Servando "La Tuta" Gómez, Mexico’s most-wanted drug lord who once terrorized western Michoacán state, was captured by federal police Friday, Mexican officials said.
Gomez headed the Knights Templar criminal syndicate, a quasi-religious criminal group that once ruled all of the state, controlling politics and commerce.
Mexico’s attorney general’s office said Gómez, 49, was captured without a shot fired in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán — a state wracked by clashes between Gómez's cartel and heavily armed vigilante groups trying to oust them.
Gómez began his professional career as a schoolteacher in Arteaga, Michoacán. Disillusioned with his meager pay, he soon founded several drug rehabilitation centers in the area. It is there that Gómez met gang members who would eventually help him form the cartel La Familia Michoacana.
Years later, Gómez broke off from La Familia and formed the Knights Templar. As head of the cartel, Gómez rose to become one of Mexico's most ruthless and wanted criminal leaders, dominating for a time Mexico's lucrative methamphetamine trade and taking control of his home state through extortion, intimidation and coercion of business and political leaders. Though it started in drugs, his gang even took over the state's international port, Lázaro Cárdenas, and made millions from the illegal mining of ore.
Gomez was the prime target of President Enrique Peña Nieto's drive to regain control of Michoacán. His arrest comes a year after the capture of one of Mexico's most notorious drug lords, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug smuggling gangs in the world.
Gómez's long reign was undisturbed by several attempts by the federal government to send troops and police to regain control of the state, and only began to unravel when a band of vigilantes decided in early 2013 to take up arms.
The "self-defense" groups, composed mostly of farmers, ranchers and other alleged rivals and former cartel members, marched through the Knights' territory, taking town after town and finally forcing the federal government in late 2013 to mount an offensive to find Gómez and other Knights Templar leaders.
The arrest also comes as Peña Nieto seeks to quell outrage over violence, impunity and corruption in Mexico after the abduction and apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers by corrupt police in league with gang members.
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.
Last week, police seized properties in the area where Gómez was captured and arrested a handful of people connected to “La Tuta,” or “The Teacher.”
No kingpin sought the limelight as often as Gómez.
Whether railing against political corruption on YouTube, or giving interviews to the media from hideouts, Gómez relentlessly baited the government, accusing it of colluding with rival crime syndicates 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," Gómez said in a video posted online in 2012, sitting in front of images of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and other revolutionary icons.
Gómez insisted his criminal enterprise followed a strict ethical code, though as time passed he became more open about the criminal side of his gang, which in 2013 held much of the impoverished, mountainous landscape of Michoacán in a firm grip.
A father of at least seven children, Gómez 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 $2 million bounty on his head.
As for the future of the Knights Templar, it is difficult to know how the cartel will respond or whether Gómez's capture will create a power vacuum. But Samer Servín Suárez and Ignacio Rentería Andrade, both cartel pillars, and Juan Reza Sánchez, the group’s key financial operative, are considered favorites to take the reigns.
With wire services. John Holman contributed to this report from Mexico City.