By William Booth and Nick Miroff
The Washington Post
Aided by technology and intelligence from the United States, including overflights by drone aircraft and sophisticated software to eavesdrop on cellphone calls, Mexican forces have hit the La Familia drug cartel harder than any other criminal organization in Mexico.
Now, for the first time, Mexican officials are declaring that a major cartel is on the brink of collapse.
Yet, the reality in the hot farmlands and mountain hamlets in the western state of Michoacán feels very different.
Locals say little has changed. Their state still resembles an occupied zone. Three municipal police chiefs have been executed in Michoacán this year, the most recent three weeks ago. Military units and gunmen engaged in a firefight at an isolated village Tuesday night, leaving four dead. The naked, tortured bodies of four people were found on a roadside Wednesday.
With 18 months left in his six-year term, President Felipe Calderón is desperate to show his U.S.-backed strategy of sending thousands of soldiers and police against the traffickers is working and that his government can calm the storm of gruesome violence that has left more than 35,000 dead and threatens the nation's stability.
In December, when Mexican and U.S. agents heard on wiretaps that La Familia's bosses and hundreds of followers were gathering to party at a ranch south of this farm town, authorities gave the order: capture or kill.
What followed was the most aggressive assault seen in four years of Mexico's drug war. Over two full days, 800 federal agents in helicopters and armored vehicles battled cartel gunmen through citrus groves and along rural roads, as residents barricaded themselves indoors.
In the end, government forces said they had shot dead La Familia's founder, Nazario Moreno González, a messianic folk hero known as "El Mas Loco" (the Craziest One) who had become the largest supplier of methamphetamine to the United States.
A month after the December raids, banners hung from highway overpasses announcing the cartel was disbanding.
It was a lie. La Familia is still very much here.
At the fire station in Apatzingán, where La Familia was born, supervisor David Olivera described how he still must call ahead to ask cartel representatives for permission to send ambulances to gather the sick.
But the list was assembled in April 2009, an eternity in the abbreviated lives of drug traffickers. New leaders move in quickly.
With few options and less time, Calderón's government has emphasized a strategy of killing or capturing cartel bosses. But it has been slow to fulfill earlier promises to reform the judicial system, clean up state and local police, pursue money launderers, build better prisons and find ways to redirect poor and poorly educated young people away from a life of crime.
"Nothing has changed"
At a storefront drug-treatment center filled with toothless, tattooed men lounging on bunk beds, director Ulises Silva said "nothing has changed" in Apatzingán in the three months since Moreno's death. "The narcos will never go away," he said. "The truth is that the people like the narcos more than the government."
Unlike more powerful Mexican crime syndicates such as the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas, La Familia is a regional franchise, characterized by anti-government propaganda and a peculiar brand of evangelical Christianity, forbidding drug use in local communities while reaping millions from narcotics sales and lopping the heads off rivals.
La Familia recruited heavily at rehab centers. Visitors were offered signed copies of the book written by El Mas Loco. Titled "Thoughts," it was sprinkled with aphorisms such as "if you can dream it, you can do it."
Seizures of methamphetamine — La Familia's signature export — nearly doubled along the Southwest border last year. Has production at Michoacán's meth labs fallen since December? "Nobody knows," one U.S. law-enforcement official said.
Mayor Genaro Guizar and others in Apatzingán said people don't even believe Moreno is dead. The government never recovered a body; federal forces say La Familia gunmen took their dead with them.
"They say the raid was a big show," said Guizar, one of 10 Michoacán mayors arrested in 2009 on suspicion of collaborating with La Familia.
Guizar, who lived most of his adult life in California where he was a successful restaurateur, served 11 months in prison before he was released without charges.
"Who have they really caught, really killed?" Guizar asked. "People here say they are more afraid of the police than La Familia. They're never going to win the war this way."