Another Mexican drug lord caught, but victory elusive

Mexico City (AFP) - Mexico's government dealt a major blow to the Knights Templar drug cartel by capturing its last leader, but the proliferation of new armed groups shows the government is far from victory.

The arrest of Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, whose gang has tormented the western state of Michoacan for years, was a much-needed victory for embattled President Enrique Pena Nieto.

For months now, Pena Nieto has endured protests over his government's handling of the investigation into the presumed murder of 43 college students by a police-backed gang.

Gomez, 49, became the latest trophy in the government's pursuit of notorious criminal kingpins blamed for murders and kidnappings plaguing the country.

But security analysts say Friday's arrest of the 49-year-old former schoolteacher nicknamed "La Tuta" was more of a symbolic win.

The capture of cartel leaders can create smaller groups, which cause a different kind of headache for authorities as the criminals switch from drug trafficking to kidnappings and extortion, terrorizing the population.

In the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, for instance, a spate of murders erupted in recent weeks despite the captures and killings of leaders of the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent years.

In the western state of Michoacan, where the Knights Templar used to be the dominant force, the emergence of vigilante forces formed by farmers created another layer of complexity.

The self-defense militias were deputized by the government last year, but the authorities now plan to disband them after infighting among rival vigilante groups.

"The problem in Michoacan is the proliferation of criminal groups and armed groups," Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former intelligence official, told AFP.

He said the authorities face "the difficulty to demobilize the self-defense militias, fights among vigilantes, and the appearance of other criminal groups."

- Los Viagras -

Jaime Rivera, an analyst at Michoacana University, said the authorities had already dismantled much of the cartel in the past year.

"The criminals haven't disappeared, though the organization has," Rivera said.

"It will convert from an organization -- a real criminal empire that penetrated the government and held sway over the population -- to a scattered group of common criminals," he said.

Former Michoacan governor Fausto Vallejo, who resigned last year after failing to tame violence in his state, said thefts and carjackings are on the rise.

"A more dangerous stage is coming because the people (Gomez) controlled and acted under his direction will unfortunately go loose, and many are hitmen, so be careful, they are more dangerous than Mr. Servando," Vallejo told Milenio television.

Vallejo's own son, however, was detained last year after he appeared in a video chatting casually with Gomez. He insisted he was forced to meet Gomez.

- A litmus test -

One shadowy armed group that has appeared in Michoacan is named Los Viagras.

Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said Los Viagras are former hitmen of the Knights Templar who "are looking for work elsewhere."

"They are scattered hitmen cells trying to survive, but unfortunately at the cost of the population," he said.

Many criminals from Michoacan have scurried to the neighboring southern state of Guerrero, a pattern experts call the "cucaracha" (cockroach) effect, Manaut said.

The Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos, two gangs from Guerrero, operate similarly as their neighbors because they run extortion rackets, kidnap and murder people, he said.

The Guerreros Unidos are accused of killing the 43 missing students after receiving them from local corrupt police from the city of Iguala.

The violence in Guerrero is also linked to a battles for control of heroin production amid an increase of poppy fields in the mountains, Manaut said.

In Michoacan, a state where many politicians have been linked to the Knights Templar, the "litmus test" will be the midterm national elections in June, Manaut said.

"This will show to what extent life has become calmer for Michoacan residents, or not," he said. "There are still more questions than answers after La Tuta's capture."

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