Mexico Captures Alleged Head Of Cultlike Cartel

Mexican federal police said Wednesday that they had dealt a lethal blow to one of the country's most notorious drug cartels following an operation that nabbed the alleged leader of the cultlike, pseudo-Christian La Familia cartel.

Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, nicknamed El Chango, or "The Monkey," was apprehended Tuesday in the central state of Aguascalientes, officials said. La Familia terrorized western Mexico from its headquarters in Michoacan province, and Mendez is accused of moving tons of cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana to the U.S.

He was caught without a single shot being fired, officials said.

  • Captured June 22, 2011: Jose de Jesus Mendez Varga, aka El Chango, or "The Monkey," is paraded before the media in Mexico City a day after he was seized by Mexican federal police in the central state of Aguascalientes. The alleged leader of the La Familia cartel is accused of moving tons of cocaine, meth and marijuana to the U.S.
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    Captured June 22, 2011: Jose de Jesus Mendez Varga, aka El Chango, or "The Monkey," is paraded before the media in Mexico City a day after he was seized by Mexican federal police in the central state of Aguascalientes. The alleged leader of the La Familia cartel is accused of moving tons of cocaine, meth and marijuana to the U.S.
    Miguel Tovar/AP
  • Captured Feb. 27, 2011:  Sergio Antonio Mora Cortes, aka El Toto, a suspected senior operator in the Los Zetas gang, is captured by Mexican marines in Saltillo, Coahuila. Cortes, pictured Feb. 28 at the Mexican navy headquarters in Mexico City, was wanted for the murder of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and a Nuevo Laredo police chief.
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    Captured Feb. 27, 2011: Sergio Antonio Mora Cortes, aka El Toto, a suspected senior operator in the Los Zetas gang, is captured by Mexican marines in Saltillo, Coahuila. Cortes, pictured Feb. 28 at the Mexican navy headquarters in Mexico City, was wanted for the murder of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and a Nuevo Laredo police chief.
    Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
  • Killed Dec. 9, 2010: Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, the founder and leader of the cultlike La Familia cartel, is slain by federal police after a two-day shootout. Federal police officers stand near a bullet-riddled vehicle a day after the operation in Apatzingan, Mexico.
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    Killed Dec. 9, 2010: Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, the founder and leader of the cultlike La Familia cartel, is slain by federal police after a two-day shootout. Federal police officers stand near a bullet-riddled vehicle a day after the operation in Apatzingan, Mexico.
    AP/Primera Plana
  • Captured Nov. 23, 2010: Carlos Montemayor, aka El Charro, or "The Cowboy," the alleged leader of the Beltran Leyva gang, appears with police officers a day after his arrest in Mexico City.
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    Captured Nov. 23, 2010: Carlos Montemayor, aka El Charro, or "The Cowboy," the alleged leader of the Beltran Leyva gang, appears with police officers a day after his arrest in Mexico City.
    Alexandre Meneghini/AP
  • Killed Nov. 5, 2010: Antonio Ezquiel Cardenas Guillen, aka "Tony Tormento," the highest-profile leader of the Gulf Cartel, is shot dead during a gun battle with Mexican troops in the border city of Matamoros. Mexican troops walk behind an armored pickup truck during the firefight.
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    Killed Nov. 5, 2010: Antonio Ezquiel Cardenas Guillen, aka "Tony Tormento," the highest-profile leader of the Gulf Cartel, is shot dead during a gun battle with Mexican troops in the border city of Matamoros. Mexican troops walk behind an armored pickup truck during the firefight.
  • Captured Aug. 30, 2010: American-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, aka "La Barbie," an alleged leader of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel, is seen a day after he was taken down during a raid in central Mexico. He faces charges of drug trafficking in both Mexico and the U.S. His extradition to the U.S. is under way.
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    Captured Aug. 30, 2010: American-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, aka "La Barbie," an alleged leader of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel, is seen a day after he was taken down during a raid in central Mexico. He faces charges of drug trafficking in both Mexico and the U.S. His extradition to the U.S. is under way.
    Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
  • Killed Dec. 16, 2009: Arturo Beltran Leyva, then-leader of the Beltran Leyva gang, is killed in a shootout with some 200 Mexican marines in the city of Cuernavaca. Mexican troops stand guard the following day inside the apartment where Beltran Leyva and three members of his cartel were slain.
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    Killed Dec. 16, 2009: Arturo Beltran Leyva, then-leader of the Beltran Leyva gang, is killed in a shootout with some 200 Mexican marines in the city of Cuernavaca. Mexican troops stand guard the following day inside the apartment where Beltran Leyva and three members of his cartel were slain.
    Antonio Sierra/AP

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Mexican federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire, speaking at a news conference in the capital, said the arrest had destroyed "what remained of the command structure of this criminal organization."

President Felipe Calderon on his Twitter account trumpeted Mendez's arrest as a "big blow" against organized crime.

La Familia had been in disarray ever since December, when founder and leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez was killed in a bloody two-day shootout with police.

Poire said Mendez represented "the last remaining head of a criminal group responsible for homicides, kidnappings, extortion, corruption and even cowardly attacks on the authorities and civilian population."

NPR's Jason Beaubien, reporting from Mexico City, said that in Michoacan, La Familia was run like a cult and emphasized social programs and the teaching of a Christian-like ideology along with the group's criminal activities.

"They talked about getting people off drugs and banning the local sale of drugs, at the same time their entire focus was on moving drugs and selling tons of cocaine and methamphetamine inside the United States," Beaubien said.

The group used extreme violence — often beheading its rivals — and propaganda to control its territory. La Familia claimed in banners and even newspaper ads that it was "protecting" the people of Michoacan from other criminal organizations.

The Mexican government had offered a $2.5 million reward for Mendez.

U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment on whether Mendez is sought by the U.S. In February 2010, he was listed as a drug trafficker by the Treasury Department, prohibiting Americans from conducting financial transactions with him and other suspected La Familia cartel members.

Mendez's alleged work in organized crime predated La Familia's origins. He was arrested nine years ago in the city of Apatzingan on suspicion of killing gang members but was later released, the federal attorney general's office said Tuesday without specifying why.

Mendez then led a group of hit men that worked for the Gulf cartel before La Familia's birth. He had a security team known as the "Twelve Apostles," according to the federal attorney general.

La Familia first appeared four years ago when it rolled five severed heads into a Michoacan nightclub, vowing to protect local citizens from rival cartels. La Familia was part of the Gulf Cartel but later became an independent drug-trafficking organization, which ignited a rivalry between the two gangs.

La Familia split into warring factions after Moreno's death, but Mendez was believed to have remained the leader of the main faction, according to federal police.

In March, messages began to appear that a faction calling itself the Knights Templar sought to replace La Familia. The offshoot group's name alludes to a Christian order of knights founded in 1118 in Jerusalem to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land after the First Crusade.

An increase in gunfights between factions and clashes with police in Michoacan forced as many as 3,500 people to flee their hamlets in May and seek refuge in churches, schools and recreation centers in larger towns nearby.

Poire told reporters that with Mendez's arrest, 21 of the country's 37 top drug traffickers have been apprehended or killed since 2009.

More than 35,000 people have died in drug violence since, according to government figures. Local media say the number is closer to 40,000.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reported from Mexico City for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press

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