As the year 2020 approaches you may be in a mood to put behind you the news of 2019, but let’s not do that without first giving the year’s news a good ole medieval twist.
Surely, you haven’t avoided entirely the stories about “the wall”, needed, so they say, because hordes threaten to invade from Mexico and beyond, and reports about a US president and his cronies drawing upon Vladimir Putin’s dirty-messaging playbook to corrupt Ukraine’s anti-corruption president for the purposes of contorting a US election. What you may have missed in all of that is the news about the investment of some Mexicans and Ukrainians in a curious dredging up of medievalizing fakery. These cases of medieval recycling connect to two of America’s favorite entertainments: eatin’ up the guacamole, in one case, and, in the other, consuming right-wing fantasies. This post focuses on the guacamole. I’ll work up another post later about right-wing misuses in Ukraine and elsewhere of the supposed Spanish ‘Reconquista’.
Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán (The Knights Templar of Michoacán) are a recent incarnation of Mexico’s notorious drugs-and-more cartels. The criminal organization, let’s call it LCT, emerged around 2011 as a result of the splintering of La Familia Michoacana, LFM, after a schism between that group’s leaders. The criminal reach of LFM declined after the arrest of its head honcho, José de Jesús Méndez Vargas. The Mexican government has also seen success recently in its efforts to decapitate the LCT, especially with the killing of Nazario Moreno González in 2014 and the arrest of Servando Goméz Martínez in 2015. But adherents of the organization continue to do their dirty work, no less in the avocado market than in the narco-trafficking biz, both focused on customers in the US.
Given that this blog emphasizes uses and misuses of the medieval, I want to point out LCT’s borrowings from the medieval Knights Templar. Recent research has shown how and why LCT has adopted a written code of conduct, a “Código,” that mimics as worthwhile historical precedent something of the nature and logic of the twelfth-century Rule of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, a.k.a., the Templars. Among the central attributes of LCT’s rulebook are silence, communal life, and protection. The Mexican Templars’ “vow of silence” not only provides the veneer of monastic discipline but also has the benefit of insulating the organization from information leaks. That the Código declares that a violation of the vow “shall be punished with the death penalty” is enough to assure the utmost operational secrecy. The code also requires adherents to give up personal property and to live together in a common life that recalls Christian monasticism even as it binds individuals to a well-ordered modern criminal collective. LCT identifies as its principal mission “protecting the inhabitants and the sacred territory” of the region of Michoacán in which it operates, at least to the degree that Michoacanenses offer support to the organization by, among other things, disregarding the territorial policing prerogatives of Mexican federal and state authorities.
The medieval Knights Templar combined a vow of silence, communal living, and a protective capacity, along with daily prayer, to create a mammoth organization capable of drawing to itself immense resources. In the first decades, the medieval Knights Templar used those resources to aid and defend Christian pilgrims on their travels to and from the Holy Land. Then, for a bit less than two centuries, the Templars, along with the Hospitallers, put their resources to the defense of a series of crusader states against various Christian and Muslim contenders. Finally, by the fall of the last Holy Land stronghold of Acre in 1291, the Templars turned their themselves to increasing their operational footprint in Western Europe. That European turn, from monastic-military order to European bank with cartel-like ferocity, ended when the King of France sent its leaders to the pyre under trumped-up charges motivated by his desire to rid himself of some especially pecuniary vultures.
Don’t let anyone tell you that history repeats itself – strike that juvenile mnemonic from your memory. Instead, what we have here, and what we usually see in supposed repeats, is a similarity of contexts. For historians like me, context and contingency explain a lot. The medieval Knights Templar took the opportunity to fill a niche opened by weak governing institutions. In the course of their history they developed a banking system as a means of supporting their pious work, but they ultimately made piety an adjunct to profit. Having taken great advantage of their niche, they overexploited their situation and were then undercut and destroyed by a new political environment they helped to create. The Mexican Knights Templar have also filled a void left by a weak government. Some adherents of the LCT, young men with nowhere to go in a society that overlooked them, saw in the organization a way to fulfill religious duty and improving personal and societal well-being, albeit in a world entirely unlike the medieval one and according to a rule that was largely facetious. Many among the rank-and-file modern-day Mexican Templars sought a semblance of religious order in an organization that promised to serve their constituency. Instead they have become fastened to a leadership intent on its own aggrandizement by criminal means.
Contexts change, and so do tastes. It might be worth remembering the next time you stir up some guacamole that some reports suggest very high numbers of deaths and disappearances at the hands of the Mexican Templars, the people who supply you with the avocados that are your raw ingredient.
As usual, I have simplified a very complex story, mostly as a tease to get you to explore on your own the costs and benefits of medievalizing tendencies. I have drawn some of the details about the Mexican Templars, with gratitude, from the following:
- Phil James, “Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán: Knights Templar Identity as a tool for legitimisation and internal discipline,” in Mike Horswell and Akil N. Awan, ed., The Crusades in the Modern World (Routledge, 2020).
- “El cartel narco que practicaba el canibalismo como ritual de iniciación y que sembró el pánico en Michoacán,” Infobae (September 8, 2019) available at https://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2019/08/09/el-cartel-que-tenia-el-canibalismo-como-ritual-de-iniciacion-y-que-sembro-el-panico-en-michoacan/ Accessed December 23, 2019.
- Claudio Lomnitz, “Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán: An Ethnography,” Representations (November 1, 2019) available at http://www.representations.org/los-caballeros-templarios-de-michoacan/ Accessed on December 23, 2019.
- Brook Larmer, How the Avacado Became the Fruit of Global Trade, The New York Times (March 27, 2018) available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/magazine/the-fruit-of-global-trade-in-one-fruit-the-avocado.html Accessed on December 23, 2019.
- Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “Building a Mini-State with Avocados and Guns,” The New York Times (January 18, 2019) available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/world/americas/mexico-drug-war-tancitaro.html Accessed on December 23, 2019.
Facinating piece, Michael. Well done and now I want to learn more. Thanks!