MEXICO CITY — Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, a former school teacher who became one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords as head of the Knights Templar cartel, was captured early Friday by federal police, according to Mexican officials.
Gomez was arrested in a house in Morelia, the capital of the western state of Michoacan, without a shot fired, according to a Mexican official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case. He said the operation was based on months of intelligence work.
The 49-year-old led the Knights Templar, a quasi-religious criminal group that once ruled all of Michoacan, controlling politics and commerce and preaching a code of ethics around devotion to God and family, even as it murdered and plundered. Gomez evaded capture for more than a year after the federal government took over the state to try to restore order. The Mexican government had offered a $2 million reward for his capture, and he also was wanted in the United States for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.
"With this arrest, the rule of law is strengthened in the country and we continue to advance toward a Mexico at peace," President Enrique Pena Nieto said on his Twitter account.
The arrest is a badly needed win for Pena Nieto, who has faced political and security crises since 43 college students disappeared last fall at the hands of local authorities in Guerrero state, and conflict-of-interest scandals emerged involving his personal home and that of the country's treasury secretary.
The week opened with film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu using his Oscar acceptance speech to urge fellow Mexicans to "find and build the government that we deserve." Then, Pope Francis warned drug-trafficking would cause the "Mexicanization" of Argentina and Donald Trump urged people not to do business with Mexico.
The arrest is the latest by Pena Nieto's 3-year-old government, which has been aggressive in capturing top drug lords, including the biggest capo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in 2014. Of Mexico's top drug lords, only Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada of the Sinaloa Cartel remains at large.
"It's a very significant capture and (Gomez) is a very important player," said Eric L. Olson, an analyst specializing in Mexican security and organized crime at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
"The bottom line is these captures are important, but one has to keep them in perspective," he added. "They can unleash a lot more conflict and violence — although it's kind of hard to imagine in the case of Michoacan things getting any worse."
It was not immediately clear who, if anyone, would take over the cartel in Michoacan, where former "self-defense" groups continue to battle each other and the military and federal police.
Folksy and charismatic with puffy cheeks and a large nose, Gomez rose from schoolteacher to one of Mexico's most ruthless and wanted cartel leaders, dominating the lucrative methamphetamine trade for a time and controlling his home state through extortion, intimidation and coercion.
A U.S. Justice Department indictment in 2009 said Gomez might be behind the murder of 12 Mexican federal law enforcement officers whose bodies were found in July of that year while he still operated under La Familia.
Outspoken and particularly crafty, Gomez often appeared in videos wearing his signature baseball cap and salt-and-pepper goatee that were leaked during his time on the run. The recordings showed him meeting with elected officials, journalists and other influential people, including the son of former Michoacan Gov. Fausto Vallejo, a member of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party. Vallejo resigned last year for health reasons. Vallejo's interior secretary, Jesus Reyna, and other officials, have been jailed for alleged connections to the cartel.
Though his gang started with drugs, it eventually took over the Port of Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico's largest seaports, and made more money from illegal mining, logging and extortion than it did from narcotics.
In an interview with a British television crew in January 2014, Gomez said his illegal work was all about business.
"As we told you, we are a necessary evil," Gomez is seen telling a group of townspeople. "Unfortunately or fortunately, we are here. If we weren't, another group would come."
In Arteaga, his hometown in the hills of Michoacan, some residents praised him as a humble man who ambled about in sandals and would give poor people money for food, clothing and medical care. They said he mediated disputes such as a traffic accident or child-support battles.
Born on Feb. 6, 1966, Gomez started as a grade-school teacher and was still listed on a payroll at a school there as recently as 2009. Media outlets often have interpreted "La Tuta" to be a reference to Gomez's career as a teacher, but in an interview with MundoFOX he once explained that it came from childhood. When he was a boy, a Spanish engineer who went by the name "Tuta" was working on a nearby highway. Both had prominent noses and people started using the name to address Gomez.
Gomez apparently started out transporting marijuana before becoming, in the mid-2000s, a top leader of La Familia, a cult-like cartel that preceded his Knights Templar. He continued his populist tendencies while acting as a sort of de facto spokesman for that gang, which was led by Nazario "El Chayo" Moreno Gonzalez, Jesus "El Chango" (The Monkey) Mendez Vargas and Dionicio "El Tio" (The Uncle) Loya.
La Familia initially portrayed itself as a crusader gang, protecting communities from the rival Zetas cartel. Witnesses say La Familia trained its recruits in ultra-violent techniques like beheading and dismembering victims, and it frequently ambushed soldiers and federal police.
The gang weakened after the government claimed police killed the cartel's top leader, Moreno, in a shootout in late 2010. One faction sought help from its old foes, the Zetas; Gomez instead started the Knights Templar and continued to work with Moreno, who was still alive despite the government's claims.
Moreno was killed last year in a second assault by the government, which this time produced the body.
Gomez's long reign was untouched by several federal offensives intended to regain control of Michoacan, and only began to unravel in early 2013 when local vigilantes took up arms to lead the campaign themselves.
The "self-defense" groups, made up of farmers and ranchers as well as alleged rivals and former cartel gangsters, marched through the Knights' territory, taking town after town and finally pressuring the federal government to mount a sincere offensive to find Gomez and other cartel leaders.
Gomez accused them of supporting a rival cartel in neighboring Jalisco state and the government of losing sight of the rule of law in Michoacan.
Other leaders of the Knights Templar have been arrested or killed, and Gomez was the last hold-out, leaving speculation that he may have negotiated a deal with the government.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report. Katherine Corcoran on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kathycorcoran