Saturday, 24 October 2009

La Familia Michoacána,$207 million were found piled in mountains of notes

La Familia Michoacána, named for its base in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, not only revived the meth market, "they elevated it," says Rodney Benson, special agent in charge in Atlanta for the Drug Enforcement Administration. This week the DEA led a campaign that saw the arrests of more than 300 alleged meth traffickers in the U.S., all allegedly tied to La Familia. It is considered the largest roundup ever of Mexican cartel operatives. One of the busts, at a suburban house in Lawrencevllle, Ga., yielded almost 180 lbs of "the clearest [meth] crystals I have ever seen," says Benson. La Familia is estimated to export as much as half of the 200 tons of crystal meth into the U.S. each year. It was thus a clear target for Project Coronado, the four-year operation by U.S. and Mexico anti-drug officials, which has collared 900 others, mostly La Familia associates, in both countries. Aside from meth trafficking, La Familia has also brought Mexico's gangland violence across the border, into communities as far flung as Atlanta and Seattle. The group, like Mexico's two largest drug gangs, the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, is also famous for beheading rival traffickers. U.S. Attorney General Holder suggested Thursday that La Familia's "depravity" exceeds that of the Gulf and Sinaloa groups. Whether or not La Familia is Mexico's most violent drug cartel, it is certainly the weirdest. Arguably, it is the world's first "narco-evangelical" gang. During this week's raids, U.S. officials found numerous religious images, "on fireplaces, in closets, everywhere," says one. La Familia members purport to be devout Christians who abstain from drugs themselves. In fact, they insist that while they sell meth and cocaine to the U.S., they keep it away from Mexicans. They also study a special Bible authored by their leader, Nazario Moreno, a.k.a. El Más Loco, or "The Craziest One." The cartel's profits have helped it build a large network of support among the poor in Michoacán, which is also the home state of Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
When the U.S. Congress enacted the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act four years ago, it created a lucrative trafficking niche for La Familia. Michoacán has long been a meth-producing region, much like the northern state of Durango is known for making most of Mexico's heroin (called "brown mud"). La Familia and other Mexican gangs manufacture meth at industrial superlabs that dwarf small-town U.S. shops like those depicted on the AMC cable drama Breaking Bad, churning out tons of the white, flaky crystal each day. And while U.S. law blocks the export of pseudoephedrine to Mexico, La Familia can easily access that key chemical by way of sources in Asia, shipping it in via Michoacán's major Pacific port, Lázaro Cárdenas. In 2006, Mexican police seized 19 tons of it there and linked it to the owner of a Mexico City mansion where $207 million were found piled in mountains of notes — believed to be the biggest drug-cash bust ever.


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