Teetotal Mexican drugs cartel claims divine right to push narcotics
The rival cartels battling for control of Mexico's multibillion-dollar narcotics trade are as notorious for their consumption of drugs as their use of extreme violence. But the fastest-growing faction in the country's bloody drug wars is a quasi-religious sect that celebrates family values and keeps its members teetotal.
According to a steady leak of intelligence documents to the Mexican press, La Familia recruits members from rehab clinics and forbids them from drink and drugs. Advancement within the organisation depends as much on regular attendance at prayer meetings as on target practice.
The cartel's leader, known as El Mas Loco, the Maddest One, preaches his organisation's divine right to eliminate enemies and insists the group only traffic drugs outside their home territory. According to local press reports, he carries a "bible" of his own sayings and insists that his army of traffickers and hitmen avoid the narcotics they sell.
"La Familia uses religion as a way of forcing cohesion among its members," said Raúl Benítez, an expert on Mexican trafficking organisations. "They are building a new kind of disciplined army that we have never seen here before. It makes them more dangerous."
The first hints that something unusual was afoot came in November 2006 with the appearance of a newspaper advert in which La Familia formally announced its existence.
"Some of our strategies are sometimes strong but this is the only way to impose order for the good of the people," the advert said. "Maybe some people won't understand at first, but they will."
Since then, the group has spread throughout Mexico from its base in Michoacán state, and is believed to have operations in dozens of US cities.
From trading in cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine, La Familia has diversified into kidnapping, armed robbery and counterfeiting. It is also alleged to have financed and supported dozens of local politicians. Once a local partner of the powerful Gulf cartel, La Familia is now considered one of the country's five largest trafficking organisations.
Its rapid expansions is deeply embarrassing for the government of President Felipe Calderón who made curbing the activities of the cartels a central aim of his administration when he took office in 2006. Despite the deployment of tens of thousands of troops, beginning in Michaoacán, the violence has got worse.
An unofficial count kept by the Milenio newspaper reported this week that 3,492 people were killed in the first six months of the year, up 60% on the first half on 2008 and nearly three times the number from January to June in 2007.
Last week 14 charred bodies were found in a mass grave close to where 12 hitmen died in a shootout with soldiers days earlier in the normally tranquil central state of Guanajuato. The execution-style murders continued in the usual hotspots along the northern border. The head of a decapitated local electoral official was found on a road in the southern state of Guerrero.
Calderón last week responded to growing questions over his military-focused strategy by saying: "We can either continue the struggle and accept the costs. Or we can go backwards and allow a return to the old practices of tolerance, corruption and impunity."
But some analysts see his call for patience as misguided.
Edgardo Buscaglia, an organised crime expert, said that without rooting out political corruption and cracking down on money-laundering, Calderon's offensive was doomed. "What we are seeing is an ineffective act of bravery," he said.
July 5, 2009
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