After Six Years of Bloodshed, Mexico's Drug War Shows Little Sign of Waning

The horrors of daily life with the cartels.
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Forensic workers move a stretcher with a dead body, one of the 18 decapitated people found on Wednesday, out of a morgue in Guadalajara on May 10, 2012. (Reuters)

It was roughly 8 a.m., on Jan. 3, 2007. Mexican President Felipe Calderon had just landed at the airport in Uruapan, in the central state of Michoacan. He had come to check on the troops involved in counter-drug operations, to give them a morale boost; they had been deployed just weeks earlier to fight the narcos, as Mexico's drug traffickers are known.

Calderon had donned an olive-green military jacket - adorned with five stars - and beige pants. He wore a military cap. He was dressed like a soldier. A general. A commander-in-chief.

Calderon was flanked by Gen. Guillermo Galvan Galvan and the head of the Navy, Adm. Mariano Francisco Saynez Mendoza.

Reporters at the scene took note. Previous presidents had dressed themselves in military garb, but only on special occasions -- official military ceremonies, for instance.

The killers left behiind a handwritten message: "La Familia doesn't kill for money, doesn't kill women, doesn't kill innocent people -- only those who deserve to die... This is divine justice."

"I come here as your commander-in-chief," the president declared, "to recognize your work, to urge you to continue onward with resolve... and to tell you that we are with you."

The conservative president, one who had campaigned on a promise to create jobs, not conflict, had become the president of "war."

Just five months earlier, Uruapan had come to Calderon's attention. It was a Saturday night at the Sol y Sombra, the most popular nightclub in Uruapan. On the lower level, prostitutes waited by the bar for eager -- or desperate -- customers. On the television screens, sports programs were interspersed with porno films.

Stairs led to the upper level, where couples, groups of friends, and even families were sitting around a black and white, checkered dance floor. Beer flowed readily at the tables. On one wall, behind the area reserved for the live band, was a colorful drawing of a sun and a moon - Sol y Sombra.

A group of masked gunmen stormed past the prostitutes, straight to the upper level of the club.

They fired a round of shots into the air. They emptied a bag onto the floor; five heads rolled out.

They fired a few more rounds, before leaving behind a handwritten message: "La Familia doesn't kill for money, doesn't kill women, doesn't kill innocent people -- only those who deserve to die... This is divine justice."

The note was signed: "La Familia."

The authorities were caught off guard. They didn't know much about La Familia: Were these guys just thugs? Were they established? Were they a cartel? Did they have intelligence networks like the other cartels? Had they infiltrated the police corps and officialdom in Michoacan? Were they, as some officials in the Attorney General's Office (PGR) initially suspected, allied with the paramilitary group known as Los Zetas?

It didn't take long for the authorities to get a grasp on La Familia's modus operandi. They learned that the group had been winning over the hearts and minds of the local population in Michoacan towns like Apatzingan, Uruapan, Zamora, and even the state capital of Morelia. On occasions like Children's Day, suspected members of La Familia had been delivering truckloads full of toys; at other public functions and celebrations, members had been spotted handing out leaflets, describing their mission.

La Familia claimed to be a vigilante group: It said it wanted to eradicate methamphetamine use in the state, which it had blamed on the powerful Sinaloa cartel from northwestern Mexico. One La Familia leaflet deplored the evils of methamphetamine and other hard drugs, as well as moonshine allegedly made in Tepito, a barrio in Mexico City known for its gangs and illicit trade. La Familia condemned the kidnappings, homicides, and robberies that were making their state unsafe.

In just a couple of years, La Familia's membership had grown to about 4,000.

The authorities, however, didn't buy the group's public statements. There had been 500 homicides that year in Michoacan, and Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca dismissed any notion that La Familia had any good intentions whatsoever. This group, he said, was condemning the distribution of drugs in public while peddling them on the side. It was engaging in kidnappings and other illicit activity. This wasn't a case of La Familia being better than the Sinaloa cartel, it was a case of them being on the wrong side of the law.

Something had to be done. President Calderon, a Michoacan native, deployed 7,000 soldiers and federal policemen to the state just days after taking office. Helicopters hovered over dozens of military humvees, as law enforcement officials moved into position throughout the state. They began to set up roadblocks on main thoroughfares. The military deployed dozens of light planes, helicopters, and armored humvees throughout Michoacan. A command and control center was set up in the barracks of the 43rd Military Zone, in Apatzingan - the reputed home base of La Familia.

In Washington, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were watching. Something had to be done on their end, and they knew it. Calderon was to be commended for going it alone, even if critics in Mexico argued that he had been pressured to launch the war by Washington. The U.S. would have to help out on the ground, somehow. "If somebody didn't take on these knuckleheads, Mexico could well have devolved into a narco-state," former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun told me.

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Police present captured members of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel during a news conference at the federal police headquarters in Mexico City on February 12, 2009. (Reuters)

The DEA has operated in Mexico since the mid-1970s. It has offices in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Hermosillo, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, Mazatlan, Merida, Monterrey, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana. The DEA's agents are in Mexico with an advisory role, but they also train vetted units of federal cops and feed them intel in order to bring down the kingpins.

When tragedy occurs, they usually have to sit on the sidelines and simply assess the situation; their hands are effectively tied when it comes to doing law enforcement grunt work.

Calderon's military offensive had failed to contain La Familia. Far from it: by late 2008, around the time of the Morelia tragedy, the organization was believed to be operating in 77 counties in Michoacan, or nearly 60 percent of the state.

It was Sept. 15, 2008 -- the night before Mexican Independence Day. The Michoacan city of Morelia was celebrating, so the explosion sounded just like fireworks.

Mexican Congressman Felipe Díaz Garibay was standing just a few meters behind Michoacán Gov. Leonel Godoy, near the balcony of the governor's palace. He heard the explosion; he and the other VIP guests ignored it, continuing with their idle chatter.

Michoacan's chief of police ran into the room. A grenade had exploded, he said. At least one person had been killed.

Heated discussion followed, Garibay would recall in an interview with me a few days later. Question after question -- but very few answers. Was it a political group? A mob of hired thugs trying to put pressure on the left-wing Godoy? A botched assassination attempt? Drug traffickers? Was it indeed the local group known as "La Familia?"

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Malcolm Beith is a former Newsweek general editor who spent three years covering the drug war from Mexico City. 

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