MEXICO CITY – Federal authorities apprehended the leader of the cult-like, pseudo-Christian La Familia cartel on Tuesday, saying they had dealt a debilitating blow to a major organized crime group that terrorized western Mexico.
Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias El Chango, or "The Monkey," was arrested in the central state of Aguascalientes without confrontation or casualties, said federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire.
A state official who was not authorized to speak on the record said Mendez was taken at a federal police checkpoint, but authorities didn't provide more details.
"With this arrest, what remained of the structure of this criminal organization has been destroyed," Poire told a news conference.
With the death of La Familia founder and leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez in December, Poire said Mendez was "the last remaining head of a criminal group responsible for homicides, kidnappings, extortion, corruption and even cowardly attacks on the authorities and civilian population."
But the leadership of a violent splinter group, known as the Knights Templar, remains at large.
President Felipe Calderon personally lauded the arrest on his Twitter account, calling it a "big blow" to organized crime. The cartel was born in Calderon's home state of Michoacan in 2006, prompting him to deploy thousands of federal police there and warning that La Familia was corrupting local officials, extorting businesses and terrorizing the population.
According to the reward statement issued by the Attorney General's Office, Mendez was "responsible for the transfer and sale of cocaine, marijuana, crystal methamphetamine in various states of Mexico and the United States of America. He is the alleged mastermind of kidnappings and killings, mainly of members of other criminal organizations."
The government had offered a $2.5 million reward for his capture.
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.
Moreno set a code of conduct for its members that prohibited the use of hard drugs or dealing them within Mexican territory, even as they gruesomely decapitated foes and sold cocaine and methamphetamine by the ton.
"They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor," according to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration profile. "La Familia Michoacana also gives money to school and local officials."
Moreno was killed in December during two days of shootouts between his gang and federal police. After his death, the group split into warring factions, causing increased bloodshed in the state in western Mexico.
Mendez was believed to have remained the leader of the La Familia faction, according to federal police, while messages appeared in March that the Knights Templar sought to replace La Familia.
That name alludes to a Christian order of knights founded in 1118 in Jerusalem to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land after the First Crusade.
Former school teacher and La Familia leader Servando "La Tuta" Gomez is believed to lead the Knights Templar, federal police say. Gomez, who has not been arrested, is wanted in the U.S. for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine, according to an October 2009 Justice Department indictment.
The indictment says he also may be behind the murder of 12 Mexican federal law enforcement officers whose bodies were found in July 2009 while he still operated under La Familia.
An increase in firefights 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.
Federal police arrested 36 La Familia members a short time later, seizing more than 70 rifles, 20,000 weapon cartridges, three grenades and 14 handguns in an air and land raid that left two officers injured.
Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas said at the time that Mendez's faction had been substantially weakened.
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.