Mexico nabs leader of cult-like La Familia cartel

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.

"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's 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 the 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 when it rolled five severed heads into a Michoacan nightclub, vowing to protect local citizens from rival cartels.

Moreno — the group's founder — 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.

A former La Familia leader, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, is believed to lead the Knights Templar, federal police say.

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.

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Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson and E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.