Pubdate: Fri, 24 Jun 2011
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Nicholas Casey


MEXICO CITY - As authorities lauded the capture this week of Jose de
Jesus Mendez, leader of Mexico's vicious La Familia Michoacana drug
cartel, the country was faced with a familiar problem: The top kingpin
of a drug cartel had fallen, but the violence he spawned had not.

On Thursday, police found a man who had been dragged, tortured and
killed on the outskirts of a rural town where the cartel has a strong
presence. A day earlier, another man was found dead not far from where
Mr. Mendez was held with a message on his chest to Mr. Mendez, likely
from enemy drug traffickers.

The capture of Mr. Mendez, known by his nickname of "El Chango" or the
Monkey, marked the second major blow against La Familia, whose top
leader, Nazario Moreno was killed in a firefight with security forces
in December. As the news broke Tuesday, the government portrayed it as
a finishing blow to the group, and Alejandro Poire, the top spokesman
on security matters, said the arrest had "destroyed what remained of
the leadership structure of that criminal organization."

But many experts say that La Familia, which has controlled parts of
Michoacan state for years while trafficking drugs like cocaine and
methamphetamines, is far from vanquished. Indeed, even before Mr.
Mendez's capture, the group had begun to splinter into smaller
factions whose rivalries could present larger threats to Mexico than
the intact organization did.

"It's the case of the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice,' " said David A. Shirk,
who studies Mexican organized crime and politics at the Trans-Border
Institute, a San Diego think tank. "Each time you break brooms, things
get more out of control."

With presidential elections set for next year in Mexico, pressure is
mounting for President Felipe Calderon to show progress in curbing the
violence, which government statistics say has claimed about 40,000
people lives since he began his assault on organized crime in late

In a tense public meeting Thursday, Mr. Calderon met with Javier
Sicilia, a poet-turned-activist who has seized on the mounting
casualties as cause to call for a change in strategy. The poet, who
has drawn tens of thousands during rallies this year, asked Mr.
Calderon to apologize for the deaths; the president warned that
backing away from the fight would be "simply to give up."

The government has focused on dismantling its criminal groups through
targeting their leaders, arguing that their cartels would crumble soon
afterward, or at least become less powerful. But that logic is in
question this year: With 21 of Mexico's 37 most-wanted kingpins
captured or killed since 2009, there is little evidence that either
violence nor drug trafficking is on the decline because of high-level

Now lacking its two top leaders, La Familia presents troubling
prospects in Mexico, analysts say. Unlike other groups which resemble
drug businesses, La Familia mixes Christian cult ideology with
violence and has a popular appeal in its home state of Michoacan that
is unique in Mexico.

The death of Mr. Moreno raised internal divisions, analysts say, as
the group was split between factions looking to form alliances with
Mexico's Los Zetas, an organized crime group, and the Sinaloa Cartel,
a drug trafficking business based in Mexico's north. Mr. Mendez led
the former wing, while the rival arm, renamed itself "The Knights
Templar" and sided with the Sinaloa to began a string of killings in
Michoacan. A raft of battles last month caused hundreds in Michoacan
to flee their homes and forced a Federal Police helicopter down after
it was attacked by cartel gunmen.

Some say the government may be going after the wrong targets if it
wants to reduce the country's violence. Eric Olson, a Mexico analyst
with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said recent
research suggests that going after leaders of hit-men syndicates in
Mexico, rather than leaders of drug cartels, could prove more
effective in lowering crime rates. "At the end of the day the hit men
and the people who control them are the most violent," he said.

This isn't the first time the government has caught top cartel leaders
only to watch violence spin out of control in the resulting power vacuum.

In 2002, Ramon Arellano Felix, a top leader in the Tijuana drug
cartel, was killed in a gunfight in Mazatlan. Weeks later, his brother
Benjamin was arrested, leaving the group without clear leadership. But
Tijuana's darkest days were still ahead.

With its drug operations damaged, the Tijuana group began moving into
other criminal activities like kidnapping, bank robbery and extortion.
Meanwhile the neighboring Sinaloa Cartel began a vicious push into the
city, culminating in 2008, Tijuana's bloodiest year, when violence
claimed more than 840 lives.

More recently, the Mexican government claimed victory over a dangerous
group led by drug lord Arturo Beltran-Leyva, who was killed by Mexican
marines in late 2009. In August 2010, Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez
Villarreal, a top lieutenant caught in a power struggle for control of
the group, was arrested.

Violence has since exploded. The group's home state of Guerrero has
been the site of 723 drug-related killings and is on track to surpass
the 984 killings that occurred last year, which was Guerrero's
bloodiest year since the drug war began. 
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