Arrested Mexican drug lord’s story shows how cartels have mutated under government crackdown

MEXICO CITY – The Mexican drug lord nicknamed “The Monkey” started as an hit man for the Gulf cartel, officials say, then turned on his old bosses as a leader of the cult-like La Familia in the western state of Michoacan.

At the end, he was allegedly seeking a new alliance with his mortal foes, as his own group suffered infighting and financial problems.

The story of Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas shows how Mexico’s cartels have mutated under a four-year crackdown on organized crime, an example of the way splinter groups and shifting alliances complicate the government attempt to wipe out the drug groups.

Mendez’s arrest on Tuesday let the government cross another name off its list of 37 most-wanted drug lords. Officials proudly note only 16 remain at large. Yet the death or capture of so many alleged cartel leaders has done nothing to stop Mexico’s drug-fueled bloodbath or the flow of drugs into the United States.

Story continues below advertisement

When officials issued the most-wanted list in 2009, Mexico counted six major cartels. Substantial blows have damaged three of them: the Arellano Felix gang in Tijuana, the Beltran Leyva in central and southern Mexico and now La Familia. New or reorganized groups have arisen in their place, wreaking havoc across greater parts of the country as they scrum for the spoils of crime.

“None of these groups are particularly stable … the central point for them is not loyalty, but business interests, and those shift over time,” said Eric Olson of the Washington-based Mexico Institute. “That’s why a strategy focusing only at top of the organization often creates more violence.”

The rise and fall of Mendez as the alleged leader of the pseudo-religious La Familia is a case in point.

The cartel initially portrayed its members as crusaders protecting communities from the feared Zetas gang. It announced its arrival in 2006 by rolling the heads of five Zetas across the floor of a Michoacan disco.

That incident was one of the violent outbursts that led President Felipe Calderon to sharply increase the use of troops against traffickers as soon as he took office in late 2006, starting with his home state of Michoacan.

Under increasing pressure, La Familia split after its founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, was killed in a two-day shootout with federal police in December. Officials say Mendez took control of one branch of La Familia and began to battle a breakaway group called the Knights Templar.

Story continues below advertisement

Prosecutors say Mendez was facing financial woes so serious he couldn’t pay gang members, and he was seeking help from the Zetas he had long battled.

The Mexican government had offered a $2.5 million reward for Mendez’s capture, alleging that he trafficked cocaine, marijuana and crystal methamphetamine in Mexico and the U.S. He is also wanted in the U.S. for drug-related crimes.

Before La Familia arose, prosecutors say Mendez was operating in Michoacan and neighbouring states as a hit man for the Gulf cartel, battling local gangs to take over distribution of narcotics. He was arrested nine years ago in the city of Apatzingan on suspicion of killing gang members, then let go, according to a profile by the federal Attorney General’s Office.

Mendez later joined with Moreno to oust the Gulf cartel and form their own gang, which became La Familia, according to the profile. It grew to be one of the largest dealers in methamphetamine in Mexico.

From its inception, La Familia fought another breakaway from the Gulf Cartel: the Zetas.

When the increasingly powerful Zetas split with the Gulf Cartel in 2010, rivalry with the new group allegedly led Mendez into renewed ties with the Gulf Cartel. Other former rivals also allied against the Zetas as they branched out to control trafficking of drugs, migrants and other contraband across Mexico and into Guatemala.

Story continues below advertisement

Moreno ran La Familia as a murderous cult, claiming to protect local citizens from criminals and drug dealers. He handed out Bibles and booklets of his own teachings, prohibited his members from using drugs and meted out what he called “divine” justice, dumping the bodies of alleged robbers, kidnappers and rapists.

After Moreno was killed, La Familia broke apart, with some following Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, who is believed to lead the Knights Templar. Battles between the former allies were so fierce in May that 3,500 Michoacan residents fled their homes.

Gomez remains at large.

The battle with the Knights Templar became so costly, that Mendez couldn’t pay his gang members’ monthly salaries of about $675, so he reached out to the Zetas, who promised to send 200 people to help, said Ramon Pequeno, who heads the federal police anti-drug unit.

After members of La Familia shot down a federal police helicopter in May, police raided a meeting in neighbouring Jalisco state and arrested 40 people. That led to information that helped them track Mendez to the central state of Aguascalientes, where he was arrested Tuesday without a shot fired.

The government’s assault on La Familia since 2008 has netted 710 suspects, including 50 in the command structure, Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas said in a press conference Wednesday.

Yet one gang leader after another has risen and fallen over the decades, with successors battling for control of the lucrative trade.