In late 2006, in what were only the first weeks of his administration, Mexico's then-President Felipe Calderón ordered an unparalleled offensive against the country’s drug cartels. When asked to explain his decision, which would later cost —according to some estimates—more than 100,000 lives, Calderon often used an alarming metaphor: “When we first examined the patient, we thought the problem was appendicitis. Instead we found cancer, and it had invaded the whole body.”
The epicenter of that vicious metastasis was Michoacán, Calderon’s home state. A particularly fertile and well-connected land, Michoacán had always been prized territory for the many rival gangs fighting over the drug trade along Mexico’s vibrant Pacific coast. Drug harvesting and trafficking was nothing new for “Michoacanos,” many of whom had turned to the narco-trade after suffering the effects of deforestation and other modern ills, including mass emigration.
By the time Calderon took office, though, something different was happening in Michoacán. A new criminal organization had taken root, and its methods were different from previous cartels. The new gang was not only interested in profit — they insisted they wanted to offer the rest of the population protection from “violence and drugs.” But the cost of that "protection" was complete social submission.
Slowly, the new gang appropriated the role of the state —it collected taxes, established its own police forces and, amazingly, even dared to offer its own brand of spiritual salvation. In some ways, the new cartel was closer to a messianic cult than an organized crime racket; they even read from a specially crafted Bible written by one of its main figures, Nazario Moreno, a man known as “El Más Loco.” The group, fittingly, went by the name “La Familia Michoacana.” And by 2006 it all but owned the entire state.
If Nazario Moreno was the group’s religious zealot, Servando Gómez was its ideological guide and, ultimately, its most visible leader. Known as “La Tuta” (a nickname whose origin is hotly debated) Gómez was a teacher before joining “La Familia.” His suave, professorial delivery served the group well.
Through he represented a terrifying mix of phony piety and brutal extortion, Gómez and his group began to take over municipalities. They approached mayors through intermediaries and offered “support” in exchange for loyalty. Local officials could always opt out, but it wasn't really an option.
“I knew they were going to kill me,” recalled Guillermo Valencia, former mayor of Tepalcatepec, in western Michoacán. A few weeks after being elected, Valencia was “invited” to a meeting in nearby La Ruana. There were other local mayors there, too. “I saw many of them cry. No one is exempt from extortion”, he remembered years later, while living in exile.
Valencia has since returned to Mexico and survived. But not everyone was so lucky. La Tuta’s men were capable of nauseating violence. That was the case of María Santos, a striking 36-year-old mother of three who had the courage to seek the mayor's seat in Tiquicheo, in southern Michoacán. Santos resisted La Familia and suffered greatly for it. In late 2009, she was ambushed by a group of men. She survived but lost her husband. Miraculously, she made it through a second attempt on her life just a few months later. Her injuries shocked Mexico. Finally, in November 2012, La Familia found her without an escort; she was kidnapped, tortured and dumped for all to see. She's survived by three kids.
But Tuta’s influence cannot be explained only through violence and coercion. If La Familia and its offshoot, “The Knights Templar,” were allowed to operate as a parallel state in Michoacán, it was only because both groups have provided —in their own perverse way—a social safety net.
Both groups were “in a sort of crusade,” journalist Julián Andrade, an expert on the drug war, explained to me a couple of days ago. “They took advantage of the lack of the most basic rule of law and offered the people of Michoacán a change: security, even if it came from an improbable source.” And sometimes it worked, affording the gang a network of support. “Ask yourself,” Andrade told me: “How did Tuta manage to avoid capture for so long? You can’t do that without social protection.”
Tuta’s histrionic personality also played a part in creating his legend. In a strategy all but unheard of in the highly secretive world of Mexican drug lords, Tuta got into the habit of producing YouTube videos. He spoke of social justice, Mexico’s moral corruption, the “rehabilitation” of the addicted. Through it all, he hid in plain sight, recording videos in public, under a canopy in a clearly recognizable public square, by the edge of river, next to a cow; in an office surrounded by the Virgin of Guadalupe, an enormous sword, a Mexican flag and dueling pictures of Pancho Villa and, of course, Che Guevara. He took his legendary insolence to extremes when he recorded conversations with the son of a former governor of Michoacán, local government officials, union leaders and even journalists.
After watching most of what Mexican journalists called the “Tutateca," a video library documenting meetings with politicians, local authorities, and other figures, it’s easy to understand why Servando Gómez evaded capture for so long. A master of messianic populism, Tuta intends to convince the viewer that he was far from a vicious criminal. He was not in it for the money; he had a higher calling. He took on the burden. He was both Robin Hood and the head of the household: el jefe de La Familia. The man who was a cancer.
A Mexican journalist and author. He's the main anchor for Univision's KMEX in Los Angeles.