News broke yesterday that Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas aka El Chango (the monkey), the leader of ‘La Familia’ had been arrested by federal authorities in Mexico.
The arrest of the Cartel boss who had a $2M bounty on his head, may or may not spell the end of the group’s five year reign of terror.
La Familia was founded in 2006 by Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, who was killed in December. Gonzalez had split off from the Los Zetas cartel – a notorious group of gunmen who were originally set up as a mercenary army by former Mexican special forces soldiers. He set up La Familia as a kind of vigilante syndicate to crack down on crime in the state, but things changed very quickly, and after seizing control of drugs manufacture and smuggling routes, it became a massive organised crime body itself. Left: Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, right: Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas.
But the story of La Familia, also known as La Familia Michoacana after the state in which they are based, is made all the more bizarre by its incorporation of evangelical Christian teachings into its indoctrination of new members.
And notably – or at least newsworthy, the bizarre inclusion of the evangelical Christian self help book ‘Wild At Heart’ by well known author John Eldredge – as a kind of ‘set text’ for gang members.
La Familia were/are known as the biggest exporters of methamphetamine into the USA. But they are involved in much more than just smuggling drugs, they have been running a kind of parallel economy in the state of Michoacan where they charge taxes and run a violent protection racket, seemingly controlling elements of local government across the state.
Their reputation is one of extreme violence, but that violence is only directed towards men (not women or children), and in particular only those who they say ‘deserve to die’. They mete out what they consider to be ‘divine justice’ via beheadings and other brutal actions, and celebrate family values through a commitment to a sort of evangelical Christianity.
The founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez aka El Mas Loco (the craziest one), who died last year wrote and self published a ‘bible’ of Christian aphorisms inspired by his own beliefs. These were of a kind of muscular Christianity, one which allwed for brutal killings so long as they were ‘just’ – and presumably allowed also for drug trafficking and other criminal activities, which suited a bigger purpose.
The cartel has become known for – as well as its extreme violence – establishing large scale poverty alleviation projects and encouraging people through de-tox programmes. These outlets invite comparison with the outlaw legend Robin Hood, who famously ‘robbed from the rich, and gave to the poor’ and had God on his side as he battled the corrupt authorities.
One of the strangest parts of the story is the incoporation of the book ‘Wild At Heart’ by American author John Eldredge in to the teachings of the cartel. Spanish translations of Wild At Heart, which has become a popular text for Evangelical Christians around the world who are eager to recapture an image of masculinity from an ‘emasculated’ church culture, have been found in the group’s safe houses. It is thought that it was originally brought back to Mexico by Gonzalez after a smuggling trip. He went on to incorporate many quotes from the book into the group’s handbook.
Critics have pointed to Eldredge’s characterisation of masculinity, which includes the idea that men instinctively love weapons, and that they need to have a ‘battle to fight’ and a ‘divine mission’ as having fueled the fire of Gonzalez’ messianic urges.
Eldredge on the other hand has defended his book, pointing out that many texts have been misinterpreted, and later suggesting that perhaps reading his book may help gang members change their ways.
He said that if gang members actually read the book: “they would know that submission to Jesus is central to the entire message. They seemed to have missed the central point, which gives context to everything else.”
La Familia’s claim that if they were to disband without an agreement, then their base would be taken over by rival gangs and corrupt authorities is probably true. At any rate, there is no shortage of candidates for the post of Jefe within the cartel, and if it does collapse, it is more likely to be through internal strife than because of this arrest. So whatever happens next, things are unlikely to get much better in Mexico, where President Calderon’s drug war has seen 4,000 people die in the last five years.