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La Familia drug cartel defeated, says Mexico

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Miguel Tovar/AP

(Read caption) Federal police escort one of nearly 50 suspects of two major drug cartels to a news media presentation in Mexico City on Saturday, May 28. The suspects presented include 36 members of the La Familia cartel and 10 members of the Zetas drug gang. Mexico's security spokesman said on Tuesday, June 21, that federal police have caught the alleged leader of the La Familia cartel, Jose de Jesus Mendez (not pictured).

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Mexican President Felipe Calderón can declare a decisive victory in his country's brutal war on drugs.

Federal authorities have arrested the leader of La Familia, the drug trafficking organization that espouses religious ideals, but gained worldwide notoriety when it tossed five human heads onto a dance floor in Michoacán state four years ago. Since then, La Familia has made money and wielded influence through not just drug running but kidnapping, extortion, intimidation, and murder.

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Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, also known as El Chango, or “The Monkey,” was arrested in the state of Aguascalientes, the government announced Tuesday.

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“With this arrest, what remained of the structure of this criminal organization has been destroyed," security spokesman Alejandro Poire said at a news conference.

His arrest follows the death of the group’s founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, in December.

George Grayson, a professor at William & Mary and author of “Mexico: Narco- Violence and a Failed State,” says that the arrest effectively decapitates the organization. But with alliances that La Familia made with other groups, including the Sinaloa cartel, against the Zetas group, many secondary leaders could simply get absorbed into the Sinaloa group. “The Sinaloa cartel will spread into Michoacan,” he says.

It remains to be seen what the arrest means for Michoacán.

For residents like a hotel owner I once met, who says he was regularly forced to hand over “protection money” to La Familia gangsters who would barge into his hotel, a disintegration of the group would surely be welcome.

Others are more ambivalent about La Familia. Even though the violence they perpetrated was not necessarily condoned, the group has supported communities with public works like street light or church repair, giving them a certain amount of credibility, especially in rural Michoacán.

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And this does not mean peace. For starters, the group had already begun to splinter, like so many other groups who face a vacuum at the top ranks. And Professor Grayson says that the Zetas are likely “rejoicing” at the possibility of making greater inroads into the state, which usually means more fighting as various groups vie for control.