KNIGHTS TEMPLAR TIMELINE
1970 (March 8): Nazario Moreno González was born in Apatzingán, Michoacán, Mexico.
1980s: La Familia Michoacán (LFM) formed, initially as a group of vigilantes that sought social justice.
1986: Moreno emigrated to the United States.
1990s: La Familia Michoacána became the Gulf Cartel’s paramilitary group, seeking to take control from rival drug cartels.
2003: Moreno returned to Michoacán with Servando Gómez Martínez and José de Jesús Méndez Vargas. Moreno began organizing LFM into a drug cartel. Moreno became the spiritual leader of LFM.
2006: The Mexican government declared war on drug cartels.
2010: Moreno was allegedly killed by Mexican authorities in a shootout in Apatzingán, Michoacán, but no body was ever produced by the police.
2011: LFM split up into various factions. Gómez created the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios (CT).
2012: There were sightings of Moreno, who some people claimed was resurrected to lead the Knights Templar. Gomez released a video in which he called on other cartels to join forces against the leading cartel in Mexico, Los Zetas. Indigenous populations in Guerrero started rising up against the CT.
2014 (March): Moreno was confirmed killed, although who murdered him has remained a matter of controversy.
2015: Gomez was captured and imprisoned.
2015: CT waned in power with the official death of Moreno and the capture of Gomez.
2020: In Zitácuaro, Michoacán, Armed Forces stormed a safe house allegedly belonging to members of the LFM, which confirmed that they were still operating, although only in splinter cells.
The Knights Templar Group, known as Los Caballeros Templarios (CT), originated in Michoacán, Mexico. The group formed as an offshoot of an earlier cartel, known as La Familia Michoacán (LFM) or The Michoacán Family (Soboslai 2020). In the 1980s, LFM emerged as would-be vigilantes. Founded originally in Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) in southwest Michoacán, LFM claimed that their goal was to provide security to and protect people in the region from encroaching cartels and their violence. Indeed, initially they were welcomed by many as they executed known criminals in their region who the police had treated with impunity. Gradually, the group turned increasingly to criminal insurgency as they acquired new leaders. One such leader in the 2000s was Nazario Moreno González (hereafter Moreno or Nazario), also known as “El Más Loco” (The Craziest One) or “El Chayo” (The Rosary), who rapidly rose within LFM to take on the role spiritual leader (Kingsbury 2019; Mekenkamp 2022; Grillo 2016). [Image at right]
According to biographical and presumably autobiographical sources (Grillo 2016; Mekenkamp 2022), as a teenager Moreno lived in California, where he encountered people openly drug trafficking in a stash house near his own home. This appears to have impressed him. He eventually began selling marijuana himself, crossing back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. to traffic ganja grown in his home country. Those who knew him described him as belligerent, and frequently drunk and stoned. His anger only increased after four of his brothers were murdered in a series of killings.
His bellicose and unpredictable temperament, which earned him the epithet “el mas loco” (the craziest one) further deteriorated in 1994. That year, Moreno nearly died from a brutal beating when, following an altercation during an amateur soccer game, he was repeatedly kicked in the head. His skull was fractured. Surgeons had to insert a metal plate to hold his cranium together. The wound and treatment aggravated his mental condition. His visions and hallucinations may well have been due to the injury to his brain and resultant inflammation. As a result of the metal plate, it is said that when agitated Moreno’s face and forehead bulged disconcertingly.
The suffering and shock caused by the deaths of his brother and his own near death reportedly caused Moreno to re-examine his life. To overcome his alcohol dependency, Moreno turned to Alcoholics Anonymous, and the twelve-step program helped him to achieve sobriety. He also discovered Evangelical Christianity, after having been involved in Catholicism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses earlier in his life. He was drawn to the idea that one could be “Born Again.” However, changing one’s life for the better appears to have meant acquiring power, riches and respect as a drug lord. He also was drawn to the idea of adhering to a strong moral code and of becoming a foot soldier of Christ, an ideology that Nazario would implement within LFM, and later again within CT. In the version that he constructed, he encouraged his foot soldiers to do violence in the name of God and to follow his narco honor code.
In August 2003, Armando Valencia Cornello, the most powerful drug lord in Michoacán, was arrested. Moreno returned to Tierra Caliente and with Gómez and José de Jesús Méndez Vargas (or “El Chango”) (hereafter, Méndez), and began to unite LFM into a powerful and deadly cartel that became involved in the hypertrophic crystal meth trade. [Image at right] Moreno and Gomez split off to create the Cartel Templarios (CT). They became involved in extortion of local farmers, migrant smuggling into the U.S., illegal mining, the sex trade, illegal gasoline trafficking (known as huachicolero), arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources.
One event that exemplified the brutality and attempted religious legitimation by LFM occurred on September 6, 2006, in Uruapan, Michoacán. LFM dumped onto a local dance floor the heads of five men said to be Los Zetas with a message that stated: “The family does not kill for pay, it does not kill women or innocents. Only those who deserve to do, will die. Everybody understand: this is divine justice.” The message evinced Nazario’s belief that he was doing God’s work and that he was protecting the people, demonstrating the bizarre mixture of populist, anti-establishment and Evangelical rhetoric he preached. LFM also replicated Old Testament style punishments with crucifixions and floggings (Sanchez 2020:40).
More broadly, Moreno framed himself, with his co-founders, as a savior who would carry out justice where the Federal Government was failing. For example, in 2006, the group placed an announcement in numerous newspapers with the headline, “MISSION:”
Eradicate from the state of Michoacán kidnapping, extortion in person and by telephone, paid assassinations, express kidnapping, tractor-trailer and auto theft, home robberies done by people like those mentioned, who have made the state of Michoacán an unsafe place. Our sole motive is that we love our state and are no longer willing to see our people’s dignity trampled on” (Grayson 2006:179-218).
In December 2010, Moreno was reportedly killed in a shootout with Mexican authorities in Apatzingán, Michoacán. Mexican authorities celebrated the purported victory. However, no body was ever found, and Moreno’s death was never confirmed. While the Mexican government continued to claim that Moreno was dead, sightings of him became frequent, such that it was highly improbable that he had been killed in 2010 but rather was feigning death while masterminding CT behind the scenes with Gómez (Grillo 2016). LFM then splintered. Méndez and those loyal to him remained in LFM, which became La Nueva Familia Michoacana.
If LFM was a testing ground, CT was to be the final product of Moreno’s narco-evangelism. Both Moreno and Gómez embraced the link between religion and narco-trafficking, seeing it as a way to organize their cartel both ideologically and structurally. Additionally, they had both belonged to Evangelical movements in the U.S. and extolled a militant Christian ideology. They found inspiration in the Knights Templar, one of the major military religious orders that grew out of the crusading movement (1096-1102). Known for their ferocity, the original Knights Templar spent their lives protecting Christian territory, to the death if need be. While some engaged in temporary military service as an act of devotion, for the self-styled warrior monks waging war in God’s name became a way of life. This symbolism was attractive to the cartel leaders and also legitimated violent young men ready to do whatever was required to serve and protect to the death their narco-territory, ostensibly in the name of God.
Going one step further than LFM, whose religious elements had largely been based in text and praxis, Moreno and Gómez began using structural elements, symbols, as well terminology, from the original Knights Templar of the Crusades in rituals and in organization of their cartel.
In August 2012, Gómez posted a video seeking to galvanize other cartels to join with the CT against their most powerful enemy, and the leading drug syndicate at that time, Los Zetas. Against the backdrop of a wall featuring photos of Che Guevara and Pancho Villa, as well as a Mexican flag, Gómez not only outlined CT plans but also detailed the “Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán” which once again depicted them as honorable, holy warriors fighting for safety of the people of Michoacán. One strategy for creating expanded CT power was to establish a shadow state by financing the political campaigns of numerous Michoacán politicians, including Fausto Vallejo Figueroa, a member of the PRI who was elected to the governorship of Michoacán. After he took his position as governor, the CT publicly reminded Vallejo and other politicians to make good on their agreements with their syndicate.
The CT had gradually expanded its narco-territory into neighboring Guerrero, much of which was under its control. Guerrero has a large Indigenous population, with Nahua, Tlapaneco and Amuzgo peoples. Many such Indigenous communities have long sought independent control of their land and to keep their peoples and meagre profits safe in the face of encroaching, usually violent, groups that only wanted to extract revenue from their territories. As part of such efforts to resist outside forces detrimental to their well-being, many Indigenous communities have a tradition of organizing volunteer police forces when necessary. Known as “Policía Comunitaria” (community police) and tolerated by the federal government, such community police groups have generally been less amenable to external corruption and benefited from far more local support than official government counterparts. In 2012, Indigenous peoples began to resist CT extortion, kidnappings and increased violence within their communities. While there had been an earlier uprising against the CT in Cheran, Michoacán, this had not gained much momentum. In Guerrero, multiple communities, though poorly armed, joined forces and soon other non-Indigenous towns and villages rallied to the cause. These vigilante movements grew, numbering in the hundreds and as their communities restored order, regained control of their lands and produce and safeguarded their people.
Others in Michoacán who had formerly accepted the CT’s message of spiritual insurgency began to take notice of the events and recognise the devastation CT had wrought on their communities. This led to the rise of other “autodefensas” (self-defense groups) (Perez 2018). In relatively more affluent Michoacán, thanks to funding from local businessmen, such groups were even better armed, organized, and, equipped to combat the CT. These Michoacán vigilantes gained significant support.
In 2013, autodefensas had developed tactics and increased in numbers such that within Michoacán the movement covered many municipalities. At the outset, the federal government in Mexico City denounced the actions of the vigilantes, but by November 2013, upon witnessing the success of such auto-defensas in freeing swaths of land from CT control, the federal government changed its position. As Ernst (2019) notes,
…autodefensas were like a Trojan horse. Working hand in hand with the federal government, they fractured the Templars. The kingdom crumbled, leaving a trail of warring fiefdoms mostly led by former mid-level Templar commanders.
Popular support for the vigilantes reached an all-time high and the government, under President Pena-Nieto, while not officially endorsing them turned a blind eye to their activities. Meanwhile, military troops were deployed to seize the Lazaro Cardenas port, which the CT had previously controlled and used in its illegal activities.
By 2014, government security forces and vigilantes joined forces to weaken the grip of the CT. In January, Dionisio Loya Plancarte, one of the most senior members of the cartel was arrested. In March 2014, Moreno was once again killed but this time a body, confirmed to be his, was produced by authorities. [Image at right] The official story was that he was assassinated in a shootout with Mexican authorities. Rumours have it, however, that Moreno was killed by those within his own entourage. It is said that weary of his crazy and pugnacious behavior and the extortions he carried out upon locals, they joined forces with vigilantes to overthrow the CT from the inside. Nevertheless, not eager to face vendetta for murder, they turned the narco’s body over to the police so that they might have the glory of claiming the kill. (Garcia 2016; Grillo 2016) While this time, Moreno’s death was confirmed, many Michoacanos refused to believe it, arguing that it was a hoax. If he had not really been killed in 2010, how could one assume he was actually killed in 2014, they posited. To this day in Michoacán, one of Mexico’s most religious states, there are still some that believe that San Nazario continues to protect and guide them.
Despite living on in the popular imagination as a narco-saint, with the death of Moreno, CT power began to wane as local people sought to take control of their communities and the government began to exert its authority. Auto-defensas were disbanded by the government. While government authorities had initially suggested that a more formal rural defense force unit should be established, comprising of the vigilantes who had helped free the many municipalities of Michoacán, it suddenly backtracked and began arresting the leading members. While Gómez roamed free, he eventually founded a new crime syndicate, known as “la tercera hermandad,” the third brotherhood (or Los H3), with other criminals, including members from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). However, this new crime syndicate did not develop as had LFM and CT. In 2015, Gómez was captured and imprisoned (Rama 2015). While the glory days of CT and LFM were then over, vestiges of their groups linger on across the state of Michoacán. In 2020, in Zitácuaro, Michoacan an LFM safe house was raided by the police. As the influence of LFM and CT has dwindled, new cartels such as Los Viagras, Cartel del Abuela, and CJNG have moved into the territory.
Other Mexican folk saints have been associated with drug cartels, most notably Jesus Malverde (Bromley 2016) and, more recently, Santa Muerte (Kingsbury 2021). CT is distinctive. It developed a theology that was a bricolage of religious messaging with a revolutionary narrative of insurgency, as well as narcoculture. Centered around a moral code, the CT believed themselves to be God’s loyal foot soldiers waging a holy war to protect their turf, the local population and narco-family. Promoting a sort of populist uprising, these insurgency elements were inspired by revolutionary figures such as the Mexican hero Pancho Villa and Argentinian Guerilla leader, Che Guevara who fought for the communities in Cuba, and later Congo and Bolivia. Doctrines presented CT members as protectors of their people, fighting for justice against the state, as well as other rival cartels.
A militant Christian ideology was espoused which came from both the Evangelical movements Moreno had encountered during his time in the U.S. and the original Knights Templars of the crusades. Their avowed mission had been to safeguard Christian pilgrims visiting sites in the Holy Land while also waging war against Islamic Armies. The Knights Templar adhered to a strict code of conduct which required them to be humble and obedient. They wore distinctive white capes with a red cross. The CT took from the Original Knights both symbologically, such as using the cross pattée, [Image at right] as well as ideologically, adopting the idea of a strict moral code to which new members had to swear. This code of conduct that emphasized obedience was used to indoctrinate CT members into carrying out whatever orders their superiors requested. The code book, which members were required to carry around with them, specifically described cartel members as holy warriors, delineating their responsibilities within the organization and duties to each other and to leaders in fifty-three commandments that they had sworn to obey. While the CT carried out acts of violence, doctrinal elements emphasized that the struggle was for the people and for future generations.
Additionally, in Evangelical prosperity gospel, hard work and obedience were understood to be rewarded not only with God’s grace but with material wealth. The ideas that individuals have a personal mission and that members can be “re-born” to fight in the name of God also derived from Evangelical movements. The CT, much like LFM, drew on Evangelicalism in teaching that members should remain humble and not be ostentatious with their wealth. This differentiated them from rival cartels that strove to display their wealth. Instead, the CT especially during rituals, created an egalitarian community where all members dressed identically, such as wearing the white capes with the red cross that the original Knights Templar had worn.
Chesnut (2018) has summarized the moral and religious precepts contained in Moreno’s writings, Pensamientos (James 2018), that lent transcendent purpose to cartel activities:
Article number 8 commands Templarios to “selflessly love and serve all of humanity.” In a similar vein, article 9 states, “A Templar Knight understands that there is a God, a life created by Him, an eternal truth and a divine purpose to serve God and mankind.” Given the cartel’s logic of neutralizing rivals, point 16 makes a bizarre call to respect diversity. “The Templars should not have a negative attitude against any man that has been created by God, even if he is different or strange. On the contrary, the Templar should understand how others seek God.” Going a step further, article 17 makes it clear that the raison d’etre of the cartel is seeking truth through God. “A soldier of the Templars cannot be enslaved by sectarian beliefs and shallow opinions. God is truth and without God there is no truth. The Templar must always search for the truth because in truth there is God.
A key ritual in the building of CT was initiation. The cartel recruited primarily among young, poorly educated Michoacáno men who were adrift and disillusioned with the opportunities afforded to them in contemporary Mexican society. Membership offered them a sense of community, membership in a sacred family, holy purpose, and a new idealized masculine identity. As Lomnitz (2019) sums up the matter:
With the breakdown of the biological family in many parts of Mexico, including Michoacán due to divorces, single parent households, labor migration to the US, deaths both natural and caused by the drug war and increasing urban anomie, affinal families have faced many pressures and young men in particular, may seek more familial alternatives.
Members could become divinely ordained warriors and take up arms and fight as God’s foot-soldiers to protect local populations and stave off invasion from rival cartels, even as they engaged in violence and criminality.
The young men transitioning into the cartel were required to read both Eldredge’s book, The Wild Heart, and Moreno’s Pensamientos and to carry the latter with them at all times. Pensamientos contains the fifty-three commandments CT members are expected to obey and emphasize hard work, subservience and service (James 2018). During the initiation rituals new members dressed in white capes with the red cross of the original Knights Templar and swore an oath of loyalty to the cartel. Pensamientos stipulated that CT members who betrayed the cause would be penalised with capital punishment.
Symbols were carefully selected to appeal to young Michoacáno men. The most important of these was the Cross Patteé. In a country where around eighty percent of the population identifies as Catholic, the crucifix in its many forms has mass appeal in that it represents the religion of the great majority and is therefore seen as a major marker of national identity. During rituals of initiation and special occasions, battle gear and ceremonial garb employed by the CT adorned with the signature red cross, as well as other significant symbols (crests, replicas of those of the medieval Knights Templar) were used for inductions of new members. Weaponry also frequently featured such insignia, mobilized to remind CT members of their holy role in waging cartel war.
The central founders of CT were Nazario Moreno Gonzalez (“El Mas Loco” or “el Chayo”) and Martínez Servando Gómez (“La Tuta,” the teacher). Moreno and Gómez initially began working together in the drug industry when they formed part of a group of core founders. From the beginning Gómez frequently sought the limelight and, like a televangelist, used the media stage to spread the word of LFM and later the CT narco-theology. Gómez released numerous YouTube videos, attended interviews with TV reporters and even called in to radio phone-in shows to offer explanations and rationalizations for the cartel’s actions. After Moreno’s feigned death in 2010, the pair separated from the rest of LFM leaders to found CT.
By contrast, Moreno assumed a role of spiritual leadership. Indeed, Moreno emerged in the popular imagination as a folk saint, or perhaps to be more exact, a narco-saint: c. His death was scripted as a sacrifice for the greater good, and sightings of him, dressed in white robes wandering the countryside, added to CT mythology, making him a martyr who had been resurrected to lead the CT. His name added to this mythology. Nazario, an unusual name in Mexico, means “from Nazareth,” alluding to the biblical Jesus, who was resurrected after dying on the cross for “our sins.” In CT script, Moreno had died doing God’s work, fighting for justice for Michoacános. A cult following soon emerged. Shrines were built by CT members around Michoacán containing statues and images of Nazario dressed in traditional Templar garb to further build the mystique of Moreno as a narco-saint. [Image at right] The cross pattée had been a symbol of martyrdom for the Knights Templar of the crusades, of their sacrifice for Christ and Moreno’s death for the CT further played into this mythos.
Organization of CT beneath Moreno and Gómez was hierarchical, and new members were required to swear their fealty to CT leaders. Hierarchies were loosely based upon the original Knights Templar and used biblical lexicon. Important core members were called apostles, preachers were responsible for various territories, and hitmen were dubbed celestial warriors. The cartel’s organizational activities involved a broad range of criminal enterprise: extortion of agricultural businesses, coordinating undocumented migration into the U.S., illegal mining, the sex trade, illegal gasoline trafficking (known as huachicolero), arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources. All of these enterprises were stabilized by force and violence.
The growth and success of CT can be attributed to a number of factors. Some are external, most notably the tumultuous, dysfunctional state of Mexican society and the availability of a cohort of adrift and dispirited young potential recruits. Indeed, the condition of Mexican society has remained desperate, which has set the stage for similar successor cartels in the wake of CT. Some are internal, most notably the ability of the founders to create community and transcendent purpose for potential recruits through its doctrines and rituals. Not all cartels incorporated religious/spiritual themes as did CT. Its leaders were particularly adept at drawing themes from Evangelical Christianity, promising recruits that they could be “born again” as warriors in a godly cause; incorporating the idea of a revolution in a way that drew on ideologies key to Mexican national identity and revolutionary figures such as Pancho Villa; producing a “bible” that professed high moral ideals; and invoking the Knights Templar of the crusades in declaring a holy war that was to be waged in the name of God but at the same time legitimated and vindicated violence and brutality. And, for a time, CT was a formidable presence among the numerous drug cartels in Mexico.
The inventive quasi-religious doctrines and tight, hierarchical organization of CT notwithstanding, the cartel had a relatively brief lifespan. Following the capture of Gomez and the death of Moreno, the cartel began to disintegrate. In this respect, the fate of CT replicates that of numerous Mexican cartels. Like the group’s emergence, its demise involved both internal and external factors. As Sullivan (2019) summarized the external factors, they involved
…endemic corruption; weak state institutions, extreme violence, and diminishing state legitimacy. The conflict at times involves direct confrontation with the state and its security forces. At other times, corrupt state officials collude with cartel capos hollowing out state capacity and exerting territorial control over municipalities, large portions of some states, and economic processes, including resource extraction and illicit taxation. The cartels not only confront the state, but battle each other for control, profit, and prestige within the emerging narcostate.
Geopolitically, the nation has been divided into a number of areas of control, with the shape of those areas and the identities of the dominant cartels constantly in flux. For the nation as a whole, the situation has become so dire that characterizations as “civil war,” “cartelization,” and “failed state” have been invoked to describe it (Grayson 2006; Lomitz 2019). As for CT, for a time it attempted to form an alliance with other cartels, United Cartels (Cárteles Unidos) to fend off the dominance of the Los Zetas Cartel but continued to lose ground. CT subsequently faced another major challenge from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which itself may be continuing the cyclical growth of Mexican drug cartels (Dittmar 2020).
Internally, the group confronted the problems of organizational development amid a highly chaotic, violent environment and also experienced the kind of internal conflict, schism, and leadership loss characteristic of new movements of various kinds. Even more significantly, the cartel created an inherent internal contradiction. On the one hand its bricolage ideology combined elements of Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Mexican folklore, and historical Knights Templar symbolism. This ideology presented the cartel as a spiritually legitimated messianic enterprise dedicated to protection on local populations and in opposition to an illegitimate and corrupt central government. The juxtaposition of this ideology with the violent and exploitive practices of the cartel ultimately was not manageable and eroded the cartel’s initial popular support. This combination of erosion of local support, the emergence of auto-defensas, cartel competition and aggressive governmental control measures proved to be more than the cartel could endure.
Image #1: Nazario Moreno González.
Image #2: José de Jesús Méndez Vargas (or “El Chango”).
Image #3: Nazario Moreno cadaver.
Image #4: The cross pattée
Image #5: San Nazario.
Image #6: Candlelight Vigil at a San Nazario shrine.
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10 May 2022