Drug-Dealing for Jesus: Mexico's Evangelical Narcos

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The work of La Familia? An officer watches over the body of one of the three policemen killed in an attack against federal-police barracks in Zitacuaro, Mexico

News anchor Marcos Knapp had been broadcasting reports of narco carnage all week from his western state of Michoacan: the mutilated corpses of 12 federal police officers dumped on a road; police headquarters attacked by dozens of gunmen with grenades; three officers called out to a traffic accident and then murdered in an ambush. But as violent as the attacks were, Knapp was truly shocked only when a caller phoned his news show and said he was one of the cartel capos behind this bloodshed. "Our fight is with the federal police because they are attacking our families," the voice said calmly while Knapp stared worriedly at the camera. "If someone attacks my father, my mother or my brother, then they are going to hear from me ... If they only act against us, then we will respect them."

The chilling call appears to be the latest attempt to take the moral high ground by a quasi-religious drug cartel that has become one of the most dangerous threats to Mexican security forces. The caller identified himself as Servando Gomez, head of a narcotics mafia that has baptized itself La Familia Michoacana. The gangsters, who had bought ads in newspapers and given an interview to a leading Mexican magazine, claim that although they traffic drugs, they protect their local community and purport to be devout Evangelical Christians. All members are disciplined to abstain from narcotics themselves and care for their homes and children, La Familia says. They are also made to study a special Bible authored by the gang's spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno, alias El Mas Loco, or "the Maddest One."

Gangsters have long financed their own music genre (drug ballads) nurtured their own fashion style (buchones, crocodile-skin boots alongside designer bling) and revered an early 20th century bandit, Jesus Malverde, as a narco saint. But the effort to forge their own religious sect is new, proof of a cultural autonomy to match their fearsome ability to defy Mexico City and Washington with impunity.

Federal agents seized one copy of La Familia's Bible in a raid last year. Quoted in local newspapers, the scripture paints an ideology that mixes Evangelical-style self-help with insurgent peasant slogans reminiscent of the Mexican Revolution. "I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong; I ask him for wisdom and he gives me problems to resolve; I ask him for prosperity and he gives me brain and muscles to work," Moreno writes, using terms that could be found in many Christian sermons preached from Mississippi to Brazil. But on the next page, there's a switch to phrases strikingly similar to those coined by revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. "It is better to be a master of one peso than a slave of two; it is better to die fighting head on than on your knees and humiliated; it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion."

The sect also uses the Internet to spread its gospel. On one online forum, hundreds of supporters sing the praises of Christ and La Familia. "Victory to La Familia Michoacana, gloryfying Jesus by helping others," writes one aficionado who calls himself Fran. "Evil will only reign until Jesus stops it," writes another who calls himself the Messenger. "Nobody is saved from divine justice and they cannot imagine the pain and suffering they will go through."

La Familia claims to employ thousands of people — all from the state of Michoacan — and pay them wages of at least $2,000 per month, more than 10 times the minimum wage. The capos say they do not tolerate robbery, kidnapping or drug-dealing in their communities. But they reserve the right to use righteous violence against anyone who betrays or crosses them. "Those who commit mistakes are tied up for a long time. If the mistake is grave, they are tortured. If there is loss of trust and treachery, they must die," a cartel spokesman called El Tio (the Uncle) said in an interview printed in the newsmagazine Proceso. The spokesman gave the interview sipping tequila in a restaurant while three armed bodyguards sat at the next table.

Its use of extreme violence against rivals and police has given La Familia a brutal reputation across Mexico. The group first burst to fame in 2006 when gangsters severed the heads of five rival traffickers and rolled them onto a disco dance floor. The latest round of bloody mayhem kicked off on July 11, following the dawn arrest of alleged gang lieutenant Arnoldo Rueda from his family home. In an attempt to rescue him, gunmen besieged a police base for 20 minutes with grenades and automatic-rifle fire. When they couldn't break him free, they launched simultaneous attacks on police in towns and cities across Michoacan for the next three days. At least 16 officers were killed and dozens of police cars torched in a campaign one Mexican commentator dubbed the Tet offensive of the drug war.

The phone call to Knapp's news show came on July 15, following the wave of killings. After justifying the attacks on police, the caller appeared to offer a truce. "What we want is peace and tranquility," he said. "We want to achieve a national pact." The government of Felipe Calderón was quick to reject any negotiation with the gangs and ordered a troop surge in Michoacan to 5,500 police and soldiers to fight La Familia. "The federal government does not ever dialogue, does not negotiate, does not reach deals with any criminal organization," Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez Mont said. "The criminal groups that the Mexican government are fighting are made up of criminal cowards without scruples. They try to mask or justify their acts with all sorts of justifications."