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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.

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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."

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Like the Italian Mafia

Many in this state, one of Mexico's poorest, buy into the message. Not unlike the Italian Mafia, La Familia seeks to legitimize itself with beneficence. They provide income for the rural poor who join them; they put up streetlights and build schools. "They have converted from criminals into a social phenomenon," says Antonio Ramos Tafolla, a local journalist.

Support is so strong that it is the locals who often alert La Familia that a military convoy is on the way.

Human rights claims of abuse by federal authorities in the state have grown from just a handful annually to 70 last year and 118 to date, according to the Michoacán human rights office in Apatzingan. Mario Mendoza Reyes was at a 7 p.m. mass with his wife and 2-year-old son in August when federal police stormed the church looking for a leader of La Familia. They rounded up all the men, including Mr. Mendoza Reyes, and transported them to a jail in Mexico City. "Things were better the way they were before," he says.

Just as Calderón's strategy has caused drug traffickers to splinter and fight among each other for market share – with an estimated 15,000 dead since he took office – pressure on La Familia has turned the group to kidnapping and extortion.

Jose Infante, a hotel owner and president of the hotel association in Apatzingan, says that many hotel owners face demands for monthly "protection" fees, and have been told by La Familia not to allow federal police to stay in their hotels. "We are between a rock and a hard place," Mr. In­fante says.

Tide begins to turn

Whether through fear or sympathy, the cover given to La Familia by local communities makes the challenge of stamping them out more difficult. Michoacán, where Cal­der­ón was born, was the first place he sent troops to fight drug traffickers. Since then, the government has gone after Michoacán politicians allegedly colluding with traffickers and made many arrests. In this, the government has earned many supporters. Last September, a grenade went off in Morelia as Mexicans celebrated Independence Day. It left eight dead. The government originally blamed La Familia. "Since then, there has been a lot more vigilance," says Augusto Campos, sitting on a park bench in the plaza here. "Authorities have the obligation to wrest back control."

Yet while most Mexicans might agree with that goal, to some Michoacán shows how the government strategy is too monotone. "Michoacán represents the most important military zone in the country. But with extortion, fears of citizens, and human rights complaints, it shows there are too many limits to the military strategy," says Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

But there is no indication that the Calderón strategy is going to change. If anything, it will be bolstered by a $1.4 billion US aid package. That aid accompanies changing mentality in both countries: The US acknowledges that its arms and its demand for drugs aggravates the problem. Mex­ico, traditionally weary of its northern neighbor, is more open to training and advice, say US and Mexican officials.

US and Mexican officials say the October raids "dealt a significant blow" to La Familia. In all, authorities have seized more than $30 million, more than 2,000 pounds of meth, and nearly 2-1/2 tons of cocaine.

But Tena says that a frontal attack alone will not solve the problem. The government most go after the political cover being given to criminal groups. He says the October raids disrupted La Familia's distribution networks in the US and will hurt its earning power.

But the root of La Familia's support – the poverty in Michoacán – is not being adequately addressed. "You can arrest one [trafficker]," says Tena, who says that economic development must accompany the fight. "But there is always someone to fill the ranks."

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