PATZCUARO, MEXICO — There are few places in Mexico that better illustrate the way traffickers have corrupted the political system from its very foundation than Michoacan, the home state of President Felipe Calderon.
A relatively new and particularly violent group, La Familia Michoacana, is undermining the electoral system and day-to-day governance of this south-central state, pushing an agenda that goes beyond the usual money-only interests of drug cartels.
Whether by intimidation, purchase or direct order, drug gangs can sometimes dictate who is a candidate and who is not, and put some of their own people in races -- a perversion, critics say, of democracy itself.
Just last week it became clear how deeply embedded La Familia is. Federal authorities detained 10 mayors and 20 other local officials as part of a drug investigation, saying the organized-crime group has contaminated city halls across the state. The roundup comes at the height of the electoral season, as Michoacan and the rest of Mexico approach local and national contests July 5.
Dozens of mayors, city hall officials and politicians have been killed or abducted in Michoacan as La Familia has extended its control in the last couple of years.
When congressional candidate Gustavo Bucio Rodriguez was slain at his gasoline station last month, authorities went out of their way to convince political leaders that he was the victim of common crime, showing them a surveillance tape of the killing by a lone gunman.
A few days earlier, the message was unmistakable. Nicolas Leon, a two-time mayor of Lazaro Cardenas, site of Michoacan's huge port, was tortured and shot to death. Left on his body was a message signed "FM" (Familia Michoacana) warning that supporters of the Zetas, the enforcement arm of a rival trafficking group, would meet the same fate.
Unlike some drug syndicates, La Familia goes beyond the production and transport of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine and seeks political and social standing. It has created a cult-like mystique and developed pseudo-evangelical recruitment techniques that experts and law enforcement authorities say are unique in Mexico.
No party has been spared its influence or interference, politicians of all stripes said in a series of interviews conducted before the arrests of the mayors.
"It is a way to win power with fear, where the authorities either don't have the capability to fight it, or have the capability but not the inclination," said German Tena, president of the Michoacan branch of the country's ruling National Action Party.
"There are mayors and politicians who 'let things happen,' and there are some who have sold their soul to the devil," said a high-ranking Michoacan state official who agreed to discuss the sensitive topic of corruption in exchange for anonymity.
Generally, though, traffickers' political influence in Michoacan has less to do with winning office and more with controlling officeholders, to create a buffer of protection that allows their business to proceed unimpeded, said a security advisor to Calderon.
Several political leaders said they tell candidates to keep a low profile and counsel supporters not to be too public about their endorsements. And they rarely publicize the illegalities they see.
"If we know or hear that a candidate is mixed up with narcos, we are not going to denounce it," said Fabiola Alanis, who heads the Democratic Revolution Party in Michoacan. "It is not my job. It would put my candidates in danger. There is nothing to guarantee that they would wake up alive."
The Obama administration recently added La Familia to its "kingpin" list, a designation that makes it easier for U.S. authorities to go after its assets, including any money in U.S.-owned banks.
"La Familia is absolutely a priority," a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. With its swift rise to the short list of dangerous cartels, La Familia is "a modern success story in Mexican narcotics trafficking," the official added.
And with similar speed, La Familia has established footholds in the United States. The organization has drug-running operations in 20 to 30 cities and towns across the country, including Los Angeles, the official said.
For decades, Michoacan has been popular with traffickers, who were attracted to its fertile soil, abundant water, the rugged hillsides that provide cover and the Pacific port that eases transport. Especially in the rough, sparsely populated southern tier of the state known as the Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), a few gangs profited from vast marijuana plantations and, later, dozens of methamphetamine labs.