Drug gang unveils banners in Mexico ahead of Pope visit

A drug gang unfurled banners in a Mexican city that Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit next month, telling rival traffickers to keep out and keep the peace during the papal visit.

One of the banners was signed by The Knights Templar, a violent, pseudo-religious cartel from the neighboring state of Michoacan. The cloth banners with hand-painted messages were found and quickly removed on Tuesday, a few weeks after the local Roman Catholic archdiocese had issued a public plea to drug gangs not to mar the Pope's visit with violence.

"We just want to warn that we do not want more groups in the state of Guanajuato. Confrontations will be inevitable. You have been warned, New Generation, we want Guanajuato in Peace, so don't think about moving in and much less causing violence, precisely at this time when His Holiness Benedict XVI is coming," according to the sign. Municipal police sent a photo of the banner to The Associated Press.

"New Generation" refers to a rival gang from the neighboring state of Jalisco, which is believed to be allied with the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. The two groups, along with the Zetas, have been locked in battles in all three states.

Rife with misspellings and abbreviations, and daubed in red paint on white cloth, the banner and two other, similar messages had been hung from bridges at heavily traveled intersections in Leon on Tuesday. Several others were found in other towns in Guanajuato state.

Police spokesman Gabriel Cordero said in an e-mail that the banners had been taken down and handed over to federal prosecutors.

On Jan. 22, Leon Archbishop Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago called on drug cartels to observe a sort of truce during the Pope's visit.

"To those who do evil, if my words can reach them, I would tell them to realize that we are living times of grace and peace, and that they should help by allowing all these people to come to an event that is totally respectable, and not to take advantage to do anything that could lead to an experience of mourning and death," Rabago told reporters.

"I trust that in their hearts, they are human in the end, there is enough sensitivity to respect people's lives."

It was not clear if the gang's banners were a direct response to that plea. Thee city of Leon has largely been spared the brutal executions and shootouts that have hit Michoacan, the Knights Templars' home state.

The Templars in the past have cast themselves as defenders of the people, often using such banners.

In July, the cartel passed out copies of a booklet containing its "code of conduct," which claimed its members are prohibited them from killing for money or using drugs.

Taking its name from a medieval Roman Catholic order of religious warriors who fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem, the Knights Templar cartel has been blamed for murders, extortion, drug trafficking and attacks on police.

Federal Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire, the country's top domestic security official, said only that "in Guanajuato, there will be security, based on the rule of law," when asked about the banners.

Father Raul Villegas, the spokesman for the Leon archdiocese, also downplayed the banners Tuesday and said they won't affect planning for the pope's visit, his office said.