Pubdate: Fri, 23 Oct 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page, continued on page A22
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Josh Meyer, Reporting from Washington
Note: Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City, Sam 
Quinones in San Bernardino and Richard Winton in Los Angeles 
contributed to this report.
Bookmark: (Mexico Under Siege (Series))

Mexico Under Siege


300 Suspects Are Held in Nationwide Raids on La Familia, a Brutal and 
Fast-Growing Drug Gang From Mexico.

Drug agents swept through Los Angeles and dozens of other locations 
Wednesday and Thursday, arresting more than 300 people and seizing 
large quantities of drugs, weapons and money in the biggest U.S. 
crackdown against a Mexican drug cartel.

The months-long offensive, the fruit of dozens of federal 
investigations over the last 3 1/2 years, will put a significant dent 
in the U.S. operations of La Familia Michoacana, one of Mexico's 
fastest-growing and deadliest cartels, authorities said.

"The sheer level and depravity of violence that this cartel has 
exhibited far exceeds what we unfortunately have become accustomed to 
from other cartels, [and] the toxic reach of its operations extends 
to nearly every state within our own country," Atty. Gen. Eric H. 
Holder Jr. said at a news conference in Washington to announce the arrests.

The investigation has involved hundreds of agents and analysts from 
the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of 
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as prosecutors and 
other officials from the Justice Department.

"We're hitting them where we believe it hurts the most: their revenue 
stream," Holder said. "By seizing their drugs and upending their 
supply chains, we have disrupted their business-as-usual state of operations."

In all, authorities have arrested nearly 1,200 suspected La Familia 
members or associates in recent months as part of "Project Coronado," 
the multi-agency effort to dismantle the organization's 
methamphetamine and cocaine distribution network in the United States.

But Holder and other officials acknowledged that La Familia has 
become too powerful, too politically entrenched -- and too popular 
with Mexico's citizens -- for the arrests to deal the cartel any kind 
of death blow.

"We have to work with our Mexican counterparts to really cut off the 
heads of these snakes and get at the heads of the cartels . . . 
either in Mexico or extradite them to the United States," he said.

For that to happen, U.S. authorities need the full cooperation of the 
Mexican government in arresting and prosecuting the leaders of La 
Familia. But according to court documents unsealed Thursday, few if 
any leaders have been taken into custody by Mexican authorities 
despite several being indicted in U.S. courts.

La Familia has been linked to hundreds of drug-related killings in 
Mexico, including the kidnapping, torture and killing of 12 federal 
agents in the western state of Michoacan, La Familia's home base.

Several senior U.S. drug officials said Mexico was cooperating but 
that La Familia's leaders were too well insulated to go after, 
protected not only by their own army but by corrupt police and politicians.

"It's a full-blown military operation to go in and get them," said 
one drug enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity 
because of the sensitivity of U.S.-Mexico counter-narcotics relations.

A Mexican counter-narcotics official agreed, saying his country had 
thrown thousands of troops and police at La Familia but that the 
cartel's chieftains were even more elusive than others.

"They rarely spend two or three nights in the same place, and when 
they do, they live in these very fortified compounds," said the 
official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing 
similar sensitivities. "It is even more difficult for us because they 
buy not only information, but they buy protection from the very guys 
that are supposed to get them."

Although a relative newcomer to Mexico's drug underworld, La Familia 
has quickly become one of the most violent, quick to attack Mexican 
troops and lawmakers who have tried to halt its expansion, U.S. 
counter-narcotics officials said.

La Familia now competes with the established Gulf and Sinaloa 
cartels. But in an unusual twist, its leaders espouse a religious 
philosophy, asking core members to carry Bibles and attend church.

The cartel manufactures tons of methamphetamine strictly for export 
to the United States, prohibiting its own soldiers from using illegal 
drugs or selling them in Mexico, said Michele Leonhart, acting 
administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Such tactics have made La Familia something of a Robin Hood-type 
organization within Mexico, several drug enforcement officials said Thursday.

"We are fighting an organization whose brutal violence is driven by 
so-called divine justice," Leonhart said. "Accordingly, La Familia's 
narco-banner declared that they don't kill for money and they don't 
kill innocent people. However, their delivery of that message was 
accompanied by five severed heads rolled onto a dance floor in 
Uruapan, Mexico."

The indictments unsealed Thursday provide a rare look inside the 
highly disciplined and secretive organization, which is also involved 
in counterfeiting, extortion, prostitution and armed robbery.

Most of those arrested in the U.S. are believed to be foot soldiers 
or associates of the cartel, but some have direct ties to La Familia 
leadership in Michoacan, authorities said.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have indicted five suspected La 
Familia members with the help of several undercover informants. One 
of the indicted is Gerardo Rodriguez-Lopez, a fugitive who 
authorities allege ran a methamphetamine smuggling operation from 
Mexico through Los Angeles County to Minnesota, Kansas, Georgia and Texas.

Overall, the DEA said, at least 24 people were arrested in Southern 
California during the latest raids, many of them alleged La Familia 
members or associates from three separate drug distribution cells.

Over the last two days, authorities arrested 90 people in Dallas and 
dozens more in Atlanta and other large urban hubs of La Familia.

But many other arrests occurred in small towns and rural communities 
in Washington state, Texas, California, Oklahoma, Missouri, North 
Carolina and elsewhere.
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