MEXICO CITY – 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 crime in the western state of Michoacan for several years, making money by trafficking methamphetamines and extorting protection money from businesses. 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.
"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 another La Familia leader: Francisco Lopez Villanueva, known as "El Bigotes," or "The Mustache."
"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."
In a series of banners strung across roadways in Michoacan earlier this week, however, the gang has denied it is responsible for a recent wave of robberies in the state.
"They say it was La Familia Michoacana, they want to blame us," read the banners. "Don't be deceived. The federal police came to rob, humiliate and kill our people."
The cartel has demanded that federal police leave the state because of alleged abuses against civilians. La Familia depicts itself as the protector of Michoacan residents, and common robberies would clash with the image the gang tries to cultivate.
The cartel offered to cease its activities if federal police agree to protect Michoacan against La Familia's rivals, the Zetas gang. Government officials said they would not negotiate with any drug cartels.
Lopez Villanueva, arrested Thursday, was responsible for some of the recent bank robberies, police said. They said he was a former Zeta — the two gangs were once allies — before he went over to La Familia.
He was also unusual, Cardenas Palomino said, because he was a native of neighboring Guerrero state, not Michoacan. The cartel prides itself on a membership of Michoacan natives.
Further to the north on Friday, a group of armed men shot to death four employees and two customers at a car wash in the Pacific coast city of Mazatlan.
Authorities said gunmen in two vehicles pulled up and blocked the entrances to the car wash, and opened fire with assault rifles on everyone inside.
The car wash is on a block where a used car lot was burned down earlier this year as part of an apparent extortion attempt. Drug cartels have increasingly demanded protection money from businesses, and shoot up or burn down those that refuse to pay.
In October, gunmen killed 15 people at a car wash in Nayarit, south of Sinaloa on Mexico's Pacific coast. Many of the employees at that business were recovering drug addicts, but there was no indication that was the case in Mazatlan.
And in the southern state of Guerrero, police reported Friday they had found the handcuffed, tortured bodies of two men in the mountain city of Taxco.
The man had been shot to death and their bodies dumped on a roadside. Shell casings from assault rifles were found nearby.