Attorney General Eric Holder announced this morning a massive nationwide crackdown against members of a bizarre Mexican drug cartel that officials say operates like a “quasi-religious” cult.
In just the last few days, federal drug agents have arrested 303 U.S. members or associates of La Familia Michoacána—a fanatically ruthless organization that some officials say may be the fastest growing and most dangerous of all the Mexican cartels. All told, 1,186 La Familia associates have been arrested as part of a 44-month operation dubbed Project Coronado.
Unlike its cartel rivals, La Familia is motivated as much by religious zeal as it is by criminal profit. Its members pass out Bibles, use their drug proceeds to benefit the poor, and study the works of John Eldredge, a charismatic and staunchly conservative Colorado evangelist. Eldredge does not preach violence and has no connection to La Familia, officials say. But the cartel apparently is taken with his muscular theology, which teaches that men should assert their “Christian masculinity” through acts of physical rigor. (Eldredge’s Ransomed Hearts Ministries did not respond to requests for comment.)
“When [members of La Familia] commit acts of violence, it’s on the grounds that the Lord told them to,” said George Grayson, a College of William and Mary professor of government who has studied the operations of La Familia. “They are absolutely ruthless and that is exacerbated by the feeling that what they’re doing, they do for God.”
La Familia is a relative newcomer on the Mexican drug-cartel scene, having only emerged in the last few years in the West-coast state of Michoacán—where the open shoreline makes it easy to import Colombian cocaine as well as chemicals used to make methamphetamines, one of group’s main products.
The group first made headlines in Sept. 2006, when 20 masked members stormed into a Mexican bar, fired shots in the air and tossed five human heads onto the dance floor. They left a note that said: “The family doesn’t kill for money ... Know this is divine justice.” Last July, La Familia again shocked Mexico when its members were accused of torturing and killing 12 Mexican law-enforcement agents whose bodies were found dumped along a mountain road. The killings took place after agents began investigating organized crime in Michoacán and arrested one of La Familia’s top leaders, Arnoldo Rueda Medina.
The key difference between La Familia and other Mexican cartels is the group’s professed religiosity. Under the tutelage of its spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno-Gonzalez, (a.k.a. “El Más Loco” or The Maddest One), the group forbids drug use among its own people and adopts a “Robin Hood mentality” that seeks to use the proceeds from its illicit activities to benefit the impoverished, said one U.S. law-enforcement official who asked not to be identified talking about the group prior to Holder’s press conference. “They make their people go to church and they don’t want people using drugs in their area.” Moreno-Gonzalez, who remains at large, also requires La Familia members to carry a “spiritual manual” filled with New Age aphorisms. Mexican officials have also found numerous references to Eldredge and his book, Wild at Heart, in La Familia documents.
But La Familia has moved aggressively to smuggle drugs into the United States—setting up major distribution networks for methamphetamines and cocaine in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and other locations in California and North Carolina.
Besides making mass arrests, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies have also seized 729 pounds of methamphetamines and 144 weapons linked to La Familia in Dallas, Atlanta, Riverside, Ca., and other cities, officials said. Indictments against several of its leaders are being unsealed.
What effect all this will have on La Familia and other Mexican drug cartels is unclear. The Justice Department has announced several raids on Mexican cartel members this year, but the cartels appear to be growing more violent. According to Grayson, despite the U.S. efforts and a more ambitious crackdown by Mexican president Felipe Calderón, the number of drug-related murders in Mexico this year has reached 5,071—already more than the 4,777 recorded last year and more than double the 2,275 in 2007.