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Top Mexican Drug Cartel Leader Arrested

Mexican Drug Leader

June 22: Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, alleged leader of Mexican La Familia drug cartel, looks on during his presentation to the press in Mexico City. (AP)

MEXICO CITY -- A cult-like drug cartel that challenged a rival gang by rolling severed heads onto a disco dance floor in western Mexico was so divided and cash-strapped of late that it had sought to form an alliance with its former enemy, police officials said Wednesday.

La Familia gang leader Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas was looking for support from the Zetas drug gang to fight splinter cells within his own organization, said Federal Police anti-narcotics chief Ramon Pequeno.

Mendez Vargas, alias El Chango, or The Monkey, was arrested Tuesday in the central state of Aguascalientes, where he was hiding. He was paraded before reporters in Mexico City on Wednesday. He is also wanted in the U.S. for drug-related crimes, Federal Police commissioner Facundo Rosas said at a news conference but didn't elaborate.

Mendez Vargas worked for the Gulf cartel in the western state of Michoacan before he and other drug traffickers defected to form the rival La Familia cartel. The cartel made its debut when it displayed the severed heads at the nightclub, sparking a bloody battle for control of the state in 2006.

The gang was facing so many financial problems recently that Mendez Vargas couldn't even pay the monthly salaries of some of his gang members, said Rosas, adding that La Familia "has been decisively weakened."

With the death of La Familia founder and leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez in December, Mendez Vargas was the last remaining head of the criminal group, federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire said.

The Mexican government had offered a $2.5 million reward for his capture, alleging that he was responsible for the transfer and sale of cocaine, marijuana, and crystal methamphetamine in Mexico and the U.S.

"He is the alleged mastermind of kidnappings and killings, mainly of members of other criminal organizations," according to the reward statement issued by the Attorney General's Office.

His work in organized crime predated La Familia's origins.

Mendez had been arrested nine years ago in the Michoacan city of Apatzingan on suspicion of killing gang members but was released, according to a news release from the federal Attorney General's Office. The office did not explain why he was released.

At the time, he headed a group of hit men that worked for the Gulf cartel in Michoacan and was protected by his own security team known as the "Twelve Apostles," according to the Attorney General's Office news release.

La Familia founder Moreno was killed in December during two days of shootouts between La Familia and federal police. After his death, La Familia split into warring factions, causing increased bloodshed in western Mexico.

The leader of a violent splinter group, known as the Knights Templar, remains at large.