to estimate flows of drugs.

"It's a dangerous proposition to suggest Knights Templar is dismantled," said David Shirk, associate political science professor at the University of San Diego. "It may take six months or a year, but this is a group of illegal actors that has staying power. Their roots go back to '80s and '90s. They just had different stages. The names change and the leaders change, but the problems in many ways persist."

Indeed, the Knights Templar grew out of the La Familia cartel, where Gómez started out transporting marijuana before becoming a top leader about a decade ago. The cartel initially portrayed itself as a crusader gang, protecting communities from the Zetas cartel. Witnesses said La Familia trained its recruits in ultra-violent techniques like beheading and dismembering victims, and it frequently ambushed soldiers and federal police.

The government hit La Familia hard, starting in the administration of President Felipe Calderón in late 2006. Officials declared the cartel beaten in 2010 after allegedly killing its leader, Nazario Moreno. But La Familia fled to the neighboring states of Guerrero and Mexico, where it now fights other regional gangs for control of the lucrative and growing heroin trade.

Moreno, who actually hadn't died, then started Knights Templar with Gómez and took an even stronger hold on Michoacán. After Moreno was finally killed last year and Gómez going on the run, the Knights Templar too is now operating in Guerrero, at least in the city of Ciudad Altamirano, extorting protection payments from small business owners.

The brother of one pharmacy manager, who insisted on not being quoted by name out fear of reprisals, said all the stores in town were paying annual "quotas" ranging from 5,000 pesos ($335) to 30,000 pesos ($2,000) for the right to operate. They were threatened with violence, kidnapping or the burning of their stores if they didn't pay.

"I have the impression that this is another detention of no judicial consequence," Edgardo Buscaglia, a cartel expert and senior scholar at Columbia University, said of Gómez's arrest. "It's only meant to reorder the map to reach a Mafioso kind of peace outside the justice system to improve the image of the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto."

In Morelia, newspaper vehicles rolled through the streets with loudspeakers announcing a special edition about Gómez's arrest.

"It's very good news that they have detained La Tuta, but I don't know if it will solve Michoacan's problems," said Jesus Osorio, a taxi driver. "There will still be crime."

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