La Familia Grows, Mexico’s Drug War Flails

MEXICO CITY -- Francisco Morelos Borja, the Michoacan president of the governing National Action Party (PAN) shifted from side to side, nervously looking at his aides and then the door of the nondescript restaurant in the town of Quiroga. "If you don't open the door to [the drug traffickers], no problem. The difficulty comes when you open the door and have relations with them," he said during our interview back in November 2007. "I can only make sure [members of the PAN] don't open the door. . . . Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

Nearly two years on, and almost three years into Mexico's war on drugs, Morelos Borja's comments resonate loudly. In December 2006, days after President Felipe Calderon took office, Michoacan became the first front in a military-led assault on the nation's drug cartels. By the end of 2007, the operation had been lauded as a success: Violent homicides were down, and the Army was making a record number of arrests. But by mid-2008, the victory cries had subsided. Homicides were up again, and a new group known as La Familia had risen to prominence -- in spite of the Army's constant presence. La Familia had infilitrated a good portion of Michoacan's local governments, the authorities said, proving that for the most part, Morelos Borja and his counterparts from all political parties just couldn't keep those doors shut.

It's the summer of 2009, and Michoacan is in the spotlight once again. Since late May, federal authorities have conducted raids aimed at quelling La Familia's growing political clout, even rounding up 10 mayors and other civil servants in one cross-state sweep. The state governor's half-brother is believed not only to be linked to La Familia, but to be running part of the show. Dozens of high-ranking members of La Familia have been arrested, too -- but that has only spurred serious repercussions. In mid-July, for instance, 12 federal police officers were kidnapped and killed, prompting the deployment of 2,500 more soldiers to the central western state. In the ensuing weeks, dozens more members of La Familia have been nabbed, including Miguel Angel Berraza Villa, a.k.a., La Troca. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration heralded the arrest of Berraza Villa and one of his associates as glowing proof of "the leadership and resolve of President Calderon and the Government of Mexico."

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