The arrest of a commander of the Familia Michoacana is another blow to the sinking criminal group, just days after the Mexican government declared the gang had all but disappeared from its traditional home turf.
As El Universal reports, Hector Russel Rodriguez Baez, alias “El Toro,” was detained following a shootout with Federal Police in Chalco, Mexico State, this weekend. A spokesman with the Public Security Ministry (SSP) said that Rodriguez Baez was the highest ranking member of the Familia in Chalco, a Mexico City suburb of some 300,000 people.
Government officials said that they had been tracking the cell since July, and had eventually determined the location of the safe house from which it operated. They attacked the building, sparking a confrontation in which Rodriguez Baez and two other alleged Familia members were arrested. Two of their associates were also reportedly killed in the fighting, which involved grenades and automatic weapons.
Officials said that Rodriguez Baez and his gang ran an extortion racket in Chalco, and that he had participated in the murders of at least 20 targets who refused to pay. They also said that the group controlled the traffic and sale of drugs in the city, and had turned into one of the most violent cells of the Familia operating in Mexico State.
Mexico State has become an increasingly important region for the Familia, in large part because they had been largely sidelined in Michoacan, where the group emerged in 2006 and where it enjoyed virtually complete dominance until 2010. According to a recent report from Excelsior, officials with the SSP and the Mexican military view the Familia as a non-entity in Michoacan, with the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) taking their place as the foremost group in the region, and absorbing their production and trafficking operations.
As InSight Crime has reported, the Caballeros are an offshoot from the Familia headed by Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” a former Familia capo who announced the formation of the new group in March 2011. Gomez’s move was precipitated by the death of the Familia boss Nazario Moreno, alias “El Chayo,” in December 2010; Moreno’s presence was sufficient to keep his lieutenants in line, but once he was out of the picture, Gomez opted to break away.
As a result, Michoacan has been contested by the remnants of the Familia and the Caballeros for much of the past year. Government insiders have told InSight Crime that in the areas where the Caballeros have come to dominate, the actual composition of the networks running the rackets and the activities they pursue are virtually unchanged; they extort the same businesses and sell the same precursor chemicals, though they now call themselves Caballeros.
However, even as the Familia as a coherent power has disappeared, the opposition to the Caballeros’ statewide takeover has not. Rather than joining up with the Caballeros, many of Gomez’s in-state enemies have simply defected to larger groups like the Zetas.
Federal authorities also say that the Caballeros do not yet enjoy the level of power that the Familia did in its heyday, to say nothing of gangs like the Sinaloa or Gulf Cartel, which have a nationwide presence. To compensate, Gomez and his clique have established alliances with both the Sinaloa and the Gulf Cartel in different areas of the country. Federal authorities also said that La Resistencia, a group whose operations had been primarily tied to Jalisco, which lies just to the north of Michoacan, functions as the Caballeros’ armed wing.
Michoacan’s criminal element has received a great deal of attention in recent days thanks to the November 2 murder of Ricardo Guzman, the mayor of La Piedad and a confidant of President Felipe Calderon, who is from Michoacan. The outbreak of political violence came just a week before a hotly-contested gubernatorial election in Michoacan, slated for November 13.
The links between politics and organized crime receive an inordinate amount of attention in Michoacan because of a series of scandalous episodes in recent years. One is the case of Julio Cesar Godoy, the federal deputy and the brother of the outgoing governor, who was charged in July 2009 with working for the Familia. He remains at large. Another notorious event was the federal government’s arrest of 35 state and local officials in May 2009 for their alleged connections to the Familia. Ultimately, all of the officials were freed, but the federal government maintains that they were guilty, and the suspicions of local government collusion with organized crime in Michoacan remain widespread.