Forget crystal meth. The pseudo-religious Knights Templar drug cartel in western Mexico has diversified to the point that drug trafficking does not even rank among its top sources of income.

The cartel counted illegal mining, logging and extortion as its biggest moneymakers, said Alfredo Castillo, the government’s special envoy sent to restore the rule of law in Michoacan, the state controlled by the Knights Templar for the last several years.

Iron ore “is their principle source of income”, Castillo said. “They’re charging $15 (R161) [a ton] for the process, from extraction to transport, processing, storage, permits and finally export.”

The ore itself does not go for that price; the cartel skims $15 for every ton arriving in port. While it has long been known that Mexican cartels engage in other types of criminal activity, including trafficking of people and pirated goods, this is the government’s first official acknowledgement that a major organised crime group has moved beyond drugs.

The Knights Templar and its predecessor, La Familia, started out as major producers and transporters of methamphetamine.

“It’s a criminal organisation like the mafia,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, the Mexico and central America representative to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Mexican authorities count at least 12 major cartels, but also talk of untold numbers of smaller splinter groups. – Sapa-AP