Mexican National Security spokesman Alejandro Poire speaks at a news conference… (Bernardo Montoya / Reuters )
Reporting from Mexico City — A top leader of the notorious La Familia drug-trafficking gang, locked in an especially deadly internal fight in recent months, has been captured by Mexican federal police, authorities announced Tuesday.
Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias "El Chango," one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords, was taken into custody in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes, apparently without a struggle, authorities said.
Mendez led a faction of La Familia, the ruthless and sometimes cult-like network that authorities say specializes in producing and shipping methamphetamine to the United States. La Familia is based in Michoacan, the home state of President Felipe Calderon and a region strategically important for drug trafficking because of its rough terrain and large seaport.
"With this capture, what was left of the command structure of this criminal organization is destroyed," Alejandro Poire, the government's security affairs spokesman, said in a statement to reporters.
Poire described Mendez as La Familia's most important operations chief and blamed him for a long list of crimes, including murder, kidnapping, extortion and grenade attacks on civilians — attacks that the government had previously attributed to another organization, the Zetas. The government had offered a reward of more than $2 million for Mendez's capture.
Eliminating Mendez, whose alias means the Monkey, is a significant blow, analysts said, because he was the brains behind much of the organization's vast trafficking operation as it grew by leaps and bounds in the last six years.
But La Familia has morphed into a number of heavily armed factions that are still active and are moving tons of cocaine and marijuana, along with meth, into U.S. markets, authorities say. Moreover, the capture of Mendez could clear the way for the even more violent Zetas to make further headway in La Familia's territories of Michoacan and Guerrero, both Pacific states with long coastlines.
La Familia began to splinter after the death of its founder and top leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as "El Mas Loco" (the Craziest). He was killed by Mexican security forces in a major offensive in December.
With Moreno gone, Mendez disputed over control of La Familia with Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez. The two split violently this year, with Gomez creating a faction bizarrely named the Knights Templar, after the Christian warriors of the Crusades.
Fighting between the two, as well as with government troops in April and May, displaced several thousand residents in Michoacan as families fled and schools and businesses were forced to shut down.
The bodies of about 50 people have turned up across Michoacan this month alone in what authorities say is a spate of attacks and reprisals. Most of the dead appeared to have been from Mendez's ranks, killed by Gomez's followers. Signs left on 22 of the bodies, found over the weekend, were signed by the Knights Templar.
Facundo Rosas, the federal police general commissioner, said three weeks ago that he believed Mendez's group was substantially weakened after several arrests, shootouts with security forces and desertions to Gomez's faction.
Calderon, in a message on his Twitter account Tuesday, congratulated the federal police for dealing a "big blow" to organized crime with the Mendez capture.
Nearly 40,000 people have been killed since Calderon launched a war on drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006.
Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.