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.