The Familia's brutal tactics, strong base of operations, control over the Lazaro Cardenas port and pseudo-religious ideology made it a formidable operation and a point of fascination for outsiders. After working with the Zetas to overthrow the traditional Michoacan trafficking family, the Valencias, the Familia announced it was working on its own by tossing several severed heads into a nightclub in 2006, an incident that made international news. It later allied with the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels to fight its progenitors, the Zetas, and to expand into new territory along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Familia focused on synthetic drugs and methamphetamine, and has its own distribution networks throughout the U.S.
Michoacan has long been home to drug traffickers and drug production, with areas where mostly poorer farmers cultivate marijuana and poppy, the raw material for heroin. A group known as El Milenio, an ally of the Tijuana Cartel, controled the Michoacan area at the end of the 1990s. But a small group of lieutenants rebelled. There are two versions of what happened next: in the first, the lieutenants reached out to Gulf Cartel to overthrow their bosses; in the second, the Gulf Cartel sent the Zetas in to take over themselves. In either case, by 2003, the Zetas were the new power in the region. The former Milenio lieutenants were trained by the Zetas, who were good teachers but bad landlords. The locals saw them as repressive outsiders, and the resentment increased when the Zetas expanded their business into methamphetamine production. The Familia then emerged as a self-styled vigilante group, turning against the Zetas and attacking addicts and dealers of methamphetamine, the drug that is now its biggest moneymaker. The group successfully drove the Zetas from Michoacan and expanded into other states, including Guerrero, Morelos, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Jalisco and Mexico City.
The Zetas’ influence upon the Familia and Caballeros is still visible, even though it became a mortal enemy of the groups. Like the Zetas, the Familia and their heirs make frequent use of billboard-style messages to communicate with the public, and dramatic violence, the most infamous incident being the dumping of five heads on a dance floor in 2006, the official announcement of the Familia’s existence. The Zetas have responded with propaganda comparing the Familia to “radical Islamists,” driven “crazy by ice” (methamphetamine).
The Familia was proudly regionalist and claimed to have won public support in western Michoacan, where in some ways the group, at its peak, acted as the de facto state. It would resolve local disputes, provide employment, and do social work. At times employing the language of political insurgency or of an evangelical crusade, the group won hundreds of recruits in just a few years.
In January 2011, following the death in December of leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias "El Chayo" or "El Mas Loco," the Familia announced its intention to "completely dissolve." It declared (in the group's typical pious tone) that it sought to end the suffering of the people of Michoacan at the hands of the Federal Police.
It seems that Moreno's death triggered a split between two rival bosses in the group, with Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias "El Chango," allying with La Resistencia. Meanwhile Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," formed the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), which announced its emergence onto the scene in March via public banners that said it was replacing the Familia.
The Caballeros seem to follow a similar style to the Familia. The choice of name, for instance, follows the Familia's penchant for religious themes. The Knights Templar were a medieval military-religious order charged with defending pilgrims in the Holy Land, and were known both for their piety and for their bloodthirsty nature in battle. Extracts from a pamphlet featuring the Caballeros' supposed moral code show the drug trafficking group is just as hypocritical as its progenitor, with precepts such as “fight against materialism, injustice and tyranny.”
The Caballeros appear to be winning against their erstwhile colleagues in the Familia. Mendez, leader of what remained of the Familia, was arrested in June 2011, and told the authorities that he had been forming an alliance with the hated Zetas -- a move which suggests he was desperate for help against the Caballeros. In November 2011, it was reported that the government consider the Familia to be all but extinct, with the Caballeros taking over much of their operations and networks.
On the surface, the Familia and Caballeros are an odd mixture of religious zealots and political insurgents. Beneath that surface, at least when the Familia was at the height of its power, lay one of the most potent, bloody and powerful of Mexico’s criminal organizations, whose activities ranged from drug trafficking and kidnapping to extortion and racketeering. As the Familia Michoacana's name indicates, the group had its base and origins in Michoacan, in particular the mountainous Sierra Madre del Sur. However, after its startling emergence in 2006, it spread to several neighboring Mexican states and established a vast distribution network in the U.S. It shifted alliances on numerous occasions and seemed amenable to working out deals with other cartels. It also infiltrated government circles, especially on a local level.
The Familia's powerbase was located in the seven municipalities that make up "Tierra Caliente" in southwest Michoacan, about 600 miles from the U.S. border. As with the Familia, Apatzingan is the center of its operations for the Caballeros. The Familia long claimed to enjoy considerable grassroots support there, though the local population is much more hostile in eastern Zitacuaro.
The Familia also had cells in the states of Guerrero, Morelos, Guanajuato, Colima, Queretaro, Jalisco and Mexico City. Securing Guanajuato has long been a special priority for the Michoacan groups, as this would impede their rivals’ access into the state. With the decline of the Familia have come reports that the group has retrenched in Guanajuato and Mexico State. The Familia also had international contacts for methamphetamine distribution, including in Holland, India, China and Bulgaria. Criminal groups based in the U.S., including in major cities like Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Atlanta, conspired directly with the Familia for cocaine shipments, a development which surprised investigators, considering the group’s distance from the U.S. border.
This distance forced the Familia into alliances with other drug trafficking organizations, including the Sinaloa Cartel, in order to better ship locally produced methamphetamine and opium northwards. Proximity to the major port city Lazaro Cardenas gave the Familia access to cocaine shipments from Colombia and precursor chemicals for methamphetamine production from Asia. But the struggle to control the port has proved deadly, and an estimated 1,500 people have died there in relation to disputes with the Familia. Besides drug trafficking, extortion schemes provide the Familia with a reliable source of funds, and, at one point, an estimated 85 percent of licit businesses in Michoacan·were thought to make regular payments to the group.
Even before the group's split, there were thought to be up to three internal factions within the Familia, all juggling partnerships with various cartels -- one reportedly linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, another linked to the Gulf, and yet another with the Beltran Leyva Organization. Other inner divisions were present within the executive council, which was headed by Moreno until he was killed by police in December 2010.
Each regional cell reportedly enjoyed a degree of autonomy. While one branch would be dedicated to methamphetamine production, another would extract extortion payments, while another would be made up of hitmen, and so on. In Michoacan there were reportedly 4,000 members of the Familia, earning up to $2,000 a month. A large number of these have likely moved over to the Caballeros. Similar to the Zetas, the Michocan groups rely on a wide network of informal informants, who track the movement of police and military forces and report any unusual occurrences.
Historically, the Familia often adopted a type of paramilitary, “self-defense” rhetoric, attacking rivals like the Zetas for being “outsiders” who “corrupted” the morality of Michoacan by introducing methamphetamine production. In many ways the Familia exerted the same kind of social control seen under Colombia’s paramilitary groups or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It would enforce curfews, provide jobs (through drug production and trafficking), punish alcoholics, encourage the observance of speed limits. God, patriotism, loyalty (to them and Michoacan) and family values were frequently cited in the group’s public discourse. Members distinguish themselves by carrying Bibles or wearing rosary bracelets, and are known to use the same uniforms or vehicles utilized by the federal police force. The Caballeros appear to be treading a similar path.
The Familia had an infamous ability to corrupt local government officials, in part due to massive profits from methamphetamine production. It enjoyed deep regional loyalties, thanks to social projects like building schools, roads, providing employment through the drug trade, and essentially fulfilling the police’s role in resolving domestic disputes. But, as with the Caballeros, geography was both the Familia's strength and its weakness. Far from the border, Familia operatives were forced to negotiate with other cartels in order to traffic its products northwards, meaning the group could not really be considered to operate with total financial independence.
- George W. Grayson, “La Familia Michoacana: A Deadly Mexican Cartel Revisited,” Foreign Policy Research Institute (2009)
- William Finnegan, “Letter From Mexico: Silver and Lead,” The New Yorker, 31 May 2010