La Familia gang members armed for 'human hunting,' police say
'The Family's presence in Alberta should be of concern to Albertans,' says ALERT spokesman
Four members of the La Familia gang arrested in Edmonton this week were caught with kilograms of drugs, thousands in cash, and guns they planned to use to defend their new foothold in Alberta, police say.
Officers who took down four Mexican cartel members in Edmonton seized two .22 calibre rifles (one with a silencer), a .44 calibre Desert Eagle handgun, a sawed-off shotgun, body armour and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Insp. Darcy Strang said the presence of the handgun and the modified rifle with a silencer were most alarming to police.
“These two weapons ... are not used for bird hunting," he said. "They’re definitely used for human hunting. This is a group that was armed and ready to defend what they had.”
The arrests were made following an investigation by the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT), made up of police units that focus on serious and organized crime, typically involving gangs, drug trafficking and child exploitation.
“The Family’s presence in Alberta should be of concern to Albertans,” Strang said Wednesday. “Their connection to Mexican cartels and MS-13 (also known as the Mara Salvatrucha gang) creates a linkage to violence that is incomprehensible to most.”
According to ALERT, La Familia was trying to take over Alberta’s drug trade and was operating supply lines in Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Drayton Valley, Lloydminster and Red Deer.
“Over the course of the investigation, we learned that the Family had been very aggressive in selling cartel cocaine,” Strang said.
The gang had been actively trying to recruit new members and expand into new territories.
"This hurt them a lot," Strang said of the arrests. "We interrupted them at a very early stage"
Taking down the four primary members in the province was a victory “in the short term," Strang said. But police will have to remain diligent in their efforts to suppress emerging and established crime groups in the province.
“We haven’t shut them down, I don’t think.”
Arrests follow months of investigation
The team began investigating La Familia in August, Strang said. The Alberta president chapter was among the four arrested. He was picked up on Dec. 11 while trying to board a plane at the Edmonton International Airport.
Searches of three Edmonton homes yielded about $600,000 worth of drugs, including:
- 5 kilograms of cocaine
- 2.7 kilograms of MDMA
- 2 kilograms of a buffing agent
- Oxycodone pills
- Cocaine press
- $45,000 in cash proceeds of crime
Expanding into new markets
Victor Manjarrez Jr., the associate director of the national centre for border security and immigration at University of Texas, knows La Familia well after years working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
He said this month’s arrests are likely the tip of the iceberg, as Mexican cartels continue to seek out new markets.
“The Mexican cartels have actually been expanding their sphere of influence now for years, heavily into Europe and North Africa – and there had been a smaller presence in Canada,” he said.
“Think of them as a small business corporation. They're looking for new methods to sell their illegal wares, and once you can do that, it becomes a gateway to Asia.”
Strang said La Familia and other organized crime groups may have been attracted to Alberta because of its booming economy.
“There’s a definite faction of people out there who are involved in organized crime who see Alberta as the right place to start their drug business.”
Strang said the group has “tentacles all over the place,” noting La Familia has contacts in B.C. and possibly Saskatchewan. Last weekend, a group of La Familia members were arrested in B.C.’s lower mainland.
Established and violent gang
The La Familia cartel is based in the northeastern state of Michoacan. Much of its power has recently been usurped in Mexico by one of its splinter factions, the Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios.
Most of its leaders crossed over to the new group, leaving La Familia a shadow of its former self.
The original cartel was known for its bizarre brand of cult-like religious ideology. It began as an anti-drug vigilante group before moving into the drug trade itself, famously signalling its entry into the business in 2006 by throwing five severed heads onto a nightclub floor.
Its fight with the Zetas over territory is what set off the government crackdown against the cartels in 2006.
It was the main supplier of methamphetamine before its charismatic leader, Nazario Moreno González, known as El Mas Loco ("the Craziest One"), was killed by police in December 2010.
Following his death, the group split into two factions, the Knights Templar and a weaker splinter group that retained the Familia name.
ALERT says members of the La Familia chapter in Alberta wear a three-piece patch similar to that worn by outlaw motorcycle groups and followed a similar rank structure and club rules.