Jose de Jesus Mendez: 'The Monkey' drug boss who ran Mexico's cult cartel

Guy Adams reports on the capture of a kingpin whose cartel espoused a Christian doctrine but practised extreme violence
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The Independent US

His nickname turned out to be richly deserved. When armed police presented Jose de Jesus Mendez at a press conference in Mexico City yesterday, the drug kingpin was revealed to be in possession of both a fat neck and a simian scowl. That's presumably why he was known as "El Chango", or "The Monkey".

Mendez was the leader of La Familia Michoacana, among half a dozen large criminal organisations which have fought for years over one of Mexico's most lucrative industries, the $38bn-a-year (£23.6bn) business of shifting cocaine from South America to US consumers.

The circumstances of his arrest were rare, given the bloody nature of the Mexican Government's ongoing "war on drugs", which has resulted in almost 40,000 deaths in the past four years. Federal police who swooped on "El Chango's" hideout in the central state of Aguascalientes arrested him without a shot fired.

Mendez is the second head of La Familia to be brought to book. In December, the organisation's founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as "El Mas Loco" ("The Craziest") was killed by security forces during a two-day battle which filled the once-sleepy city called Apatzigan with tanks and burning cars.

"With this capture, what was left of the command structure of this criminal organisation is destroyed," trumpeted a government spokesman, describing Mendez as, "the last remaining head of a criminal group responsible for homicides, kidnappings, extortion, corruption and even cowardly attacks on the authorities and civilian population".

Felipe Calderon, the Mexican President who has devoted much of his time in office to cracking down on the drug trade, used his Twitter account to describe the detention of a man who had a $2.5m price tag on his head a "big blow" against organised crime.

Mendez is now likely to be charged with shipping tonnes of cocaine to the US, along with large volumes of methamphetamine and marijuana. With the help of weapons purchased in America (which has the developed world's most relaxed gun laws), his private army was also able to commit murder, kidnapping, extortion.

His arrest, like that of any major cartel chief, is unlikely to stem the flow of drugs through Mexico: the stratospheric profit margins on offer to traffickers (reported to be about 3,000 percent) mean there is never a shortage of candidates willing to do battle over newly vacant turf.

But it may represent the beginning of the end for La Familia, a unique sort of drug cartel which was as famous for its cult-like mentality and loosely Christian theology as it was for the occasional acts of extreme violence that it used to maintain a grip on its territory along Mexico's strategically important western coast.

Founded during the 1980s, as part of the larger Gulf Cartel, the group split into an independent organisation six years ago. Its existence became public in 2006, when members lobbed five decapitated heads onto the dance floor of the Sol y Sombra night club in the city of Uruapan.

They were accompanied by a message scrawled on a scrap of paper, which read: "The Family doesn't kill for money. It doesn't kill women. It doesn't kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice."

As that mission statement suggests, La Familia styles itself as a sort of parallel government, financing social programmes in and around Michoacan, an impoverished and therefore eminently bribable state whose sea ports make it an important staging point for narcotics en-route to the US.

La Familia has for years collected "taxes" from local business owners, and spent a portion of its income on propaganda, taking out newspaper adverts saying it wants to "protect" the region from more ruthless rival gangs from other regions. It buys at least some popularity by offering low-interest loans to farmers, churches, and small businesses. "They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor," reads a US Drug Enforcement Administration profile explaining the cartel's endorsement of family values. "La Familia Michoacana also gives money to school and local officials."

Despite the nature of its core business, it also claims to be protecting locals from the scourge of drugs. La Familia has a "zero tolerance" policy on the sale of narcotics in Michoacan, and runs rehabilitation programmes for local drug addicts. Many residents trust the cartel more than their notoriously corrupt police force.

Members of the organisation are expected to buy into the cult-like command structure. Before his death in December, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, published a "bible" explaining a doctrine which includes foregoing hard drugs and attending regular prayer meetings.

His supporters were also encouraged to show up at Catholic Mass (and leave generous donations in the collection plate). Unlike other cartels, La Familia does not tolerate the abuse of women and children by its foot-soldiers.

But you don't run a lucrative criminal organisation without occasionally knocking a few heads together, and La Familia has, like every major cartel, acquired a reputation for ruthlessness. In Acapulco last year, I was taken to a church plaza where members had recently left the decapitated head of a victim. The man's skin had been entirely removed, and was lying in a heap nearby, next to his torso. The level of killing had dramatically accelerated in the months following Gonzalez's death, with La Familia splintering into two groups.

One was loyal to Mendez, another faction to a longstanding Familia member called Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez, who called his men The Knights Templar, after the warriors of the Crusades. They claimed responsibility for 22 murders over last weekend.

Analysts are now wondering if Martinez or one of his colleagues tipped off the authorities regarding "El Chango's" whereabouts. He is unlikely to now have the firepower to return his organisation to its former glories, but Martinez is expected to negotiate the absorption of La Familia into one of Mexico's remaining major drug gangs.

Rogues gallery: The drug lords and their nicknames

'The Monkey'

Jose de jesus 'El Chango' Mendez

Keeping in line with their counterparts in New York, where Mafia dons boast nicknames such as "Baby Shacks" and "Junior Lollipops", many of Mexico's drug lords have eccentric monikers. They don't, however, always fully represent the ruthless nature of the title-holder. Jose de Jesus Mendez, who was arrested on Tuesday, is known as "El Chango", or "The Monkey", which portrays a rather endearing creature. Yet this monkey is one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords and an alleged leader of the La Familia cartel, which has been directly or indirectly involved in the drug wars that have killed at least 35,000 people since 2009. Here are some other unusual nicknames acquired by Mexico's most notorious criminals.

'El Brad Pitt'

Marco Antonio Guzman

The 34-year-old former police officer was arrested last week in Mexico accused of leading the armed wing of the violent Juarez cartel. He is said to have acquired his celebrity moniker because of a disguise he wore when he served as a lookout. The nickname stuck when gang associates said Guzman resembled the Hollywood star in a scene from the film Spy Game about CIA agents, in which the actor wore a similar outfit.

'El Clinton'

Abel Valadez Oribe

The head of operations for La Familia in western Mexico was given the nickname of the former US president because of his elevated status in the cartel. The 33-year-old was arrested in 2009 and is allegedly behind the assassination of a mayor at a popular holiday resort.

'The Professor'

Servando Gomez Martinez

As recently as December last year, La Familia's "El Profe" also known as "La Tuta" was still on the state's payroll for his teaching job. He is known as a fervent promoter of the cartel's vigilante ideology.

'La Barbie'

Edgar Valdez Villarreal

The 37–year-old was born in Texas and had an outstanding American football career in high school, but "Barbie" developed a taste for luxury cars, nightclubs and Versace clothes as a small-time marijuana dealer. He soon moved to Mexico and assumed a role as a key player in the Beltran-Leyva cartel, where he got his improbable nickname because his blue eyes and fair complexion were said to make him resemble a Ken doll. He was arrested in Mexico last year and is awaiting extradition to the US.

Stephen Mangan