When La Familia of Michoacán came onto the scene this decade, they marketed themselves as vigilantes protecting a vulnerable state from the vices of drugs and the threats of kidnappers and other criminals running rampant.
How quickly money can corrupt.
In short time, the group turned into one of the most savage drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, taking over the methamphetamine trade and beheading rivals and gunning down officials who have gotten in their way. When they tossed five human heads onto a dance floor in 2006 in Uruapan, it sealed Mexico's reputation as a state degenerating from within. Since then, La Familia's acts of savagery have continued unabated.
Are we to now believe they're shedding the bad boy reputation?
This week they reportedly distributed a letter saying that they promise to disband if the government promises to, in turn, protect Michoacán's citizens from rival drug trafficking gangs and the abuses from authorities.
"We have decided to retreat and return to our daily productive activities if the federal and local authorities ... promise to take control of the state with force and decision," read the missive, which has not been authenticated but was reportedly dropped in the streets of various towns throughout the state and sent via e-mail to some reporters. "If the government accepts this public commitment and lives up to it, La Familia Michoacána will dissolve."
The Mexican government dismissed the note, whether it is authentic or not, saying it does not and will not negotiate with drug traffickers.
It is not the first time La Familia has offered a truce. In July 2009, after one of their top men was arrested, La Familia went on a shooting spree in police stations around the state. They also left 12 federal police officers in a pile alongside a highway. Then, a man identifying himself as a La Familia leader went on a local news program in the state and offered a truce.
"What we want is peace and tranquility," said the man, who identified himself as Servando "La Tuta" Gomez. "We want to achieve a national pact."
"We want the president, Mr. Felipe Calderón, to know that we are not his enemies, that we value him, that we are conscientious people.”
Indeed, La Familia is known for its evangelical zeal. Top leaders demand a strict code of conduct regarding alcohol and drug use (though clearly they have no problem with members producing or selling drugs).
Residents of Michoacán both fear and sympathize with the group. In interviews across the state in recent years, residents speak quietly – and almost always anonymously – about how La Familia hands out Bibles, rebuilds schools and drainage systems, and teaches former drugs addicts to be good “family men.” Yet they also extort money from local businesses and intimidate owners into barring federal officials from staying on their premises.
"They have infiltrated the state ... converting into Robin Hoods in some communities... For others, they instill terror," German Tena, the president of the state National Action Party (PAN), the conservative party of President Calderón, told the Monitor in an interview in Morelia a year ago.
As the meth trade has surged, though, they have become much bigger than the state of Michoacán, with tentacles reaching deep into the United States. Last year the US arrested 303 alleged La Familia affiliates in 38 US cities. The control they wield over the state and the money they generate is huge.
So why would they give it all up? In the letter they imply they want to go back to their roots as defenders of the state. La Familia, the note reads, was formed "by men and women from Michoacán ready to give their lives to defend their state ... against external gangs that, through terror and violence, have attempted to take over not only our state, but the whole country."
Some have speculated other forces are at play. Drug analysts told the Associated Press they could have run their course and are feeling a squeeze.