MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — An organized crime group calling itself the Knights Templar is distributing booklets saying it is fighting a war against poverty, tyranny and injustice, publicly appealing to hearts and minds in a part of Mexico where the government claims it has largely taken down the major drug traffickers.
Federal police said they seized copies of the cartel's "code of conduct" booklet during an arrest of cartel members in the western state of Michoacan last week, but refused to release its contents Tuesday, saying they didn't want fan the flames of the quasi-religious movement.
But a copy of the 22-page "The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacan," illustrated with knights on horseback bearing lances and crosses, was obtained by The Associated Press this week. It says the group "will begin a challenging ideological battle to defend the values of a society based on ethics."
The Knights Templar have been blamed for murders, extortion, drug trafficking and attacks on police. Analysts say the propaganda is part of an effort to transform a drug cartel into a social movement, along the lines of what right-wing paramilitary groups did in Colombia in the 1990s against leftist rebels — a fight in which both sides used the drug trade to finance their causes.
"I think the main intent is to create a social base in Michoacan ... and that way they are different from other criminal organizations," said Jorge Chabat, a veteran analyst of the drug trade in Mexico. "They say they are defending the people against attacks. In the case of Colombia it was the guerrillas; here it is against who knows what."
The Knights Templar was founded in March, according to the booklet, whose illustrations were lifted from an artist, a website of a company that sells swords and another promoting the 2007 Swedish film "Arn: The Knight Templar," according to an AP image search.
Named for a medieval Roman Catholic order of religious warriors who fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem, Knights Templar is a splinter group of La Familia, another cult-like cartel whose leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, published a motivational pamphlet called "The Sayings of the Craziest One."
While La Familia claimed strict codes of conduct among its members, including prohibiting using or selling drugs within Mexican territory, it didn't distribute its booklets publicly. The contents of its "bible," reportedly based on the teachings of U.S. evangelist John Eldredge, have never been revealed by authorities. The cartel became one of Mexico's major sources of methamphetamine.
The Mexican government claims to have all but dismantled La Familia since Moreno was killed in a shootout with federal police last December and another founder, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, was arrested last month.
But the mayhem and killing has continued in Michoacan as Knights Templar gunmen battle both the Zetas cartel and remnants of La Familia seeking to control President Felipe Calderon's home state more than 4½ years after Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime here in 2006.
More than 35,000 people have died in drug violence across Mexico since then, according to government figures, and some groups put the number at more than 40,000.
Calderon has said he took on the cartels to prevent organized crime from spreading to the roots of Mexican society.
Like La Familia, Knights Templar claims to be highly religious, but unlike La Familia, the new cartel has sought to distribute its teachings to the general public with kitschy but florid posters, banners, emblems and even medieval robes.
"God is the truth and there is no truth without God," reads one passage in the booklet.
The person who gave the AP the professionally printed, pocket-size booklet said it was distributed earlier this month by two men in regular clothing aboard a bus traveling in rural Michoacan. He said the men handing out the material then sat down among the other passengers and, without saying a word, got off at the next stop. He asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation.
The booklet says cartel members "must fight against materialism," and respect women and children. It prohibits them from killing for money and says, "for all members of the order, the use of any drugs or any hallucinogen is strictly prohibited." It mandates drug testing for members.
The Knights Templar have criticized federal police for failing to protect Michoacan against incursions by the ultra-violent Zetas.
The group may have helped organize a demonstration last week in the Michoacan city of Apatzingan, where people chanted "Federal police, get out!" Some young men scrawled slogans like "100 percent Knights Templar" on their T-shirts.
Government security spokesman Alejandro Poire did not respond to a reporter's question about whether the cartel had organized last Wednesday's demonstration, but said it had been known to do so in the past.
"It would not be the first time that various criminal organizations seek to use propaganda or publicity tools, but I stress that there is no criminal propaganda that can weaken the efforts of federal forces," Poire said Tuesday. "The stepped-up federal police presence will remain there."
While authorities at three government law enforcement agencies refused to confirm the authenticity of the AP's copy, the title is the same as three booklets that federal police found in a July 15 raid in Apatzingan that netted a suspect identified as the chief hit man for the cartel.
Along with the booklet, which also preaches loyalty to family and country, police also have confiscated banners with messages from the gang, trucks emblazoned with Templar "shields," and even white robes with red crosses like the ones worn by the original Knights Templar order.
The original knights were outlawed in Europe and executed and their order dismantled beginning in 1307.
Photos from a Mexican army raid the previous day on a Templar training camp in Zacapu, Michoacan, show pages like those in the booklet as well as a medieval-style helmet made of steel grating and the white tunics.
National security expert Javier Oliva at Mexico's National Autonomous University said the propaganda may have some pull in rural areas where the government is weak and lawlessness and violence are rampant.
"They mirror a bit the sociological, anthropological logic of the Mafia," he said. "They seek to take justice into their own hands in a Mexico where no functional justice system exists."
The modern-day Knights Templar Order, a civic group with no ties to the church, issued a statement saying that "we disown completely and totally this disagreeable situation ... we have never had nor will we have contact with any of these people who display banners depicting themselves as Templars, and using this sacred name."
Welsh-born painter Mark Churms, who works from a studio in West Virginia, said he was never contacted by anyone in Mexico seeking to use his painting of a medieval knight, which appears in the booklet.
"When I was painting that image, I wasn't thinking, 'Wow, this would look good on a drug cartel leaflet,'" Churms said. "I hope people don't look at this and believe the hype that they are in any way connected with a monastic order."
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Morelia and Mark Stevenson reported in Mexico City. AP writer Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report