Staging raids in 19 states, the Justice Department struck this week at one of Mexico’s most ruthless drug-trafficking organizations, a cultlike group known as La Familia Michoacana and notorious for beheading its enemies.
Calling it the largest strike ever undertaken against a Mexican drug cartel, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the arrests of 303 people in the past two days, the latest action in a four-year investigation.
Law enforcement officials said the arrests and indictments would deal a major blow to a distribution network that trucked methamphetamine and cocaine to major cities in the United States, then sent cash and arms in the other direction.
La Familia controls much of the drug traffic in central Mexico and terrorizes the population there, the authorities said, torturing and killing its enemies, including police officers, and leaving the bodies in public with cryptic religious messages saying the dead suffered divine retribution.
“The sheer level and depravity of violence that this cartel has exhibited far exceeds what we, unfortunately, have become accustomed to from other cartels,” Mr. Holder said. He added: “While this cartel may operate from Mexico, the toxic reach of its operations extends to nearly every state within our country.”
The arrests were made Wednesday and Thursday in 38 cities, with major distribution rings the focus in Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle. The raids were part of a larger push against La Familia, Project Coronado, which had led to about 900 arrests in the past four years, Mr. Holder said.
As the raids were carried out in the United States, the Mexican authorities on Thursday arrested six members of the cartel, including two midlevel commanders in the towns of Taretan and Morelia.
None of those arrested in the United States were major figures in the upper echelons of the organization, law enforcement officials said. They ran the gamut from people who oversaw city distribution networks to street-level dealers and gun-smugglers. The authorities said the sheer number of arrests would seriously disrupt the cartel’s distribution system.
In addition, Mr. Holder said, the authorities have seized more than $32 million in American currency, 2,700 pounds of methamphetamine, 4,400 pounds of cocaine, 16,000 pounds of marijuana and 29 pounds of heroin. More arrests are expected.
“These are drugs that were headed for our streets and weapons that often were headed for the streets of Mexico,” Mr. Holder said. “That’s why we are hitting them where it hurts the most — their revenue stream. By seizing their drugs and upending their supply chains, we have disrupted their ‘business-as-usual’ state of operations.”
Since its emergence as a major player in Mexican trafficking in 2006, La Familia has specialized in smuggling methamphetamine, rather than cocaine and heroin. The group controls the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, where many of the precursors for the highly toxic, synthetic drug arrive, and it manufactures thousands of pounds of the drug strictly for export to the United States.
The cartel’s leader, Nazario Moreno González, known as El Más Loco, or The Craziest One, has said his aim is to drive other drug dealers out of Michoacán and to protect Mexicans from the influences of narcotics.
He carries a Bible along with a book of his own quotes, espouses a pseudoreligious philosophy and requires the core members of the group to attend church. The organization recruits heavily among drug addicts in the state’s many drug-rehabilitation clinics, experts on drug cartels said.
“What is distinctive about them is they are messianic,” said George W. Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary. “They justify their actions because they are carrying out divine justice.”
The group began 25 years ago as a vigilante organization aimed at removing the influence of drug dealers in the state of Michoacán, but it has evolved into a ruthless cartel itself. For years, members of La Familia were allied with the Gulf Cartel, based in Tamaulipas, and fought against the Sinaloan gangs for control of the local police and officials in Michoacán. But that alliance fell apart in 2004, and La Familia has since gone into business for itself. Now it competes with both the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartels, and has become a major exporter of methamphetamine to the United States, officials said.
“This is an organization that just recently we started calling a cartel because of how they’ve grown and the violence that they spread,” said Michele Leonhart, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “And it is the first time we have seen a cartel take on meth trafficking, where they are the direct pipeline from Mexico to the U.S. of multi-hundred-pound quantities of methamphetamine.”
The group first gained attention in 2006 when more than a dozen masked gunmen burst into a nightclub in Uruapan and tossed five heads of drug dealers on the dance floor, with the message: “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.”
Last July, the cartel’s gunmen tried to liberate one of their lieutenants who had been arrested, and, when their effort failed, they attacked federal police stations in a half-dozen cities. Three days later, on July 14, cartel members tortured and killed 12 members of the Mexican Federal Police.
In the past year, the Mexican authorities have made some progress against the cartel, arresting two capos. But Mr. Moreno González and his top lieutenants have eluded capture.
One of those lieutenants is Servando Gómez Martinez, who was indicted on drug trafficking charges in Manhattan as part of the nationwide crackdown. Though Mr. Gómez remains in Mexico, federal prosecutors in New York have linked him to a cocaine shipment in the city.
After the murder of Mexican federal officers in July, Mr. Gómez gave a recorded statement to a local television station in which he said the cartel was locked in a battle with the Mexican police, the indictment said.
Although most of the indictments this week had to do with drug trafficking and arms smuggling, federal authorities said that in three cases, members of La Familia had kidnapped other drug dealers in Houston and held them for ransom, in effect bringing common practice in Mexico to the United States.Mr. Holder said the sweep was intended to support President Felipe Calderón in his campaign to dismantle the major drug cartels that have wracked Mexico. More than 10,000 people have died in the violence in the last two and half years, among them hundreds of police officers.
“This is not a one-country problem,” Mr. Holder said. “The government of Mexico has taken courageous steps to combat the cartels, and we stand with them in that fight.”