MEXICO CITY – A letter purportedly signed by a major Mexican drug cartel offers to dissolve the gang if the government promises to protect citizens in the western state where it is based, authorities said Wednesday.
Prosecutors said they couldn't immediately verify the letter's authenticity — or the offer's sincerity — but stressed the federal government does not negotiate with drug cartels.
The one-page letter allegedly signed by "La Familia Michoacana" drug cartel was dropped in the streets of some mountain towns in the western state of Michoacan on Tuesday, according to the Michoacan bureau of the federal Attorney General's Office. It also showed up as a banner above an overpass and was sent as an e-mail to reporters.
The missive claims La Familia wants to protect Michoacan and its residents and says the group will disband if federal police promise to act honestly and fight to the death to defend the state.
"We have decided to retreat and return to our daily productive activities if the federal and local authorities ... promise to take control of the state with force and decision," read the letter, dated November 2010. "If the government accepts this public commitment and lives up to it, La Familia Michoacana will dissolve."
Federal officials, however, say the cartel itself has victimized Michoacan with kidnappings, extortion, hundreds of murders, decapitations and drug trafficking. Last year, they say, the gang unleashed a spasm of violence in which at least 18 police officers were killed. Last week, in response to the arrest of two members, the gang set ablaze trucks to block entries to the state capital and sprayed a shopping mall with automatic-weapons fire, the state attorney general's office said.
The letter allegedly written by La Familia says the gang's decision to possibly dissolve was motivated by alleged abuses against civilians by authorities conducting warrantless searches and arrests to combat the cartel.
An employee of the Attorney General's Office in Michoacan said authorities were investigating the letter's origin but could not immediately confirm its authenticity. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name.
If the letter is to be believed, experts say the cartel could be willing to close up shop because it has simply run its course. Gary Hale, who retired this year as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and founded the Grupo Savant consulting firm, said they could be trying to find a way out so they could make money by less violent means.
Jorge Chabat, an expert on drug trafficking of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), said they could also be suffering money problems — and are being squeezed out.
"This is a way to negotiate out of a business they're stuck in, with no greater cost to them," he said.
He said it could be a sign that they are being pressured in many ways, and want to find a way out, and may also be using the public to pressure the government into an agreement.
Ricardo Najera, spokesman for the federal Attorney General's Office, said that "regardless of whether the message is authentic or not, the federal government does not make deals or negotiate with drug cartels."
La Familia appears to have deep local roots and an extensive network of civilian collaborators and sympathizers.
It also has distinguished itself by occasionally making public pronouncements, and has issued a set of rules for cartel members that proclaim family values and prohibit consuming — but not trafficking — hard drugs.
The cartel also has sought to convince the public that it is defending Michoacan — where President Felipe Calderon was born — against other drug groups.
The letter said La Familia was formed in 2005 "by men and women from Michoacan ready to give their lives to defend their state ... against external gangs that, through terror and violence, have attempted to take over not only our state, but the whole country."
Meanwhile, dozens of residents of a small border town not far from where an American tourist was shot and killed have fled drug violence and were seeking refuge in nearby Ciudad Miguel Aleman.
Miguel Aleman Mayor Servando Lopez said he has welcomed the families, who were staying at a Lion's Club in the town. Some women wept with fear and anxiety, and the group prayed in a large circle. It wasn't clear how long they would stay. Their city, Mier, in Tamaulipas, looked like a ghost town Wednesday afternoon — streets empty, businesses closed and no sound of any people.
Also along the border, federal authorities in the U.S. seized more than $2 million in undeclared cash at the Nogales port of entry in two separate stops.