2 Feb 2009
Another deadly Mexican syndicate
La Familia is extremely volatile because of its diverse components and bloodthirsty fanaticism, George W Grayson writes for FPRI.
By George W Grayson for FPRI
The death toll related to narco-trafficking in Mexico more than doubled last year, from 2,275 in 2007 to 5,207 in 2008. An increasingly important contributor to this ghastly mayhem is the shadowy Michoacana family, or La Familia. Its center of operations is the Pacific Coast state of Michoacan, home to trafficking routes and sophisticated factories for producing methamphetamine, as well as the port Lázaro Cárdenas, an open sesame for drug imports.
Although organized several years earlier, La Familia burst into the limelight on September 6, 2006, when 20 masked desperados stormed into scruffy Sol y Sombra night spot in Uruapan, Michoacan, fired shots into the air, ran up to the second floor from where they tossed five human heads onto the black and white dance floor.
They left behind a message, written on cardboard: “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.”
Club owner Carlos Alvarez nervously defended the assailants. “These men didn’t come here to hurt anyone, they work against bad people, those men whose heads they cut were like bugs,” reported National Public Radio.
Victor Alejandro, the owner of a small shop across the road from the dance hall, says he’s afraid to be seen talking to a stranger. “There are informants everywhere,” he says.
The day before, the killers had seized their victims 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 US law enforcement official.
A similar self-righteous message appeared at the foot of a black cross in Apatzingan, in the heart of the Tierra Caliente, which embraces 32 municipalities at the intersection of Michoacan, Guerrero, and Mexico State. In this highly productive zone, La Familia, Los Zetas paramilitaries linked to the powerful Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel, and the local Milenio Cartel of the Valencia family engage in bloody warfare for control of growing areas and transit routes.
In addition, Michoacan finds the several criminal organizations fighting for the cocaine and precursor chemicals for methamphetamine that arrive through Lázaro Cárdenas, the state’s largest port, or through nearby entry points. This was the gateway for multimillionaire Chinese-Mexican Zhenli Ye Gon, who is now under arrest in the US, to import chemicals for the meth production in the super-laboratories throughout the state. The port of Lázaro Cárdenas’ importance lies in its strategic location: Half of Mexico’s population lives within some 300 kilometers of this coastal city.
Various currents have fed into the heterogeneous organization, which emerged in 2004 with the stated “mission” of eradicating trafficking in meth, or “ice,” and other narcotics, kidnappings, extortion, murder-for-hire, highway assaults, and robberies, according to one of its founders, Nazario “The Craziest One” Moreno González. La Familia may have begun as vigilantes determined to thwart the manufacture and transport of meth by the Michoacan-based Milenio Cartel, a stalwart ally of Joaquín “Shorty” or “The Uncle” Guzmán Loera and his Sinaloa Cartel, the major competitor to his Gulf counterparts.
There is also the possibility that they sprang to life to prevent Los Zetas from entering their bailiwick. Narco-criminal Carlos Rosales Mendoza, formerly a member of the local Milenio cartel, switched his loyalty to the Gulf Cartel. In response to his new ally’s request, Gulf boss Osiel Cárdenas Guillen dispatched Los Zetas led by Efraín Teodoro Torres or “Zeta 14” and Gustavo “The Erotic One” Gonzalez Castro, to help Rosales Mendoza protect his plaza at La Union, a municipality in Guerrero near Petacalco and Lázaro Cárdenas on the Pacific Coast.
Another Gulf Cartel accomplice was Carlos Pinto Rodríguez, a native of Huerta de Gámbara in the Tierra Caliente. Pinto Rodríguez became even more violent after his son died in a shoot-out. After Rosales Mendoza participated in an unsuccessful attempt to free Cardenas Guillen from La Palma high-security prison, the Army captured him at his attractive residence in the Colonia Lomas de Santa Maria, Morelia, on 24 October 2004. EsMas and Reforma reported that Rosales Mendoza offered a huge bribe if his captors would release him.
In reaction to Los Zetas’ incursion, Juan Jose “The Grandfather” Farías, leader of the local Rural Guards, a uniformed Mexican army auxiliary linked to the 43rd Military Zone in Apatzingan, took the offensive. He sought to expel the intruders from his region as if he were an agent of the French Resistance fighting the Nazis. Meanwhile, he was suspected of being a major narco-trafficker in the region. He is believed to have worked with Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, also called Nemesio, who is the cousin of Abigaíl and Jose Mendoza Valencia, relatives of Armando Valencia Cornelio, the chief of the Milenio Cartel until his imprisonment in La Palma.
In retaliation for Farias’ opposition, Los Zetas decapitated cheese-maker Raúl Farías Alejandres, a relative of The Grandfather, on 4 September 2006. A note next to the corpse warned: “One by one you go falling. Greetings. La Familia sends its regards.” Four more beheadings followed.
The Grandfather, the intrepid Zeta fighter who owns restaurants, hotels, and orchards, has disappeared, perhaps because the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) is investigating his possible connections Ye Gon. He and his followers are allied with the Valencias and the Sinaloa Cartel.
In 2007, Uriel Farías Álvarez, The Grandfather’s brother and a PRI stalwart, won a landslide victory for the mayorship of Tepalcatepec, which, along with Aguililla, Apatzingan, and Buenavista Tomatlán, lies in a drug-smuggling corridor that connects the Tierra Caliente with Jalisco. He pooh-poohs the idea that he or his relatives have ties to the underworld: “My brother only kept a lookout on orders of the Army. And as a result they said he was a narco.”
How La Familia describes its goals
Handwritten, poorly-spelled, enigmatic missives showed up next to the decapitated heads in Uruapan as part of its intense propaganda campaign designed to intimidate both foes, terrorize the local population, and inhibit action by the government. Like Los Zetas, La Familia disseminates news of its deeds nationally by conventional media as well as by internet videos and carefully placed banners.
On the heels of the Uruapan atrocity, La Familia took out a half-page advertisement in newspapers claiming to be crime-fighters. El Sol of Morelia and La Voz de Michoacan both ran the group’s manifesto. Such expressions of civic virtue aside, 18 of 32 police officers in the Tepalcatepec area resigned after receiving death threats from La Familia, while local newspapers exercise self-censorship concerning the sinister band.
On 18 August 2006, the organization decapitated Jesús Rodríguez Valencia, a member of the Milenio Cartel, placing the following message next to his cadaver: “All that rises falls of its own weight, it would be like this, the family greets you.” Three months later, the police discovered two bodies on the Zamora-La Barca highway, next to which was a note that said: “For those who sell ice. This is divine justice. Sincerely, La Familia.” “Divine justice. No to the meth makers, La Familia,” was the text discovered alongside a body found on the Jacona-Los Reyes highway. The message appeared on a green card, reflecting the color that La Familia uses on its emblems, placards, and communications.
In all, authorities attributed 17 decapitations to La Familia in 2006 alone. Between the murder of Rodriguez Valencia that August and 31 December 2008, La Familia killed scores, if not hundreds, of people. There were 233 executions in Michoacan, most of whose victims belonged to one criminal band or another.
What may have begun as a small group of armed men on the prowl to protect their children from meth has turned into a major criminal outfit that is just as well-armed and organized as any top-tier drug smuggling organization in Mexico.
The Attorney General’s Office claims that elements of organization not only sell narcotics in many of the municipalities of their home state, but also seek to dominate the distribution route to the US border that snakes through territory traditionally in the hands of the Sinaloa cartel. To this end, they have established safe houses as refuges for their traffickers at strategic points along the route northward. While originating in Michoacan, La Familia has extended its activities to Mexico State, where it controls or has conducted operations in numerous municipalities.
La Familia has corrupted and or intimidated law-enforcement personnel. In August 2008, a drug distributor in the Valle de Toluca accused Jose Manzur Ocana, the well-connected former PGR delegate in the state, of providing protection to Los Zetas and La Familia. Although placed in a witness-protection program, the informant was among those executed in the La Marquesa bloodbath discussed below.
In early November 2008, 100 local police in Chalco, just outside Mexico City, demanded the dismissal of their chief, Carlos Adulfo Palafox, whom they accused of having ties with La Familia. Mexico State’s Attorney General Alberto Bazbaz also cited Jesús Garcia Carrasco, commander of the state’s Judicial Police, as a possible collaborator after he reportedly received 70,000 pesos per month to provide information to La Familia.
La Familia’s rivals have struck back. In August 2008, three bodies, bearing grotesque torture marks and their hands and feet tied, turned up in San Pablito in the Tultepec municipality. The “narco-message at the scene stated: “All of the Michoacan Family will die, but I leave [these bodies] so that you believe me.” In September 2008, enemies pumped 18 bullets into the body of José Luis “El Jaguar” Carranza Galván, whom the PGR identified as a principal operator of La Familia.
La Familia has not made all police kowtow. After law-enforcement agents took into custody Miguel “The King” Carvajal in the Valle de Bravo in January 2008, they received a telephone death threat if they “touched” their prisoner. In a similar vein, El Rey told the police: “don’t hit me [for] I come in the spirit of peace; my chiefs are now in conversations with your commanders to strike a deal.” Despite this bravado, the extortionist and hit man for La Familia remained behind bars.
In September 2008, in the Nicolás Romero municipality authorities captured Lázaro “The Indian” Bustos Abarca Nicolas Romero, who commanded a band of 20 kidnappers linked to La Familia. Ten days later, the PGR reported the murder of 24 people in La Marquesa park in Mexico State. Officials hypothesized that the murders arose from a clash between La Familia and the Beltran Leyva brothers over control of Huixquilucan, a strategic plaza for drug shipments. In mid-November, the federal police took into custody Pedro Jaime Chávez Rosales, former director of public safety for the municipality, who was believed to be involved in the multiple executions.
In Mexico City, on 31 July 2008, a body was found in the trunk of a Chevrolet Corsa parked in the capital’s southern borough of Coyoacan. A note attached to the corpse said: “For not paying. Sincerely, La Familia."
The western boroughs of Miguel Hidalgo and Cuajimalpa also have become a zone for money-laundering and drug transit, exciting a raging conflict among Colombian traffickers, Los Zetas, and La Familia. The competitors dispatch their foes with high-powered weapons, decapitations, and asphyxiation with plastic bags. Next to three bodies discovered in September 2008 lay the message: “I was victim of a kidnapping by those who call themselves La Familia Michoacana; thus, I am carrying out justice by my own hand.”
Grenade attack in Morelia
The PGR initially accused La Familia of carrying out the 15 September 2008, grenade attack in Morelia’s Melchor Ocampo plaza. Authorities advanced the theory that the fanatical band sought to attract a greater contingent of federal police and military to the state in order to thwart Los Zetas from consolidating their trafficking routes.
In response to such allegations, the organization immediately revved up its public relations apparatus. It dispatched a text message to local reporters and residents denying participation in the tragedy and placing the blame on Los Zetas, which responded with its own communiques in the form of banners unfurled in prominent spots in Puebla, Reynosa, Cancun, Oaxaca, and Nuevo Laredo.
It offered a US$5 million reward in dollars, Euros, or another currency to anyone who could help capture members of La Familia, which it alleged produced the mayhem: “The Gulf cartel energetically condemns the September 15 attack against the Mexican people. We offer our aid for the arrest of the leaders who call themselves ‘La Familia’.” The narco-banners specifically mentioned such chiefs as Moreno Gonzalez, Jesús “El Chango” Méndez Vargas, and Enrique “El Kiki” Tlacaltepetl.
The Gulf organization followed up this challenge by placing a red ice chest in the center of Lázaro Cárdenas. The head of a member of its sworn enemies lay inside the container, next to which a green poster proclaimed: “Greetings Chayo, Rogaciano and Changa [reference to leaders of La Familia]. This is for the collection of queers who support the terrorists of La Familia; we do not kill innocent people; we kill terrorists like this one … We don’t kidnap and we want neither to work with you nor to have contact with you and those you rely on … Thanks for those who are supporting us. Sincerely: Gulf Cartel 100 percent.”
Journalists for Proceso magazine reported that the police received an anonymous tip indicating the whereabouts of the alleged perpetrators of the violence. After meeting with members of La Familia near the Cuitzeo security barracks, authorities seized, blindfolded, handcuffed, and arrested three Zetas for the tragedy. Family members of the prisoners claimed that they were subjected to physical and psychological torture. In the words of a sister and wife:
“They asked him why he had thrown the grenades, which he denied. Later they tied his hands with packing tape and beat him with boards. He told us that later they dragged him to a river and left him there all night. He also says that they had him with his arms up all day, always blindfolded.”
The newspaper Milenio has reported the appearance of La Familia in Guanajuato, where it emulates the Italian mafia by controlling the small outlets that sell cocaine and marijuana to individuals. When a local distributor refused to cooperate, he was killed. In the past, Juan José “The Blue One” (so called because of his bluish skin color) Esparragoza Moreno, an ally of El Chapo, controlled Guanajuato. In a negotiation between capos, El Azul relinquished the plaza to La Familia, thus avoiding violent confrontation. Dominance in Guanajuato helps La Familia impede its rivals’ access to Michoacan.
Organization and resources
Journalist Richard Ravelo asserts that the 4,000 members of La Familia were born and raised in Michoacan, that they earn between US$1,500 and US$2,000 per month, and that they are well connected with state and local officials. They reportedly attend church regularly, carry Bibles, and distribute the Good Book in local government offices.
They claim to enjoy grassroots’ support because they provide assistance to campesinos, construct schools, donate books, prevent the sale of adulterated wine, and employ “extremely strong strategies” to bring order to the Tierra Caliente. Thus, they offered a contrast to the Milenio Cartel, which has recruited outsiders called Antizetas.
They acquire resources by selling protection to merchants, street vendors of contraband, hotels, local gangs, and small-scale drug sellers. Rather than speak in terms of extortion, La Familia claims to “protect” its clients. Members the organization wear uniforms, carry arms, and drive vehicles similar to those of the Federal Agency of Investigation. This allows them greater freedom to move around their areas of interest. Still, leaders of the group have become so brazen that they have designed their own outfits to mark their identity and distinguish their members from adversaries.
Reports indicate the fragmentation of La Familia, whose leadership - known as “Los Sierras” - holds sway in the Tierra Caliente. These factions include: Los Historicos, who have links with Los Zetas; “Los Extorsionistas, composed of businessmen and growers who concentrate on extorting money from anyone from surgeons to municipal mayors; Los Cobradores de Deudas (“Debt Collectors”), who are allied with the Milenio and Sinaloa cartels and who traffic in meth; and An unnamed group that concentrates on selling pirated films and DVDs.
La Familia’s current leaders, Bible-toting fanatics Moreno Gonzalez and Mendez Vargas, may have direct or indirect ties with devotees of the New Jerusalem movement. Dionisio “The Uncle” Loya Plancarte, once a Zeta, now presents himself as the spokesman for the organization.
The 53-year-old Michoacan native, who manages press and public relations for La Familia, claims that through kidnappings and executions the cartel is ensuring “a peaceful climate for law-abiding citizens.” In addition, he cited as his organization’s principal targets “El Chapo Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers because they were responsible for methamphetamine addiction in Michoacan communities.”
In October 2008, authorities captured Wenceslao Álvarez Álvarez, an ally of La Familia who ran an international operation out of Nueva Italia, a Michoacan municipality where, ironically, in November 1938, President Lázaro Cárdenas established the first communal farm, promising to make it a model of progress for the nation. Like many other growers in the Tierra Caliente, Álvarez Álvarez produced avocados. He claims to have turned to narco-trafficking to avenge the 1999 kidnapping and murder of his father by a vicious local gang, Los Arcila. Led by Jorge Álvarez Arcila, a local farmer, and Daniel Farias, the former warden of the Patzcuaro prison, these brigands enjoyed impunity as they carried out a dozen kidnappings in the Tierra Caliente between 1996 and 2000.
Alvarez Alvarez’s cocaine network allegedly extended from Colombia through Guatemala and Mexico to Atlanta and other US cities. The US Drug Enforcement Administration has identified him as a lieutenant of Miguel “El L-40” Treviño Morales, a top figure in Los Zetas. Álvarez Álvarez called the charges against him “false,” insisting that he was only a grower of tomatoes, peppers, mangos, and other crops on land rented by his entire family. In addition to his underworld exploits, he also has an interest in “Los Mapaches” of Nueva Italia, a second-division soccer team that he purchased for 1 million pesos.
The group known as La Familia bears similarities to Colombia’s United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), an amalgam of rightwing vigilantes, rural self-defense militia, former military and police personnel, who oppose anyone believed to be supportive of the guerrillas belonging to the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).
The religious zeal of La Familia manifests itself in preference for executions over negotiations. So strong is the organization that it has gained a major beachhead in Michoacan, eclipsed Los Zetas in Mexico state, crossed swords with the ruthless Beltran Leyva brothers in Mexico state, and ousted a faction of the Sinaloa cartel from Guanajuato. La Familia is extremely volatile because of its diverse components and bloodthirsty fanaticism.
Mexico’s heavily armed, vicious groups are increasingly conducting operations north of the Rio Grande. Too long ignored by Washington, this threat from the Mexican cartels - and their Andean suppliers - must become a priority of the Obama administration.
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. The New York-based Foreign Policy Association has just published his latest book, Mexico’s Struggle with Drugs and Thugs.