After the death of its top leader, the Familia Michoacana is injured, but it is far from done. The government’s attempt to clear President Felipe Calderon’s home state of this criminal syndicate is a valiant but futile effort that will not bear fruit for the following reasons:
1) The Familia has a strong, local base. The group’s activities, be it drug trafficking or extortion or kidnapping, happen in Michoacan. Most of their recruits come from the state. Their political power rests with the local authorities. This includes control over the local and state police, many of whom have joined the group, as it was with Miguel Ortiz Miranda, alias ‘Tyson,’ who was the head of the Morelia ‘plaza’ until his arrest last year (see video below). It also has some local support. On Sunday, protestors in the central plaza of Apatzingan, the Familia’s homebase, carried placards reading, “Long live La Familia Michoacana,” and “Nazario lives in our hearts.” And while this may have been staged, it also reflects an important reality in Mexico: with the exception of the Zetas, most of the powerful criminal groups derive an identity that is regional. Sinaloa, Tijuana, Juarez, the Gulf and South Pacific Cartel (Beltran Leyva Organization) all draw strength from this regional identity. Those who created the Familia understood that creating this ethos was as important as having the firepower to back it up.
2) More than any other drug cartel in Mexico, the Familia has an ideology that goes beyond the pseudo-religious philosophy. While Moreno’s evangelical beliefs got all the headlines, it was his ability to convince his followers that they were victims that was his greatest strength. In its response to its leader’s death, for instance, the Familia says it is a “guerrilla” force. I would argue they are probably more closely related to a paramilitary group than a guerrilla force. They emerge in a vacuum, occupying a space the government does not, or cannot, occupy. They offer protection from predators (although they are more predatory than protecting, a position that has made them increasingly vulnerable of late), in this case the federal government that has taken their jobs and livelihoods and forced them to live in the cities. They work closely with local police and integrate their members into this institution. They have little interest in overthrowing the government but as long as they can continue to portray the federal government as being the predators and themselves as the protectors, they will maintain a foothold in the region. Another placard during Sunday’s march in Apatzingan was, “Get Out Federal Police.” The federal government, on the other hand, has the impossible task of controlling the territory without appearing like invaders. But in the last week, that did not happen. Even the Michoacan governor remarked, “They never said anything to us,” in reference to the federal forces operations last week, reinforcing this notion that is at the heart of the Familia’s ideology.
3) The Familia has a hierarchical structure. In its response to Moreno’s death, the group immediately named his successors. As it was, Moreno’s strange mix of religion and vigilantism provided the group’s members with an ideological framework that goes beyond making money and creates stronger bonds of loyalty. These bonds make this organization different from many others in Mexico. It is, as one intelligence official told InSight, “more centralized.” This structure makes succession easier, smoother and harder to detect in the day to day operations. It also puts a premium on loyalty that goes beyond blood relations. Mexico’s first drug trafficking groups relied on blood ties to keep them united. This next generation has sought other ways to reinforce this notion.
4) The Familia is tactically superior on its home turf. When the Familia emerged in the mid-2000s, the army was surprised by its ability to communicate in military code, maneuver and plan attacks, and retreat in an orderly fashion. That was 2005. When the attacks began this week, Proceso magazine says the Familia mobilized dozens of its soldiers, stole vehicles and immediately blocked the road to Guadalajara where reinforcements were. Two days after the fighting started, there were still dozens of roads blocked, the state’s transportation system was paralyzed and schools remained closed. The control this group has over Michoacan is perhaps best stated in one statistic: in the last 24 months, the Familia has killed 45 federal police.
5) The Familia has diversified. The Familia is often described in the press as controlling marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin trade going to the United States. But it is so much more. Its top money-making mechanism may be extortion followed by kidnappings. The two are closely intertwined in Mexico, and they are increasingly part of the portfolio of any organized criminal syndicate. Then there are the public works contracts, which the Familia control in the areas under their influence. These go through local officials that the Familia pays or coerces into doing business with them. There is the piracy and contraband business, a huge portion of income for any group that controls a major port, like the Familia does. And finally, there is ‘derecho de piso,’ which is the toll or rent that others have to pay for operating in Familia territory.
Regardless of what happens to the Familia Michoacana, Michoacan will remain a coveted territory for all the drug trafficking groups for two basic reasons: It has one of the country’s most important ports, and the impoverished area will feed recruits to any organized criminal syndicate. Indeed, perhaps the main reason why the Familia will not disappear is that the rural economy is still going through a profound transformation following the shifts in economic policy. Millions have lost their livelihoods and have flocked to the cities since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. The government appears to have two choices: rebuild the rural economy quickly or wait until an entire generation kills itself off and adjusts to a new urban life. If the fighting in Michoacan this past week is any indication, then it appears that the latter policy will prevail.