The brutal cult-like cartel that dominates drug production in Mexico's Michoacan state has made a perplexing call for a truce with the federal government, raising speculation the gang may be losing power.
Early in November, hand-printed banners were strung up in several towns across the western state of Michoacan, including in the state capital Morelia, signed by the cartel known as "La Familia" (The Family), that said the gang would disband if the federal government promised to defend the region from other drug gangs.
"If the government accepts this public commitment and achieves it, La Familia Michoacana will dissolve," the banners read.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon is battling a handful of powerful cartels across the country and says there will be no negotiations with traffickers.
The government "does not strike deals with criminals," a spokesman for the federal attorney general's office told the media after the banners appeared.
La Familia uses pseduo-religious philosophy to justify the grisly murders of rivals and keep its own traffickers from abusing drugs. It claims to protect the western state, which borders the Pacific coast, from incursions by other drug cartels and provide gifts to locals like cash handout to poor families.
In another message released last week, La Familia threatened to suspend all handouts and "charitable activities" during December, unless authorities agreed to talks.
Some analysts think the mysterious messages are a sign Calderon's military crackdown, launched soon after he took office in late 2006, may have crippled La Familia.
An alleged member of La Familia arrested this month said the apparent offer to dissolve was authentic, according to a police interrogation video provided to reporters. He also said that the gang was in decline and disorganized.
"Apparently the blows that the Family has suffered have hurt its ability to act," said drug policy expert Jorge Chabat.
The cartel was hit last year by the arrests of two top leaders and is fighting the Zetas and the Beltran Leyva cartel for control of Michoacan's coast where traffickers receive illegal shipments of chemicals to make methamphetamines.
Other analysts think the calls for dialogue are a ploy that is part of La Familia's propaganda campaign to maintain support from locals and they doubt that the gang has been seriously disrupted.
"We do not see the government winning that much ground," said Scott Stewart, an analyst at security consultancy Stratfor. "What we are seeing is a changing of hands of cartel territory but we are not seeing any real end to cartel activity or the violence."
The gang offered a similar truce last year but drug killings have continued since then.
La Familia's top leaders, like Nazario "The Craziest One" Moreno, who gained notoriety with a booklet of his self-help slogans, remain at large.
"They still have not gotten the bosses," said an avocado farmer based in La Familia's stronghold of Uruapan. "There are a lot of people who everyone knows are drug traffickers, and they are walking around like it's nothing."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)