Cocaine cartel uses religion to control its killers


A quasi-religious sect with teetotal members is the fastest-growing cartel in Mexico’s drug wars, writes JO TUCKMANin Mexico City

RIVAL CARTELS battling for control of Mexico’s multi-billion-dollar narcotics trade are as notorious for their consumption of drugs as their use of extreme violence.

However, 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 to use drink and drugs. Advancement in 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 traffics drugs outside their home territory. According to local press reports he carries a “bible” of his own sayings.

“La Familia uses religion as a way of forcing cohesion among its members,” said Raul Benitez, an expert on Mexican trafficking groups. “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 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 Michoacan 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 networks.

Its rapid expansion is deeply embarrassing for the government of President Felipe Calderon, 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 Michoacan, the violence has got worse. An unofficial count by the Milenio newspaper reported this week that 3,492 people were killed in the first six months of this year, up 60 per cent on the first half of 2008 and nearly three times the number in the same period 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.

Mr Calderon 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.

Crime expert Edgardo Buscaglia said that without tackling political corruption and targeting money-laundering, the offensive was doomed. “What we are seeing is an ineffective act of bravery,” he said. – (Guardian service)