Mexican cartel deals drugs, violence with religious fervor

Soldiers patrol the Apatzingan, Mexico, city streets aboard a military vehicle where La Familia drug gang rules the city
Soldiers patrol the Apatzingan, Mexico, city streets aboard a military vehicle where La Familia drug gang rules the city Heriberto Rodriguez/MCT

APATZINGAN, Mexico — As the leader of one of Mexico's most ruthless criminal gangs, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez is the mastermind of hair-raising brutality in his native Michoacan state. He also would like the world to know that he has a pious, loving and huggy-kissy side, and so he's penned a booklet entitled "Thoughts."

"If you want to say 'I love you!' to those who surround you and to your friends, say it today," the drug lord exhorts his readers.

In the 104-page booklet, which was published earlier this year, he offers advice on personal empowerment, Christian living and proper deportment.

"Manners are a way of showing respect for others," he writes. "If you don't have them, don't expect to be respected."

If it's bizarre for the leader of a drug gang that beheads or quarters its enemies to offer advice on Christian living, well, it may be. However, the criminal gang known as La Familia Michoacana is a pseudo-Christian posse that mixes zeal and inspiring slogans in its pronouncements. Its members are ordered to study the Bible and pray the rosary, even as they gun down police, dismember their opponents and manufacture highly addictive crystal methamphetamine.

Unlike other Mexican drug cartels, La Familia portrays itself as religious and patriotic, and deeply tied to the mountain ranges and plains of Michoacan state along the Pacific coast. The group has a distribution network in the U.S. and funnels marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine to more than a dozen cities. A Mexican army general said La Familia has particularly strong distribution channels in California.

La Familia's thousands of members are often recruited from drug and alcoholism rehabilitation centers and sent to special training courses at secret safe houses in Michoacan.

"They bring in motivational speakers to their indoctrination sessions. Again, it's the U.S. Army 'be-all-you-can-be,' 'you can take your life in your own hands,' 'you can chart your future,'" said George W. Grayson, a scholar of contemporary Mexico at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who's written about the group.

Grayson said the religious aspect of La Familia "is all propaganda."

"Nazario touts the Bible-pounding and often excuses their savage acts as being the work of the Lord, but I don't think there is an iota of religious conviction."

One might gain a different idea upon reading "Thoughts," which is filled with images of the Bible, crosses and Jesus. "If you want, you can become a good Christian," it says on one page. "Remember not to build walls or barriers but instead build bridges to unite people."

Like most of the short essays, it's signed "El mas loco," or "The Craziest One," a nickname often used by Nazario Moreno, who's also known as "El Chayo," a common nickname for people named Nazario.

Moreno has published several versions of "Thoughts," starting shortly after La Familia Michoacana first emerged in 2006. The version obtained by McClatchy says it was one of 1,000 copies published in January 2010. The books are distributed by the cartel to followers rather than sold.

As many as 65,000 farmers are involved in growing and processing marijuana in the remote hills of the state, mostly for La Familia Michoacana.

A cult of personality has developed around Moreno, 40, who stands about 5-foot-6, and according to a Mexican military intelligence report has a metal plate in the left side of his head that gives him frequent headaches.

Why he needed the plate is unclear. His headaches also may arise from the $2 million bounty on his head or the federal drug trafficking charges he faces in the U.S. and the murder charges against him in Mexico.

At the entrance to his hometown, Guanajuatillo, pop. 572, a bronze bust hails him as a patriot, according to a journalist who's seen it but spoke on the condition that he not be identified to avoid joining a long list of journalists slain by narco gangs in Michoacan.

Moreno apparently got some of his ideas from U.S. evangelist John Eldredge of the Ransomed Heart Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo., whose book "Wild at Heart" has been found in translation in raids on La Familia safe houses.

Eldredge preaches a muscular version of Christianity that urges men to summon their authentic masculinity, an aspect of the Bible that he says is often overlooked. Eldredge couldn't be reached for comment, but he neither condones violence nor has any link to the drug cartel.

The "band of brothers" mentality of La Familia appeals to jobless young men in a state with a tattered social fabric. Legitimate jobs are scarce, and some 1 million Michoacan residents have migrated to the U.S. in search of opportunity.

The drug gang has bought many legitimate businesses that range from mango and avocado farms to drug and hardware stores and car washes. The group's appointed delegates serve as a shadow power behind local governments.

"They have become substitutes for the police and the authorities. They tell people when to keep noise down at night," said Juventino Bravo Rojas, a deacon at the local Catholic parish.

He said the group "doesn't see its own evil," even though many members are "assiduous readers of the Bible."

The group's control is extraordinary. To grasp the extensive system of lookouts that La Familia operates, one only has to climb aboard an army patrol vehicle with a mounted .40-caliber machine gun in the cargo bed, and cruise.

During a lengthy ride with a radio scanner blaring, one could regularly hear hidden cartel sentries reporting on the passage of the vehicle.

"You can hear them say, 'There's a '53' going from such-and-such a point to such-and-such a point," said an army colonel, who couldn't be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. " '53' is the code they use for the military, just as they say '40' for the police and '20' for the judicial (police)."

The sentries would sign off with a religious phrase: "May God repay you."

"They believe they are the saviors of Michoacan. They control 87 of the 113 municipalities in the state," said the veteran journalist. He said the cartel's recruits come under lengthy indoctrination. "They make them watch Godfather One, Two and Three to understand the concept of family."

The group has grown bolder in its attacks on federal law enforcement agents. On June 14, gunmen armed with high-caliber rifles and grenades ambushed a federal police convoy in rural Michoacan, firing on the patrol from two directions. Twelve officers were killed.

Since last year, La Familia has been locked in a blood-curdling battle with a onetime allied cartel that had made inroads in the state, Los Zetas, which was once the armed wing of enforcers of the Gulf Cartel, a syndicate on Mexico's east coast. Scores of low-level enforcers have been slain, and usually beheaded, in the settling of scores.

The erstwhile theology of La Familia irks Los Zetas, which a few months ago hung a cloth banner along a roadway accusing La Familia of moving toward "practices of Islamic fundamentalism."

For his part, Moreno claims that he acts only out of love.

"Intelligence without love makes you perverse," he writes. "Money without love makes you greedy. Power without love makes you a tyrant."


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