It may seem odd, but Mexican cartels are a religious bunch, whether they believe in the Santa Muerte cult or mainstream Catholicism. Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as El Chayo (a nickname for the rosary in Spanish), fallen founder of the Michoacan Family and Knights Templar cartels, considered himself a messiah who was waging holy war against the state and rival criminal groups.
In 2010 authorities announced El Chayo was killed during an operation launched by Mexican federales, but they were unable to recover his body, which was hidden by his thugs. A couple of months later rumors that the drug lord was still alive reached the highest echelons of power. Fearing public ridicule, authorities didn’t investigate. For the people of Michoacan, El Chayo had risen from the dead like an authentic “narco Christ.”
It would take four more years and a change of government to end his violent reign. Meanwhile, the drug lord spread his myth across Mexico. Intelligence reports found that El Chayo would ride a horse across the countryside of Michoacan, dressed in white and preaching he was back from the underworld. His followers had seen their beliefs materialize before their very eyes. Even the new elite unit assigned to capture El Chayo started referring to him as “el muerto,” the dead one.
Under his leadership, the Knights Templar became Mexico’s first cult cartel. He devised initiation rituals where he would wear dictator-style military uniforms and white tunics in an attempt to look like Jesus. And he created a religious doctrine blending Bible teachings and Marxist ideals.
In 2014 the government went after him in full force, but El Chayo managed to escape several times, further reaffirming his mystic. On March 9, a regiment of 30 marines and 30 soldiers were able to pinpoint El Chayo’s location in the mountains using a radio that had been left behind by one of his bodyguards. The authorities secured a camping site and a wooden house powered by solar panels and car batteries. At the time, he was still performing rituals in nearby caves, where officials found peculiar objects such as a bottle of Buchannans 18, a popular liquor among narcos (Chapo had a bottle in his house as well). Buried explosives were also discovered in the surroundings. Officials say El Chayo was planning on blowing-up government buildings and local bridges in a type of narco-jihad.
The day before his birthday, the drug lord returned home at dawn after visiting his girlfriend. He rode a mule and was crossing a creak when he found himself facing the assault team. Official reports say he opened fire with an AK-47 and the military team repelled the aggression, killing him instantly. El Chayo fell and his mule continued running up the stream, never to be seen again. Some of his closest friends say he aspired to die like communist revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
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On his body soldiers found two golden coins —one with the Templar’s cross and the other with a tetragrammaton, an ancient religious symbol. El Chayo was also carrying a letter asking God to free him from his enemies, another written to his daughter, images of archangels, a Templar’s shield, an amulet, and a radio.
Recently a new video has surfaced on Facebook where the new leader of the Knights Templar, Servando Gómez Martínez, known as La Tuta (the teacher), warns that the clan is back and urges members to defend the code of the order.
La Tuta is well aware that El Chayo has become a narco saint, venerated on altars across Michoacan. The criminal group could exploit this myth and lure new recruits and even public support through religious doctrine. However, a comeback will not be easy; in the fight against the cartels, Mexican authorities have concentrated most agents and resources on eradicating this particular group.
For believers, a lingering question remains: will El Chayo rise again?
Carlos Loret de Mola is an award winning Mexican journalist and popular news anchor of Televisa’s “Primero Noticias.” He has served as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, Haiti, Egypt, Syria and Libya and writes for a number of news outlets on issues ranging from the drug war to international politics. Carlos has broken many influential stories about the operations that led to the capture of some of Mexico’s most wanted criminals. In 2001 he wrote the book "The Deal. Mexican economy trapped by drug trafficking." He is a frustrated chef, runner and guitar troubadour… but he keeps trying.