Pubdate: Sun, 31 May 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Tracy Wilkinson
Bookmark: Mexico Under Siege (Series)

Mexico Under Siege


The cult-like La Familia Michoacana has contaminated city halls across
one state, federal officials say. It sometimes decides who runs and
who doesn't, who lives and who dies.

Reporting from Patzcuaro, Mexico -- There are few places in Mexico
that better illustrate the way traffickers have corrupted the
political system from its very foundation than Michoacan, the home
state of President Felipe Calderon.

A relatively new and particularly violent group, La Familia
Michoacana, is undermining the electoral system and day-to-day
governance of this south-central state, pushing an agenda that goes
beyond the usual money-only interests of drug cartels.

Whether by intimidation, purchase or direct order, drug gangs can
sometimes dictate who is a candidate and who is not, and put some of
their own people in races -- a perversion, critics say, of democracy

Just last week it became clear how deeply embedded La Familia is.
Federal authorities detained 10 mayors and 20 other local officials as
part of a drug investigation, saying the organized-crime group has
contaminated city halls across the state. The roundup comes at the
height of the electoral season, as Michoacan and the rest of Mexico
approach local and national contests July 5.

Dozens of mayors, city hall officials and politicians have been killed
or abducted in Michoacan as La Familia has extended its control in the
last couple of years.

When congressional candidate Gustavo Bucio Rodriguez was slain at his
gasoline station last month, authorities went out of their way to
convince political leaders that he was the victim of common crime,
showing them a surveillance tape of the killing by a lone gunman.

A few days earlier, the message was unmistakable. Nicolas Leon, a
two-time mayor of Lazaro Cardenas, site of Michoacan's huge port, was
tortured and shot to death. Left on his body was a message signed "FM"
(Familia Michoacana) warning that supporters of the Zetas, the
enforcement arm of a rival trafficking group, would meet the same fate.

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.

"It is a way to win power with fear, where the authorities either
don't have the capability to fight it, or have the capability but not
the inclination," said German Tena, president of the Michoacan branch
of the country's ruling National Action Party.

"There are mayors and politicians who 'let things happen,' and there
are some who have sold their soul to the devil," said a high-ranking
Michoacan state official who agreed to discuss the sensitive topic of
corruption in exchange for anonymity.

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.

Several political leaders said they tell candidates to keep a low
profile and counsel supporters not to be too public about their
endorsements. And they rarely publicize the illegalities they see.

"If we know or hear that a candidate is mixed up with narcos, we are
not going to denounce it," said Fabiola Alanis, who heads the
Democratic Revolution Party in Michoacan. "It is not my job. It would
put my candidates in danger. There is nothing to guarantee that they
would wake up alive."

The Obama administration recently added La Familia to its "kingpin"
list, a designation that makes it easier for U.S. authorities to go
after its assets, including any money in U.S.-owned banks.

"La Familia is absolutely a priority," a senior U.S. law enforcement
official said. With its swift rise to the short list of dangerous
cartels, La Familia is "a modern success story in Mexican narcotics
trafficking," the official added.

And with similar speed, La Familia has established footholds in the
United States. The organization has drug-running operations in 20 to
30 cities and towns across the country, including Los Angeles, the
official said.

For decades, Michoacan has been popular with traffickers, who were
attracted to its fertile soil, abundant water, the rugged hillsides
that provide cover and the Pacific port that eases transport.
Especially in the rough, sparsely populated southern tier of the state
known as the Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), a few gangs profited from
vast marijuana plantations and, later, dozens of methamphetamine labs.

La Familia emerged this decade as a local partner of the so-called
Gulf cartel, whose operatives were moving into the region along with
their ruthless paramilitary force, the Zetas. La Familia and the Zetas
gradually muscled out most of the other gangs, and La Familia
announced its dominance by tossing five severed heads onto the floor
of a dance hall in the Michoacan city of Uruapan in September 2006.
The gruesome calling card soon became all too common in areas where
drug traffickers settle accounts.

Upon assuming the presidency in December of that year, Calderon
launched the first of tens of thousands of troops against drug
traffickers here.

Nonetheless, La Familia is stronger today than ever. It has expanded
into the neighboring states of Guerrero, Queretaro and Mexico, which
abuts the national capital, Mexico City, while battling remaining
pockets of the Gulf cartel.

La Familia also has steadily diversified into counterfeiting,
extortion, kidnapping, armed robbery, prostitution and car
dealerships. The group offers money or demands bribes; increasingly,
people in Michoacan pay protection money to La Familia in lieu of
taxes to the government.

At least 83 of Michoacan's 113 municipalities are compromised by
narcos, said a Mexican intelligence source speaking on condition of

Purported leaders include Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, "El Mas Loco" (The
Craziest), who is described as a religious zealot who carries a
self-published collection of aphorisms (his "bible," authorities say)
and insists that the group's traffickers and hit men lead lives free
of drugs and alcohol.

Another leader, Dionicio Loya Plancarte, "El Tio" (The Uncle), is a
former military officer. Both have million-dollar bounties on their

They recruit at drug rehab centers and indoctrinate followers with an
ideology akin to religious fundamentalism, complete with group prayer
sessions. Some armed guards wear uniforms with the FM logo, witnesses
say. Failure by a recruit to live by the rules is said to be
punishable by death.

Moreno Gonzalez has also forbidden the sale and consumption of
methamphetamine in Michoacan because it is such a destructive drug. It
is for export only, primarily to the U.S. The Mexican army recently
seized 200 pounds of ready-to-ship meth in a single raid, and the
attorney general's office has identified 39 labs in the state.

Another leader, Rafael Cedeno Hernandez, was captured last month while
he and more than 40 other alleged La Familia associates were
celebrating a baptism in a fancy hotel in Morelia, the state capital.
They were still in their party clothes -- Cedeno in a crisp white
guayabera shirt, one woman in a yellow fluffy frock -- when police
paraded them, handcuffed, before television cameras.

Cedeno's brother, Daniel, was running for Congress. After the arrest,
he quit the race.

Daniel Cedeno Hernandez was not the only candidate for national office
accused of having ties to drug traffickers. Valentin Rodriguez, a
powerful two-time mayor running for Congress in a district around
Patzcuaro, here in central Michoacan, has fended off repeated
accusations that he has worked with La Familia.

"I am completely clean," Rodriguez told Mexican journalists in early
April when the accusations surfaced again. "If those [jerks] have
proof, let them show it," he said.

Efforts during the last two weeks of April to reach Rodriguez, who
goes by the nickname The Dagger, were unsuccessful. He grew up so
poor, people who know him say, that he couldn't afford to go to
school. Today he has the largest avocado-packing plant in Michoacan,
worth, by his own account, $30 million.

Rodriguez, who represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has
acknowledged that he was questioned by federal prosecutors
investigating drug trafficking. He was never formally charged.

Last week, another congressional candidate was gunned down (he
survived) in Michoacan; Julio Cesar Godoy, a congressional candidate
who is the brother of the state's governor, was hauled in for
questioning as part of the narco-politics investigation; and the body
of a founding member of Godoy's party was discovered in neighboring
Guerrero a month after he was abducted.

In 2007, two Labor Party candidates in a local race were intercepted
on a road in the Tierra Caliente by gunmen who handed a cellphone to
one of them. At the other end was this candidate's just-kidnapped
wife, begging for her life. The demand: Drop out of the party and run
on behalf of another party, to ensure its victory. They did, and the
party won.

The story is told by Reginaldo Sandoval, president in Michoacan of the
Labor Party, who was himself abducted, held for a day and ordered to
silence his criticism of the government and organized crime and to
leave the state.

"It is difficult for us to work without fear, especially for those
candidates who have a possibility of winning," said Sandoval, who
remains in Michoacan. "We are at the mercy of the organized criminals
and drug traffickers. We have lost the drug war." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake