Mexican police capture top La Familia drug suspect

MEXICO CITY — Federal police on Tuesday captured one of Mexico's most-wanted suspected drug lords, an alleged leader of the Michoacan crime family, which has tentacles deep into the United States.

The federal police said that Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, widely known by the nickname "El Chango," was captured in Aguascalientes, in central Mexico.

"Great blow by the federal police to organized crime," President Felipe Calderon said in a Twitter posting. "One of the most hunted criminals was captured. Congratulations."

Details were sparse of what led police to Mendez Vargas, a burly 37-year-old with a bounty of $2.55 million on his head.

Calderon's national security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, said the capture "destroys what was left of the leadership of this criminal organization."

The crime family, known in Spanish as La Familia Michoacana, emerged three years ago and made brutality a hallmark. It cornered much of the market for methamphetamine, creating "super labs" that effectively undercut many "mom and pop" meth labs in the United States.

"It's their commodity," said a U.S. law enforcement official based in Mexico, speaking anonymously because he wasn't authorized to comment.

Relying on natives of the Mexican state of Michoacan who'd migrated to the United States, the crime family built strong centers of operation in California and Texas, and had distribution routes into Georgia, Illinois, the Carolinas, Washington, D.C., and Florida, U.S. counter-drug officials said.

Other crime groups have adopted many of the methods La Familia began in its home state of Michoacan, along the Pacific Coast: beheading foes or hanging their tortured, decapitated bodies from bridges; unfurling public banners as a method of public relations; and spreading into other criminal activities, such as extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking and contraband sales of pirated goods.

Mendez Vargas is alleged to be a co-leader of the group, along with Nazario Moreno, an ideological leader who cast himself as a Christlike figure and was given to homey aphorisms about how to lead a proper life.

Authorities said Moreno was killed Dec. 9 in a shootout in Michoacan, but his body has never been displayed publicly.

Mendez Vargas' capture provided a significant boost to Calderon's government, which faces wavering popular support over its policy of using the army, marines and federal police to crack down on crime gangs.

The lack of public security — some 40,000 Mexicans have died since Calderon came to office in late 2006 — is a major issue in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. A nascent civic movement has called on Calderon to abandon his public security strategy and pull soldiers back into their barracks.

Poire said Calderon had instructed him to tell the nation that he'd stand by his strategy.

"The federal government will continue advancing in frontal combat against the criminals. We are convinced that it is the authentic and just road to achieve the tranquillity and security longed for by everyone," Poire said.


U.S. Treasury Department's La Familia organizational chart


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