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Mexican authorities: Top cartel leader captured

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Mexico captures top drug cartel leader
  • NEW: Mexico had offered a 30 million peso reward for information leading to his capture
  • Authorities say Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas helped expand La Familia's reach
  • His capture is an "overwhelming blow," Mexico's national security spokesman says
  • Mexican President Felipe Calderon praises police for capturing Mendez

Mexico City (CNN) -- Mexican authorities captured the top leader of one of the country's most violent drug cartels Tuesday, officials said.

Federal police captured Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, also known as "The Monkey," in an operation in the state of Aguascalientes, Mexico's national security spokesman said.

Spokesman Alejandro Poire called Mendez the "principal head" of La Familia Michoacana cartel and said his capture was the federal government's "most overwhelming blow" to the group.

"This capture destroys what remained of the leadership structure of this criminal organization," he said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon praised the capture on his official Twitter account: "A large blow by federal police to organized crime. One of the most wanted criminals was captured. Congratulations."

Mexico's Attorney General's Office had offered a 30 million peso ($2.5 million) reward for information leading to his arrest, saying Mendez was the mastermind behind drug trafficking, kidnappings and killings.

Tuesday's operation marks the fall of 21 of the suspects on Mexico's "most dangerous criminals" list, Poire said.

Are drug cartel members terrorists?
  • Mexico
  • Familia Michoacana
  • Crime

No deaths or violent clashes have been reported from Tuesday's operation, he said.

La Familia began operating in the state of Michoacan more than a decade ago, the country's national security spokesman told reporters last year. But it grabbed national attention in 2006 after reportedly hurling five decapitated heads of rival gang members onto a dance floor.

Mexico's public safety secretary has said Mendez was responsible for passing on the organization's values to new generations of drug runners in the cartel. Along with other leaders, he helped expand La Familia's reach to other Mexican states.

Extorting residents and charging fees to drug traffickers operating in Michoacan allowed the cartel to push away competitors, Mexican authorities said.

The cartel is known for its violence and the rules it imposes on its members.

Last year Mexican federal police gunned down Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, whom they described as the group's "spiritual leader."

Mexican authorities say the ideology advocated by the cartel's leaders includes banning members from consuming drugs and alcohol with the goal of keeping a tighter emotional grip on subordinates.

"The indoctrination of this group consists of courses in self-improvement, values, ethical principles and morals in keeping with the purposes of the criminal organization. With the objective that their subordinates separate themselves from drugs and alcohol and they unite with their families," Mexico's public safety ministry said in a 2009 statement after capturing the alleged head of La Familia's training operations.

La Familia's approach shows a "strong religious background," the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2009 statement.

"It purportedly originated to protect locals from the violence of drug cartels. Now, La Familia Michoacana uses drug proceeds to fuel their agenda that encompasses a Robin Hood-type mentality -- steal from the rich and give to the poor," the statement said. "They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor. La Familia Michoacana also gives money to schools and local officials."

Intelligence reports indicate that the cartel is "heavily involved in the production of methamphetamine" for export to the United States, according to the DEA, in addition to the distribution of cocaine and marijuana. and CNN's Rene Hernandez, Maria Elisa Callejas and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.