Pubdate: Sun, 19 Jul 2009
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Jo Tuckman and Ed Vulliamy


At Least 19 Police Officers And Soldiers Died Last Week As A Narco
Gang Called La Familia Launched A Counterattack Against A Government
Crackdown On Cartels. But As Well As Hitmen, The Group Uses Social
Handouts And TV Propaganda, Report Jo Tuckman In Mexico City And Ed

The male voice on the line was not a typical contributor to the Voice
and Solution TV programme where residents of the Mexican state of
Michoacan air their everyday grievances.

"We want President Felipe Calderon to know that we are not his
enemies," the caller said, after introducing himself last Wednesday as
Servando Gomez Martinez, nicknamed La Tuta, one of the leaders of La
Familia drug cartel. "We are open to dialogue."

It was a rare and chilling public intervention by the leader of a
cartel fighting a war that has claimed 11,000 lives in three years.
And the jibe to Calderon that "we are not his enemies" was a taunt
marking a dramatic turn in the course of the war: a co-ordinated spate
of savage attacks not between narco cartels but by La Familia against
the Mexican state.

There have been relentless attacks on police forces - even the
decapitation of eight soldiers and the murder of a general - in recent
months, but last weekend saw the most concerted attacks on the federal
police to date, raising further the spectre of an all-out narco
insurrection in Mexico of a kind that ravaged Colombia 20 years ago.
"This is a new phase in the drug war," said Samuel Gonzalez, a former
Mexican drug tsar in the mid-1990s and now a consistent critic of
Calderon's force-based strategy against the cartels which he believes
is making things worse. "This is the Talibanisation of the conflict."

Carlos Flores, who has studied the drug war, said: "It shows a new
willingness to directly confront the federal government with
paramilitary techniques and psychological warfare. And it is a warning
of possible future assassinations of federal officials of higher rank."

The arrest last Saturday of Arnold Rueda Medina, nicknamed La Minsa,
was the trigger for 21 attacks on the federal police - by far the most
sustained challenge to government forces ever launched by a cartel.
For the Mexican government, the attacks end all pretence that this
crisis is confined to a turf war between cartels: this is an

First, there were six near-simultaneous assaults on federal police
stations around the state, including a dawn raid by a commando of
about 50 gunmen with assault rifles and grenades on a station in the
state capital, Morelia. In one of the last actions, a similarly sized
hit squad pounded a cheap hotel where federal officials are put up in
the port city of Lazaro Cardenas. With the death toll already at five
federal officers and two soldiers, a pile of blindfolded and tortured
bodies was found on a mountain road last Tuesday. The 11 men and one
woman turned out to be federal agents who had been gathering
intelligence on organised crime and had been ambushed while off duty,
the government said.

Calderon called the attacks "a desperate and violent reaction" to his
"firm and unbending core strategy". He left comment on La Tuta's
intervention to his interior minister, Fernando Gomez Mont, who first
rejected out of hand the offer of "dialogue" and yesterday began
deploying 5,500 extra troops in the state, taking the total to 8,300.
"The criminal organisations should have no doubt that the state
offensive will continue," Gomez Mont said. "There can be no other
alternative for organised crime than to bend to the rule of law."

For the US, the escalation of violence worsens the nightmare and the
contradictions along the busiest border in the world, which the US
needs to be both porous and harsh: open to the Obama administration's
pledge to "upgrade" the movement of capital and goods around the Nafta
free trade zone, yet sealed from the surge of drugs and potential
violence northwards and the flow south of the smuggled American guns
with which Mexico's war is fought.

La Familia is a new force, indigenous to the state of Michoacan, which
happens to be Calderon's home. In his TV message, the self-appointed
spokesman for the group - known for its extreme violence,
quasi-religious structure and rapid recent expansion - went on to
deliver an extraordinary diatribe rendered all the more surreal by the
mundane distortion of a television in the background. "La Familia was
created to look after the interests of our people and our family," La
Tuta said, picking up steam. "We are a necessary evil." Eyes darting
off camera, the TV presenter looked distinctly uncomfortable as he
finally interrupted to ask what La Familia really wanted. "The only
thing we want is peace and tranquillity," came the reply.

Such sentiments among the cartels yearn back to the days of what was
called the "Pax Mafiosa", when there was conviviality between cartels
and the Mexican state, while "the product" kept moving. Only now there
is a proliferation of cartels and gangs fighting each other - and now
the state. La Tuta's call has been confirmed as genuine, though
observers tend to see it less as a genuine effort to get the president
to sit down for talks and more as a public relations exercise. "What
they are looking for is a way of defending their legitimacy with local
people and at the same time undermine the institutions of the state,"
according to a security expert, Edgardo Buscaglia, who has studied
crime syndicates from Naples to Kabul.

The violence has spiralled since December 2006, when Calderon began
deploying tens of thousands of soldiers and officers from the
military-style federal police force around the country to rein in the
violence of a cartel turf war.

The vast majority of the 11,000-plus deaths since then have been
associated with an intensification of inter-cartel battles for control
of their multibillion dollar narcotics business. Federal casualties
have usually been limited to officers killed when they track down, or
stumble into, hitmen armed with ever heavier weaponry ranging from the
now standard Kalashnikov assault rifles to rocket grenade launchers.
But events last week inevitably echo Colombia in the days when the
Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar staged an insurrection against the
state, offering monetary rewards to those who killed police officers.

Michoacan, with its tropical sierra, long isolated beaches and major
ports, was where Calderon launched his offensive. The central Pacific
coastal state is known on the tourist trail for its colonial cities
and exuberant indigenous culture that carries Day of the Dead
ceremonies to levels of intensity seen nowhere else in Mexico. But it
is ideal narco territory.

The road to the sea from Morelia winds for hours through an
unpopulated sierra and tropical hills known as the Tierra Caliente,
the Hot Land. This is a wilderness good for both growing narcotics and
hiding from police or military operations. The sierra also provides
easy hiding places for metamphetamine labs and fugitive drug lords.
The lush vegetation lines isolated beaches - convenient landing places
for cocaine shipped from Colombia. In the state's southern corner the
port of Lazaro Cardenas is the point of entry for the precursor
chemicals from Asia that are used for metamphetamine production.

While smaller and less established than its rivals, La Familia has a
solid base in Michoacan, a growing presence in other states and even
in several US cities. It is also innovative: it has a spiritual leader
called Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, nicknamed El Mas Loco, the Craziest
One. It is not clear how Moreno got his nickname but he is certainly
unusual in Mexican drug lord circles.

He preaches his organisation's divine right to eliminate enemies and
insists that it only traffics drugs outside its home territory. He is
said to carry a "bible" of his own sayings and require his army of
teetotal dealers and hitmen to spend as much time in prayer meetings
as in target practice. He is believed to be behind a network of
religious-based rehab centres which provide La Familia with some of
its most disciplined recruits.

In the past few months, though the border war rages daily, Michoacan
has once again become Calderon's favoured battleground and La Familia
his current bete noire. In May the government arrested 30 mayors and
state officials allegedly linked to the organisation and in recent
weeks federal forces have picked up several high-level members.

But the root causes of Mexico's cartel war precede Calderon's
intervention. By the end of the 1980s, Mexican cartels acted as a
conduit for almost all Colombian cocaine into the US, as well as
manufacturing most of the methamphetamine and much of the heroin.
Internally, the operation was run by a massive narco corporation based
in the Pacific state of Sinaloa, whose baron, Miguel Felix Angel
Gallardo, was arrested in 1989.

>From jail, Gallardo allocated the border smuggling "plazas" to
different wings of his organisation: the Gulf cartel in the east; the
Juarez cartel and its allies, the Beltran Leyva brothers, in the
centre; a cartel known as the "Sinaloa" along a stretch of desert west
of Ciudad Juarez; and the Arellano Brothers in Tijuana.

Then three things happened: the party that had ruled for seven decades
and cohabited with the cartels - the Institutional Revolutionary party
- - was voted from power in 2001. The leader of the Sinaloa, Joaquin
Guzman, accordingly declared war in pursuit of the entire frontier and
became deadlocked in battle with the Gulf cartel and its military
wing, Los Zetas. In December 2006, Calderon sent in the army, kicking
over a hornets' nest. The border war centred on Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad
Juarez and Tijuana - the smuggling "plazas" - but has spread
throughout the country to include states with long coastlines that
receive Colombian cocaine and mountain ranges ideal for growing
marijuana or opium poppies, or hiding drug labs.

Both the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels fight each other and the government
across Mexico and are locked in combat for the central American
cocaine-smuggling corridors. Guzman remains the most celebrated
fugitive drugs tsar, after being sprung from jail in 2001, just before
he was to be extradited to the US for trial. The Gulf cartel is also
irrepressible, though its leader, Osiel Cardenas, awaits trial in the
US, and the Zetas are the most heavily armed narco militia. The Gulf
cartel and Zetas have borne the brunt of the government offensive, but
- - like the Sinaloa - have penetrated deep into the state apparatus.

But La Familia is emerging as a potent new force: indigenous to
Michoacan, it is savage, ruthless, and engages above all with the Gulf
cartel. In his TV message, La Tuta said La Familia was most concerned
about keeping out the Zetas, who a few years ago held mentor-like
status for his own cartel. "They are what is bad in this country," he
said, claiming that the Zetas had infiltrated Calderon's cabinet to go
after anybody linked to La Familia. This, he insisted, justified La
Familia's recent decision to attack federal forces.

The latest sinister developments cast fresh doubt on the wisdom of
Calderon's "war on drugs". President Barack Obama has described his
Mexican counterpart as "a hero" for taking on the cartels. But Samuel
Gonzalez claims that the focus on military and police action south of
the border will never bring the cartels to heel. "President Calderon
has tunnel vision," he said. "He is allowing police strategy to
dictate political and social policy and so things are getting worse
every day."

With several other analysts Gonzalez argues that the priority should
be to work towards a pact that would commit all political parties to
tackling corruption and money-laundering. They also stress the need to
direct social spending to provide the young and poor in cartel areas
with alternatives to gang membership and addiction. Unless that
happens, the critics argue, organised crime will respond with ever
greater brutality to government pressure, and dedicate more funds and
effort to infiltration and building a social base of support. It is in
the latter area, Gonzalez said, that La Familia has excelled.

"These attacks show La Familia has a social base. They are warning the
government that, if it doesn't change its strategy, there could be a
social revolt," he said. "If the strategy continues in its current
direction, this could happen."

Winning support in deprived rural areas is relatively easy through
such things as building schools, roads and churches. But La Familia
has also developed networks of support in urban areas thanks to client
structures not dissimilar to the organisations that have long been
part of Mexican party politics.

This has pitched La Familia into a political turf war, if conspiracy
theories are to be given any credence: the suggestion is that elements
in the state are backing the Sinaloa cartel as the only one capable of
restoring a Pax Mafiosa, and that it is against this background that
the Zetas and La Familia mount their savage insurrection and give it a
Robin Hood social veneer.

A Familia group in the city of Uruapan organised a convoy of coaches
to drive eight hours to Mexico City in May for a demonstration in
support of the local mayor, arrested for alleged links to the cartel.
"I'm just here because they told me to come," one of the protesters
told the Observer. "I know they [La Familia] are really crazy. In
fact, I think they are really sick sometimes, but they are the only
people in my town who can help you out if you get in trouble, so
that's why I joined the group." A deported migrant struggling to feed
his family by selling shoes said he hoped "the organisation" would
help him find a job soon in the local police force.

And perhaps La Tuta has now set a new trend by calling TV phone-ins,
complete with a chilling signature sign-off: asked by the presenter if
he had anything to add, the self-confessed leader of a gang until now
best known for rolling five severed heads across a dance floor said:
"God bless everybody, and let God give us the opportunity to live just
a little bit longer. That's all. Thank you."

How the violence escalated

2005 Escaped drug lord Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman sets out to control
Tijuana and drug trade routes into California. Violence escalates in
Mexico; about 1,500 die .

2006 President Felipe Calderon takes office. A new federal police
force tackles drug cartels and thousands of troops are deployed. The
death toll rises to 2,300, beheadings and torture increase.

2007 Calderon sends troops to Tijuana and across Mexico. George Bush
pledges $1.4bn in drug-fighting equipment for Mexico and central
America. The violence escalates, with more than 3,000 deaths.

2008 Guzman takes on the cartel in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso,
Texas, as the city becomes the bloodiest drugs war flashpoint. Mexican
police seize hundreds of dealers and disrupt smuggling routes but more
than 6,000 people are killed, 450 of them police, soldiers or lawyers.
Hundreds of thousands turn out for marches in Mexico to protest
against kidnaps and killings.

2009 Calderon sends an extra 10,000 troops to Ciudad Juarez and says
the surge has cut drug murders by 80%. Violence spills into US border
cities Phoenix and Tucson. President Barack Obama visits Mexico City
and vows to clamp down on smuggled US weapons feeding the violence.
New drug fronts open up in the northern Durango state.

La Familia cartel strikes within minutes of the arrest of reputed
operations chief Arnoldo Rueda. Twelve federal agents are killed,
their tortured bodies placed at a roadside; six federal policemen and
two soldiers die in other attacks. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr