MEXICO CITY — One of the last major leaders of the pseudo-religious La Familia drug gang has been captured, Mexican officials said Wednesday, an arrest that has provided insights into the final days of one of the country's most bizarre criminal cartels.
Martin Rosales Magana had been on the run since a breakaway gang threatened to kill relatives of those who still sympathized with La Familia, said federal police anti-drug chief Ramon Pequeno. He allegedly took refuge in a state bordering La Familia's stronghold of Michoacan and plotted an alliance with his group's old enemies, the Zetas.
At one point, Rosales Magana plotted to lead 200 Zetas and La Familia gunmen in an assault on Apatzingan, a city in western Mexico now dominated by the equally cult-like Knights Templar cartel that broke away from his group, Pequeno said. The plan was to generate outrage at violence and trigger a crackdown on the rival gang.
Rosales Magana and three other men were arrested Tuesday in the neighboring State of Mexico.
The Knights Templar split from La Familia in March, and it quickly used threats and armed force to displace La Familia in Michoacan. The groups both said they were founded to fend off the hyper-violent Zetas, and both employ pseudo-religious rhetoric depicting themselves as defenders of the public against extortionists and kidnappers.
Both, however, are drug-trafficking organizations and demand protection payments from business owners and farmers. La Familia had claimed it allowed its members to traffic, but not consume, drugs. But in the end, its members did the unthinkable: they turned to their old foes, the Zetas, widely feared for their bloody, military style of controlling turf.
Following the arrest in June of La Familia boss Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias "El Chango," or "The Monkey," Pequeno said, Rosales Magana's associates met with the Zetas in Zacatecas, a state to the north of Michoacan, to ask for help in fighting the Knights Templar.
"They met with the Zetas to ask for operational assistance, weapons and salaries (for gunmen) and expense money, in order to recoup important cities held by the Knights Templar," Pequeno told a news conference.
Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas said Rosales Magana "was trying to regroup the isolated cells that were still operating," but said the alliance with Zetas didn't work. The La Familia traffickers no longer had much access to the precursor chemicals used to make methamphetamine, one of their main source of income.
Rosales Magana and his associates spent their final days in a rural area near the border of their home state, hunted. The Knights Templar strung up banners in towns throughout Michoacan offering rewards for anyone who handed them over.
Rosas said "if there is any structure that is weakened at this point, it is La Familia ... We are certain that shortly, it will be totally dismembered," adding that police are now turning their attention to taking down the Knights Templar, who style themselves after the crusader-era monastic military order.
The factors that led to the cartel's downfall – arrests, infighting and pressure from rival gangs – mirror those that led to the downfall of two other gangs the government has largely dismantled: the Arellano Felix and Beltran Leyva cartels. However, in each case, the gangs' territories have largely been taken over by other cartels, most notably the Sinaloa group led by Joaquin Guzman, known as "El Chapo."
The army announced Wednesday it had arrested Noel Salgueiro, allegedly a top lieutenant of the Sinaloa cartel and founder of the gang's "Gente Nueva" wing of gunmen.
The Defense Department said Salgueiro was arrested Tuesday in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. It said he was in charge of overseeing the cartel's operation in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, and where it has been fighting a long turf battle with the Juarez cartel.
Defense Department spokesman Col. Ricardo Trevilla compared the importance of the arrest to the death of the Sinaloa cartel's No. 3 capo, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, in a shootout with soldiers in July 2010. Authorities had offered a 3 million peso ($220,000) reward for information leading to Salgueiro's capture.
Gente Nueva was formed in Veracruz state in 2007, and is known for bloody incursions into rivals' territory.
In Ciudad Juarez, Sinaloa operated through local gangs such as the Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos, in fighting the Juarez gangs La Linea and Los Aztecas. Those battles have resulted in more than 7,000 deaths in the city since 2009.
Salgueiro, who was turned over to civilian prosecutors for possible charges, was allegedly responsible for killings and kidnappings of authorities and businessmen in Chihuahua.