Mexico captures Knights Templar drug cartel leader
Mexican security forces have launched a crackdown on the drug cartels who are fighting a bitter battle that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 2006 (AFP)

Mexican federal police captured Knights Templar drug cartel leader Servando Gomez on Friday, taking down one of the country's most wanted fugitives whose gang tormented the western state of Michoacan.

Gomez, alias "La Tuta," was detained without a shot fired in Morelia, Michoacan's capital, a National Security Commission official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The 49-year-old former teacher is being transferred to Mexico City, where authorities will hold a press conference about the capture, which was the result "of several months of intelligence work by federal police," the official said.

Last year, police mounted a massive manhunt for Gomez in the mountains of Michoacan with help from a "rural defense" force comprised of former vigilantes that took up arms against the Knights Templar.

With his arrest, the authorities have now taken down the four top leaders of the cartel, dealing a huge blow to the criminal organization that once dominated the agricultural and mining state through murder, kidnappings and extortion.

While the gang trafficked methamphetamines to the United States, it also made a living by tapping Michoacan's iron ore mines and exporting the metal to China.

Gomez, 49, is believed to have become the de facto boss after the group's top leader, Nazario "El Chayo" Moreno, was killed by marines on March 9.

Another honcho, Enrique "Kike" Plancarte, was killed by troops in late March. His uncle, Dionisio Plancarte, who was also a key leader of the gang, was detained in January.

Gomez's arrest is a victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto as he endures falling approval ratings and public anger over his handling of violence in the neighboring state of Guerrero, where 43 students were allegedly killed by a gang in league with local police.

The government has neutralized some of the country's most wanted kingpins since Pena Nieto took office in December 2012.

The head of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was detained early last year after a 13-year manhunt.

The leader of the Zetas gang, Miguel Angel Trevino, was detained in July 2013.

The leaders of the Juarez and Beltran Leyva cartels were also placed behind bars last year.

- Online videos -

Mafia bosses normally avoid the public spotlight, but Gomez appeared in several television interviews and videos uploaded on the Internet, always wearing a baseball cap, jeans and a gun holstered to his belt.

In one video in 2013, he was taped in front of a tree with a cow and a calf in the background. In another, he stood in a hilly forest, surrounded by a dozen masked men toting assault rifles.

He has admitted being a criminal, but claimed that the Knights Templar wanted "peace and calm" in the western agricultural state of Michoacan.

Civilians formed vigilante forces in February 2013 to chase the cartel out of their towns, accusing local police of either turning a blind eye or colluding with the gang.

Gomez accused the self-defense forces of being backed by the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel.

The drug capo, who became a teacher in 1985, was still receiving paychecks from the education system in 2009.

Being a teacher, he told Britain's Channel 4 News in an early 2014 interview, was "a very healthy and honest job, but due to my aspirations and my hyperactive nature, it didn't satisfy me."

In videos, he claimed that the Knights Templar were defending the interests of Michoacan against other cartels like the Zetas and the New Generation.

- Gang turns to mining -

The Knights Templar gang is a spin-off of the once dominant cartel in the region known as La Familia Michoacana.

La Familia was founded by Moreno but broke up after the government claimed to have killed him in 2010.

He turned out to have survived and founded the Knights Templar with Gomez.

The Knights Templar cartel is perhaps the strangest of Mexico's many organized crime groups.

Its members undergo initiation ceremonies with religious undertones and they are known to wear knights garb with the Maltese cross like crusaders.

The cartel is known to import drug precursors from Asia to manufacture crystal meth that is then exported to the United States.