Religious extremists are often looked at as being almost the polar opposite to regular common or garden criminals. In the public perception, the former is governed purely by their beliefs, whereas the latter is motivated by wealth and status. In reality, this isn’t always the case though, and Mexicos’ La Familia Michoacana narco-cult were a case in point until they eventually disbanded in 2011. Although they operated as a drug cartel, they also had their own holy book, and the head honcho consulted a mystic known as “The Wizard” when it came to making key decisions. Anti-corruption investigator Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán extensively studied the group, and wrote about them in his book on organised crime Drug Trafficking, Corruption and States. I got in touch with him to find out more.
How prominent were La Familia Michoacana?
La Familia and their splinter group Knight Templars operated in both Michoacana and several states beyond it, including Chiapas, Mexico State, and Guanajuato. They had a major international impact, because they controlled the seaport of Lázaro Cárdenas, which is one of the most important Mexican ports on the Pacific.
Were they the only narco-cult in Mexico?
Religion is highly important and popular in Mexico. Therefore, it’s very common for criminal bosses to give money to churches, build churches, and go to mass. However, most criminal groups acknowledge that they’re sinners. Only La Familia and the Knight Templars have used religion to validate their acts. La Familia is a unique and highly interesting anthropological phenomenon.
What’s the deal with the wizard?
When Servando “La Tuta” Martínez was the leader of La Familia Michoacana, he asked The Wizard who had to die. After this consultation, La Tuta ordered several murders.
I heard The Wizard also consulted tarot cards and interpreted the stars in order to make decisions about some fairly serious criminal matters.
Tarot reading was the main technique that The Wizard used to let La Tuta know who was supposedly a traitor and deserved to die. For La Tuta, a single confirmation from The Wizard was enough reason to execute mass murders. As with most Mexicans, La Tuta was highly religious. In fact, religious messages and superstition are critical for understanding La Familia Michoacana. Just consider these three facts: firstly, the group evolved into another group called “Knight Templars” after a confrontation between La Tuta and El Chango [the leader of La Familia Michoacana]. The name “Knights Templar” is clearly a religious reference. Secondly, sometimes they used blood to write the words “This is divine justice” on white blankets, right next to piles of dismembered bodies. Thirdly, they used a “gospel” book written by another Familia Michoacana member known as “The Craziest”, with recommendations and instructions about how to be a good and happy person in it. As crazy and ridiculous as it sounds, it promoted Christian values.
That does sound a little on the crazy side!
Yes, but religion is highly relevant in popular culture in Central America and Mexico, so it’s no surprise that drug traffickers and hit men are also religious. There are several stories about hit men and drug traffickers praying before executing horrendous crimes. Narco culture in Mexico involves strong elements of religion and superstition.
When they weren’t preaching the gospel, I heard La Familia Michoacana were pretty fond of decapitating people. Can you say a bit about that?
Unfortunately, decapitations are highly common in Mexico, and are carried out not only by La Familia Michoacana, but also by other groups. Decapitations carried out by ISIS have had a global impact, but decapitations and other barbaric acts executed by Mexican criminals usually don’t gain international attention. Decapitations, mass murders, piles of bodies, and corpses hanging from bridges in the middle of crowded cities are common in various regions of the country. However, La Familia was the only criminal network invoking a message of “divine justice” or “God’s love” when committing its barbaric acts. They presented themselves as God’s warriors, fighting against evil and protecting the population.
There was a famous incident in which they threw the severed heads of people onto a crowded dance floor as a warning to others. What were the circumstances surrounding that?
Maybe the situation you’re referring to is one of the first decapitations executed by them, around 2006? The case was later known as “Sol y Sombra”, [Sun and Shadow], because that was the name of the bar where the severed heads were thrown. They also left a note stating that La Familia didn’t kill innocent people, and that they only killed those who had to die according to “divine justice”.
Even in the city of Acapulco, which received thousands of international visitors until a few years ago, severed heads have been found in taxis or public places. Piles of heads, burned bodies, and hanging corpses aren’t very common in Mexico City, Cancun, and other beautiful municipalities that are still untouched by horrendous violence. However, in some regions, the scenes clearly exceed the most grotesque script of a bizarre thriller. A week before last Day of the Dead, a hanging body was found in Mexico City. The tortured body was covered with white blankets so that people thought that it was part of the celebration.
There are rumours that La Familia makes new recruits undergo initiation rites involving cannibalism and torturing their enemies. Can you say a bit about that?
It’s been said that some members have has to eat human parts, especially in ceremonies in which The Craziest participated. However, there’s only anecdotal evidence of this, and it isn’t conclusive. In any case, torture is a common practice across Mexico and Central America.
Thanks, Eduardo. It’s been morbid yet interesting!
Words by @Nick Chester