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The Knights Templar claim to be crusading Christian soldiers as bodies pile up.
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The grainy video shows a regular-looking street in central Mexico, with stall owners and residents merrily on the sidewalk.
But the normality is broken by the stunning sight of masked men riding on pickup trucks behind mounted machine guns.
In total, 50 trucks in the narco convoy pass the view of the camera, a terrifying show of force even by the standards of Mexico’s horrifically destructive drug war.
The propaganda video was sent to media outlets by the newest cartel on the block, which has baptized itself with the bizarre name “Los Caballeros Templarios” or “The Knights Templar.”
As the name suggests, The Knights Templar claim to be crusading Christian soldiers, albeit on their own narco mission from God.
When they first announced their founding in March, they hung up banners around their native Michoacan state in western Mexico, promising they would “safeguard order, stop robberies, kidnappings, extortion and shield the state from rival organizations.”
But rather than following the commandment of “thou shalt not kill,” they exercise a vengeful Christianity spliced with Old Testament justice.
Their first victim was hanged from a freeway overpass with a note alleging he was a kidnapper.
Then when Mexico opened up the under-17 soccer cup on Saturday in Michoacan state capital Morelia, thugs scattered 14 corpses in the colonial city and nearby towns.
Notes in scrawling handwriting were pinned to the mutilated bodies, threatening rivals and ending with the signature of The Knights Templar.
“This criminal organization used the event as an opportunity to show off and demonstrate they are here,” Michoacan Attorney General Jesus Montejano said.
Over the following two days, the thugs put another nine corpses on public display.
The Knights Templar are not the first Mexican drug cartel to claim divine Christian inspiration.
In the same Michoacan state, La Familia broke onto the scene in 2006 claiming they were evangelical Christians while leaving trails of severed heads.
La Familia’s spiritual leader Nazario Moreno, alias “El Mas Loco” (The Maddest One), even wrote his own Bible, which cartel foot soldiers were obliged to study.
While preaching the good word, Moreno made billions of dollars cooking up crystal meth and smuggling it over the Rio Grande to wild-eyed American meth users.
Michoacan state is ideal for the trade. It is home to the major Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas, through which the raw ingredients for meth can be imported, and has mountains where meth labs can be hidden.
However, federal police claim to have killed Moreno in a bloody gun battle in Michoacan in December. (Moreno’s followers apparently escaped with his corpse.)
The Templar Knights is reportedly commanded by one of Moreno’s top lieutenants Servando Gomez, a former schoolteacher known as “La Tuta.”
Gomez appears hungry to take over the lucrative meth business of his old preacher.
Meanwhile, many of the Knight’s victims are purported to be those working for another La Familia leader Jesus Mendez, alias “El Chango” or “The Monkey.”
Weakened by his losses, Mendez "The Monkey" was busted by federal police on Tuesday — a victory for the government, but also the Knights Templar.
Fights between old allies are typical of the Mexican drug war that has waged since President Felipe Calderon took power in 2006 and ordered a crackdown on the mafias.
As soldiers and police take out the top capos — or in police speak “decapitate” the cartels — their lieutenants war over the trafficking empires.
The infighting is particularly bloody as the old business partners know where each other’s foot soldiers live and where their safe houses are allowing them to kill at a fast rate.
On June 9, thugs hung up 21 bodies outside Morelia on a single day.
Two weeks earlier, fighting between the Knights Templar and Mendez “The Monkey” was so fierce it caused thousands of residents in Michoacan villages to temporarily flee their homes.
In the melee, the Knights Templar used a machine gun to target a federal police helicopter, forcing it to make a controlled landing.
Such actions have helped give the Knights Templar a gruesome reputation in the Mexican drug war, in which cartels compete to prove who should be most feared.
But one group is particularly miffed about the new cartel’s name and fame — the official Knights Templar.
The international Order of the Knights Templar is an organization of men who consider themselves inheritors of the ancient crusaders based in Jerusalem, who fought in the name of Christ between the 12th and 14th centuries. They now dedicate themselves to charity work.
Roberto Molinari, prior of the Order of the Knights Templar in Mexico, said the new cartel’s appearance was staining their good name and putting their members in danger.
“The real Knights Templar has never had any link to criminal activities,” Molinari told Mexican media. “The danger is if the criminals hurt someone and their rivals are looking for revenge they might shoot one of our members. So we are like, 'Hey. Find yourself another name.'"