The publicity surrounding this up-and-coming Mexican DTO has been increasing in the last year, and it appears that La Familia has been making plays to put the organization on the forefront of organized crime groups in Mexico. Even the US government has relatively recently acknowledged the group’s power and influence, placing it on the Kingpin Designation Act list in April 2009. While La Familia has several things in common with the major Mexican TCOs, there are a few things that set it apart, making it a unique organization as organized crime groups go.
First, let’s take a look at their beginnings, which are pretty recent. George Grayson of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote a really nice backgrounder on La Familia, some of which I’m paraphrasing here. La Familia came about in 2004 with the goal of eradicating the trafficking of crystal methamphetamine, or “ice,” and other narcotics, kidnapping, extortion, murder-for-hire, highway assaults, and robberies. This is all according to one of La Familia’s founders, Nazario “The Craziest One” Moreno Gonzalez. They may have come about to thwart the trafficking efforts of the Milenio cartel, associated with Sinaloa’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. La Familia may also have appeared to prevent Los Zetas from entering what they considered their territory.
Handwritten, poorly-spelled, enigmatic missives showed up in 2006 next to decapitated heads in Uruapan as part of an intense Familia 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.
In all, authorities attributed 17 decapitations to La Familia in 2006 alone. Between the murder of Rodriguez Valencia that August and December 31, 2008, La Familia killed scores, if not hundreds, of people. 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.
According to the Southern Pulse Intelligence Network, Moreno Gonzales revealed that La Familia had some 4,000 members working in various parts of Michoacan. Everyone received a salary of between $1,500 and $2,000 a month, and all were born in Michoacan. La Familia reportedly pays millions in bribe money every month, and offers protection to various business owners in Michoacan, the state of Mexico, and the Federal District. The protection, however, mostly translates to extortion, where some business owners are taxed every week, others once a month. In August 2008, the Mexican Attorney General’s office made an announcement, revealing that La Familia intended to control the drug smuggling market in Michoacan and open a route all the way north, passing though the traditionally held lands of the Sinaloa Federation, where many claim Joaquin Guzman has been weakened by the Mexican government’s constant focus on dismantling his organization and his ongoing battles with Los Zetas and other rival groups.
In May 2009, The Los Angeles Times reported that La Familia is undermining the electoral system and day-to-day governance of Michoacan, pushing an agenda that goes beyond the usual money-only interests of drug cartels. In late May, it became clear how deeply embedded La Familia is in the political machine. Federal authorities detained 10 mayors and 20 other local officials as part of a drug investigation, saying the group has contaminated city halls across the state. Unlike some drug syndicates, La Familia goes beyond the production and transport of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine and seeks political and social standing. It has created a cult-like mystique and developed pseudo-evangelical recruitment techniques that experts and law enforcement authorities say are unique in Mexico. No party has been spared its influence or interference, politicians of all stripes said in a series of interviews conducted before the arrests of the mayors. Generally, though, traffickers' political influence in Michoacan has less to do with winning office and more with controlling officeholders, to create a buffer of protection that allows their business to proceed unimpeded, said a security advisor to Calderon. La Familia reportedly recruits at drug rehab centers and indoctrinates followers with an ideology akin to religious fundamentalism, complete with group prayer sessions. Some armed guards wear uniforms with the Familia logo, witnesses say. Failure by a recruit to live by the rules is said to be punishable by death
This cult-like behavior and extensive interference in politics portrays La Familia as a hybrid organization; a cross between organized crime syndicate, terrorist organization, and insurgency. Grayson mentions that La Familia has a lot in common with the former United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a disarmed umbrella group of paramilitary organizations that was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US government in 2001. I believe that almost all Mexican DTOs can be compared to the AUC, and I did so in an article my husband and I co-wrote for Henley Putnam University’s Journal of Strategic Security. La Familia comes eve closer to the AUC because the AUC did try to dabble in politics, albeit in a different way. The AUC tried to gain some status as a legitimate political party in Colombia (it failed), whereas La Familia just wants to influence politics. With its current methods, La Familia may be more successful in the political scene than the AUC ever was.
Some relatively recent changes in the organization may get in the way of that, however. Moreno Gonzalez was killed in December 2010, and that - combined with several successful military and law enforcement actions against them - started what appeared to be a downhill slide for La Familia. Many thought that because of Moreno Gonzalez's cult leader-like status, his elimination would doom La Familia, but now it's just morphing. Borderland Beats reported that in December 2010, the control of La Familia was left in the hands of Enrique Plancarte Solís, alias "La Chiva," and José de Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias "El Chango Mendez." By early 2011, a conflict started between La Chiva and El Chango Mendez. After the dispute, Enrique Plancarte and Servando Gómez Martínez, alias "La Tuta," formed the group Knights Templar to fight La Familia. The activities of La Familia remained very low profile, while the Knights Templar were announcing to society that they were a new vigilante group.
In late June 2011, El Chango was arrested by Mexican authorities without incident. Mexican authorities were touting this arrest as the end of LFM, while drug war observers began to speculate on what would become of LFM. Some believe the Knights Templar will absorb what's left of LFM, and that would be accomplished with minimal bloodshed. El Chango was reportedly trying to form an alliance with former rival Los Zetas right before he was arrested, and Los Zetas have slowly been moving into LFM territory, which butts up against Sinaloa Federation territory. It's possible that either one of these TCOs might also try to absorb the LFM remnants, which would likely erupt in more violence in that part of Mexico.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see the result of the inevitable future clashes between elements of La Familia, the new Knights Templar, and their rivals, as well as how the Calderon administration and the Mexican army modify their strategies to counter the groups' growth.