12/17/2014 01:35 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST

4 members of cartel-affiliated La Familia gang arrested in Alberta

Police in Alberta have arrested four members of the La Familia gang, known to be an international support arm for Mexican drug cartels.

The Alberta president chapter was among the four arrested. Police say he was picked up on Dec. 11 while trying to board a plane at the Edmonton International Airport.

Searches of three Edmonton homes related to the arrests yielded about $600,000 worth of drugs, including:

- 5 kilograms of cocaine

- 2.7 kilograms of MDMA

- 2 kilograms of a buffing agent

- Oxycodone pills

- Cocaine press

- $45,000 in cash proceeds of crime

Officers also seized two .22 calibre rifles, a .44 calibre Desert Eagle handgun, a sawed-off shotgun, body armour vests and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Together, the four are facing a combined 40 drug and weapons charges.

The arrests were made following an investigation by the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT), which is made up of police teams who focus on serious and organized crime, typically involving gangs, drug trafficking and child exploitation.

According to ALERT, La Familia was trying to take over Alberta’s drug trade and was operating supply lines in Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Drayton Valley, Lloydminster and Red Deer.

"This hurt them a lot," said Insp. Darcy Strang of the arrests. "We interrupted them at a very early stage" 

Established and violent gang

The La Familia cartel is based in the northeastern state of Michoacan. Much of its power has recently been usurped in Mexico by one of its splinter factions, the Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios.

Most of its leaders crossed over to the new group, leaving La Familia a shadow of its former self. The original cartel was known for its bizarre brand of cult-like religious ideology. It began as an anti-drug vigilante group before moving into the drug trade itself, famously signalling its entry into the business in 2006 by throwing five severed heads onto a nightclub floor.

Its fight with the Zetas over territory is what set off the government crackdown against the cartels in 2006. It was the main supplier of methamphetamine before its charismatic leader, Nazario Moreno González, known as El Mas Loco ("the Craziest One"), was killed by police in December 2010.

Following his death, the group split into two factions, the Knights Templar and a weaker splinter group that retained the Familia name.

ALERT says members of the La Familia chapter in Alberta wear a three-piece patch similar to that worn by outlaw motorcycle groups and followed a similar rank structure and club rules.

La Familia also has strong ties to El Salvador gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13.