In Mexico, the government's three-year war against drug cartels has claimed more than 11,000 lives, snared thousands of alleged criminals and brought down scores of politicians.
One of the newer drug cartels being pursued by President Felipe Calderon's administration is La Familia — a group that mixes politics, spiritualism and violence in ways never before seen in Mexico.
La Familia was born in the rugged, impoverished hills of Michoacan, a southern state that stretches from the Pacific Ocean through the Sierra Madre, almost to the capital, Mexico City.
In the port of Lazaro Cardenas, vendors sell pirated movies and CDs at makeshift stalls along the main street. Further inland, methamphetamine labs and marijuana patches are tucked into the densely forested mountains. Michoacan has become a flash point in Calderon's battle against organized crime.
Recently, Mexican authorities paraded Miguel Angel Beraza Villa, known as "The Truck," before the media. Beraza is accused of being one of the top leaders of La Familia. Mexican prosecutors say he moved a half-ton of methamphetamine into the United States each month.
To arrest Beraza, heavily armed federal commandos stormed a church in a small city in central Michoacan in the middle of Mass. Two Blackhawk helicopters hovered overhead.
Unlike some of the Mexican cartels that have existed for decades, La Familia burst into the headlines in 2006, when one of its members threw five severed heads onto a dance floor in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan.
Tensions between the Mexican authorities and La Familia escalated this summer when the government arrested dozens of local politicians, accusing them of working for the cartel. Then, in July, cartel gunmen abducted 12 federal police officers and dumped their tortured bodies in a pile by the side of a highway.
La Familia originally claimed to be a local defense force, protecting Michoacan from neighboring drug traffickers. But it has since grown into one of the most extensive criminal enterprises in the country.
"This cartel is trying to capture the hearts and minds of the population," says Jorge Chabat, a security expert at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. He says La Familia is unique in that it claims to be working for the good of the local people. The group runs ads in newspapers and leaves messages, particularly at murder scenes, declaring that it is cleaning up Michoacan.
"It combines some self-help techniques with spiritualism and some, apparently, family values and moral values — which is a kind of contradiction because these guys are very violent," Chabat says.
The cartel takes drug addicts, rehabilitates them and turns them into drug dealers. "The name, La Familia — 'The Family' — suggests that these guys are presenting themselves as some sort of moral order, criticizing the disorder that prevails in Mexican society," Chabat says.
He says they're trying to act like a government — even imposing taxes. And this is part of the reason Calderon's administration has gone after them so aggressively.
A Shadow Over The City
Michoacan has what every drug-trafficking organization in the world covets — a major transportation corridor linking the supplier of its product directly to its primary market. The port of Lazaro Cardenas is one of the largest on the Pacific Coast, and a rail line operated by Kansas City Southern runs from its modern docks all the way to Laredo, Texas.
But this isn't a normal port town. Tension is in the air here. Federal police patrol the streets in dark blue pickups. The mayor is in prison, accused of working for La Familia. The city's congressman — who happens to be the governor's brother — is a fugitive from justice.
The afternoon edition of the newspaper, La Noticia de Michoacan, spins through the presses in a small garage just off the main street. But you won't find investigative articles in this or any of the other local papers about organized crime.
Francisco Rivera Cruz, the editor of La Noticia de Michoacan, inherited the job last year when his predecessor was gunned down and dumped in a ditch. Rivera says they don't investigate issues around crime or security. And they only report information that is released by the police.
The whispered explanation for the previous editor's murder is that he moved too aggressively to cover a grenade attack on a crowd of Independence Day revelers last year. Authorities pointed fingers at La Familia, but the cartel hung up banners blaming its rival, the Zetas, for the grenades that killed eight people and injured more than 100 others.
Manuel Gutierrez, a pastor at a Pentecostal church in Lazaro Cardenas, says life in the city is difficult right now. "I don't think this is the only city, but maybe one of the most important cities because of the port," he says. "It's a really big door to the country — to Mexico."
People are afraid to go out after dark, he says, and the drug trade hangs like a shadow over the city.
Federal prosecutors say La Familia's influence goes far beyond narcotics: The cartel dominates the sale of pirated DVDs, which are for sale everywhere in Mexico. They move migrants hoping to get into the United States. And like many other criminal groups facing cash-flow problems in the midst of the current drug war, they run kidnapping and extortion rackets.
A man who sells tamales on the street from a large stainless steel pot says he was held for four days in a house in Lazaro Cardenas. He doesn't want his name disclosed for fear of retaliation.
He says about a dozen other people were being held in the house, and his captors regularly beat them.
"You could hear the screaming of all the people," he says, "and there were two people who'd been shot dead there."
Eventually, his family came up with the 100,000 peso ransom his captors were demanding. That's about $7,500 — a small fortune for a tamale vendor.
He says "comerciantes" — people selling things on the streets — have to pay rent to the local gangs. Vendors and shopkeepers can be forced to pay anywhere from a few to hundreds of dollars a month just to stay in business.
In this way, La Familia has expanded beyond just a drug cartel. It has seeped into the economic and social fabric of Michoacan.