A couple of years ago, there was some hope that the scourge of meth addiction, which was especially bad in rural America, might dissipate. In 2005, Congress had curbed over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient of the psychostimulant drug methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth or ice. After that, the number of clandestine meth labs in the U.S. plummeted.
Instead, the pseudoephedrine restrictions turned out to be a boon for a Mexican drug cartel that was just then coming to prominence. La Familia Michoacana, named for its base in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, not only revived the meth market, "they elevated it," says Rodney Benson, special agent in charge in Atlanta for the Drug Enforcement Administration. This week the DEA led a campaign that saw the arrests of more than 300 alleged meth traffickers in the U.S., all allegedly tied to La Familia. It is considered the largest roundup ever of Mexican cartel operatives. One of the busts, at a suburban house in Lawrencevllle, Ga., yielded almost 180 lbs of "the clearest [meth] crystals I have ever seen," says Benson.
La Familia is estimated to export as much as half of the 200 tons of crystal meth that enter the U.S. from Mexico each year. It was thus a clear target for Project Coronado, the four-year operation by U.S. and Mexico anti-drug officials, which has collared 900 others, mostly La Familia associates, in both countries. Aside from meth trafficking, La Familia has also brought Mexico's gangland violence across the border, into communities as far flung as Atlanta and Seattle. The group, like Mexico's two largest drug gangs, the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, is also famous for beheading rival traffickers. U.S. Attorney General Holder suggested Thursday that La Familia's "depravity" exceeds that of the Gulf and Sinaloa groups.
Whether or not La Familia is Mexico's most violent drug cartel, it is certainly the weirdest. Arguably, it is the world's first "narco-evangelical" gang. During this week's raids, U.S. officials found numerous religious images, "on fireplaces, in closets, everywhere," says one. La Familia members purport to be devout Christians who abstain from drugs themselves. In fact, they insist that while they sell meth and cocaine to the U.S., they keep it away from Mexicans. They also study a special Bible authored by their leader, Nazario Moreno, a.k.a. El Más Loco, or "The Craziest One." The cartel's profits have helped it build a large network of support among the poor in Michoacán, which is also the home state of Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
When the U.S. Congress enacted the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act four years ago, it created a lucrative trafficking niche for La Familia. Michoacán has long been a meth-producing region, much like the northern state of Durango is known for making most of Mexico's heroin (called "brown mud"). La Familia and other Mexican gangs manufacture meth at industrial superlabs that dwarf small-town U.S. shops like those depicted on the AMC cable drama Breaking Bad, churning out tons of the white, flaky crystal each day. And while U.S. law blocks the export of pseudoephedrine to Mexico, La Familia can easily access that key chemical by way of sources in Asia, shipping it in via Michoacán's major Pacific port, Lázaro Cárdenas. In 2006, Mexican police seized 19 tons of it there and linked it to the owner of a Mexico City mansion where $207 million were found piled in mountains of notes believed to be the biggest drug-cash bust ever.
Meth is now the most popular drug in the Midwest and West, ahead of cocaine, according to the DEA. It is smoked in pipes, injected or snorted, creating euphoric effects that let users work, party or make love for days without rest. But it also produces chronic paranoia, violent outbursts and loss of teeth, known as meth mouth. "It just amplifies the real evil side of people," says Craig Stuart, 25, a meth addict recovering in Phoenix.
La Familia has established a well organized and well enforced distribution system in its key U.S. markets, the sort of rural and suburban communities where meth has taken greatest hold in the U.S. "They set up in houses in middle-class suburbs," says Benson. "The only thing missing is the white picket fences." Those homes, where agents usually find large caches of automatic rifles and pistols, can also be scenes of violent kidnappings, beatings and murders. Last year a man abducted and badly beaten by Mexican traffickers because he owed them money was rescued by police in an Atlanta suburb just before his heavily armed captors were allegedly going to execute him.
La Familia's carnage is far worse in Mexico, where in recent years it has begun to terrorize Michoacán and neighboring states. It announced itself in 2006 when its hitmen rolled the severed heads of five rivals onto the dance floor of a Michoacán discotheque one night. More recently, in a taped conversation transcribed in Mexican law enforcement documents obtained by TIME, a La Familia boss called Mariano promises vengeance on federal police cracking down on the group's operations. "Anyone who messes with [us] is going to die," Mariano is quoted as saying. "I am not going to [prison]." Indeed, last summer, La Familia launched a wave of attacks on federal police bases, using grenades and other heavy weapons, killing 15 officers. A dozen corpses were dumped on a mountain highway.
And like other cartels, La Familia has broadly corrupted Mexican officialdom. The documents seen by TIME list a long La Familia payroll of public servants, including a mayor allegedly receiving $20,000 a month from the gang and a state police commander suspected of pocketing $35,000. Informants also describe how La Familia entertains those officials with raucous parties and truck loads of prostitutes.
While some La Familia bosses were arrested in Mexico this week, most if not all those captured in the 15-state roundup in the U.S. were lower-level traffickers and enforcers. Still, it was a biblical blow to an unusually efficient and violent organization that considers itself on a narco-mission from God.