Mexican drug capo lavished gifts on hometown

ARTEAGA, Mexico - Drug lord Servando "La Tuta" Gomez may be among Mexico's most wanted men, but in his western mountain hometown, he was known for throwing parties, sending gifts and handing out cash.

Nobody can say exactly the last time the leader of the cult-like Knights Templar drug cartel visited Arteaga, a small Michoacan state town where the teacher-turned-capo once taught.

But Gomez is now on the run, as civilian militias allied with police hunt for him in caves and forested hills of Michoacan's Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), trying to deal a heavy blow to the cartel.

While Gomez nurtured a Robin Hood image in his hometown, his gang instilled fear in other Michoacan residents who were forced to pay protection taxes or face the worst.

Gomez's roots are deep in the agricultural and mining town of 22,000 people, which is two hours from the Pacific coast, up a winding road.

His mother owns a ranch where roosters are bred for cockfights. A lavish family mausoleum, where his father is entombed, lies prominently at the cemetery's entrance. An ex-wife lives in a pink house.

Some say the 48-year-old kingpin last visited Arteaga five years ago, others saw him just last year. But even absent, people knew he was behind parties on Mother's Day and other holidays.

As he diced meat at a taco stand, Miguel Angel, 21, recalled that Gomez had planned to build a retirement home.

"People respected him. He never messed with the town. He helped people economically. He would send gifts to children for Christmas," he said.

On the run

Unlike other drug lords, the baseball-cap wearing Gomez is a talkative character who has appeared in several videos and interviews as recently as January.

But he has vanished and is believed to be hiding in the rough mountain terrain.

"He can survive up there. He knows people in the hills," said a police official who requested anonymity.

A dozen sport-utility vehicles packed with assault rifle-wielding vigilantes and state police officers peeled out of town on Sunday and headed to the hills.

They refused to reveal the nature of their operation, but insisted that they were not looking for Gomez that time.

Authorities have killed or captured three Knights Templar leaders this year, making Gomez the last top target of the cartel that once held sway in Michoacan.

The gang came under pressure after farmers, fed up with the cartel's reign of terror, formed vigilante militias in February 2013 and took control of security in some 30 towns.

The vigilantes, whose movement was legalized and turned into a new rural police force on Saturday, finally arrived in Arteaga on April 22.

But some townspeople are unhappy with the presence of the civilian militias, accusing them of barging into people's homes and stealing.

"People think they're another criminal group and that there could be a clash with the Knights Templar at any moment," said the owner of a hat store who refused to give his name.

Family ranch

The town is lined with shops, fruit stands and low-rise homes.

At its entrance, a traffic sign is pocked with seven rusted bullet holes. Two shrines to Santa Muerte, the scythe-wielding skeleton saint worshipped by criminals, stand near Arteaga's welcome gate.

The college where Gomez learned to become a teacher and the primary school where he once taught are still here.

Gomez, whose cartel smuggles crystal meth to the United States and exports illegally-extracted iron ore to China, owns seven properties in Arteaga, according to prosecutors.

The ranch owned by his mother Teresa is down a dirt road near the cemetery, but she has left town to undergo a medical procedure, said Rosalba Barragan, the facility's caretaker.

During a recent visit by AFP reporters, a dozen milk cows grazed pasture. More than 30 fighting roosters squawked from cages. The birds sell for as much as 3,000 pesos ($230).

Cockfighting seems to be a family passion. Two fighting roosters feature on the glass-sliding doors of the mausoleum where his father, uncles and grandparents are entombed.

While Barragan said Gomez, one of four brothers, and his parents had kept their distance, she said townspeople approach his mother to praise him.

"People are pleased because he helps them," Barrangan said. "They thank her for what her son does."