The aggressive action is aimed at helping Mexican officials dismantle a growing and increasingly violent group of six criminal cartels.
La Familia Michoacana was organized in the 1980s as a marijuana production and distribution organization, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The group reportedly served as a vigilante force to protect the local population from street crime and police corruption.
By 2006, La Familia emerged as one of the top five drug cartels in Mexico.
The group is lead by an executive council, and members share common and strong religious beliefs. Members are forbidden from using illegal narcotics themselves. According to the DEA, La Familia portrays itself as a kind of Mexican Robin Hood, taking from the rich (North Americans) and giving to the poor.
"They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor," the DEA report says. Local schools and officials also benefit, the report says.
But if law enforcement gets too close, La Familia reacts with extreme violence. When Mexican authorities arrested several key members of La Familia in June and July, the organization retaliated by kidnapping, torturing, and murdering 12 Mexican police officers.
In response, Mexico sent 5,500 soldiers to Michoacan.
"We are fighting an organization whose brutal violence is driven by so-called divine justice," said Michele Leonhart, acting DEA administrator. "La Familia's narco-banner declared that they don't kill for money and they don't kill innocent people. However, their delivery of that message was accompanied by five severed heads rolled onto a dance floor in Uruapan, Mexico," Ms. Leonhart said.