Mexico goes after mother of cartel leader

The government arrested the mother and brother of La Familia cartel leader this week. Is that an effective strategy – or will it backfire?

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Mexican federal police officers escort an alleged member of the drug cartel known as "La Familia," to a presentation to the media in Mexico City, Aug. 3. ( Photo/ )

The reputed head of the La Familia cartel, an increasingly notorious drug trafficking organization in Mexico, did not mince words in his threat: "If anybody attacks my father, my mother, my brothers, they're going to have to deal with me," Servando Gomez warned the government on local television last month.

But instead of backing down, the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has deployed 45,000 troops throughout Mexico to clamp down on traffickers, responded this week by detaining not just Mr. Gomez's brother, but his mother too.

It is another signal that President Calderón will not succumb to intimidation by well-armed and even-better-financed organized crime outlets. But it also raises the issue of guilt by association, and has some here concerned that targeting families could backfire. Gomez's mother, for example, was released Wednesday, two days after her arrest, for "lack of evidence."

Family ties have always bound organized crime networks together. "Obviously if you want someone to trust, it's easier to trust your brother or sister or your son," says Jorge Chabat, a professor of international studies at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), Mexico City. "But it is very difficult to generalize, and the government should be very careful and go case-by-case."

According to the Associated Press, Gomez's mother, Maria Teresa Martinez, was questioned on suspicions of being involved in the cartel that were not specified by the attorney general's office. Gomez's brother, Luis Felipe Gomez Martinez, was still being held. It is a scenario that a man claiming to be Gomez had complained of in last month's telephone interview with a local television station. "Any friend, a relative, even anybody we visit, is considered an accomplice and is put into jail," he said.

A family business

La Familia, of Michoacán, Calderón's home state, is believed to be a particularly tight-knit group. "Its name, 'The Family,' is the very concept of the cartel," says Javier Oliva, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. La Familia originally formed as a vigilante group to protect locals and has only in recent years entered into the illicit drug trade. The group has widespread support in the state, and has become a new focus of the government battle against drug trafficking.

Last month, after the cartel's alleged operations chief was arrested, gunmen fired into police stations across the state. Members of the cartel are also believed to have left 12 federal agents dead in a pile on the side of a highway, in an apparent threat to authorities. La Familia became nationally known after gunmen hurled five human heads onto a nightclub floor in Michoacán in 2006.

"The Mexican government has tended to include family members of cartel leaders as targets of investigations, either because the relatives are also involved in the organizations or because they could provide useful intelligence about the cartel members," says Stephen Meiners, a Latin America analyst at the global intelligence company Stratfor.

In some cases, Mr. Meiners says, suspects are set free when the drug trafficking organization bribes the authorities. In other cases, they are released because they are innocent or there is not enough evidence against them.

As the drive to weaken the traffickers' influence continues, more innocent people could get caught in the net. And that could alienate poor rural communities, where drug traffickers hold sway by building highways and parks in areas where the state is largely absent, says Mr. Oliva.

But backing down from the drug fight will not solve the problem, says Mr. Chabat. "You can be very tough with drug trafficking in a very hard way," he says, "and not arrest innocent people if you had a professional police and judicial system."

Watch the Monitor's editor, John Yemma, talk to staff writer Sara Miller Llana about Mexico's drug cartels.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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