MORELIA, Mexico, July 22 (Reuters) – A cult-like drug cartel is defying President Felipe Calderon in his home state in western Mexico by taking on security forces with a menacing mix of violence, pseudo-religion and gifts for the poor.
“La Familia” (The Family) uses Bible scriptures to inspire its traffickers and has taken over smuggling in the state of Michoacan, gaining power despite Calderon’s near three-year assault on cartels in the state and across the country.
After the group killed 16 police in a series of brazen attacks last week, Calderon sent some 5,500 troops, elite police and navy officers to the mountainous marijuana-producing state in one of the biggest surges of the drug war.
Helicopters whirred overhead on Wednesday and convoys of army trucks patrolled the colonial state capital of Morelia as tourists sat at cafes in the pink stone-colored city.
La Familia, whose leaders say they are proud natives of the state, has become one of Calderon’s most formidable challenges as it goes beyond smuggling to seek political influence and social standing.
Led by evangelical Christian Nazario Moreno who calls himself “The Craziest One” and who has a $2 million bounty on his head in Mexico, the group preaches scripture mixed with self-help slogans to its members.
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Handing out toys to children and money to build schools, the cartel tries to promote a mystique unique among Mexican gangs by claiming openly to protect the local population.
La Familia bans its members from drinking alcohol or taking narcotics, holds prayer and indoctrination sessions and finances rural evangelical churches and drug rehabilitation centers across Michoacan, the army says.
“I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong,” says one slogan signed “The Craziest One” and found by soldiers on a raid last year on a cartel safe house.
Formed in the 1980s, La Familia has vowed to stop sales of the party methamphetamine drug “Ice” in the state, saying it is destroying local communities. Instead, it exports all meth production to the United States
In a call to a local TV station last week, a cartel member said its main aim was to bring order to Michoacan, help the poor with cash handouts and protect working families.
“They want to see themselves as Robin Hood figures,” said Julian Gudino, a security consultant in Mexico City. “Obviously this is false, but if they have that local support, they can run their trafficking business much more easily.”
U.S. anti-drug experts say members of La Familia must complete a three-to-six month training camp in Michoacan run by former Mexican and Guatemalan elite soldiers, and the group may may have linked up with Mexico’s top drug lord Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman to share smuggling routes over the U.S. border.
La Familia also wields great power in local politics, making the organization harder to confront.