MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican police captured the suspected leader of the cult-like La Familia (The Family) drug cartel on Tuesday in the latest blow to a gang that was once one of the most notorious in the country.
Federal police captured Jose de Jesus Mendez, known by his nickname "El Chango," or The Monkey, in the central state of Aguascalientes at a highway checkpoint, said a spokesman for the Aguascalientes state attorney general's office, who declined to be named.
"Mendez was pulled over at the checkpoint and is now in police custody," the spokesman said. It was not clear if Mendez's arrest was by chance or due to a coordinated security operation.
Federal police in Mexico City declined to comment.
Until last year, La Familia was one of Mexico's most feared and powerful cartels, but the death of its top boss, Nazario Moreno, known as "The Craziest One," has split the gang into factions. Rivals are now fighting over methamphetamine trafficking and marijuana fields across western Mexico.
With a bounty of $2 million on his head in Mexico and also wanted in the United States, Mendez is believed to have taken over the running of La Familia since Moreno's death along with another suspected kingpin, Servando "The Prof" Gomez.
Moreno's capture is welcome news for President Felipe Calderon, who hails from Michoacan, La Familia's heartland in western Mexico. But the conservative Calderon is facing rising public anger at the horrifying violence that has killed around 40,000 people across Mexico since he launched an army-led crackdown on drug traffickers in December 2006.
Formed in the 1980s, La Familia has vowed to stop sales of the methamphetamine drug "Ice" in Michoacan, saying it is destroying local communities. Instead, it exports all meth production to the United States
Unlike other Mexican cartels, La Familia is run with a pseudo-religious philosophy, preaching Bible scripture mixed with self-help slogans to prevent gang members from abusing drugs and to justify the grisly murders of rivals.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Christopher Wilson)