Mexican authorities are targeting at least 26 members of Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) — the cartel that has been terrorizing Michoacán state — whom they say are crucial objectives in the military and police operation aimed at dismantling the drug-trafficking organization, an official said Tuesday.
Michoacán has been under siege since January 4 when citizens’ vigilante groups, which organized themselves last year to fight the Templarios, took control of Parácuaro, a municipality located about 20 kilometers from Apatzingán, one of the drug cartel’s strongholds.
President Enrique Peña Nieto last week announced a new strategy in which he sent a barrage of troops and federal police to restore law and order in nearly 20 municipalities that the self-defense forces have since taken over.
Beside the 26 specific targets, there are about 100 other members of Los Caballeros Templarios who work as “zoning chiefs” or regional heads for the organization that are also being tracked down, according to Alfredo Castillo, Michoacán’s safety commissioner.
Meeting with reporters representing foreign media outlets, Castillo said that the government has no “convincing evidence” that one of the cartel’s main leaders, Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno, is still alive. In December 2010, then-President Felipe Calderón announced that Moreno had been ambushed in an operation that took place in Apatzingán. But some versions claim that El Chayo survived the attack.
“As of now we have no convincing evidence that leads us to believe that person is still alive,” Castillo said. “We are aware of these accounts but we think that they are part of the myth or legend. But there is no evidence, and for that reason we cannot say he is one of our targets.”
On Sunday, federal police arrested one of the Templarios’ reputed leaders. Jesús Vázquez Macías, known as “El Toro,” was captured in the Caleta de Campos district in the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas with other suspects.
José Manuel Mireles, leader of the Tepalcatepec self-defense forces, explained that Vázquez was responsible for the extortion that took place across the state, and would kidnap women — daughters of ranchers in the region — for sexual purposes.
The safety chief explained that the operation launched by Peña Nieto in Michoacán is aimed at quelling the violence that has rocked the state over the past months. Since the vigilantes were organized in February 2013, there have been violent confrontations between the armed citizens and members and supporters of the drug cartel. The self-defense forces have taken control of at least 18 municipalities where they disarmed and arrested local police officers, whom they say are in cahoots with Los Caballeros Templarios.
We are aware of these accounts but we think they are part of the legend”
“Our strategy is to prevent further clashes and confrontations but at the same time take control of the region. What we are talking about is looking to neutralize the capacity [of the Templarios] to carry out their operations, including cutting off their financial sources,” he said.
Currently, there are 4,800 members of the federal police force and 4,500 military officers taking part in the Michoacán operation. Castillo declined to put a deadline as to when authorities expect to conclude the offensive or disarm the self-defense forces. He also refused to put an estimate on the number of vigilantes in the state.