Saint, knights and crystal meth; Mexico's bizarre cartel

Wed Jul 18, 2012 12:53pm EDT
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By Ioan Grillo

MORELIA, Mexico (Reuters) - Known as the "El Mas Loco" or "The Craziest One," one of Mexico's most feared drug traffickers is now venerated as a saint by a new generation of smugglers and gunslingers.

Nazario Moreno was shot dead by police in December 2010 during one of the most spectacular battles of President Felipe Calderon's six-year offensive against drug gangs, but his spirit lives on in the criminal underworld that made him.

Soldiers raiding criminal safe houses in the western state of Michoacan have recently found altars topped with three foot high statues in the image of Moreno, shown in golden medieval armor and carrying a sword. A local verse dedicated to the dead trafficker invokes him as a supernatural force.

"Give me holy protection, through Saint Nazario, Protector of the poorest, Knights of the people, Saint Nazario, give us life," goes the "Prayer to Saint Nazario".

Now calling themselves the Knights Templar, after the medieval military order that protected Christian pilgrims during the Crusades, members carry a code book decorated with pictures of cloaked knights with red crosses.

And police have even seized 120 plastic helmets allegedly used by the gang in initiation ceremonies.

The Knights Templar is the most bizarre cult-like group to have sprung up since Calderon declared war against Mexico's drug cartels in late 2006, triggering a series of turf wars that have killed more than 55,000 people.

Nowhere has his government struck harder than in Michoacan, shattering the leadership of Moreno's quasi-religious cartel La Familia - only for remnants to regroup in a yet stranger guise.   Continued...

A soldier gestures while escorting a suspected member of the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) in Morelia in this November 9, 2011 file photo. The cartel is one of Mexico's biggest traffickers of crystal meth to American users and their drug profits finance an army of 1,200 gunmen, according to a report by Mexico's military intelligence. Picture taken November 9, 2011. REUTERS/Leovigildo Gonzalez/Files