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Monday, August 24, 2009

Mexican Crime 'Family' is Cloaked in 'Divine Justice'

By Samuel Logan and John P. Sullivan

·   The La Familia organized crime group employs a combination of paramilitary and psychological tactics, and it may now provide the latest blueprint for Mexican crime groups

Coordinated attacks across Mexico’s Tierra Caliente region from 11 to 15 July elevated La Familia Michoacana to a new level. Also known as simply La Familia, or ‘The Family,’ this former group of vigilantes has evolved into Mexico’s most unique criminal organization, one that has proven its power and influence at least within Michoacan and the neighboring states of Guerrero, Mexico and Jalisco.

Mexican analysts believe that La Familia formed in the 1980s with the stated purpose of bringing order to Michoacan, emphasizing help and protection for the poor.  In its initial incarnation, La Familia formed as a group of vigilantes, spurred to power to counter interloping kidnappers and drug dealers, who were their stated enemies.

Since then, La Familia has capitalized on its reputation, building its myth, power and reach to transition into a criminal gang itself. While doing so, it has become a powerful regional polydrug organization with its fingers in methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine trafficking; kidnapping for ransom; and pirated CDs and DVDs – not to mention co-opting politicians and seizing political control and influence.  

“[La Familia has] grown from a group of marijuana producers and traffickers to a polydrug organization,” Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) section chief, Office of Global Enforcement, Mexico and Central America, Ralph Reyes, told ISN Security Watch.

Today, La Familia controls distribution networks and ‘plazas,’ and exerts political influence throughout central and western Mexico.  The reach of its distribution infrastructure extends from Central America to the US; it maintains a presence in California, Georgia and Illinois, and it is currently believed to cooperate with the Sinaloa Federation to facilitate the movement of drugs within two lucrative distribution triangles: Tijuana, San Diego and Los Angeles; and El Paso, Houston and Atlanta.

Meanwhile, La Familia is engaged in combat with the Gulf cartel Los Zetas and the Mexican state itself.

Going public

By many accounts, La Familia brutally burst onto the public scene in September 2006 when 20 masked desperados stormed into the Sol y Sombra nightclub in Uruapan, fired shots into the air and then tossed six bloody, severed heads onto to the dance floor.  They also left a cardboard placard stating their ethos: “The family doesn’t kill for money.  It doesn’t kill for women.  It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die.  Know that this is divine justice.” These themes have reverberated ever since. 

Following the Uruapan atrocity, and one week before Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in November 2006, leaders of La Familia announced their intent and bourgeoning autonomy, claiming the goal of helping families and fighting the Zeta’s “destructive power” by sending out hundreds of flyers and purchasing ad space in two daily newspapers, La Voz de Michoacán and El Sol de Morelia.

According to Mexican journalist Ricardo Ravelo, this was an “unusual action” for any member of Mexico’s criminal underworld. And the message was clear: The Family’s mission was to “remove from Michoacan all foreign groups that generate violence and poison society with the sale of [meth].”

“You wouldn’t see [Sinaloa Cartel leader] El Chapo make such public announcements,” Reyes of the DEA said.

With this announcement, La Familia shifted its public posture. It shouldered a Robin Hood cape and set out to promote a vigilante mission, while quietly collecting recruits, streamlining its organization across the state of Michoacan, and, ultimately, transforming itself from a paramilitary cell within Los Zetas’ enforcement network into a sociopolitical drug trafficking organization in its own right.

In hindsight, it appears that the public announcement in 2006 was the beginning of the end of this group’s association with Los Zetas. La Familia had learned all it could from its masters.

Mexican anthropologist Carlos Flores noted in a mid-July publication of the weekly news magazine Proceso that La Familia had learned from the Zetas paramilitary tactics, the value of terror instruments, and an understanding that the organization should maintain the support of a ‘social base.'

La Familia finally broke with Los Zetas in mid-2008, once it had consolidated its paramilitary strength, narco-trafficking routes and close relationship with its social base in Michoacan.

La Familia’s interaction with this social base, both as a group of Robin Hoods and as a terrorist organization, has painted the group as Mexico’s most unique criminal organization. More focused on sociopolitical control within its area of operation, selling narcotics appears to be an economical means to that end – one carefully masked by a wide range of psychological operations.

Macabre messaging

Leaders of La Familia have developed a keen understanding of myth to obtain and sustain their power base. They claim to protect the local community from the corrupt influence and the exploitation of ‘outsiders’ as a key element of their message. In essence, they have embraced the role of what historian Eric Hobsbawn calls “social bandits.”

Their banditry and violence are tools for inspiring support and sympathy from a community that feels abandoned and powerless. La Familia carefully crafts the myth of being vigilantes standing up to interlopers and what their constituency sees as the ‘ineffective’ government.

Whether La Familia was initially established to thwart the Milenio cartel, allies of Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, to keep the Zetas out, or seize political power and criminal plunder, their public face is that of powerful avengers who protect the poor and battle the rich, the corrupt and others who exploit the poor locals. Like all social bandits, La Familia has to balance the myth and reality. They also must balance their brutality with acts that ensure adoration. 

La Familia uses beheading as ‘messages’ demonstrating their potency. Brutality is the tangible demonstration of their willingness to fight outsiders. The handwritten messages that accompany the severed heads and corpses are meant to intimidate their foes (rival cartels and the police), terrorize the population by demonstrating their power and ability to operate with impunity, inhibit retaliation, and demonstrate the weakness of the government and their adversaries. 

Adopting a pseudo-religious or cult persona further legitimizes their message.

“We've had instances where guys who were about to be executed [...] and instead of being killed, they were told to go to church,” Reyes said.

Nazario Gonzalez Moreno, aka ‘El Mas Loco,’ uses religious imagery, direct or indirect ties with the New Jerusalem movement, and evangelical statements and sayings. Copies of Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, signed by ‘El Mas Loco,’ have been found at La Familia crime scenes. By embracing the ethos, language and imagery of a religious, divinely sanctioned group, they ensure group cohesion and cultural autonomy, and reinforce political and social control. 

“Abundant resources have enabled La Familia to establish what the late historian Crane Brinton described as ‘dual sovereignty’ [...] this means that parallel to the elected government stands a narco-administration that generates employment, keeps order, performs civic function and collects taxes,” George Grayson, author of Mexico: Narco Violence and a Failed State, told ISN Security Watch.

Internet pages, banners and ads in local newspapers help them secure control.  Intricate social and political networks of patronage, coercion and corruption reinforce the impact of their symbolic violence. 

On the political side, mayors throughout Michoacan are believed to be under their thumb. Even Julio Cesar Goday, half-brother of Michoacan’s governor, is believed to be a high-ranking La Familia leader known within the group as ‘comandante.’ 

Local reports claim that La Familia bosses are revered by townspeople and campesinos alike for their charitable donations of food, schools, clothing, money and medical care.   

Indiscriminate violence, such as the September 2008 grenade attack in Morelia, Michoacán’s picturesque colonial capital, is also used symbolically when it reinforces the group’s potency.

Post-modern social bandits

La Familia has learned exactly when and where to be a terrorist organization as demonstrated in the grenade attack in September 2008; an organized paramilitary front demonstrated by the coordinated July attacks; or, a group of swift-moving assassins, resulting in the swift kidnapping, torture and murder of 12 federal police agents in mid-July.  

Its agility is its strength. This organization manages a public relations department, and it bathes in the rhetoric and culture of religious mysticism – very effective for displacing individualism with loyalty for the organization. Plucked from drug rehabilitation centers and groups of impoverished, homeless men in Michoacán, its most fervent followers may also act as proselytizing agents.

“José Luis Pineyro, an analyst who is close to the Mexican armed forces, believes that joblessness and poverty is creating ‘an army in reserve’ for the traffickers,” Grayson said.

Grassroots support and selective and symbolic use of extreme violence and charity, blend seamlessly with extortion, protection and ‘street taxes’ to solidify their power base. Executions and beheadings cloaked in cult-like religious pronouncements demonstrate their zeal and reinforce the myth that they are protecting and purifying the land.

La Familia’s journey from vigilante gang to full-scale criminal mafia is not unique in itself. Other groups like Colombia’s AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia/United Self-Defense Forces) and Cape Town’s PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) have followed this path. What is unique is La Familia’s ability to leverage this vigilante transition into a position of a hybrid organization able to manipulate social connections and public perceptions to secure its niche within Mexico’s constellation of criminal insurgents and narco-challengers to the state. 

Embracing the role of local champion to the poor and disenfranchised is the classic tack of social bandits. La Familia has brought the time-honored tradition and imagery of the honorable bandit – Pancho Villa for the Twitter generation – to Mexico’s drug wars.  While doing so, it has established effective control over a criminal enclave by undermining the electoral process, incapacitating rivals (be they police, the military, the government or other criminal bands), and leveraging the power of social bonds, myth and raw violence to secure its own political and social standing. 

In this, La Familia may be the beta-version of a new and dangerous version of drug-trafficking organization: the networked, post-modern social bandit.

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This article was originally published at ISN Security Watch (08/17/09).  The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality and comprehensive products and resources to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security professionals worldwide.

Samuel Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999.  He is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch, and editor of Southern Pulse – Networked Intelligence.  He is the author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang, from Hyperion.  For issues related publications go to http://www.samuellogan.com/publications.html.

John P. Sullivan is a senior research fellow with the Center for the Advanced Studies of Terrorism (CAST) in Los Angeles.  He is also a career police officer, currently serving as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.  His current research focus is terrorism, transnational gangs, criminal insurgency, and their impact on policing, intelligence, and sovereignty.

Reprinted with permission from ISN