Although the FBI claimed to have arrested nearly 2,000 suspected members of the Familia Michoacana, official praise for the crackdown ignores the criminal group's weakened standing in Mexico.
Preparations for Project Delirium began more than 20 months ago, and the operation is reportedly ongoing. As news agency AFP reported, authorities have arrested approximately 1,985 individuals in the United States so far, and have seized more than 12 tons of drugs and $62 million in cash. According to administrator Michele M. Leonhart of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), “Project Delirium is the second successful, strategic, and surgical strike to disrupt and destroy one of the most violent Mexican cartels, La Familia.” The first such strike against Familia members occurred in October 2009, when federal officials announced the arrest of more than 300 people in raids across the country during “Project Coronado.”
The latest operation was carried out by more than 3,000 federal, state and local police throughout the U.S., and is being hailed by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole as a major disruption of the cartel’s operations. "The arrests and seizures we are announcing today have stripped La Familia of its manpower, its deadly product and its profit, and helped make communities large and small safer," Cole said in a prepared statement issued by the Department of Justice.
However, the official rhetoric surrounding Project Delirium does not take into account the Familia’s already diminished status. After the December 2010 death of founder and ideological leader Nazario Moreno, alias "El Chayo," the cartel announced their intention to officially disband in January. Since then, the Familia has suffered a number of debilitating blows, including the June 21 arrest of one of its top lieutenants, Jose Jesus Mendez Vargas. Ultimately the group is simply not the criminal enterprise that it was at its peak in mid 2009, when the Mexican attorney general declared them the most dangerous drug trafficking organization in the country.
Although Servando Gomez Martinez, alias “La Tuta,” has attempted to revive the organization with the creation of the similarly Christian-themed Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), the splinter faction has so far proved unable to mobilize the massive support base that the Familia enjoyed, and is facing opposition from the Familia remnants who object to the Caballeros’ alliance with the Zetas. Currently, the continued operation of the Caballeros appears to be in question. Last week the Mexican military deployed some 1,800 troops to Michoacan, in an effort to crack down on insecurity in the state and capture Gomez Martinez.
Additionally, its not clear how far the suspects were really members of the Familia. Much of the Familia’s revenue comes from the production and trafficking of methamphetamine, so it is likely that at least some of those arrested in Project Delerium were involved in the process of transporting this drug into the U.S. Beyond that, however, little is known. As InSight Crime has pointed out, U.S. authorities have exaggerated the importance of drug sweeps in the past, a phenomenon which is difficult to control for because officials do not release the names or nationalities of those arrested. Perhaps the most notable such incident occurred in 2009’s “Operation Xcellerator,” which American authorities hailed as a “crushing blow” to the Sinaloa Cartel, despite the fact that many of those arrested had not even heard of the criminal organization.
So while Project Delirium represents an additional short term victory against the Familia’s distribution networks in the U.S., it is worth noting that the group is already on the rocks. The U.S. might do better to focus on other, more dynamic crime syndicates like the Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas, both of which have been deepening their trans-border smuggling operations for years and may represent a more serious threat.