July 29, 2013— -- The Knights Templar drug cartel was behind the recent murder of a high-ranking Mexican navy officer, officials in Mexico City announced on Monday.
Three gunmen were caught after an ambush on Vice Admiral Carlos Salazar's vehicle in a remote road of Michoacan state on Sunday. Now in the custody of Mexican authorities, the men confessed that they were members of the criminal group, Mexico's attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, told reporters.
"They said that every month, they were paid 7,500 pesos [$600] to steal, collect payments, kidnap people and commit other sorts of crimes," Murillo Karam said.
Salazar is the highest-ranking naval officer ever to be murdered by a Mexican cartel. But he is not the first member of Mexican law enforcement to die in Michoacan recently.
Just last week, Mexican media reported that at least four members of the federal police were killed in roadside ambushes against patrols in that state, and at least 15 were injured.
Tensions have been running high in Michoacan for the past six months or so, since a series of lightly armed self-defense groups, with lots of men at their disposal, emerged in the state's lowlands.
The civilians who formed these militias claim that they are trying to expel drug cartels from the region, because these criminal groups are not only dealing dope, but also extorting all sorts of businesses, from taxi drivers to cattle ranchers and local lemon farms. If the businesses don't pay, they're threatened with death.
One of the main organizations that is illegally taxing civilians is the cartel known as The Knights Templar. The drug group has been engaged in a bloody feud with several self-defense organizations since February.
The Mexican government has attempted to stop the violence by sending some 6,500 soldiers and police officers into the region and by taking over several towns. That's stopped the Knights Templar from doing business in those areas.
According to the Mexican government, the drug cartel is now targeting officers in retaliation. Officials say that the group is conducting a "desperate attempt" to intimidate Mexican forces, and get them to leave the state.
But not all experts on security matters are so sure that the Knights Templar, and other criminal groups in the state, are in such a desperate position.
George Grayson, an author of several books on Mexico's drug wars, pointed out that six years ago, Mexico's previous president began his term by ordering a military surge in Michoacan. Back then, the main enemy was a cartel known as La Familia Michoacana.
Despite the army's efforts to bring some stability to the area, the security situation in that state has not changed that much.
"It should be the police who are pursuing criminals not the military," Grayson said. "The military has done the best job that it can. But there's no sense of a strong law and order presence, or a strong law enforcement presence."
According to Grayson, the problems in Michoacan stem from issues of poverty and lawlessness that go back decades. He said that for a long time, the government of Mexico has not been able to set up reliable courts or police forces in that state.
Will the murder of Vice Admiral Salazar change any of this?
Grayson thinks it will give the navy and its elite force of marines a new reason to go after the Knights Templar with "more zeal." But he's not sure what it will change the underlying problems that fuel violence in Michoacan.