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.
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."
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."