A Catholic bishop in Mexico takes on the Knights Templar drug cartel

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Marco Werman: Our next story is very much about the present in Mexico. It'sw got echoes of Pablo Escobar, but the story about the Knights Templar diverges wildly from that narrative. The Knights Templar is a crime syndicate based in the Mexican state of Michoacán. There name may sound like a religious order. They're more like a cult crossed with a cartel, but a holy war, of sorts, IS being waged against them. Local vigilantes have taken up arms against the cartel with the support of Catholic bishop, Miguel Patino Velasquez. Josh Partlow has been covering the story for the Washing Post. He joins us from Mexico City. First of all, who are the Knights Templar, Josh. How are they different from other drug cartels.

Josh Partlow: You know, they're kind of descended from another drug cartel that's been active for several years in Michoacán, this western state of Mexico. I think what makes them most interesting they have kind of a cult following, or at least they have a religious aspect to them. The leader - kind of the spiritual leader of the group, who may or may not have been killed by the police a couple of years ago. Many residents believe he is alive - is a man who has, who gives sermons and is said to have religious writings and that sort of thing. People build shrines to him. I've seen one of the towns I visited, Michoacán, recently I saw a large shrine on a hillside where people worshiped to him and his, sort of, his group. So I think that's the most bizarre thing about the Knights Templar is how they see themselves kind of as a religious defenders of the peasantry out there.

Marco Werman: That sounds very bizarre. Is it - would you go so far as to say that it's part religious order, part crime syndicate?

Josh Partlow: Yeah, that's how people describe them. You know, I don't know how much their religion guides their actions in contrast to the more obvious economic motives they have - you know, organized crime, extortion. You know, in Michoacán most people say this is the most dominant drug gang at the moment. They make millions of dollars, both extorting businesses all over the state and local politicians. They control the movement of meth chemicals in from the port on the Pacific in through Mexico.

Marco Werman: Right, so where does bishop Velasquez enter the story?

Josh Partlow: So he's been the bishop out there for years. You know, when I spoke to him he said this has been an issue that he's lived with for decades but that it's gotten increasingly worse and he's, you know, decided to speak out. And he has, in a series of letters, kind of open letters from the diocese, and also in interviews, media interviews, he has talked about how the level of organized crime has gotten to the point where, you know, it needs to stop. The local government is involved. He's really jumped into the national spotlight with these statements over the last couple of months.

Marco Werman: Isn't the local government stepping in to, you know, do what it's supposed to? Law and order?

Josh Partlow: Yeah, you know, well - the local government not so much, I mean, that's one of the main problems out there it seems like is the municipal officials, the state officials. The way people describe, they're really intertwined with these organized crime groups. So, a lot of people don't have much confidence in them. You know, the federal government has sent in troops to Michoacán - a few thousand troops. So you see them out there patrolling and, you know, at check points but it's, you know, from the residents I spoke with, they don't seem to have too much confidence that the military is really going to be able to take on these organized crime groups. So, that's where you see in the last few months the rise of these, what they call, the self-defense village militias have have been probably the most interesting dynamic out there. Right now there's all these residents who have banded together to fight the narcos(?) themselves because they think the government is not doing enough. So, other people, including in the state government in Michoacán say that some of the churches are playing a bit more active role as a middle man between businesses in donating to these self-defense groups and, you know, giving food and money and that sort of thing. I was also told that, you know, in some of these villages where the militias are active the church bells act as a signal for people to come and fight the narcos.

Marco Werman: Josh Partlow's story about Bishop Velasquez and the Knights Templar is in today's Washington Post. josh, thank you very much.

Josh Partlow: Thanks a lot.