Mexico keeps reputed drug lord on education payroll

August 5, 2011

Mexican security forces would like very much to capture, or even kill, reputed crime boss Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, leader of the cultlike Knights Templar drug gang.

But getting Mexico’s Education Ministry to stop sending Gomez paychecks may prove a much bigger challenge.

According to Mexico’s El Universal newspaper, the former schoolteacher is still on the ministry’s payroll, even though federal prosecutors are offering millions in reward money for his capture — and despite the fact that he hasn’t set foot in a classroom in more than a decade.

What’s worse, Gomez was issued checks totaling more than $2,000 in the first three months of 2011, although the paper first reported the unseemly payments in December. Mexican lawmakers opened an investigation this week, demanding to know why Gomez — who was also indicted for drug trafficking by a New York federal court in 2009 — hasn’t been fired.

Given the relatively small amounts of money involved, it seems unlikely that the payments are a case of direct corruption. Instead, experts say, they appear to be something possibly more embarrassing — a galling reminder of the immense power of Mexico’s teachers union and the difficulty of dismissing bad teachers, even if they are notorious drug lords.

“Firing a teacher is nearly impossible here, a true bureaucratic labyrinth,” said Otto Granados, a professor of public policy at Mexico’s Tecnologico de Monterrey university. “This kind of thing happens all the time,” he said, citing a recent study that found that more than 100,000 Mexican teachers were drawing salaries despite not showing up for work.

The country’s main teachers union — the largest in Latin America — is a political juggernaut so powerful that it assigns jobs through an extensive system of patronage, Granados said. Only teachers who have been convicted of a crime can be fired, and since Gomez remains at large, he apparently can’t be taken off the payroll.

Gomez, whose nickname “La Tuta” means “the teacher,” first registered as an educator 15 years ago at a small rural primary school in his home town of Arteaga, in Michoacan state. He taught there for a few years, then tried his hand at farming, and ended up working with local drug smugglers, according to George W. Grayson, who has written extensively about the La Familia drug cartel, of which Gomez was a founding member. The group became famous for its bizarre Christian-themed worldview and for beheading and burning alive its enemies.

With the cartel weakened by the death and capture of its other top leaders, Gomez broke away to form the Knights Templar, styling it after the Crusades-era holy warriors. “He’s their top Bible-pounder,” Grayson said.

Since forming last year, the Knights have killed scores of rivals and attacked police and other authorities while moving huge amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine into the United States, according to Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials.

It’s not clear whether Gomez has ever cashed the Education Ministry paychecks.

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
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