MEXICO CITY — The capture this week of Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, the alleged leader of the La Familia crime syndicate, offered a lesson on how short-lived and fickle alliances in Mexico's criminal underworld can be.
Battered by onetime underlings seeking control of his violent criminal syndicate, Mendez Vargas, whose known as "El Chango," or The Monkey, had in recent weeks fled his home turf of Michoacan state and sought help from leaders of Los Zetas, a rival cartel, officials said Wednesday.
"The final accord reached after the meeting was that Los Zetas would support him with 200 elements (fighters)," Federal Police anti-drug chief Ramon Eduardo Pequeno told reporters.
The accord marked a radical change. La Familia and Los Zetas had been at war for more than two years. Mendez Vargas had even sent La Familia gunmen to northeastern Mexico last year in a joint operation with the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels to exterminate Los Zetas.
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But in Mexico, the bad blood that sparks such feuds can be forgotten as drug lords grow weaker or stronger and opportunities arise to muscle into new turf.
Federal police presented Mendez Vargas to the press early Wednesday after his transfer from Aguascalientes, the central Mexican city near where he was captured. The burly alleged capo wore a red short-sleeved shirt partially covered by what appeared to be a black bulletproof vest.
Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas said Mendez Vargas' arrest marked the virtual destruction of the leadership of La Familia Michoacana.
The senior U.S. diplomat in Mexico, John Feeley, congratulated the police on the "important step" taken with the arrest.
"As Mexico's federal police and armed forces continue to improve their tactical capabilities to investigate and take down organized criminal networks and their leaders, impunity shrinks and Mexico's people become more secure," Feeley said.
A watershed moment for Mendez Vargas came on Dec. 9, when federal police shot and killed Nazario Moreno, the messianic ideological co-leader of La Familia who wrote bizarre cult-like pamphlets under the pseudonym El Chayo, "The Craziest One."
With Moreno's passing, Mendez Vargas tried to seize undisputed leadership of La Familia but two key underlings resisted, Pequeno said.
By March, those two men, Servando Gomez Martinez ("La Tuta") and Dionicio Loya Plancarte ("La Chiva"), had broken off to form their own faction, which they named Knights Templar. By May, Knights Templar followers had hung banners around Michoacan state declaring Mendez Vargas a traitor and unleashing gun battles with his crime soldiers.
By May 27, the heat on Mendez Vargas was so great that when he convoked his closest operatives to a meeting, they gathered in Las Lomas, a village in neighboring Jalisco state, Pequeno said. As the meeting broke up, federal police swooped in and arrested 40 people, including five mid-level chiefs, he added.
The meeting with the Zetas took place sometime after that. Then Mendez Vargas wended his way north to Aguascalientes. Police were vague about the circumstances of his arrest, except to deny that he'd turned himself in.
Rosas, the Federal police commissioner, said Mendez Vargas was captured in a "surgical" operation without a shot being fired. Whether someone offered a tip to his whereabouts — Knights Templar, Zetas or random but savvy civilians — is not publicly known.
If the alleged capo did reach out to Los Zetas, as police say, he would have been relying on connections from early in his career.
At the beginning of the last decade, Mendez Vargas worked with Michoacan-based crime groups dispatching loads of marijuana from Reynosa along the Texas border, Pequeno said. His bosses made an alliance with the powerful Gulf Cartel in 2002, an alliance that remained strong for six years, at the end of which La Familia was formed and gained strength.
In 2008, La Familia broke with the Gulf Cartel over control of the Michoacan port of Lazaro Cardenas, he said. It was also around then that the Gulf Cartel went through its own split: Gulf Cartel enforcers broke away and formed their own group, which they called Los Zetas.
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