At the height of its power, the Familia Michoacana’s brutal tactics, strong base of operations and pseudo-religious ideology made it a formidable operation and a point of fascination for outsiders. However, the group has suffered a series of heavy blows, most notably that of leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias “El Chayo,” who was falsely reported killed in 2010 and was later confirmed dead in a shootout in March 2014. The Familia is now thought to have been largely supplanted by a splinter group known as the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), which has also been seriously weakened in recent years.
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, controlled 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.
Familia Michoacana Factbox
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 Michoacana 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 — as well as its splinter group, the Knights Templar — 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.
When the Familia was at the height of its power, it was 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. The Familia had international contacts for methamphetamine distribution, including in Holland, India, China and Bulgaria. Criminal groups based in the US, 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.
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 provided 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.
Leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias “El Chayo” or “El Mas Loco,” was reported killed in a shootout with police in December 2010 in Apatzingan, Michoacan. In January 2011, following the alleged death of the leader, 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.
However, the report of El Chayo‘s death would later prove to be false, as was rumored for years. On March 9, 2014, government officials confirmed the former Familia leader, who was thought to have subsequently worked on behalf of the Knights, had just been killed in a shootout with security forces in Tumbiscatio, Michoacan. They said fingerprint tests had proven his identity.
It seems that Moreno’s supposed “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 Knights Templar, which announced its emergence onto the scene in March 2011 via public banners that said it was replacing the Familia.
Indeed, the Knights Templar appear to have won handily against their erstwhile colleagues in the Familia. Mendez, leader of what remained of the Familia, was arrested in June 2011, and told authorities he had been forming an alliance with the hated Zetas — a move which suggests he was desperate for help against the Knights. In November 2011, it was reported that the government considered the Familia to be all but extinct, with the Knights taking over much of their operations and networks.
Currently, Hector Garcia, alias “El Player,” is believed to control the Familia Michoacana operations in Guerrero and the state of Mexico, although it is unclear how much power the criminal group currently posesses.
The Familia Michoacana was previously led by Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias “El Chango,” who became the head of the old guard when the Knights Templar splintered off in 2011. El Chango was arrested in June of that year, however, and by November authorities reportedly considered the Familia to be virtually defunct.
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 formerly headed by Moreno.
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.
As the Familia Michoacana’s name indicates, the group had its base and origins in Michoacan, in particular the mountainous Sierra Madre del Sur. 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.
The Familia also established cells in the states of Guerrero, Morelos, Guanajuato, Colima, Queretaro, Jalisco and Mexico City. With the decline of the Familia have come reports that the group has retrenched in Guanajuato and Mexico State.
Allies and Enemies
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 also 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.
In the early 2010s, the Familia would become involved in a bitter conflict with successor group the Knights Templar.
In 2011, authorities considered the Familia Michoacana to be essentially extinct. However, a police raid in May 2014 of a Familia Michoacana cell operating in Guerrero suggests the criminal group may be looking to gain power once again in the country’s southwest following the weakening of the Knights Templar.