When Religion Kills: The Narco-Traffickers of the Borderlands

When Anders Breivik slaughtered over 70 people in Norway last month, he did so in the name of the Knights Templar. Known for their extreme violence, this was the Roman Catholic crusading fraternity dedicated to the protection of Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Medieval military orders do not commonly hit the headlines, but oddly—as was noted in the Christian Science Monitor in late July—the Knights Templar were also implicated in another context, in another country, the same week that Breivik’s Manifesto began to circulate.

In Mexico a group of narco-traffickers now identify themselves in the Christian tradition, calling themselves the Knights Templar of Michoacan (KTM), an organization that morphed from the fragments of an earlier incarnation, La Familia Michoacana (LFM). This born-again gang (members were initiated as if they were joining a church, asked to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior) was headed by a man who called himself “El Mas Loco,” or the Craziest One, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez.

Gonzalez penned his interpretations of the Bible in what he called “Pensamientos,” or “Thoughts.” In this theological effort, he was hugely influenced by the work of Colorado Springs-based Christian author John Eldredge, a former board member for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and founder of a men’s ministry called Ransomed Heart. Eldredges’ 2001 book, Wild At Heart: Discovering The Secret of a Man’s Soul, was required reading for La Familia.

While Eldredge has expressed “sorrow and anger” at the news that his book has found such devoted readers in La Familia, his unique theological focus on male bonding and heroism was evidently just the thing for a gang of “knights” in search of a chivalric code.

“Very Dangerous Men”

The best-selling Christian author received his master’s degree in counseling from Colorado Christian University in 2000, and Eldredge’s Wild at Heart is a self-help book for Christian men. It teaches that a polite Christianity has castrated men, turning them into “nice guys” and “posers.” As a result, men have lost their “heart,” and he aims to help them rediscover it. The plumb line of the text is that a man’s heart is untamed, adventurous, fierce, even violent—fraught with a penchant for danger. Masculine heart recovery or “restoration” mandates a connection to wilderness, and to other men; Eldredge argues that masculinity can only be conferred or bestowed to men by men. Hence, central to his work is a benevolent misogyny and a radical homosociality.

Ransomed Heart ministries hosts men’s retreats into the wilderness. Homosexuality results, he claims, when the need for masculine bonding is confused with sexual desire. Eldredge’s popular theology turns at once on the machismo of Jesus (though he explicitly rejects this term), and a narcissistic male identity that participates in the absolute sovereignity of God. He correctly points out the multiple stances toward violence exhibited by the Jesus of the gospels. Christ appears conflicted, referring to himself as the Prince of Peace and advising his followers to turn the other cheek. Yet, in other canonical places Jesus is capable of great anger and even violence: he upsets the tables of money changers at the Temple, whipping them while in a frenzy (this is a pivotal reference for Eldredge).

Jesus also demonstrates a destructive response when piqued, what with cursing (and killing) a tree that bore no fruit. In his telling, Jesus was not a nice guy; on the contrary, he was a warrior who took justice into his own hands for his version of God’s righteousness. Eldredge draws his argument about Christian masculinity from Old Testament scriptures. He points especially to King David’s massacre of the Philistines for no other justification than that they were on the wrong side of the Lord’s random mercy. Another of Eldgredge’s heroes, Samson, boasts 

a pretty impressive résumé: killed a lion with his bare hands, pummeled and stripped thirty Philistines… he killed a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. Not a guy to mess with… All those events happened when ‘the Spirit of the LORD came upon him.’

Eldredge’s theology positions a deity who is very near, literally a “friend.” As he sees it: “God is intimately personal with us and he speaks in ways that are peculiar to our own quirky hearts.” Hence, there is no universal principle or vision of human flourishing to which God is devoted. Instead, submission to Jesus involves sharing God’s glory, enabling the adventure and thus allowing the unique mission of every Christian man to emerge.

Toward this end Eldredge admonishes his readers: “Get some guys together. You need brothers. Allies. Not a gathering of nice men—a band of very dangerous men.”

The Death, and Rebirth, of Violence

In Mexico, these words fell upon fertile ears. When God spoke to the quirky heart of El Mas Loco he must have been filled with rage. On September 6, 2006, twenty masked desperados stormed into a night spot in Uruapan, Michoacan, and tossed five severed heads onto the dance floor. They also deposited a note, reading: “The family doesn’t kill for money. It doesn’t kill women. It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice.”

La Familia took the severing of human heads as their signature ritual: all across Michoacan decapitated corpses litter the landscape while testifying to the transformative power of the Holy Ghost. La Famila was in line with other Pentecostal movements throughout Latin America insofar as they prohibit the usage of drugs and alcohol, condemn homosexuality, and require that their members become born-again Christians, attend enthusiastic worship ceremonies, prayer meetings, and Bible study groups. The drug cartels have set up evangelical recovery homes across Mexico for backsliders in the style of U.S. rescue missions.

La Famila personalized Eldredge’s gospel, wedding it to the narrative of justice and redemption for Mexico—but especially for the chosen ones who constituted the membership of La Famila. El Mas Loco was killed by police in December 2010 and his congregation fell into disarray, suffering schism. And interestingly, evolving from a Protestant movement into a distinctly Catholic lay fraternity. On March 8 of this year remnants of La Familia were reconstituted as The Knights Templar of Michoacan (Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacan) or KTM.

They have been denounced by the official Knights Templar organization in Mexico, a group dedicated to charitable work. Nonetheless KTM boldly proclaims itself to be in the chivalrous and bloody tradition of Christian crusaders. It seems no coincidence that the group emerged during the Lenten season, which occasions Christian self examination, control of appetites, and spiritual devotion: sacrifice. KTM emphasizes sacrificing for honor, country, and God, and especially for the state of Michoacan. They require that members exemplify these virtues and many others including humility and, remarkably, religious freedom for those who believe in God.

KTM claims to live by a code of ethics that is published in a small illustrated booklet entitled “El Codigo de los Caballeros Templarios de Michocan” (The Code of KTM). The often baroque twenty-two page Code contains fifty three precepts, many of them redundant, and a pledge at the end. A final admonition declares that breaking the Code will result in immediate execution. The Code is illustrated with images pulled from a website promoting the 2007 Swedish film Arn: The Knights Templar. This past spring, copies of the Code were mysteriously distributed across Michoacan. Like La Familia, members of the Knights Templar must refrain from drugs and must commit to routine drug testing, but unlike La Famila they are allowed to drink alcohol, providing they avoid becoming drunk “in an offensive manner.”

Living by a Code

While emphasizing personal honor and community service they also preach a rejection of materialism and a reverence for tradition and the sacred. Their Catholicism stands in sharp contrast to their evangelical predecessors. La Familia was based on the Protestant model wherein the individual is the prime unit of spiritual and moral agency. KTM’s creed does echo that of La Familia, particularly in its absolute theism, but their model is communitarian, and focused on obedience.

The opening of the Code makes it clear that it is meant to be recited. In fact, according to the Mexican press, initiation is marked by an elaborate ritual involving flagellation. There the initiate is made to swear by the code, including its provision of death if the pledge is broken—a caveat that is repeated several times throughout the recitation. Among the earliest pledges is that God exists, and God is Truth, and therefore Knights should commit themselves to the pursuit of Truth because there they will find God. They also quickly note that a Knight’s responsibility is to set an example for all Mexico of “disinterested service to all of humanity.”

Mostly, however, the Code declares a commitment to protect the “free and sovereign state of Michoacan,” making clear its four goals: “love, fidelity, equality, and Justice.” Precept fifteen declares that the KTM promote democratic freedoms: expression, conscience, and religion. Precept sixteen states that Knights need to understand “how others get close to God.” Credo sixteen extols the virtue of patriotism. Number nineteen advises humility and nobility, while twenty-two announces that no woman should fear a Knight, but, rather, should feel protected by him. Twenty-nine reiterates that every Knight should be “firmly and truthfully in the just cause of God.” Numbers thirty-four through thirty-eight prohibit drugs, kidnapping, and mandate drug testing. Forty-three requires members to become cultured through learning. In forty-eight, their philosophy on divine justice is unpacked: “no one should kill for pleasure (gusto) nor money.” Each murder should be considered carefully to determine if there exists sufficient cause. Forty-nine reminds that their war is against both flesh and spirit. The fifty-third and final precept sums it up poetically: “where there is weakness bring strength,” give a voice to the mute, and to the “poorest KTM brings generosity.”

That these expressed goals produce sacred violence is not new under the sun. When disbelief is suspended in favor of absolute thinking there is no teaching too fantastic for the believer. Thus all manner of sociopathic beliefs are licensed and unleashed, from Norway to Mexico and beyond.