La Familia, originally an offshoot of the Zeta drug cartel, stood out in other ways, too. Its leaders cloaked the organization in religious imagery and claimed the group was protecting residents from outside groups and preventing the sale of methamphetamines to local communities.
At the same time, however, the cartel was shipping massive amounts of the drug to the United States.
After the United States began to regulate the sale of precursor ingredients such as pseudoephedrine and domestic meth production plummeted, Mexican cartels, led by La Familia, were more than happy to fill the void. According to the recently released 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment, methamphetamine seizures along the Southwest border rose 66 percent between 2006 and 2010.
La Familia initially recruited addicts, forcing them into drug rehabilitation programs and then a two-month training period based on “periods of silence, intensive Bible study and exposure to Evangelical-style speakers,” according to the foreword of a monograph written by George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.
Thanks to a system of bribes and intense violence, La Familia quickly grew to exert nearly absolute control in parts of Michoacán and nearby states. Federal authorities have accused dozens of mayors and other local politicians of being on the organization’s payroll. Authorities also accused the cartel of being behind the 2008 grenade attack on Independence Day revelers in the Michoacán capital of Morelia, at the time an unprecedented assault on civilians.
The central Mexican region where La Familia was born traditionally has had some of the highest rates of immigration to the United States, which may explain the group’s widespread presence in the United States despite being only 5 years old.
According to federal authorities, the cartel primarily operates in the southwestern and southeastern United States.
In recent years, it has suffered heavy blows from law enforcement on both sides of the border. The Austin raids on La Familia members from Luvianos were part of a nationwide sweep of nearly 2,000 suspects in more than a dozen states, which federal officials trumpeted as wounding the organization responsible for most of the methamphetamine imports into the United States.
In June this year, Mexican officials arrested La Familia’s boss, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas. That followed the 2010 killing of La Familia’s founder. La Familia also has been hit hard by wars with other cartels.
The result, experts say, has been a schism in which many La Familia members have formed a splinter group called the Knights Templar, a group reportedly even more messianic and ritualistic than the original La Familia. Last week, one of La Familia’s last major leaders was arrested in Mexico amid reports that the Knights Templar are displacing La Familia in many regions of central Mexico.