- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2011

MEXICO CITY | Federal police have captured a suspected drug gang leader in a central Mexican state where relentless violence prompted hundreds of citizens to set off in a days-long protest march that arrived in the capital Sunday.

Jose Zarco, 22, had recently begun heading operations in Morelos state for a gang that broke off from the Beltran Leyva cartel, following the death of leader Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009, the Public Safety Department said in a statement Sunday. He was arrested in Mexico City on Friday, along with a suspected accomplice.

His capture was announced just as thousands of people were marching into Mexico City to protest gang violence in Morelos, which borders the Mexican capital.

The marchers, who set off Thursday, are led by a Mexican poet whose son was killed by suspected drug traffickers in the Morelos capital of Cuernavaca.

The Public Safety Department said Mr. Zarco was 17 when he joined the Beltran Leyva cartel, taking orders from Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez, a U.S.-born crime boss who was captured in August 2010. Mr. Zarco was in charge of paying off municipal police in the resort city of Acapulco, the statement said.

Valdez allegedly started his own cartel after Beltran was killed in a shootout with marines in Cuernavaca. Authorities say the Valdez faction is still fighting a gang led by Hector Beltran Leyva, the only Beltran brother not captured or killed.

The Public Safety Department said Mr. Zarco was put in charge of operations in Morelos after the April 27 capture of his predecessor, Miguel Angel Cedillo.

The breakup of the Beltran Leyva cartel has led to a surge in gruesome violence in the region southwest of Mexico City, with the rivals hanging mutilated bodies from bridges along highways connecting Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Acapulco.

Thousands have joined the anti-violence protest since a few hundred set off from Cuernavaca on Thursday. The marchers, carrying signs reading “Stop the War,” Mexican flags and photos of poet Javier Sicilia’s slain son, have been marching silently along the 50-mile route.

Mr. Sicilia’s son, Juan Francisco, was killed March 28 along with six other people. Three reputed drug gang members have been arrested in connection with the slayings.

Meanwhile, violence continued in the region. At least six men were found fatally shot in Acapulco between Saturday and Sunday, according to state police in Guerrero state, where the resort city is located.

A shootout broke out in Zihuatanejo, another resort city in Guerrero, police said. One of the cars involved in a shootout was left on the streets, stained with blood and riddled with bullets. The occupants had apparently fled.

Shortly afterward, flyers threatening police were thrown from several cars at the Zihuatanejo City Hall.

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