Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

La Familia Michoacana

Monday, May 11, 2009 |

La Familia Michoacana (English: The Michoacan Family) or La Familia (English: The Family) is a Mexican drug cartel and an organized crime syndicate based in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Formerly allied to the Gulf Cartel—as part of Los Zetas—it has split off as its own organization since 2006.

The cartel's recently deceased leader, Nazario Moreno González, known as El Más Loco (English: The Craziest One), preached his organization's divine right to eliminate enemies. He carried a "bible" of his own sayings and insisted that his army of traffickers and hitmen avoid using the narcotics they sell. Nazario Moreno's partners are José de Jesús Méndez Vargas, Servando Gómez Martínez and Dionicio Loya Plancarte, each of whom has a bounty of $2 million for his capture.

On July 2009 and on November 2010, La Familia Michoacana offered to retreat and even disband their cartel, "With the condition that both the Federal Government, and State and Federal Police commit to safeguarding the security of the state of Michoacán." However, President Felipe Calderón's government refuses to strike a deal with the cartel and rejected their calls for dialogue.

BackgroundMexican analysts believe that La Familia formed in the 1980s with the stated purpose of bringing order to Michoacán, emphasizing help and protection for the poor. In its initial incarnation, La Familia formed as a group of vigilantes, spurred to power to counter interloping kidnappers and drug dealers, who were their stated enemies. Since then, La Familia has capitalized on its reputation, building its myth, power and reach to transition into a criminal gang itself.

La Familia emerged to the foreground in the 1990s as the Gulf Cartel's paramilitary group designed to seize control of the illegal drug trade in Michoacán state from rival drug cartels. Trained with Los Zetas, in 2006 the group splintered off into an independent drug trafficking operation. La Familia has a strong rivalry with both Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, but strong ties with the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquin Guzman. La Familia Michoacana is one of the strongest and fastest growing cartel in Mexico.

References to religion
La Familia cartel is sometimes described as quasi-religious since its leaders, Moreno González and Méndez Vargas, refer to their assassinations and beheadings as "divine justice" and that they may have direct or indirect ties with devotees of the New Jerusalem religious movement, which is noted for its concern for justice issues.

La Familia’s boss and spiritual leader Nazario Moreno González, (a.k.a.: El Más Loco or The Craziest One) has published his own 'bible', and a copy seized by Mexican federal agents reveals an ideology that mixes evangelical-style self help with insurgent peasant slogans. Moreno González, who was killed on 9 December 2010, seems to have based most of his doctrine on a work by Christian writer John Eldredge, using their own understanding of the idea in Eldredge's message that every man must have "a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue and an adventure to live."

The Mexican justice department stated in a report that Gonzalez Moreno has made Eldredge's book Salvaje de Corazón (Wild at Heart) required reading for La Familia gang members and has paid rural teachers and National Development Education (CONAFE) to circulate Eldredge's writings throughout the Michoacán countryside.

La Familia cartel emphasize religion and family values during recruitment and has placed banners in areas of operations claiming that it does not tolerate substance abuse or exploitation of women and children. According to Mexico Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, it recruits members from drug rehabilitation clinics by helping addicts recover and then forcing them into service for the drug cartel or be killed. Advancement within the organisation depends as much on regular attendance at prayer meetings as on target practice. The cartel gives loans to farmers, businesses, schools and churches, and it advertises its benevolence in local newspapers in order to gain social support.

On July 16, 2009, a man by the name of Servando Gómez Martínez (La Tuta) identified himself as the 'chief of operations' of the cartel when he contacted a local radio station. In his radio message, Gómez stated: "La Familia was created to look after the interests of our people and our family. We are a necessary evil," and when asked what La Familia really wanted, Gómez replied, "The only thing we want is peace and tranquility." President Felipe Calderón's government refuses to strike a deal with the cartel and rejected their calls for dialogue.

On April 20, 2009, about 400 Federal Police agents raided a christening party for a baby born to a cartel member. Among the 44 detained was Rafael Cedeño Hernández (El Cede), the gang’s second in command and in charge of indoctrinating the new recruits in the cartel's religious values, morals and ethics.

Current alliances
Since February 2010, the major cartels have aligned in two factions, one made up of the Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel; the other faction made up of the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana, these last three now known as Carteles Unidos.

Operations
La Familia has been known to be unusually violent. Its members use murder and torture to quash rivals, while building a social base in the Mexican state of Michoacán. It is the fastest-growing cartel in the country’s drug war and is a religious cult-like group that celebrates family values. In one incident in Uruapan in 2006, the cartel members tossed five decapitated heads onto the dance floor of the Sol y Sombra night club along with a message that read: "The Family doesn’t kill for money. It doesn’t kill women. It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice."

The cartel has moved from smuggling and selling drugs and turned itself into a much more ambitious criminal organization which acts as a parallel state in much of Michoacán. It extorts "taxes" from businesses, pays for community projects, controls petty crime, and settles some local disputes. Despite its short history, it has emerged as Mexico’s largest supplier of methamphetamines to the United States, with supply channels running deep into the Midwestern United States, and has increasingly become involved in the distribution of cocaine, marijuana, and other narcotics.

Michael Braun, former DEA chief of operations, states that it operates "superlabs" in Mexico capable of producing up to 100 pounds of meth in eight hours. However, according to DEA officials, it claims to oppose the sale of drugs to Mexicans. It also sells pirated DVDs, smuggles people to the United States, and runs a debt-collecting service by kidnapping defaulters. Because often times they use fake and sometimes original uniforms of several police agencies, most of their kidnap victims are stopped under false pretenses of routine inspections or report of stolen vehicles, and then taken hostage.

La Familia has also bought some local politicians. 20 municipal officials have been murdered in Michoacán, including two mayors. Having established its authority, it then names local police chiefs. On May 2009, the Mexican Federal Police detained 10 mayors of Michoacán and 20 other local officials suspected of being associated with the cartel.

On July 11, 2009, a cartel lieutenant— Arnoldo Rueda Medina —was arrested; La Familia members attacked the Federal Police station in Morelia to try to gain freedom for Rueda shortly after his arrest. During the attacks, two soldiers and three federal policemen were killed. When that failed, cartel members attacked Federal Police installations in at least a half-dozen Michoacán cities in retribution.

Three days later, on July 14, 2009, the cartel tortured and murdered twelve Mexican Federal Police agents and dumped their bodies along the side of a mountain highway along with a written message: "So that you come for another. We will be waiting for you here." The federal agents were investigating crime in Michoacán state; President Calderón, responded to the violence by dispatching additional 1,000 Federal Police officers to the area. The infusion, which more than tripled the number of Federal Police officers patrolling Michoacán, angered Michoacán Governor Leonel Godoy Rangel, who called it 'an occupation' and said he had not been consulted. Days later, 10 municipal police officers were arrested in connection with the slayings of the 12 federal agents.

The governor's half-brother Julio César Godoy Toscano, who was just elected July 5, 2009, to the lower house of Congress, was accused to be a top-ranking member of La Familia Michoacana drug cartel and of providing political protection for the cartel. Based on these charges, on 14 December 2010, Godoy Toscano was impeached from the lower house of Congress and therefore no longer enjoys immunity (Spanish: fuero).

President Calderón stated that the country's drug cartels had grown so powerful that they now posed a threat to the future of Mexican democracy. His strategy of direct confrontation and law enforcement is not popular with some segments of Mexican society, where battling violent drug gangs has brought out several human rights charges against the Mexican military.

Project Coronado
Kilograms of cocaine seized
Small part of US currency seizedOn October 22, 2009, U.S. federal authorities announced the results of a four-year investigation into the operations of La Familia Michoacana in the United States dubbed Project Coronado. It was the largest U.S. raid ever against Mexican drug cartels operating in the U.S. In 19 different states, 303 individuals were taken into custody in a coordinated effort by local, state, and federal law enforcement over a two-day period. Seized during the arresting phase was over 62 kilograms (140 lb) of cocaine, 330 kilograms (730 lb) of methamphetamine, 440 kilograms (970 lb) of marijuana, 144 weapons, 109 vehicles, and two clandestine drug laboratories.

Since the start of "Project Coronado", the investigation has led to the arrest of more than 1,186 people and the seizure of approximately $33 million. Overall, almost 2 metric tons (2.2 short tons) of cocaine, 1,240 kilograms (2,700 lb) of methamphetamine, 13 kilograms (29 lb) of heroin, 7,430 kilograms (16,400 lb) of marijuana, 389 weapons, 269 vehicles, and the two drug labs were seized.

"Multi-agency investigations such as Project Coronado are the key to disrupting the operations of complex criminal organizations like La Familia. Together—with the strong collaboration of our international, federal, state, and local partners—we have dealt a substantial blow to a group that has polluted our neighborhoods with illicit drugs and has terrorized Mexico with unimaginable violence", said FBI Director Mueller.

The investigative efforts in Project Coronado were coordinated by the multi-agency Special Operations Division, comprising agents and analysts from the DEA, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service and ATF, as well as attorneys from the Criminal Division's Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section. More than 300 federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies contributed investigative and prosecutorial resources to Project Coronado through OCDETF.

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