Mexico captures Knights Templar drug cartel leader Servando Gomez: police

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico has captured the country’s most wanted drug lord still at large, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, police said on Friday, in a boost for President Enrique Pena Nieto as he grapples with grisly gang violence.

The 49-year-old former teacher was the prime target of Pena Nieto’s drive to regain control of Michoacan, a violent western state wracked by clashes between Gomez’s Knights Templar cartel and heavily-armed vigilantes trying to oust them.

The arrest came just over a year after the capture of Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug smuggling gangs in the world. It also comes as Pena Nieto seeks to quell outrage over violence, impunity and corruption in Mexico after the September abduction and apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers by corrupt police in league with gang members.

That incident triggered Pena Nieto’s deepest crisis. Attorney-General Jesus Murillo, under fire for months over his handling of that investigation, will soon step down, a senior government official said on Friday.

A police spokesman said federal police captured Gomez in Morelia, Michoacan’s state capital, after months of intelligence work. “He will be brought to Mexico City in the coming hours to make a declaration.”

Gomez was arrested at a house without any shots being fired, local media reported. Last week, police seized many properties in that area and arrested a handful of people connected to La Tuta. Local media reported that earlier operation had led to the arrest of the drug boss. Police also arrested a number of other people with him.

Since the Mexican government began a military crackdown in 2007 on drug gangs, more than 100,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence. No kingpin sought the limelight as often as Gomez.

Whether railing against political corruption on YouTube, or giving interviews in hideouts to the media, Gomez relentlessly baited the government, accusing it of colluding with rival gangs while defending his Knights Templar as a “necessary evil.”

“Our only function is to help the people, preserve our state, and preserve our country from people causing terror,”Gomez said in a video posted online in 2012, sitting in front of images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other revolutionary icons.

Gomez insisted the cartel followed a strict ethical code, though as time passed he became more open about the criminal side of a gang which in 2013 held much of the impoverished, mountainous terrain of Michoacan in a firm grip. During their ascendancy, the Knights Templar extorted a broad sweep of businesses, controlled politicians and diversified from drug trafficking into a myriad of other businesses including the export of iron ore.

Gomez became the frontman of the Knights Templar after a split within drug cartel La Familia Michoacana, a pseudo-religious gang in which he was also a leading figure.

Sporting a goatee beard and often wearing a baseball cap, Gomez began smuggling marijuana independently in 2001 or 2002, before later joining La Familia, authorities said.

A father of at least seven, Gomez is wanted by the United States for methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking. The Justice Department says he is also implicated in the 2009 murder of 12 Mexican federal police officers. Mexican authorities had placed a bounty of 30 million pesos (S$2.73 million) on his head.