La Familia has waged a vicious campaign for control of drug routes in its home state of Michoacan [EPA]

Mexican police have captured the suspected leader of a cult-like drug cartel in the latest blow to a gang that was until recently one of the most notorious in the country.

Federal officers detained alleged La Familia (The Family), boss Jose de Jesus Mendez, known by his nickname "El Chango," or "The Monkey", at a highway checkpoint in central Mexico.

No shots were fired during Tuesday's arrest, the government and prosecutors said.

In a rare bloodless capture in Mexico's escalating war on drug cartels, President Felipe Calderon's national security spokesman said Mendez's arrest was a major victory and the end of La Familia, which was infamous for beheading its enemies.

"With this capture, this criminal group is destroyed," Alejandro Poire told reporters, adding that Mendez was being flown to Mexico City for questioning.

Mendez's detention follows the death last December of La Familia's top boss, Nazario Moreno, known as "The Craziest One," in a dramatic series of army raids that briefly turned the western state of Michoacan, La Familia's heartland, into a war zone littered with burning cars.

'No end to killings'

Despite the government's optimism, La Familia hitmen are still at large and have split into factions since Moreno's death.

One new gang, Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar), is suspected of killing 23 people over the weekend, leaving bodies across Michoacan with threatening notes for rivals.

Spreading more terror as gunmen fight over lucrative methamphetamine trafficking routes and marijuana fields across western Mexico, the Zetas cartel are also moving onto La Familia's turf and many residents are fearful of even more violence.

"It sure sounds good for the government to say they've got another cartel leader, but there is no end to the killings," said a Michoacan resident interviewed by local radio after the government's announcement.

Calderon, who hails from Michoacan, launched his army-led war on drug cartels in late 2006 on taking office, but now faces growing public alarm at the about 40,000 dead in the conflict across the country since then.

With a bounty of $2m on his head in Mexico and also wanted in the US, Mendez is believed to have taken over the running of La Familia since Moreno's death, along with another suspected kingpin, Servando "The Prof" Gomez.

Gomez is still at large and is thought to be running methamphetamine operations out of Michoacan, according to Mexican and US anti-drug officials.

Last year, Mexican media reported he was receiving a salary on the state payroll as a teacher at a local elementary school in Michoacan.

Formed in the 1980s, La Familia has vowed to stop sales of the methamphetamine drug "Ice" in Michoacan, saying it is destroying local communities. Instead, it exports all meth production to the US.

Unlike other Mexican cartels, La Familia under Moreno was run with a pseudo-religious philosophy, preaching Bible scripture mixed with self-help slogans to prevent gang members from abusing drugs and to justify the grisly murders of rivals.

Source: Agencies