George W. Grayson is the Class of 1938 Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, an associate scholar at FPRI, and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. His next book, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? will be brought out later this year by Transaction Publications. Previous essays by George Grayson can be found at www.fpri.org/byauthor.html#grayson.
At a May 30, 2009 news conference, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza labeled La Familia Michoacána (or La Familia) Mexico’s most dangerous cartel. He based this assessment on the bloodcurdling cruelty perpetrated by the shadowy, pious organization; its ability to bribe and threaten politicians; its spectacular surge in producing methamphetamines; and its access to high-powered weapons in Michoacán state, in southwestern Mexico, where 10,311 arms were confiscated last year—more than in any other state in the country.
Several factors explain why La Familia has shoved Michoacán to the brink of becoming a no-man’s land. First, the state is home to Lazaro Cardenas, the seaport that, along with nearby Manzanillo, Colima, provides the entry portal for cocaine from Andean nations and precursor chemicals for producing methamphetamines from China, Holland, Bulgaria, and other countries. Second, it forms part of the Tierra Caliente, an avocado, mango, and marijuana growing region where Michoacan, Guerrero, and Mexico State intersect. Finally, it bristles with hidden super-laboratories for manufacturing meth.
Michoacán has attracted not only La Familia, but other potent, deadly crime syndicates: the Beltrán Leyva brothers, who cooperate with Los Zetas, a paramilitary force created by the Gulf Cartel earlier in the decade; and the Guadalajara and Milenio Cartels, elements of which collaborate with the powerful Sinaloan Cartel headed by the legendary Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. As of July 31, 254 drug-related deaths had occurred in Michoacan—well ahead of the 233 for 2008 and 238 for 2007.
Medina Mora’s comments came only four days after federal forces had arrested twenty-seven public officials, including ten mayors in the Tierra Caliente, one of whom has American citizenship. Although members of different political parties, these office-holders purportedly had one thing in common—links to La Familia.
In another bold move, President Felipe Calderón’s government also sought to apprehend Julio César Godoy Toscano, an alleged protector of La Familia in Lázaro Cárdenas, Arteaga, and Nueva Italia. Godoy Toscano is a deputy-elect to Congress and the half-brother of Michoacan’s governor, Leonel Godoy Rangel. Both men belong to the irreparably fragmented leftist-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
On July 10, elements of the Army and Federal Police captured Arnoldo “La Minsa” Rueda Medina, known as the “coordinator of coordinators” for La Familia. This informal title sprang from his multiple responsibilities: (1) naming chiefs of drug-trafficking and producing zones known as plazas in Michoacán, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosí, Colima, Jalisco, and parts of Guerrero and Mexico State; (2) supervising deliveries of precursor chemicals for meth production; (3) monitoring clandestine methamphetamine laboratories; (4) charting routes for drug exports to the U.S.; and (5) coordinating the search for and execution of members of Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva organization.
In light of La Minsa’s pivotal position, his comrades immediately mounted a concerted and synchronized counterattack that took the lives of the most federal authorities in a single day since Calderon became president in late 2006.
On July 11 La Familia ambushed units of the armed forces and federal police in eight cities, beginning with Michoacán’s colonial capital, Morelia. On July 12 the major confrontation erupted in Lázaro Cárdenas, but La Familia also used high-powered rifles and fragmentation grenades against its foes in neighboring Guerrero and Guadalajara states. On July 13 the cartel captured, stripped, bound, and executed a dozen federal police, leaving their corpses in a heap alongside the Morelia-Lázaro Cárdenas highway with a message reading: “Come for another [of our leaders], we are waiting for you.” (“Vengan por otro, los estamos esperando”). On July 14 it ambushed a tourist bus carrying thirty federal police near La Huacana on the same highway. Later that day, it set fire to the federal police headquarters in Zitácuaro.
All told, the mayhem killed at least seventeen federal police and two soldiers, while wounding twenty or more civilian and military agents of the federal government. Two members of La Familia died in what some journalists hyperbolically called Mexico’s “Tet Offensive”—an early 1968 communist onslaught that failed militarily but convinced opinion-leaders such as the late Walter Cronkite that America could not win the Vietnam conflict.
Calderon dispatched 5,500 soldiers, sailors, marines, and police, who erected checkpoints on major arteries and shored up redoubts in La Familia strongholds. Local citizens exhibited a mixed reaction to the influx of men hefting automatic weapons and wearing ski masks. Gerardo Gomez, a Morelia resident, told a Reuters reporter: “We’ve reached a point where the local authorities are tapped out, and so unfortunately it’s necessary to call in extra forces to try and restore peace.”
Meanwhile, Sonia Sanchez, a lime farmer in the town of Buenavista, told a Washington Post correspondent that people were “furious” over the apprehension of their mayor, Osvaldo Esquivel Lucatero, a physician and soccer coach. Citizens chained shut the doors of the municipal building, and Governor Godoy, a PRD leader, groused about “the violent and illegal incursion” by federal authorities. He decried the failure of Calderon to consult with him before “occupying” his state. His colleagues in the nation’s Senate chimed in: “We oppose the weakening of the Michoacán government that the people elected at the polls,” stated Silvano Aureoles Conejo, vice-coordinator of the PRD’s senators.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which scored a thumping victory in the July 5 congressional contests, even questioned the effectiveness of troop movements under Calderón. State party president Mauricio Montaya Manzo lambasted the detentions, seizures, and arrests carried out by elements of the federal government over the previous two-and-a-half years.
Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez-Mont brushed aside this bellyaching, emphasizing that the gravity of the situation required “an immediate, frontal, and determined response.” Moreover, he made a direct challenge to La Familia: “We are ready for you; deal with authority and not with citizens; we are waiting; this is an invitation to you.” Deputies and senators across the spectrum decried this bravado as provocative, which signaled Gomez-Mont’s frustration over the government’s inability to quell drug-incited ruthlessness with large military detachments. (He subsequently apologized for his statement.) The units may tamp down violence in one area only to face an upsurge elsewhere in what one scholar called a “whack-a-mole” dynamic. Yet reliance on the Army and Navy is necessary in light of the venality and unprofessionalism that infuses the police departments.
Although “states’ rights” is an issue in Mexico as in the U.S., the grumbling from PRD and PRI spokesmen also represents a concern that La Familia and other cartels have suborned and intimidated political leaders from all parties in the state. Moreover, corruption pervades the nation’s 31 states and Mexico City. Governors and Mexico City’s mayor worry that their jurisdictions may become the next target of massive intervention by the federal government. Although loyal to Calderón, senior military officers no longer hide their frustration that venal politicians act with impunity while soldiers suffer beheadings and NGOs excoriate the military for human rights abuses.
“La Minsa” Rueda Medina rose from car thief to becoming the number-one hit man for La Empresa, a criminal organization from which La Familia evolved. Formed in 2000, La Empresa was headed by Carlos Rosales Mendoza (captured in 2004), José de Jesús “El Chango” Méndez Vargas, and Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno González. Rosales Mendoza enjoyed a good relationship with the boss of the Gulf Cartel, which was headquartered below Brownsville, Texas, in Tamaulipas state. He sought the Gulf Cartel’s assistance in combating the antagonistic Milenio and Guadalajara Cartels. In pursuit of this goal, cadres of Los Zetas—then the paramilitary arm of the Gulf Cartel—were dispatched to Michoacán. For several years, La Empresa collaborated with the Army-trained newcomers. Still, as Los Zetas began to distance themselves from the Gulf Cartel--they now operate independently--they pursued lucrative plazas in Michoacán.
This gambit incited a break with La Empresa, which morphed into La Familia. Even though “El Chango” Méndez Vargas and “El Chayo” Moreno González became dyed-in-the-wool enemies of Los Zetas, they adopted many of their sinister techniques. These included hit-and-run ambushes of adversaries; torturing and beheading foes to instill fear in opponents in particular and in the population in general; employing psychological warfare, unfurling banners in public places and leaving threatening notes next to cadavers; paying youngsters to serve as lookouts; and complementing drug activities with extortion, human trafficking, kidnappings, murder-for-hire, loan-sharking, and dominating contraband sales by street vendors.
It was not just La Minsa’s July 10 capture that infuriated La Familia; authorities had also arrested his mentor Rafael “El Cede” Cedeño Hernández in late April. El Cede boasted that he had recruited and trained 9,000 new members of the organization in 2008. He also had responsibility for thwarting Los Zetas’ entry into Michoacán from Zihuatenejo, Guerrero; overseeing the transport of drugs from Central America; managing precursor imports; extracting payments from bars and nightspots where high-school aged prostitutes plied their trade; indoctrinating new members; and organizing protests against the military’s presence in the state.
La Familia’s banners warned that: “The people are tired of this military invasion. We are living in a state of siege.” At the time of his capture, El Cede carried a credential that identified him as a “permanent observer” of the State Commission on Human Rights.
After El Cede was taken into custody, his brother, Daniel Cedeño Hernandez, stepped down as a federal deputy candidate in the July 5 congressional election. He had been nominated by the small Mexico Green Ecological Party, which is less a political organization than an opportunistic, corrupt family enterprise that allied with the PRI in the recent contests.
Still at large are such La Familia big shots as “El Nica” Barrera Medrano, chief of the Uruapan plaza; “En Inge” Mendez, head honcho in Turicato; “El Tío” Loya Plancarte, recruiter and public relations specialist for the group; and “La Tuta” Gomez Martínez, allegedly an ally of Toscano and mastermind of the July 13 massacre of federal police.
La Tuta has publicly stated that La Familia’s quarrel is with the federal police and SIEDO, Mexico’s intelligence agency, not with the Army, Navy, or president, a Michoacán native it claims to admire. Gomez Martínez even proposed negotiations with Calderon in order to hammer out a “national pact”—an overture adamantly rebuffed by the president. Rather than be lulled by such conciliatory rhetoric, federal forces continued to hunt La Tuta, and on July 29 captured Armando “El Licenciado” Quintero Guerra, Gomez Martínez’s presumed financial operator and coordinator of La Familia’s drug shipments to Tijuana and Mexicali. In early August, the Federal Police snared Rafael “La Cuchara” Hernandez Harrison, La Tuta’s right-hand man in Lázaro Cárdenas. In addition, authorities seized Miguel Ángel “La Troca” Beraza Villa, a key transporter of drugs to the U.S., in a church in Apatingan on August 1—a move decried by the Mexican Bishops’ Conference.
In contrast to Los Zetas and other Mexican capos, leaders of La Familia exhibit a religious fervor that approaches messianic zeal. The organization displayed this tendency in its public debut in Uruapan on September 6, 2006, when they lobbed five severed heads onto the dance floor of the Sol y Sombra nightclub, purportedly having concluded that the five men were involved in the rape and murder of a waitress/prostitute who worked in the bar and had been impregnated by a member of La Familia. The death note stated: “La Familia doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocent people. It only kills those who deserve to die.” It claims to administer “divine justice” to rapists, robbers, corrupters of youth, and the like. It has even harshly disciplined teenaged graffiti artists.
Proceso magazine’s Richard Ravelo asserts that the 4,000 members of La Familia were born and raised in Michoacán, that they attend church regularly and distribute Bibles in local government offices. El Milenio newspaper reported that La Familia uses the works of American evangelist John Eldredge to instruct and motivate their recruits. Unlike La Familia, Eldredge does not espouse violence. A graduate of the Los Angeles drug subculture, he founded and directs the Ransomed Heart Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Eldredge has also written that: “Every man wants a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.” The message of his ministry is “to set men and women free to live from the heart as God's intimate allies.” La Familia boasts that it enjoys grassroots support because it assists campesinos, constructs schools, donates books, prevents the sale of adulterated wine, and employs “extremely strong strategies” to bring order to the Tierra Caliente.
La Familia acquires resources by extorting money from merchants, loggers, hotel owners, local gangs, and small-scale drug sellers, but maintains that it is simply “protecting” its clients. After vendors of pirated diskettes in the Valle de Bravo, Mexico State, informed authorities of La Familia’s extortion, its hit men returned to advise them of new fees for complaining to the police. When arrested, the brigands told law enforcement agents: “We are neither kidnappers nor gangsters (rateros). We come to restore order and help those whom you cannot.”
Whether it’s El Cede, La Minsa, or their successor, La Familia stalwarts use evangelical appeals to recruit members from the 700,000 Michoacanos (out of a population of 4.2 million) who live in hard-scrabble poverty. They concentrate their message of rehabilitation, empowerment, and self-renewal on drug addicts, alcoholics, and juvenile delinquents. In order to forge a cult of true believers, the syndicate castigates the use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. In short, it provides a new family and sense of community for the downtrodden and disenfranchised, whom they brainwash into committing savagery to satisfy supposed commandments from heaven. In return for their complete devotion, La Familia pays its lookouts 2,500-3,000 pesos ($190-230) per week. These are princely salaries in a state where unemployment soars and tourism has nosedived 40 percent this year. José Luis Piñeyro, an analyst who is close to the Mexican armed forces, believes that joblessness and poverty is creating “an army in reserve” for the traffickers. Disobeying La Familia’s code of conduct yields a beating for the first infraction, a more severe thrashing for the second offense, and execution for the third violation. The syndicate keeps careful records of members’ families in order to take reprisals against them if an operator deserts or fails to carry out a mission. The organization’s perverted rules also decree that “whoever leaves La Familia dies.”
La Familia has extended its reach into Mexico State, where it controls or has conducted operations in numerous municipalities. There as in Michoacán, it must compete with Los Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Beltrán Leyva brothers, who, in Mexico City’s western suburb of Huixquilucan, cooperate with the Colombian North Valley Cartel. (The Beltrán Leyvas employ Los Pelones to collect payment from small drug dealers and have safe houses in Huixquilucan, Naucalpan, and the Valle de Bravo.) The messianic merchants of death also operate in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Mexico City.
As indicated by the May 2009 arrests, La Familia Michoacána concentrates on Michoacán politicians, especially local officials who represent municipalities along their trafficking routes. A protected witness avers that in the last election the criminal band contributed 2 million pesos ($155,000) to favored mayoral candidates who, if elected, receive a stipend of 200,000 pesos per month. The same source swore that Governor Godoy raked in $300,000 from each of La Familia’s leaders—with his then-secretary of public security serving as the conduit between the politicians and criminals. The Attorney General’s Office denies that Godoy is linked to these mafiosi. However, Godoy’s hunted half-brother has prematurely sought to be sworn in as a federal deputy to immunize himself from arrest.
These expenditures on campaigns represent a drop in the bucket compared with La Familia’s earning from methamphetamine alone. According to a laboratory operator, the organization invests approximately 1 million pesos ($77,000) in a plant to produce 100 kg of ice weekly, which can generate earnings of 3.5 million pesos ($270,000). Federal forces have demolished forty labs this year; they may represent the tip of the iceberg.
Abundant resources have enabled La Familia to establish what the late historian Crane Brinton described as “dual sovereignty.” In the case of Michoacán, this means that parallel to the elected government stands a narco-administration that generates employment (in growing and processing drugs), keeps order (repressing rival cartels), performs civic function (repairing churches), and collects taxes (extorting businesspersons). Moreover, the Mexican Constitution prevents mayors, state legislators, governors, and other officials from seeking reelection; no such provision applies to underground leaders, but bullets from opponents rather than ballots may abbreviate their terms.
While it used to be satisfied with doing business in Mexico, La Familia is moving aggressively into the U.S. market. Reportedly, it has struck deals to pass through the Northwestern region dominated by “El Chapo”’s Sinaloa Cartel and the divided, much weaker Arellano Felix Organization. Their trailers, replete with hidden compartments tucked under fruits and vegetables, enter the U.S. through Mexicali, Tijuana, or Tamaulipas and head for Atlanta, Dallas, or Los Angeles. The presence of 3.5 million Michoacán natives north of the Rio Grande enhances the traffickers’ ability to sell their product in these cities, as well as use these metropolitan areas as hubs from which to supply smaller communities. DEA officials indicate they are beginning to receive inquiries from law-enforcement agencies on both coasts about “La Familia,” a cartel with which the local police have little or no experience.
There is no doubt that forceful military intervention is still necessary, but a compelling argument can be made for undertaking complementary efforts against La Familia and other syndicates, by: (1) continuing the focus on politicians and businessmen in league with gangsters; (2) improving the gathering and analysis of intelligence, as well as infiltrating cartels; (3) requiring integration and coordination from intelligence-gathering organizations; (4) assigning and training skilled intelligence personnel to work with international agencies monitoring the flow of drugs in the global markets; (5) strengthening support for judicial reform initiatives; (6) devising more secure programs to encourage and protect informants; (7) identifying hotspots of drug movement, especially in the ports, airports, and train terminals that are currently open sieves; (8) developing an air radar network that can cover the country for more than three hours a day, as was the case in mid-2009, (9) developing more systematic forensic accounting systems to reduce the flow of laundered funds; and (10) taking full advantage of the new law that authorizes the seizure of the assets of criminals and their accomplices.
It is easier to advance proposals than to implement them. Nonetheless, President Calderón must either make more headway with his muscular approach or modify this interdiction strategy during his remaining three years in office. Results of the July election and opinion surveys indicate that the once-hegemonic PRI stands a good chance to regain the presidency in 2012. It is doubtful that the self-proclaimed “revolutionary party,” which worked hand-in-glove with the traditional crime syndicates for decades, will show the same commitment as Calderón to battling the vicious malefactors. His moving against corrupt governors and other politicians would not only win the approval of the military, it would give him leverage in dealing with the PRI in Congress and demonstrate that the enablers of drug-traffickers will no longer remain above the law.
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On November 15th at the FPRI annual dinner Fouad Ajami was presented with the Seventh Annual Benjamin Franklin Public Service Award. The event was attended by over 360 people.
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