U.S. officials announced the results of a major sting targeting La Familia Michoacana (LFM). The operation suggests the group's network extends farther than previously thought. Still, the group's limited geography and previous arrests of high-level LFM officials signal trouble for the group.
The heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the FBI announced the results of Project Coronado, a 44-monthlong multiagency operation against the Mexican drug trafficking organization La Familia Michoacana (LFM), the morning of Oct. 22. According to the officials, 1,186 individuals across 19 states were arrested and $33 million, 1,999 kilograms of cocaine, 2,730 pounds of methamphetamine, 29 pounds of heroin, 16,390 pounds of marijuana, 389 weapons, 269 vehicles and two synthetic drug laboratories were seized over the course of the operation. LFM is one of the most violent and ambitious criminal organizations in Mexico, but also one of the smallest. This kind of operation is thus sure to have a serious impact on LFM's operations both at home and abroad, especially as Mexican authorities have been stepping up operations against the group in its home state of Michoacan. LFM was formed more than 20 years ago as a vigilante group aimed at kidnappers, drug traffickers and other criminals operating in the southern Mexican state of Michoacan. As the years passed, LFM itself became involved in the drug trade, particularly in methamphetamine trafficking. The group later formed an alliance with the Gulf cartel and came under the control of Los Zetas. LFM, as it is currently known, formed in 2006 after several of the groups' leaders split from Los Zetas. Since then, LFM has developed a reputation as one of the most strange and violent drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico due to the purportedly Christian-based teachings of its ideological leader, known as El Mas Loco, who advocates the torture and murder of LFM opponents as a representation of divine justice. LFM's reputation has won it the title of the most dangerous criminal organization in Mexico according to former Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. Though largely involved in the production of synthetic drugs, LFM also traffics cocaine and heroin. It also earns significant income from kidnapping, extortion and a number of other criminal activities. The organization has also developed an extensive network of corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials at the local, state and federal levels throughout Michoacan who provide something of a safe-haven for the group's operations. LFM is also a powerful force in the Mexican states of Guerrero, Jalisco and Mexico, but these states' distance from the U.S.-Mexican border — and subsequent lack of direct access to the lucrative U.S. drug market — has severely stifled the group's ability to become a major force on the national or international level. The group must therefore rely on and/or pay taxes to larger organizations like Sinaloa or the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization (VCF), which control the smuggling corridors along the border, to move their drugs into the United States. Significantly, Project Coronado has shown that LFM managed to establish significant distribution hubs in key U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta, effectively allowing it to set up a nationwide distribution network — a surprising development for such a relatively small and geographically isolated organization. Just how many of those arrested in the United States actually belonged to LFM as opposed to other organizations cooperating with it remains unclear, however. Project Coronado has likely severely disrupted LFM's cash flow, a blow enhanced by the arrests in Mexico of several high-ranking LFM members like LFM co-founder Servando "El Tuta" Gomez Martinez. But other organizations have weathered similar U.S. operations against their distribution networks, like "Project Reckoning," which targeted the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, and "Operation Xcellerator" against the Sinaloa cartel. Still, LFM has neither the size nor the resources of those groups. STRATFOR will continue to watch for signs of the potentially serious consequences for LFM of "Project Coronado" and recent Mexican law enforcement operations.