Banners hung in a western Mexican state announced a previously unknown gang calling itself the "Knights Templar" on Thursday, less than a month after the local La Familia drug cartel said it intended to disband.
The signs said the "Knights" will replace the cartel, which is considered Mexico's leading trafficker of methamphetamines, and fend off any other gangs looking to make inroads in Michoacan state.
"To the people of Michoacan, we inform you that starting today we will be carrying out here the altruistic activities previously realized by La Familia Michoacana," read one sign, hung on the fence of a school.
"We will be at the service of the people of Michoacan to attend to any situation that threatens the safety of Michoacanos," it continued. "Our commitment is to: keep order; avoid robberies, kidnappings, extortion; and protect the state from possible (interventions) by rival organizations. The Knights Templar."
There was no immediate comment from police, who quickly removed the banners hung from places like footbridges, a public square, a monument and elsewhere in the state capital, Morelia, and in Zitacuaro, Apatzingan and other cities.
Such signs are commonly used by drug gangs to threaten rivals, to deny responsibility for crimes or to send messages to authorities.
The authenticity of the banners, which marked the first public mention of the "Knights Templar," could not immediately be determined.
The name alludes to a Christian order of knights founded in 1118 in Jerusalem to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land after the First Crusade.
Michoacan is the stronghold of La Familia, which has tried to cast itself as a defender of the people, though authorities called that stance a public relations strategy to hide its true nature.
In late January, a series of "narco-banners" appeared in Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state claiming La Familia had decided to disband.
Authorities dismissed the claims at the time and called the signs a desperate ploy to distract attention. They said La Familia was on the defensive due to the capture and killings of top members, including cartel leader Nazario Moreno, nicknamed "The Craziest One." Moreno died in a shootout with police Dec. 9.
Much of the violence has taken place in Michoacan, where a small-town police chief was found slain Thursday, shot seven times in the torso and head.
Jorge Nunez Espinoza, public safety director in Santiago Tangamandapio, had not been seen since leaving his office Wednesday night. His body was found early the next morning steps from his SUV.
Three police chiefs have been killed so far this year in Michoacan, the same number as in 2010, state prosecutors said in a statement.
In Guerrero, meanwhile, authorities on Thursday completed the recovery of nine people's remains from three clandestine graves, regional prosecutor Enrique Gil said.
The bodies were found in a national park on the outskirts of the Pacific coast resort city of Acapulco.
In the city itself, a severed human head was found Thursday just off the hotel-lined main avenue that hugs the bay, state police said in a statement.