HomeNews3 Takeaways From the Return of the Familia Michoacana

3 Takeaways From the Return of the Familia Michoacana


The Familia Michoacana, a formerly powerful Mexican drug trafficking cartel whose influence waned drastically some five years ago, appears to be back.

At the start of December, a video of around 40 gun-toting men declaring that they were members of the Familia Michoacana and that they would “clean up” Milpa Alta, a vast and largely rural borough in southern Mexico City, put the capital’s authorities on high alert. The Familia Michoacana, at its height, was the most powerful criminal group in the southern state of Michoacán and was heavily involved in the production of methamphetamine. However, from 2011 onwards, the group began to fracture with several offshoots laying claim to the name.

But this latest video followed a slew of violent events that showed the cartel may be returning to power.

SEE ALSO: Deadly Ambush of 13 Police Meets Little Government Response in Mexico

Among them was the March 2021 slaughter of 13 police officers in Coatepec Harinas, in the south of the State of Mexico, a horseshoe-shaped state surrounding Mexico City. More recently, the cartel massacred seven people in Coyuca de Catalán, Guerrero. One victim was just eleven years old.

The group, which also appears to have a presence in the states of Hidalgo and Morelos, is a revitalized force in its native Michoacán, a state that has been torn apart by cartel violence over the last decade. Authorities are worried: Documents from Mexico’s Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional - SEDENA), made public in the recent Guacamaya hack, show that Mexican authorities have been tracking the Familia Michoacana since 2020 at least.

Despite these reports, the nature of the cartel and the extent of its power remain difficult to discern. Here, InSight Crime attempts to untangle the situation. 

What’s in a Name?

Among the many questions brought about by the cartel’s reappearance is its label.

On November 17, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Johnny Hurtado Olascoaga, alias “El Pez,” and his brother, Jose Alfredo Hurtado Olascoaga, alias “La Fresa.” OFAC claimed that the brothers were “co-leaders” of the criminal group it named “La Nueva Familia Michoacana” (The New Michoacan Family).

This name had been reported before by the media. In May 2022, Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper stated that the Nueva Familia Michoacana was the third-largest cartel in the country. Investigative magazine Proceso named both La Familia Michoacana and La Nueva Familia Michoacana in a report published in January 2021. Numerous other reports are easy to find.

The name was in use at one point, yet whether the name remains applicable is up for debate. According to on-the-ground investigations carried out by InSight Crime in Michoacán, local people do not use the “La Nueva” moniker. In fact, the “La Nueva Familia Michoacana” name no longer represents any group, research by InSight Crime suggests.

An explanation of the confusion requires a brief history lesson. According to Carlos Arrieta, an investigative journalist based in Michoacán, the Nueva Familia Michoacana was the name given to a criminal bloc that formed around 2014. Those involved were the remnants of the Familia Michoacana -- which had effectively collapsed following the arrest of former leader Carlos Rosales Mendoza -- and the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) -- a former rival that split away from the Familia Michoacana and whose emergence played a major part in its downfall -- as well as a few smaller groups. The bloc's intention was to fight the advance of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) into Michoacán.

After Rosales Mendoza was released from prison in 2014, a meeting of capos (cartel bosses) was held in which the bloc’s alliance was to be formalized. At the meeting, however, Rosales Mendoza was murdered, likely by Knights Templar. The Nueva Familia Michoacana effectively ended there, but the bloc that remained would go on to become the basis of the Cárteles Unidos (CU), Arrieta said. 

In the meantime, the Olascoaga brothers have continued to operate around Michoacán and rose to be among the cartel's most powerful leaders. But they were not alone. Other leaders emerged, and in-fighting began following the brothers’ negotiation of a non-aggression pact with CJNG representatives local to Michoacán, said Arrieta.

The Correa, a group that reportedly massacred 20 people in an attack against the CJNG at an underground cockfight in Zinapécuaro, east of Michoacan, in March, acts as the armed wing of the Familia Michoacana in Michoacán, Arrieta explained. Newspaper La Silla Roja reported that the Correa is suspected of killing Eduardo Hernández Vera, alias “Lalo Mantecas,” the erstwhile leader of the Nueva Familia in parts of Michoacán, the State of Mexico, and Guerrero. According to El Universal, Mexican intelligence authorities believe that the murder was ordered by Johnny Hurtado Olascoaga. Arrieta, meanwhile, claimed otherwise. The Olascoaga brothers carried out the hit themselves, he told InSight Crime.  

For all intents and purposes, the cartel’s name remains La Familia Michoacana. And the Olascoaga brothers are in ascendence.

Methamphetamine, Not Fentanyl, Is the Cartel’s Primary Wheelhouse

Authorities in the United States are rightly focused on reducing the inflow of the highly dangerous synthetic drug, fentanyl, from Mexico. Yet recent actions against the Familia Michoacana suggest the cartel’s expertise with methamphetamine is being looked over.

OFAC sanctioned the Olascoaga brothers -- who they consider co-leaders of “La Nueva Familia Michocana” -- for their role in “distributing ‘rainbow fentanyl,’ which is spreading throughout the United States.” The multicolored rainbow fentanyl “is made to attract children and young users,” OFAC claimed.

But as InSight Crime previously reported, not all of this is true. The dominant players within Mexico’s fentanyl economy are the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, by far the largest criminal groups in the country. The majority of fentanyl production in the country takes place in clandestine drug labs in the northern state of Sinaloa, the Sinaloa Cartel’s home turf and stronghold. Meanwhile, the suggestion that fentanyl is colored to attract a younger consumer is a “total falsehood,” according to Mike Vigil, the former chief of the DEA's international operations. “It’s a form of branding,” Vigil told InSight Crime.

The Familia Michoacana is involved in the distribution of fentanyl but not its production, explained Carlos Arrieta. Its ability to move the drug is severely limited as it has “no presence” on the US-Mexico border. To move fentanyl north, the cartel has to rely on alliances with other criminal organizations, he explained.

Instead, the Familia Michoacana “is principally focused on the production of cristal [methamphetamine],” Arrieta said. 

SEE ALSO: Methamphetamine Production in Mexico Is Toxic for the Environment

Though not as deadly as fentanyl, methamphetamine is extremely destructive. Today, cartels produce methamphetamine with chemical shortcuts, in the form of pre-precursors, which allows them to avoid heavy restrictions on methamphetamine and fentanyl’s traditional precursor chemicals. The resultant phenyl-2-propanone, or “P2P,” methamphetamine, is “more dangerous, and users have an increased likelihood of developing severe mental illness,” according to US addiction charity, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

According to InSight Crime research, the Familia Michoacana controls the port of Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacán, Mexico’s largest seaport. Here, the cartel is able to access the pre-precursors it requires for methamphetamine production.

Like fentanyl, inflows of meth into the United States are rising fast. Seizures of the drug doubled between FY 2018 and FY 2020, from less than 40 metric tons to over 80 metric tons, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported.

The Familia Michoacana has long been involved in methamphetamine production and distribution and has a wealth of experience to draw on. During its violent emergence as a force, the Zetas, a former cartel heavyweight renowned for its extreme brutality, claimed La Familia Michoacana had been “driven crazy by ice (methamphetamine)."

The Familia Michoacana's Future

The future of the Familia Michoacana remains unclear. Yet the cartel’s recent decisive actions suggest it will continue to revitalize and could grow in power at a regional level.

The control of Lázaro Cárdenas seaport will be critical to the cartel’s future. While it is involved in multiple criminal economies, including kidnapping, illegal mining, and extortion, methamphetamine trafficking remains essential. The cartel's fentanyl processing and trafficking abilities remain doubtful, but access to precursor and pre-precursor chemicals illicitly smuggled into Lázaro Cárdenas from Asia offers the possibility of expansion.

It isn’t known how large the cartel truly is. According to Mike Vigil, the Familia Michoacana has the potential to be among Mexico’s most powerful cartels, though it operates very differently from the CJNG. 

“They do not want to move rapidly and expand as quickly as possible,” said Vigil. “They move more slowly and consolidate power as they grow.”

Arrieta, meanwhile, is unsure of the reports linking the Familia Michoacana to regions outside some towns in Michoacán and Guerrero, larger areas in the State of Mexico, and parts of Mexico City. 

“The cartel is not close to governing the same criminal territory it once did,” said Arrieta. “It’s very reduced in power [compared to its other points in its history],” he said. 

And in Michoacán, its stronghold, the cartel has a fight on its hands. Regardless of non-aggression pacts, the CJNG has been battling fiercely for control over swathes of Michoacán for several years

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