The rise of Mexico's La Familia, a narco-evangelist cartel
Mexico and the US are working together bring down Mexico's newest, most violent drug cartel. Last month, 303 alleged La Familia members were arrested in 38 US cities. Fifteen members were indicted Friday in Chicago.
They hand out Bibles to the poor in the rural foothills of the state of Michoacán. They forbid drug use, build schools and drainage systems, and declare themselves the protectors of women and children.Skip to next paragraph
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But this is no church group. This is La Familia Michoacána, Mexico's newest drug-trafficking gang, which now reigns over Mexico's methamphetamine trade. What began as a self-declared vigilante group doing "the work of God," now is seen as the nation's most violent criminal group.
Its influence stretches well beyond this patch of Mexico called "La Tierra Caliente" or "Hot Land." Last month, in the largest coordinated action against a Mexican trafficking organization north of the border, the United States arrested 303 alleged La Familia affiliates in 38 US cities. It was the culmination of "Project Coronado," which has nabbed more than 1,100 suspects in 44 months.
On Friday, federal officials said 15 members of the group were indicted for distributing cocaine in the Chicago area. Police seized 550 pounds of cocaine and $8 million in cash. The indictments, said officials, were part of their ongoing efforts to crackdown on the cartel's activities in the US.
The swift rise of La Familia – an odd pretzel of narco-evangelism – is a source of macabre fascination in the Mexican media. But its exploits are also a case study in how a drug-trafficking group attempts to corrupt state institutions, and how Mexico, with the help of the US, is attempting to overcome their brutality, sway, and deep pockets.
Robin Hoods or state terrorists?
"They have infiltrated the state ... converting into Robin Hoods in some communities.... For others, they instill terror," says German Tena, the president of the state National Action Party (PAN), the conservative party of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, in an interview in Morelia.
Mr. Tena says that he supports the nationwide military effort that Mr. Calderón launched in December 2006 to root out organized crime, and that arrests like those in the US are essential to success, even as violence has intensified in the short term.
La Familia "is responding to the [government] fight against them.... The problem is much bigger than we thought," Tena says. "But we are advancing."
La Familia emerged with the stated purpose of protecting residents from the vices of drug dealing and the risk of kidnapping. But soon it carved out a more lucrative niche for itself in a state where traffickers have long grown marijuana and where the Pacific coastline offers many shipping points for illicit drugs heading to the US. In 2002 and 2003, La Familia began manufacturing methamphetamine, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Mixing meth and brutality
La Familia is now the primary supplier of crystal meth, a highly addictive psychostimulant, to the US drug market. "They do not want their own people using meth but are happy to send it our way," says Paul Knierim, a DEA spokesman in Washington.
They are not the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico, but they may be the most brutal. The group is notorious for a September 2006 incident in which five human heads were thrown onto a dance floor in the city of Uruapan. A note read: "La Familia doesn't kill for money. It kills only those who deserve to die."
In announcing the recent arrests in the US, Attorney General Eric Holder said the "sheer level of depravity of violence that this cartel has exhibited far exceeds what we unfortunately have become accustomed to from other cartels."
Gangsters by day, La Familia members are expected to follow a strict moral code when they return home, locals say. They are said to follow a bible written by a leader, Nazario Moreno, known as "The Craziest One." They often recruit young men in drug and alcohol rehab centers, helping them to overcome addiction and become "good family men."