Mexico Details La Familia Cartel's Extortion Practices

Associated Press/June 27, 2011

Mexico's cult-like La Familia drug cartel conducts widespread extortion rackets aimed at farmers, miners and even bullfight organizers—all while getting protection from state police commanders, federal officials said Sunday.

Mexico's federal police agency, the Public Security Secretariat, outlined the local businesses preyed upon in a new report on the extent of the gang's corruption and intimidation tactics in its home base of Michoacan state.

In order to supplement drug-trafficking income, La Familia forces miners to pay $1.50 per ton of metal they sell and cattle ranchers to pay $1 per kilogram of meat, it said. Michoacan's rich lime and avocado farms are subject to "quotas," or a percentage of farmers' earnings. Bullfights, cockfights and concerts also are extorted, the report says.

While news reports of extortion by drug gangs have become common, authorities had not confirmed in detail the extent of La Familia's hold on raw material production in the western state.

The report came five days after federal authorities apprehended La Familia's alleged leader, claiming the arrest was a debilitating blow against the crime group. Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias El Chango, or "The Monkey," was the last remaining head of the cartel that authorities say has terrorized Mexico's western states.

The report charges that Michoacan state police commanders aid La Familia in its operations by permitting cartel operatives to use patrol cars, radio frequencies and police uniforms.

The report relates how one former state police official used patrol cars to block off streets and help hit men escape other police.

"They used state police infrastructure to establish routes and ensure the safety of their armed commandos," the report says.

La Familia makes extensive use of propaganda, such as organizing marches against the government's offensive against drug gangs, generating rumors of police abuse and reporting false human rights complaints, the report says.

Still, authorities say they have managed to push the cartel into mountainous regions and have detained or killed most of its top leaders. The report says more than 700 La Familia members have been arrested since 2008, mainly in Michoacan and Mexico State, which borders Mexico City.

But the leader of a violent splinter group, which calls itself the Knights Templar, remains at large.

La Familia was born in President Felipe Calderon's home state of Michoacan in 2006. When he took office in December of that year, Calderon sent thousands of federal police there and warned that the cartel was corrupting local officials and extorting businesses.

Even with the gang's setbacks, there are signs La Familia is still active.

Seven bodies were found early Sunday in two different spots outside Mexico City along with messages purportedly signed by La Familia, the Mexico State prosecutor's office told The Associated Press.

Prosecutor spokesman Alfredo Albiter said police were trying to verify whether the messages left near the bodies in both Valle de Chalco and Ixtapaluca in Mexico State were indeed written by La Familia members.

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