|Narco Cults: A Security Threat Group Challenge on the Horizon|
|By Tony M. Kail, SME Religious Cultures - Symbol Intelligence Group|
The growing threat of transnational drug organizations such as the Mexican based drug cartels pose a threat to our domestic security. Law enforcement agencies are beginning to discover a number of cartels operating within the United States. This threat not only brings the potential of criminal activity that follows the cartels but also brings elements of the cartel culture into the picture. One element of this culture is the advent of ‘narco spirituality’ which encompasses the combination of criminal cartel activities and elements of religious cultures. Corrections personnel may be challenged with the dilemma of discerning between potential security threat groups and religious organizations.
The Cartel Threat
Mexico has become a battlefield between drug traffickers and the Mexican military. Cartels and cartel cells wage a constant war with rival drug traffickers over drug distribution routes and control of territories. Cartel related violence has created a humanitarian crisis in many of Mexico’s communities where locals fear to leave their homes. Cartels have resorted to a very personal style of violence that includes beheadings, hangings and dismemberments. Cartels have become like tribes in that they have their own distinctive names, symbols and initiations. Some cartels have taken in various religious cultures to give their organizations a faith based form of purpose. Like many terrorist organizations, religion has become a motivation for group violence and criminality.
Two distinct drug trafficking organizations that incorporate spirituality into their cartel activities are La Familia Michoacána (LFM) and Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar). La Familia Michoacána which began in Michoacán state is involved in the manufacturing and shipping of methamphetamines, cocaine and marijuana. The group originally began as a citizen’s defense group that sought to protect local communities from drug dealers and kidnappers. The group later transformed into a violent drug trafficking organization and began competing with other established cartels in the region. The group’s leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez set himself up as a ‘prophetic’ spiritual leader that encouraged members of the cartel to commit acts of violence as forms of divine punishment. Beheadings and various acts of murder would be accompanied with messages left from the group speaking of ‘divine justice’. The group’s leadership structure began using an in-depth indoctrination process for new members of the cartel. Group members would listen to leadership teachings, perform specialized prayers and even carry sacred scriptures written by the cartel leader.
Members of the cartel believed that they were not only gaining from involvement in the group financially but spiritually as well. Religious ideology became a motivation to transport narcotics into the U.S. Nazario Gonzalez went through a spiritual transformation as he was viewed as this ‘messianic’ figure. In 2010 Gonzalez was believed to have been killed in a shootout with Mexican authorities. Gonzalez was actually alive and would continue to live as a cartel messiah as he would appear in various regions dressed in white and claiming to have been raised from the dead. In 2014 Gonzalez was confirmed dead after the Mexican military shot and killed the leader. La Familia lives on through the activities of surviving members and through the group’s latest incarnation as the Los Caballeros Templarios.
The Los Caballeros Templarios were created after the alleged death of Gonzalez. LFM members and founders split and one faction formed the Los Caballeros Templarios. LFM co/founder Servando ‘La Tuta’ Gómez Martinez, a former school teacher discovered that religion played a powerful motivator to those in the cartel. Martinez began to create an ideology that he adopted from the European Knights Templar, a 12th century fraternal order of knights that protected pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem.
The group teaches that membership in the cartel is performing a service to God and man. There are a number of religious symbols, rituals and oaths that the group uses. While many of the writings of the group that are available to the public speak of honorable concepts such as love, chivalry and honor, the group is involved in many ‘not so honorable’ deeds. The group is involved in trafficking cocaine and methamphetamines into the U.S. Members of the cartel have raped, tortured and murdered rivals and innocent bystanders. In March of 2014, a member of the Mexican government released information that members of the group had become involved in a form of ritualistic cannibalism as part of an initiation ceremony.
These two groups are examples of trafficking organizations that have incorporated spirituality into their practices. There are also a number of traffickers who have incorporated religious culture into their activities by hiring ritual specialists to perform various ceremonies to protect them from police and rivals. Traffickers have been discovered using a number of Afro-Caribbean religious cultures like Santeria and Voodoo as well as a number of Mexican based religious practices such as the worship of Santa Muerte and other folk saints.
The Challenge to Corrections
Many of these organizations have been discovered operating in the U.S. As there is increased criminal activity associated with cartel migration throughout the U.S. and Mexico, law enforcement agencies will continue to arrest members of these groups and many will end up in correctional institutions. As with traditional American street gangs and extremists, corrections personnel will have the challenges that come with dealing with security threat groups. Issues such as group violence, targeting of individuals and criminal activities within jail and prison populations will certainly follow these organizations.
One of the challenges that will face corrections is the presence of these new ‘narco cults’. The issue of defining what is a recognized religious group verses a security threat group has been a challenge throughout the years for jail and prison administrators alike. What if members of a drug cartel ask for space for religious services or ritual tools to honor drug dealing as a religious sacrament? What if members of a cartel want to be able to assemble with fellow members under the guise of religious assembly? These are questions that many correctional institutions will have to address as the growth of narco cults continues to develop. Correctional agencies should seek to become more aware of these groups and the challenges they present to our nation.
Tony M. Kail serves as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) with the Symbol Intelligence Group on the topic of narco culture and Afro-Caribbean religious culture. Kail is an adjunct instructor for the National Gang Academy and has served as guest instructor for the United States Army the United States Capitol Police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is the author of the upcoming book ‘Narco Cults: The Role of Afro-Caribbean and Mexican Religious Culture in the Drug War’ from CRC Press. His website is available at: www.narcocults.com
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