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La Familia Drug Cartel: Implications for U.S.-Mexican Security

Authored by Dr. George W. Grayson. | December 2010

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La Familia Michoacana, also known as La Familia, is one of the most bizarre and deadly cartels in the world. Its Bible-pounding leaders recruit young people from rehabilitation centers, insist that they throw off their dependence on alcohol, drugs, and other addictive substances, and, once clean, apply to join their organization. The novitiates must submit themselves to 2 months of brainwashing that includes scripture readings, exposure to motivational speakers, and long periods of silence and meditation. Upon completing their “instruction,” they may become couriers, lookouts, or drivers. Those who show an aptitude for violence are taken in groups of 40 to a wilderness area known as the Jesús del Monte. There, they are directed to shoot, butcher, and cook 15 victims to demonstrate that they are neither squeamish about killing innocents nor repulsed by handling bloody body parts.

The leaders of La Familia—known as ”El Chango” (José de Jesús Méndez Vargas) and “El Chayo” (Nazario Moreno González) assure those who successfully complete this exercise that they are prepared to do the Lord's work—that is, safeguarding women, combatting competing cartels, and preventing the local sale of drugs.

This syndicate burst onto the national stage on September 6, 2006, when ruffians crashed into the seedy Sol y Sombra nightclub in Uruapan, Michoacán, and fired shots into the air. They screamed at the revelers to lie down, ripped open a plastic bag, and lobbed five human heads onto the beer-stained black and white dance floor. The day before these macabre pyrotechnics, the killers seized their prey from a mechanic's shop and hacked off their heads with bowie knives while the men writhed in pain. “You don't do something like that unless you want to send a big message,” said a U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity about an act of human depravity that would “cast a pall over the darkest nooks of hell.”1

This action, the first time that severed heads had been used for completely propagandistic purposes, was designed to strike fear into the hearts of the community. Local lore has it that the five decapitated men were involved in the murder of a waitress/prostitute who worked in the bar and had been impregnated by a member of La Familia. A few days before the ghastly incident, she allegedly refused to have sex with these men, who raped and killed her. La Familia began its own investigation and found these individuals guilty.

The desperados left behind a note hailing their act as “divine justice,” adding that: “The Family doesn't kill for money; it doesn't kill women; it doesn't kill innocent people; only those who deserve to die, die. Everyone should know . . . this is divine justice.”2

Such acts of savagery, combined with the wealth accumulated from exporting methamphetamines (meth) and other narcotics to America, have enabled La Familia to form cells in the major municipalities of Michoacán and in neighboring states. Their strength has fostered what the late historian Crane Brinton referred to as “dual sovereignty” in his classic study, The Anatomy of Revolution.3

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 functions (repairing churches), collects taxes (extorting businessmen), and screens newcomers to the municipality (employing lookouts). Moreover, while the Mexican Constitution prevents mayors, state legislators, governors, and other officials from seeking reelection, no such provision applies to underground leaders, although bullets from opponents rather than ballots may abbreviate their terms.

La Familia has taken advantage of profound changes that have swept Michoacán, an impoverished state that snuggles against Mexico's Pacific Coast. The North American Free Trade Agreement and recent economic woes have increased the number of unemployed. The U.S. border used to provide a ready escape valve for michoacanos attempting to find jobs and send payments back to their home communities, many of which are bereft of males between the ages of 18 and 45. However, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack; wars in the Middle East; and sky-high joblessness north of the Rio Grande have forced Washington to crack down on illegal crossings at the 2,000-mile-long frontier that separates the United States and Mexico.

Difficulty in earning decent prices for traditional fruit and vegetable crops have led small farmers to turn to growing marijuana, which they sell to the brutal, messianic cartel that may finance the purchase of inputs. Others who faced unemployment work in sophisticated laboratories where the self-righteous syndicate turns imported precursor drugs into meth to sell in the burgeoning American market.

Even though La Familia had surpassed the Colima and Jalisco families in meth sales to the United States, little was known about this shadowy organization whose operatives hid among communities of Michoacanos north of the Rio Grande. In 2007 and 2008, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials began receiving inquiries from law enforcement agencies on both coasts about “La Familia,” a cartel that previously had not come to the attention of most local police departments.

In fact, a multiagency Special Operations Division, comprised of more than 300 agents and analysts from federal, state, and local law enforcement organizations was hard at work on Project Coronado to weaken the Michoacán-based cartel's activities in the United States. Planned for 44 months, the operation culminated on October 22, 2009, and constituted the mightiest blow against a Mexican criminal organization. Coronado involved the arrest of 303 individuals linked to La Familia in the United States, as well as the seizure of 500 kilograms of marijuana, 350 kilograms of meth, 62 kilograms of cocaine, 144 weapons, 109 automobiles, and $3.4 million in cash. According to the U.S. Justice Department, the investigation was spearheaded by an alphabet soup of agencies—the DEA; the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the Internal Revenue Service (IRS); U.S. Customs and Border Protection; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF); as well as attorneys from the Criminal Division's Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section. In November 2010, during Operation CHOKE HOLD, the DEA and other agencies targeted La Familia's formidable Atlanta-area operations. They arrested 45 people and seized cash, guns, and more than two tons of drugs.

Once a “Lone Ranger” in the drug trade, La Familia has cast its lot with the infamous and powerful Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels in their battle against Los Zetas, founded by ex-Special Forces members who formed the Gulf Cartel's Praetorian Guard before striking out on their own. If La Familia and the Sinaloa Cartels displace the paramilitaries, they will have access to Nuevo Laredo, the major portal for the binational flow of narcotics, money, and weapons.

This monograph examines the profound changes sweeping Michoacán in recent years that have facilitated the rise and power of drug traffickers; the origins and evolution of La Familia, its leadership and organization, its ideology and recruitment practices, its impressive resources, its brutal conflict with Los Zetas, its skill in establishing dual sovereignty in various municipalities, if not the entire state; and its long-term goals and their significance for the United States. The conclusion addresses steps that could be taken to curb this extraordinarily wealthy and dangerous criminal organization.

Endnotes - Summary

1. James C. McKinley, Jr., “Mexican Drug War Turns Barbaric, Grisly,” New York Times, October 26, 2006.

2. This may explain why the death note indicated that they “do not kill women.”

3. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, New York: Random House, 1938.