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A Mexican Cartel's Swift and Grisly Climb

Competing to Kill

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent troops into his home state of Michoacan in 2006 to fight drug traffickers, U.S. and Mexican officials have described a growing free-for-all between warring cartels in the state where 10 mayors were recently detained and are being investigated for alleged ties to drug traffickers.

Since December 2006, when Calderón sent troops into Michoacan, his home state, to fight drug traffickers, U.S. and Mexican officials have described a growing free-for-all, with the cartels warring over the once-stable routes that carry 90 percent of all cocaine bound for the United States.

In January 2007, Calderón, who has made the extradition of drug suspects to the United States a pillar of his counternarcotics strategy, extradited Osiel Cárdenas, the leader of the Gulf cartel, one of Mexico's oldest drug-trafficking organizations. With the cartel weakened, it began to fragment, creating new groups.

These included La Familia and another, Los Zetas, that is made up of rogue Special Forces veterans who had originally formed an armed wing of the Gulf cartel.

La Familia quickly set itself apart as a kind of criminal organization not seen before in Mexico. The cartel employed a public relations specialist known as El Tio, or the Uncle, and presented itself as a semi-legitimate company that hired only Michoacan residents and worked for the benefit of the mostly impoverished state.

"The cartel is distinctly entrepreneurial. La Familia was the first to use a horizontal business structure, with different 'offices' spread all over the country," said Ricardo Ravelo, a Mexico City investigative journalist and an authority on organized crime. "It's a cartel, but it also has a social component, as if to say: 'We're not that bad. We also worry about the people.' "

Rafael Pequeño García, chief of anti-drug operations at Mexico's Public Security Ministry, said La Familia filled a vacuum in social services and community development.

"When you needed help, you didn't go to the government. You went to the narcos," he said. "They are a parallel structure, and they have a way of satisfying the needs of the people. In this way, they maintain social control."

Many recruits are former drug addicts and alcoholics. "When a cartel is divided into smaller pieces, the pieces become more violent," Pequeño said. "Because when you break up a big cartel, the people with access to command are the sicarios, the hit men. Now the killers are running the organizations. That is why they are so violent. They don't know anything about negotiation. Everything is about force and fear."

A senior U.S. law enforcement official said that the rise of La Familia was extraordinarily rapid. "A year ago, I wouldn't have known much about them -- and I'm in the DEA," said the Drug Enforcement Administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They have developed into a serious force. They are very astute at how they run their operations. They're now the guys in Michoacan."

La Familia published a manifesto in Michoacan newspapers, promising to deliver books and build schools "to improve the education of society." Members are forced to carry a self-published "spiritual manual" of New Age aphorisms by leader Nazario Moreno González, who is known as El Mas Loco, or the Craziest One.

"Don't view your obstacles as problems, but accept them and discover in them the opportunity to improve yourself," El Mas Loco wrote.

In April, 400 government agents backed by two Black Hawk helicopters arrested another La Familia leader, Rafael Cedeño Hernández, while he attended a party celebrating a baptism. According to federal police, Cedeño boasted that he had recruited and trained 9,000 new members in 2008, instilling "religious, ethical and moral lessons" while forbidding the excessive use of alcohol and drugs.

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