Mexico's federal police said Friday that the once-fearsome La Familia drug cartel has been "completely dismembered" and has broken down into small groups that commit robberies to pay their members.
The cartel has dominated the western state of Michoacan for several years, making money by trafficking methamphetamines and extorting protection money from businesses there. It has also become known for its bloody ambushes of federal police.
La Familia has been thrown into disarray, however by the recent arrest and deaths of top members, including cartel leader Nazario Moreno, nicknamed "The Craziest One", who was killed in a shootout with police on Dec. 9.
"What are left are little groups that are isolated and completely disorganized," Cardenas Palomino said. "They have been committing bank robberies and robbing businesses to get money. ... This makes them more vulnerable."
"Following the death of Nazario, the Familia Michoacana, as we know it, has been completely dismembered," federal police official Luis Cardenas Palomino told a news conference as he announced the arrest of one of La Familia group's leaders: Francisco Lopez Villanueva, known as "El Bigotes," or "The Mustache."
The leader of the La Familia Michoacana drug gang and four other suspects were apprehended in a joint operation by Federal Police officers, soldiers and marines, Mexico's Public Safety Secretariat said Friday.
Villanueva was arrested Thursday near La Mira - a town in the western state of Michoacan, where the cartel is based - the secretariat said in a statement.
It added that the suspects were surrounded during a "land and air" operation.
The 41-year-old Lopez, "El Bigotes," is accused of heading a drug-smuggling corridor in La Mira controlled by La Familia, led by Jesus Mendez Vargas since another top leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, was killed on Dec. 9 in a police operation.
Lopez reputedly worked from 2006-2008 for the rival Los Zetas gang, smuggling "large amounts of marijuana" into the United States from the northern border states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, the secretariat said.
As a La Familia "plaza chief" for the past two years, the suspect "is allegedly responsible for various crimes and attacks perpetrated in recent months against federal authorities," selling marijuana in La Mira and transporting that drug to the Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas, "where it was later shipped to the states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon," the statement added.
Lopez also is accused of extorting sellers of pirated merchandise and bar owners and of carrying out several kidnappings.
Officials said Lopez confessed to having a group of between 12 and 15 hit men under his command, as well as a network of informants.
Authorities also confiscated a packet of cocaine, three bags of crystal meth, five rifles, two grenades, a 40-caliber grenade launcher, two rifles and two vehicles from the detainees.
The other four suspects are all men.
Michoacan, coveted by drug gangs because of its Pacific coastline, has been wracked by violence attributed mainly to La Familia Michoacana, a criminal gang that adheres to a quasi-religious dogma and is considered the country's largest trafficker of synthetic drugs and a major source of the crystal meth consumed in the United States.
The gang is notorious for its brazen attacks on federal forces that have sought to crack down on its operations.
A letter saying the cartel wants to disband and negotiate a truce with the government was sent last month to media outlets.
The missive said La Familia will "retreat and return to our productive activities if the federal and local government, the police and other authorities promise to take control" of the state of Michoacan firmly and decisively.
The cartel stepped into a void left because authorities have been incapable or unwilling to drive "thieves, rapists, drug traffickers, and kidnappers" out of the state, the letter said.
According to experts, La Familia is one of Mexico's most powerful drug-trafficking organizations, along with the Sinaloa, Tijuana, Gulf, Juarez, Los Zetas and Beltran Leyva mobs.
Those criminal gangs are responsible in large part for violence that has claimed more than 30,000 lives nationwide since President Felipe Calderon militarized the struggle against the cartels shortly after taking office four years ago.
Source: Fox News Latino, The Associated Press