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A Mexican Cartel's Swift and Grisly Climb
La Familia Defies Federal Efforts To Eliminate Its Influence

By Steve Fainaru and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 13, 2009

APATZINGAN, Mexico -- In farm towns across the hot, fertile state of Michoacan, famous for its mangos and marijuana, residents are used to seeing military patrols rumbling through their streets. But until late last month, they had never seen soldiers descending on City Hall.

After surrounding the whitewashed building in Apatzingan's central square, masked troops armed with AK-47 assault rifles marched up the stairs, past florid murals depicting Mexico's revolutionary past, and arrested the mayor, Génaro Guízar Valencia, a 62-year-old U.S. citizen who had spent 35 years in Northern California and returned to Michoacan in the 1990s.

Authorities accused Guízar -- and more than two dozen other officials throughout the state -- of working for La Familia Michoacana, an ascendant drug cartel guided by a messianic cult that promises to protect the poor while meting out "divine justice" to its enemies, including rituals in which executioners carve cryptic initials in their victims' foreheads.

"I'm an honest man," the mayor said, speaking by telephone from a Mexico City detention facility. "I haven't done anything wrong."

U.S. and Mexican officials said La Familia now dominates the drug trade in Michoacan and maintains a very strong presence in a dozen American cities, including Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. The unprecedented sting operation here revealed that, in response to President Felipe Calderón's nationwide anti-narcotics strategy, the big drug cartels are splintering and then rapidly reassembling into increasingly resourceful criminal enterprises, capable of penetrating and corrupting government and society.

As one Mexican official put it, the cartels are "evolving," growing more efficient and resilient.

The arrests May 26 picked up 10 mayors, nine police chiefs and nine senior officials. But as the dragnet was being announced, thousands of residents across the farming belt known as the Tierra Caliente, or hot lands, rose up in protest. Michoacan's governor, Leonel Godoy, filed a formal complaint with Calderón over what he called "the violent and illegal incursion" by federal authorities. Among those arrested were a close adviser to Godoy, the head of the state police academy and a longtime Xerox executive serving as the mayor of Michoacan's second-largest city.

"The people are furious," said Sonia Sánchez, a lime farmer in the town of Buenavista. Protesters occupied and shuttered Buenavista's town hall after the mayor, Osbaldo Esquivel Lucatero, a physician and popular soccer coach, was arrested when he showed up for work.

While a dance troupe practiced on a nearby stage in the main plaza, Mariano Perez, a 46-year-old painter, stood guard outside Buenavista's government building. The doors will remain chained shut until the mayor is released, he said. Among the placards plastered on the facade in support of Esquivel was one from high school students that read: "We demand the authorities respect individual rights!"

Godoy, the governor, said in an interview that the popular backlash threatens to undermine counter-drug operations in Michoacan, a key transit hub where at least six cartels now compete, employing 45,000 people, according to one estimate. "When the state and federal governments fight, the only ones who win are the criminals," he said.

Godoy called the operation "necessary" but said he was outraged that the federal government did not warn him of it. The first the governor knew about the raids was when his security adviser was arrested, followed by his top agent at the state Interior Ministry. The message was clear: Federal authorities did not trust Godoy, whose brother, a candidate for Mexico's Congress, recently gave officials a statement denying any connection to traffickers after an opposition party accused him of being on the cartel payroll.

"Underlying all of this is money, the unquenchable thirst for money," said the Rev. Miguel López, a Catholic priest in Tepalcatepec, where the mayor -- the brother of a local drug baron known as the Grandfather -- was among those arrested last month. "It is this thirst for money that drives all of this: the government officials who collude and allow themselves to be corrupted and the organizations that kill and commercialize human life."

Competing to Kill

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.

La Familia convened a meeting with 20 mayors last year -- some arrived on their own, and others were brought forcibly -- and ordered them to install the cartel's preselected police chiefs in their towns, according to Godoy and Carlos Navarrete, a Michoacan senator. Godoy, informed of the meeting by one of the mayors, reported the plot to Mexico's secretary of defense, Guillermo Galván, who placed active and retired military officers in charge of security in those towns, Navarrete said in an interview.

But La Familia is better known for its wanton violence. In September 2006, in its most infamous act of savagery, two dozen hooded men burst into the Sun and Shade disco in the Michoacan city of Uruapan and tossed five heads onto the dance floor. They left a message that read: "La Familia doesn't kill for money. It kills only those who deserve to die."

La Familia members have killed their rivals by driving ice picks through their skulls and boiling them to death. In an escalating competition of slaughter, the cartel has strewn the region with headless corpses wrapped in plastic and others with hacked-off limbs, graphic images that often appear in Michoacan's lurid crime tabloids.

"For the past three years here, we have lived in a situation of true terror," said López, the Catholic priest. On one occasion, traffickers hung five severed heads from a cross planted beside the two-lane road that connects several towns in the Tierra Caliente.

"And you know what we are waiting for now? Something even more horrifying," he said. "The worst of it is we've become accustomed to it. It's like getting used to pain. You need something even stronger, because that's the only way you can feel anything."

'A Straight Shooter'

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora recently called La Familia the country's most dangerous cartel and its leading producer of methamphetamines. Authorities have broken up 39 meth labs in Michoacan -- and 19 of those were in Apatzingan.

On the surface, Apatzingan is a placid agricultural town, rustic and poor around the edges, with farmers in straw hats walking by with hoes over their shoulders. But there are obvious pockets of prosperity: a row of new car dealerships, a store that sells hot tubs. When the soldiers came for the mayor, he was told that he was being "invited" to testify about local crime and that his appearance was strictly voluntary.

"Once we got outside the city, I realized that I was a prisoner," said Guízar, who had operated a radio station and a chain of restaurants called Mexico Lindo during his years in San Jose. "I don't know what happened, or, really, what is happening."

Guízar said he had registered as a Democrat in the United States and supported President Obama. His son received a degree in business administration from UCLA.

He said he returned to Michoacan in 1993 to export produce and got into politics later, first as a state legislator for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, then as a candidate for mayor of Apatzingan. During the mayoral campaign, he faced accusations that he had ties to drug traffickers, which he vehemently denied. He defeated the candidate from Calderón's National Action Party, or PAN, by 71 votes.

"I won the election on my own and didn't need anything," Guízar said. "I'm a straight shooter."

The May 26 arrests were condemned by opponents as politically motivated. Under Mexican law, the mayors can be held for 40 days until they are formally charged, which means their cases will not be resolved until after the July 5 midterm elections. Eight of the 10 mayors belong to parties other than the National Action Party.

But the allegations against the PAN officials suggest how deeply the federal government believes the cartels have permeated society. Among those arrested was Antonio González Rodríguez, the mayor of Uruapan, a city of 250,000 an hour north of Apatzingan. González came to the city in 1988 to manage the territory for Xerox, for whom he worked for nearly 30 years, according to his wife, Ramona Sánchez de González.

González had joined the PAN in his youth while working in Guadalajara for a party legend, Manuel "Maquío" Clouthier, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1988 shortly after losing the presidency to Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. González's wife said she and her husband both have a "blue heart," a reference to the PAN's colors. She said she does not blame Calderón for her husband's arrest, which took place on the couple's 31st wedding anniversary.

"The only thing I know is that Antonio is an honorable man," she said. "And I know that he continues to respect President Calderón and that this is a misunderstanding."

She said she was especially perplexed by the timing of the arrest. In April, a month earlier, González had been named to a national commission on public security that included mayors representing each state.

González was notified of the appointment in a letter signed by Jorge Tello Peón, Mexico's executive secretary for public security and one of Calderón's closest advisers on the drug war.

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