Mexican Cartel Becomes a Bizarre Cult

By Chrisanne Grise 07/18/12

One drug trafficker's death has spawned a religious group, the "Knights Templar," that idolizes him (while continuing his violence).

An altar for Saint Nazario. Photo via

Mexico’s drug war has brought pain and suffering upon countless thousands. It's also helped a few hundred participants find a new spiritual path. The death of one of the country’s most feared drug traffickers, Nazario Moreno—known as “El Mas Loco” or “The Craziest One”—has led to the creation of a strange cult-like group known as the "Knights Templar." Moreno’s cartel, formerly called “La Familia Michoacana,” is one of the biggest traffickers of crystal meth to the US, and boasts an army of around 1,200 gunmen. But its late leader still considered himself an evangelical Christian and was known for spreading the gospel. When he was shot dead by police in December 2010, he had been handing out washing machines and cars as Christmas presents at a festival.

His legacy lives on now through the Knights Templar. While the group’s exact religious beliefs are unclear, police have found plastic helmets used in initiation ceremonies as well as altars topped with three-foot high statues of Moreno, shown in golden medieval armor and carrying a sword. Meanwhile, the local “Prayer to Saint Nazario” portrays Moreno as a holy being: "Give me holy protection, through Saint Nazario, Protector of the poorest, Knights of the people, Saint Nazario, give us life," it goes. And members continue their idol's generous giving: "They help people out by giving them presents like bags of cement,” says an anonymous undercover military intelligence officer. Nevertheless, the Knights Templar are believed to be behind the majority of the 480 drug-related murders in Michoacan in the last year and a half—including dozens of decapitations and dismemberments.

After Moreno's death, Servando Gomez—one of the top lieutenants and a former rural school teacher—took over the gang and renamed it the Knights Templar, after the medieval military that protected Christians during the Crusades. But some members chose to stick with La Familia Michoacana and have now become the Knights’ rivals—10 people were killed this month in a shoot-out between them. The Knights apparently follow a strict code of 53 commandments, including instructions like: "The Knights Templar will establish an ideological battle and defend the values of a society based on ethics” and "Any knight who betrays the Templars will receive the maximum punishment, their properties will be taken and the same fate will befall their family.” Looks like president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto will be needing that new drug war plan when he takes office in December.

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices,,, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.