January 19, 2011 in Nation/World

Mexican lawmen arrest major drug gang founder

Ken Ellingwood Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Federal police agents escort Flavio Mendez Santiago, alleged member and co-founder of the Zetas drug cartel, in Mexico City on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

MEXICO CITY – Mexican authorities said Tuesday they had arrested a founding member of the notorious Zetas gang who oversaw the smuggling of drugs and migrants in southern Mexico.

Flavio Mendez Santiago, 35, and a bodyguard were captured Monday in the southern state of Oaxaca, from which he allegedly relayed drug shipments and moved migrants from Central and South America north to the U.S. border.

Mendez, a former soldier, allegedly joined the Zetas when the gang was formed in the 1990s by ex-members of elite military units. He was among Mexico’s 37 most-wanted drug suspects, 20 of whom have been arrested.

He appeared before cameras Tuesday with closed-cropped hair and a black shirt.

The Zetas once served as hit men for the Gulf cartel in northern Mexico, but broke away early last year in a bloody turf war that has terrorized the border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. The gang has branched into migrant-smuggling, selling pirated goods, kidnapping and extortion, and also now operates across much of southern Mexico.

Migrant-rights activists say Zetas gunmen kidnap migrant groups en route to the United States to extort money.

Officials said Mendez, known as “The Yellow One,” once served as bodyguard for Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the former chief of the Gulf cartel now imprisoned in the United States.

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