LATIN AMERICA

The mayor, the thug and the man behind the mask

Drug ​lord​ La Tuta​ imposed his ​own ​law ​over ​Michoacán politicians The ​Mexican government is hoping to arrest​ him ​within a week

Screen capture from video showing La Tuta in a meeting with a former mayor and other Michoacán officials.
Screen capture from video showing La Tuta in a meeting with a former mayor and other Michoacán officials.

The Mexican mayor and the drug lord are seated at a table. The politician is quiet. He shrugs his shoulders. He acquiesces. The capo raises his voice and laughs out loud. He boasts of his control over the police and his power to kill any man he chooses. “Oh my God,” he repeats again and again as he talks. He hits the plastic table with his knuckles and pats the mayor on the back, as if to send a message: I am the one in charge here.

A video circulating on YouTube shows the scene. The man running the show is Servando Gómez, AKA La Tuta. He is a former school teacher and one of the most wanted drug lords in México. Gómez became famous for his video messages to the government which were shot in bucolic settings, with cows grazing in the background. The self-defense groups, neighbors and peasants who stood up against the reign of terror imposed by La Tuta and his associates, Los Caballeros Templarios, or the Knights Templars, are looking for him in the deep caves around Michoacán. “Tuta, are you here?,” shouted one of the leaders of the uprising, “Papá Pitufo,” or Papa Smurf, as he climbed steep rocky hills.

The mayor has had worse luck. Arquímedes Oseguera Solorio was arrested for possible links to drug trafficking, basically for his friendship with Servando. The authorities say he was allegedly involved in acts of kidnapping and extortion. Oseguera, a member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, the main voice of the Mexican left, was in charge of a significant jurisdiction. He served Lázaro Cárdenas, the most important port city in the country. The cartel operated one of its most lucrative businesses, illegal iron mines, in the nearby basins.

As a school teacher Gómez became interested in the problems drug addicts face

The other main character in this story is the man wearing that soccer t-shirt who calls himself Uchepo Vengador. He is the one who uploaded the video to the internet. Now, his popularity is on an uphill climb. He has more than 60,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook combined. His name comes from a sweet variety of the tamal, the Mexican tortilla wrapped in leaves. Uchepo appears on screen in a hat and mask. Photos of the leader of the Knights Templar hang on a wall in what looks like his bedroom. “Quihubo, compas,” or “Howdy, compadres,” he begins. “There are some surprises again in our beautiful Michoacán,” Uchepo tells the camera before he publishes the video. The footage shows what people knew was happening: the drug lord had taken over the state of Michoacán. Still, it does not cease to surprise them when faced with the evidence.

Uchepo has not revealed his identity for security reasons. He has said that he may answer a few questions from this newspaper in the future. Up next on the screen are the mayor, the treasurer – who has also been arrested – and La Tuta. There are four other men in the video who have not been identified. If we saw this picture hanging in a museum a century from now, it would sum up an entire era. The table is set: bottles of water, napkins and orange juice. Servando pontificates and the others assent.

Among all those statements and jokes Servando makes, one sentence sums up his role in the last few years: “I know that neither the government of Michoacán nor the federal government distributed resources.” As a school teacher Gómez became interested in the problems drug addicts face. A large number of the Templars’ base are junkies in rehabilitation who are susceptible to the messianic message of salvation that people such as La Tuta – and, to an even greater extent, El Chayo – offered. El Chayo, a fellow cartel leader, was killed in March. Authorities had assumed he died in 2009. His almost ghostly presence made a great impression on the members of the cartel who had believed the rumors of his death.

According to the Public Security Secretariat of Michoacán, 990 people were killed in 2013

With that battalion of faithful followers, the Templars were able to push the Zetas, the most bloodthirsty cartel, out of Michoacán. After this successful feat, La Tuta presented himself as a guarantor of peace and social stability. La Tuta sees himself as a kind of Robin Hood with a golden tooth, a man who protects the people from villains and rescues them from the neglect of the distant and careless Mexican government. “I am the State,” he said to those who came to listen to him speak. The fact is, however, that he took over the business of those kings he had dethroned: drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion of business leaders and assassinations.

La Tuta usually wears a cap – a kind of trademark. And he likes to bet heavily on cock fights. At one point in the video, he gets up from the table and it looks as though he is talking on the phone saying: “By hook or by crook,” and “I don’t give a dick.” The men around him can’t stop laughing. The scene turns into a cheap operetta but there is nothing funny about the violence in Michoacán.

According to the Public Security Secretariat of Michoacán, 990 people were killed in 2013. The state houses 4.3 million residents. The Peña Nieto administration has deployed a massive task force of police and military personnel to take back the state from the hands of people like this garrulous fellow.

As Servando Gómez walks on and off camera, we can see that he carries a pistol and a walkie-talkie in his belt. “I would kill this son of a bitch, you know,” we hear him say, though it is not clear who he is talking about. Although the conversation seems relaxed and free-flowing, he brandishes a threatening finger. La Tuta is (was) in charge here. The Mexican government has promised to capture him before May 10. They have seven days left.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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