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If you think the drug war in Mexico we've been hearing about isn't a real war, consider these numbers: 11,000 people have been killed in the three years Mexico's government has been fighting the drug cartels. Thousands have been arrested, and scores of politicians have been brought down. In reports today and tomorrow, we're going to look at two groups of drug traffickers: La Familia and Los Zetas. La Familia is one of the newer cartels. It's based in southern Mexico, and it mixes politics, spiritualism and violence in a way never before seen in Mexico. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this story.

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JASON BEAUBIEN: La Familia was born in the rugged, impoverished hills of Michoacan. This southern state stretches from the Pacific up through the Sierra Madre, almost all the way to the capital.

Here, in the port of Lazaro Cardenas, vendors sell pirated movies and CDs at makeshift stalls along the main street. Further inland, methamphetamine labs and marijuana patches are tucked into the densely forested mountains. Michoacan has become a flashpoint in President Felipe Calderon's battle against organized crime.

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: On this day, Mexican authorities are parading Miguel Angel Beraza Villa, known as The Truck, in front of the media. Beraza, who's accused of being one of the top leaders of La Familia, is in handcuffs. A fresh bruise is swelling on his right cheek.

To arrest Beraza, heavily armed federal commandos stormed a church in a small city in central Michoacan in the middle of Mass. Helicopters hovered over the church. Mexican prosecutors say Beraza moved a half a ton of methamphetamines into the United States each month.

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Unlike some of the Mexican cartels that have existed for decades, La Familia is relatively new. It burst into the headlines in 2006 when one of their members threw five severed heads onto a dance floor in Morelia.

Tensions between the Mexican authorities and La Familia escalated this summer when the government arrested dozens of local politicians, accusing them of working for the cartel. Then, in July, cartel gunmen abducted 12 federal police officers and dumped their tortured bodies in a pile by the side of a highway.

La Familia originally claimed to be a local defense force, protecting Michoacan from neighboring drug traffickers. But it's since grown into one of the most extensive criminal enterprises in the country.

Mr. JORGE CHABAT (Security Expert): This cartel is trying to capture the hearts and minds of the population.

BEAUBIEN: Jorge Chabat is a security expert in Mexico City. He says La Familia is unique in that it claims to be working for the good of the local people. The group runs ads in newspapers and leaves messages, particularly at murder scenes, declaring that it's cleaning up Michoacan.

Mr. CHABAT: It combines some self-help techniques with spiritualism and some, apparently, family values and moral values, which is a kind of contradiction because these guys are very violent.

BEAUBIEN: The cartel takes drug addicts, rehabilitates them and turns them into drug dealers.

Mr. CHABAT: The name, La Familia, the Family, suggests that these guys are presenting themselves as some sort of moral order, criticizing the disorder that prevails in Mexican society.

BEAUBIEN: He says they're trying to act like a government, even imposing taxes. And this is part of the reason President Calderon's administration has gone after them so aggressively.

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BEAUBIEN: Michoacan has what every drug-trafficking organization in the world covets: a major transportation corridor linking the supplier of its product directly to its primary market. The port of Lazaro Cardenas is one of the largest on the Pacific Coast, and a rail line operated by Kansas City Southern runs from its modern docks all the way to Laredo, Texas.

But this isn't a normal port town. Tension is in the air here. Federal police patrol the streets in dark blue pickup trucks. The mayor is in prison, accused of working for La Familia. The city's congressman - who just happens to be the governor's brother - is a fugitive from justice.

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BEAUBIEN: The afternoon edition of the newspaper La Noticia de Michoacan is spinning through the presses in a small garage just off the main street. But you won't find investigative articles in this or any of the other local papers about organized crime.

Mr. FRANCISCO RIVERA CRUZ (Editor, La Noticia de Michoacan): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Francisco Rivera Cruz is the editor of La Noticia de Michoacan. He inherited the job last year when his predecessor was gunned down and dumped in a ditch.

Mr. RIVERA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Rivera says they don't investigate issues around crime or security, and they only report information that's released by the police.

The whispered explanation for the editor's murder is that he moved too aggressively to cover a grenade attack on a crowd of Independence Day revelers last year. Authorities pointed fingers at La Familia, but the cartel hung up banners blaming their rivals, the Zetas, for the grenades that killed eight people and injured more than 100 others.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Spanish)

BEAUBIEN: Manuel Gutierrez is a pastor at a Pentecostal church in Lazaro Cardenas. He says life in the city is difficult right now.

Pastor MANUEL GUTIERREZ (Pentecostal Minister): Really, really difficult. I don't think this is the only one city, but maybe is one of the most important cities because of the port. It's a really big door to the country, to Mexico.

BEAUBIEN: People are afraid to go out after dark, he says, and the drug trade hangs like a shadow over the city.

Federal prosecutors say La Familia's influence goes far beyond narcotics: La Familia dominates the sale of pirated DVDs, which are for sale everywhere in Mexico. They move migrants hoping to get into the United States. And like many other criminal groups facing cash-flow problems in the midst of the current drug war, they run kidnapping and extortion rackets.

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: This man sells tamales on the street from a large, stainless steel pot. He says he was held for four days in a house in Lazaro Cardenas. He doesn't want his name disclosed for fear of retaliation.

He says there were about a dozen other people being held in the house, and his captors regularly beat them.

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: You could hear the screaming of all the people, he says, and there were two people who'd been shot dead there.

Eventually, his family came up with the 100,000-peso ransom his captors were demanding. This is about $7,500, a small fortune for a tamale vendor.

He says comerciantes - people selling things on the streets - have to pay rent to the local gangs.

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Vendors and shopkeepers can be forced to pay anywhere from a few to several hundred dollars a month just to stay in business. In this way, La Familia has expanded beyond just a drug cartel. It's seeped into the economic and social fabric of Michoacan.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Lazaro Cardenas.

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