The Mexican drug trafficking organization La Familia Michoacana continued a series of attacks July 14 in retaliation for the arrest of one of its high-ranking officials. Though the group's activities are limited in geographic scope, the ferocity and brazenness of its attacks make it one more headache for Mexico City.
Mexican authorities confirmed July 14 that the 12 men found tortured and shot to death in the town of La Huacana, in Mexico's southeastern state of Michoacan, were federal police agents. The revelation came the same day that gunmen armed with assault rifles in another town in the state opened fire on a federal police building July 14. The previous night, a Mexican federal police agent was wounded during an attack in Lazaro Cardenas, also in Michoacan. In that attack, several men traveling in a vehicle fired assault rifles and threw fragmentation grenades at a group of federal agents returning to a hotel where they had been staying during the past several weeks. These incidents mark the latest in a series of attacks against federal police in Michoacan state in retaliation for the June 11 arrest of a high-ranking leader of the La Familia Michoacana (LFM) criminal organization. So far, LFM's retaliatory attacks in Michoacan — which have totaled more than 15 over the past four days — have been poorly executed and apparently hastily planned. These latest incidents appear no different. As the possibility of further attacks looms, it is important to consider that even though LFM faces some organizational limitations — and even though STRATFOR does not consider it a top drug-trafficking organization —the group is still a powerful criminal organization able and willing to conduct attacks that stand out for their brazenness and gravity even by Mexico's standards. LFM stands out among the various drug cartels that operate throughout Mexico for several reasons. Unlike other cartels that have always been focused on drug trafficking, LFM first arose in Michoacan several years ago as a vigilante response to kidnappers and drug gangs — particularly those that produced and trafficked methamphetamines — that operated in the state. With banners and advertisements in local newspapers, LFM made its anti-crime message well known — along with its willingness to use extreme violence against suspected kidnappers, drug traffickers, and other criminals. Before long, however, LFM members were themselves accused of conducting the very crimes they had opposed, including kidnapping for ransom, cocaine and marijuana trafficking, and eventually, methamphetamine production. Currently, the group is the largest and most powerful criminal organization in Michoacan — a largely rural state located on Mexico's southeastern Pacific coast — and maintains a significant presence in several surrounding states. The extent to which has succeeded in corrupting public officials across Michoacan testifies to the depth of its involvement in the state. Beyond its vigilante origins, LFM has also set itself apart from other criminal groups in Mexico based on its almost cult-like ideological and cultural principles. LFM leaders are known to distribute documents to the group's members that include codes of conduct, as well as pseudoreligious quotations from a man known as "El Mas Loco" ("the craziest one"), who appears to serve as a sort of inspirational leader for the group. Outside Michoacan, LFM so far has failed to become a significant international (or even national) player in the drug trade beyond its involvement in methamphetamine trafficking. Geography has hampered the group's ambitions. Developing into a more completely independent drug-trafficking organization would require not only sustained contacts with cocaine and ephedra suppliers overseas, but also a self-secured access point to the United States. This is quite an obstacle for a group based at least 600 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border. So far, only Mexican cartels based on the U.S. border have risen to the top in the drug trade. Until such an access point is secured, LFM will be forced to rely on partnerships and alliances with those drug cartels whose base along the border allows them to control cross-border trafficking. Another challenge for LFM has been internal. Since the group has been forced to rely on Mexico's other drug cartels — many of which are locked into intense rivalries with each other — it was inevitable that LFM would be drawn into these divisions. Indeed, at present LFM is composed of at least three main factions, one of which has loosely allied itself with the powerful Beltran-Leyva organization, another with the Gulf cartel and another with the Sinaloa cartel. The true extent to which these LFM factions are divided is not known, but the fractures still represent an organizational limitation for the group. Despite the internal and external constraints on LFM, the group remains a powerful regional organization in the Michoacan area capable of brazen and provocative violence — which is saying something given the milieu of Mexican cartel beheadings and assassinations. LFM's most egregious violent act was the September 2008 grenade attack on civilians in Morelia, Michoacan, during the city's commemoration of Mexico's independence day celebration. The incident represents the first clear case of indiscriminate killing of civilians in the history of Mexico's cartel war, setting the LFM strongly apart from Mexico's other drug gangs. Given the wave of LFM retaliatory attacks, this distinction is cause for alarm. If there is any criminal group in Mexico willing and able to escalate its use of violence, it is LFM. That the group's reach is fairly limited is little comfort for Mexico City, which falls well within LFM's range, and will be forced to deal with the deteriorating security situation in Michoacan.