Mexican authorities arrested four alleged members of the Knights Templar drug cartel after a series of firebomb attacks on a potato-chip company owned by the U.S. food company PepsiCo, the first attack on an American multinational firm in Mexico's ongoing drug war.
Five warehouses and parking lots owned by the popular Sabritas brand were attacked over the weekend in the states of Michoacan and Guanajuato. Witnesses said masked men had thrown firebombs and incinerated warehouses and dozens of delivery trucks. No one was injured in the bombings, according to authorities.
The attorney general of Guanajuato, Carlos Zamarippa Aguirre, alleged that the men arrested had confessed that the motive of the attacks was extortion. Aguirre said the suspects gave false names but were identified by fingerprints and at least one, the alleged cell leader, was already wanted on charges of kidnapping.
Emails that circulated in Michoacan, however, suggested the attacks may have been revenge attacks by members of the Knights Templar who believe that Mexican authorities use the snack-food trucks to spy on the cartel. The company has nearly 15,000 delivery trucks in Mexico, many featuring a smiley face and the slogan, "You can't eat just one." Cheetos, Fritos, Ruffles and Doritos as well as Sabritas potato chips are sold under the Sabritas name in Mexico.
Pepsico released a statement Sunday that emphasized the company's trucks are used only for company business. "We repeat that in accordance with our code of conduct, all of our operations are carried out in the current regulatory framework and our vehicles and facilities are used exclusively to carry our products to our customers and clients," said the statement.
The company also said that it was already taking steps to "restore operations" and that the safety of employees is always its highest priority.
The Knights Templar drug cartel is a relatively small and new entrant in Mexico's drug war, and is active in the Pacific coast states of Michoacan and Guanajuato. Formed two years ago as an offshoot of Christian-tinged La Familia Michoacana cartel, the "Caballeros Templarios" model themselves on the original Knights Templar, a Christian military order established in Europe 900 years ago and active in the Crusades.
The original Knights Templar, known for white tunics with large red crosses, fought to protect Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and to recover the mythic Holy Grail, from which the disciples of Jesus supposedly drank during the Last Supper.
During initiation ceremonies, recruits to the drug cartel wear helmets similar to those worn by medieval knights and common in Mexican Easter ceremonies. Cartel members swear blood oaths and are issued Templar rulebooks. The cartel issued a very public call for a ceasefire during Pope Benedict's visit to Mexico in March.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.