An organised Mexican crime group calling itself the Knights Templar is distributing booklets – claiming to fight a war against poverty, tyranny and injustice.
The group, blamed for murders, extortion, drug trafficking and attacks on police, are appealing to citizens in a part of the country where the government claims to have largely taken down major drug traffickers.
Analysts say the propaganda is trying to transform a drug cartel into a social movement, like what right-wing paramilitary groups did in Colombia in the 1990s against leftist rebels — a fight in which both sides used the drug trade to finance their causes.
'Life requires chivalry and humility': the Knights Templar are a Mexican crime group accused of murder, extortion and drug trafficking
‘I think the main intent is to create a social base in Michoacán ... and that way they are different from other criminal organisations,’ said Jorge Chabat, a veteran analyst of the drug trade in Mexico.
‘They say they are defending the people against attacks. In the case of Colombia it was the guerrillas; here it is against who knows what.’
A copy of the 22-page ‘The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán,’ handbook shows illustrated knights on horseback bearing lances and crosses. It says the group ‘will begin a challenging ideological battle to defend the values of a society based on ethics.’
Looking for followers: The group are issuing pocket-size quasi-religious propaganda booklets
The Knights Templar was founded in March, according to the booklet, whose illustrations were lifted from an artist, a website of a company that sells swords and another promoting the 2007 Swedish film ‘Arn: The Knight Templar’.
Named for a medieval Roman Catholic order of religious warriors who fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem, Knights Templar is a splinter group of La Familia, another cult-like cartel whose leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, published a motivational pamphlet called ‘The Sayings of the Craziest One.’
La Familia claimed strict codes of conduct among its members, including prohibiting using or selling drugs within Mexican territory, it didn't distribute its booklets publicly.
The contents of its ‘bible,’ reportedly based on the teachings of U.S. evangelist John Eldredge, have never been revealed by authorities. The cartel became one of Mexico's major sources of methamphetamine.
The Mexican government claims to have all but dismantled La Familia since Moreno was killed in a shootout with federal police last December and another founder, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, was arrested last month.
But the mayhem and killing has continued in Michoacan as Knights Templar gunmen battle both the Zetas cartel and remnants of La Familia seeking to control President Felipe Calderon's home state more than 4½ years after Calderon launched his crackdown on organised crime here in 2006.
More than 35,000 people have died in drug violence across Mexico since then, according to government figures, and some groups put the number at more than 40,000.
President Calderon has said he took on the cartels to prevent organised crime from spreading to the roots of Mexican society.
The Knights Templar claims to be highly religious, distributing its teachings to the general public with kitschy but florid posters, banners, emblems and even medieval robes.
The groups mandate: 'A man with ideas is strong, but a man with ideals is invincible'
‘God is the truth and there is no truth without God,’ reads one passage in the booklet.
A source said two men in regular clothing gave him the book earlier this month aboard a bus traveling in rural Michoacan. He said the men then got off at the next stop.
The booklet says cartel members ‘must fight against materialism,’ and respect women and children. It prohibits them from killing for money and says, ‘for all members of the order, the use of any drugs or any hallucinogen is strictly prohibited.’ It mandates drug testing for members.
The Knights Templar have criticised federal police for failing to protect Michoacan against incursions by the ultra-violent Zetas.
The group may have helped organise a demonstration last week in the Michoacan city of Apatzingan, where people chanted ‘Federal police, get out!’ Some young men scrawled slogans like ‘100 percent Knights Templar’ on their T-shirts.
Government security spokesman Alejandro Poire did not respond to a reporter's question about whether the cartel had organised last Wednesday's demonstration, but said it had been known to do so in the past.
‘It would not be the first time that various criminal organisations seek to use propaganda or publicity tools, but I stress that there is no criminal propaganda that can weaken the efforts of federal forces,’
Mr Poire said Tuesday. ‘The stepped-up federal police presence will remain there.’
Along with the booklet, which also preaches loyalty to family and country, police also have confiscated banners with messages from the gang, trucks emblazoned with Templar ‘shields,’ and even white robes with red crosses like the ones worn by the original Knights Templar order.
The original knights were outlawed in Europe and executed and their order dismantled beginning in 1307.
Photos from a Mexican army raid the previous day on a Templar training camp in Zacapu,
Michoacan, show pages like those in the booklet as well as a medieval-style helmet made of steel grating and the white tunics.
National security expert Javier Oliva at Mexico's National Autonomous University said the propaganda may have some pull in rural areas where the government is weak and lawlessness and violence are rampant.
‘They mirror a bit the sociological, anthropological logic of the Mafia,’ he said. ‘They seek to take justice into their own hands in a Mexico where no functional justice system exists.’