MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico captured its most wanted drug lord on Friday, former primary school teacher Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, and delivered a boost to a government battered by gang violence.
The 49-year-old gang boss was the prime target of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s effort to regain control of Michoacan, a western state wracked by clashes between Gomez’s Knights Templar cartel and armed vigilantes trying to oust them.
The arrest comes as Peña Nieto seeks to quell public outrage in Mexico after the late September abduction and apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers by corrupt police in league with gang members.
That incident triggered Peña Nieto’s deepest crisis. Attorney General Jesus Murillo, under fire for months over his handling of that investigation, will step down, a senior government official said on Friday.
An announcement about the change would probably come later on Friday, said another official, from Murillo’s office.
After months of intelligence work, federal police said they captured Gomez and some people with him early in the morning at a house in the Michoacan state capital of Morelia. However, some local media said he was caught while eating at a hotdog stand.
Police said no shots were fired.
A police spokesman said Gomez would be brought to Mexico City later in the day to make a declaration.
Hitting the campaign trail ahead of local elections, Peña Nieto on Friday paid tribute to Mexico’s security forces for capturing “a criminal who was so wanted and who had generated an atmosphere of uncertainty and immense criminality.”
Last week, police seized many properties in the area and arrested a handful of people connected to Gomez. Local media reported that those busts had led to his arrest.
A father of at least seven, Gomez is wanted by the United States for trafficking methamphetamine and cocaine. The Justice Department said he was also involved in the 2009 murder of 12 Mexican federal police officers.
Mexican authorities had placed a bounty of 30 million pesos ($2 million) on his head.
Antonio Mazzitelli, Mexico’s representative to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that although Gomez became less powerful after the capture of many of his lieutenants, the arrest was still welcome news.
“He was a fugitive, living in the jungle,” Mazzitelli said. “But it’s an important step in terms of (Peña Nieto’s) credibility.”
Since the Mexican government began a military crackdown on drug cartels in 2007, more than 100,000 people have been killed in gang-related violence.
During the bloodshed, no kingpin sought the limelight as often as Gomez.
Whether railing against political corruption on YouTube or talking to the media from hideouts, Gomez relentlessly baited the government, accusing it of colluding with rival gangs while defending his Knights Templar as a “necessary evil.”
“Our only function is to help the people, preserve our state and preserve our country from people causing terror,” Gomez said in a video posted online in 2012 as he sat in front of images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other revolutionary icons.
In another interview, with a fat wad of dollars poking out of his jeans pocket, Gomez said teaching primary school had not met his ambitions, and so he decided to cross over into a life of crime.
Gomez said his cartel followed a strict ethical code. As time passed, though, he became more open about the criminal side of a gang that in 2013 held much of the impoverished, mountainous terrain of Michoacan in a firm grip.
During their ascendancy, the government says, the Knights Templar extorted a broad sweep of businesses, controlled politicians and diversified from drug trafficking into myriad other operations, including the export of iron ore.
Gomez became the front man of the Knights Templar after a split within drug cartel La Familia Michoacana, a pseudo-religious gang in which he was also a leading figure.
Sporting a goatee beard and often wearing a baseball cap, Gomez began smuggling marijuana independently in 2001 or 2002 before later joining La Familia, authorities said.
Gomez’s arrest occurred about a year after the capture of Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman. He was head of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug smuggling gangs in the world.
With reporting by Dave Graham, Elinor Comlay, Reuters Pictures and Mexico Newsroom; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray and Lisa Von Ahn