Bat-filled cave, donkeys and cake: A drug lord's fall

Former primary school teacher Servando "La Tuta" Gomez is escorted by police officers during a media conference about his arrest in Mexico City last week. Mexico captured its most wanted drug lord on Friday, delivering a boost to a government battere
Former primary school teacher Servando "La Tuta" Gomez is escorted by police officers during a media conference about his arrest in Mexico City last week. Mexico captured its most wanted drug lord on Friday, delivering a boost to a government battered by gang violence. The 49-year-old gang boss was the prime target of President Enrique Pena Nieto's effort to regain control of Michoacan, a western state wracked by clashes between Gomez's Knights Templar cartel and armed vigilantes trying to oust them. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

TUMBISCATIO, Mexico (AFP) - During his months on the run, Mexican drug baron Servando Gomez fled on donkeys and hid in a bat-filled cave - a far cry from his days of showing off in videos and flashing cash in his fiefdom.

The former teacher known as "La Tuta" used to lord over the mountain towns of the western agricultural state of Michoacan, sowing fears among his enemies through his cult-like Knights Templar drug cartel.

The 49-year-old gangster eluded a massive manhunt by hiding in homes or a shack on a ranch, riding horses, donkeys or all-terrain vehicles to move across the rough landscape, authorities said.

A federal police officer stands guard outside a cave, where Gomez used to hide, during a media tour in Arteaga, near Tumbiscato municipality in Michoacan state on Monday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

With the backing of supporters, Mexico's most wanted man "was able to go anywhere", never staying in one place for more than a few days or hours, federal police chief Enrique Galindo said Monday during a media tour of Gomez's hideouts.

A year after authorities intensified the search for Gomez, federal police grabbed him before dawn on Friday as he left a house in Morelia, the state's capital, hiding his face behind a scarf and a cap.

Gomez knew the mountains well. He was born there, in the town of Arteaga.

While his cartel cooked crystal meth in makeshift labs on the hills, he nurtured a Robin Hood figure in his region, doling out cash in towns he dominated and denouncing enemies in YouTube videos.

But farmers fed up with his reign of terror formed vigilante forces to combat his cartel and joined the hunt for Gomez.

Before his capture, Gomez had narrowly escaped the authorities in two operations. In one raid, police arrived at the scene only to find half-eaten plates of seafood left by Gomez and the five or eight men who followed him, Galindo said.

Although he often stayed in spartan quarters, Gomez managed to find some comfort in his escape, getting good wine, 18-year-old whiskey and cable television in a simple shack in the Aguililla mountain range.

An aerial view shows federal police and their vehicles outside one of the ranches where Gomez lived near the town of Uruapan, also  in Michoacan state. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Gomez navigated between hideouts through dirt roads hidden in lush vegetation, making the police search more difficult despite a 1,000-man contingent in an operation launched in early 2014.

Using helicopters to track him down was risky because the cartel could have easily taken them down with their arsenal of weapons, Galindo said.

Before fleeing into the mountains, Gomez lived with his family near his hometown in Tumbiscatio, where he began his criminal life as the "jefe de plaza," or local gang boss.

But he was forced to flee as the authorities closed in on him, leaving him without food or water, thanks to information from the vigilante forces, Galindo said.

Gomez ended up in a cave with a steel door that La Tuta had used to jail and punish his enemies between Arteaga and Tumbiscatio.

The damp cave, where he stayed for 15 days, is a muddy tunnel with stalactites, bats and stretches were the ceiling is no more than 50 centimetres high. Bottles of booze and plastic cups were still strewn on the ground when journalists visited the cave.

Four months ago, the authorities believed they had detected Gomez far from the mountains, in the urban state capital Morelia.

Gomez lived in a house with his twenty-something wife Lulu and three children. (He is believed to have fathered 37 children with other women).

Authorities were able to confirm suspicions that he was in Morelia after Lulu brought him a cake for his birthday on February 6.

Gomez, who once said "I'd rather die than be caught," was planning to find a new hiding spot with his henchmen when he was captured on Friday, without a shot fired.

Gomez is now back in a dark place: A small cell at the notorious maximum-security El Altiplano prison, under the same roof as other famous fallen drug kingpins.