Vigilante groups fighting gangs in southwestern Mexico agreed to cooperate with the Mexican government earlier this year. But that agreement may be fragile based on statements made by a prominent self-defense group spokesperson over the weekend.
The spokesperson, Manuel Mireles, said that the Mexican government had betrayed self-defense groups and was trying to “eliminate” them, following the arrest of a top vigilante leader last week.
Mireles released a scathing video that was widely disseminated on YouTube, and interpreted by some media outlets as the beginning of a rupture between the Mexican government and vigilante groups in Michoacan.
Vigilante groups have been working with Mexico’s federal police force since January, with the intention of capturing the most important leaders of the powerful Knights Templar Cartel, which operates in the region.
Their collaboration so far has led to some important actions against the cartel, including the killing of Knights Templar founder, Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno.
But the relationship between vigilante groups and government forces came under strain last week, after officials arrested vigilante leader Hipólito Mora on murder charges, and locked him up in a local jail.
Mireles, a medical doctor who acts as one of the three official spokesmen for Michoacan's coalition of 27 vigilante groups, said on Monday that self-defense groups in that state were still willing to collaborate with federal forces to bring down the Knights Templar.
But he added that he was now highly suspicious of the government’s motives.
“We made joint plans with officials, and we sat at their table, they called us allies, took pictures with us that were seen around the world, in a perverse effort to show public opinion that Michoacan was under control,” Mireles said.
“Now they want to threaten us, they want to annihilate us… we are now being persecuted by the Knights Templar, the government, the marines and all police forces,” Mireles said on Mexican radio station MVS.
Hipólito Mora, the vigilante leader now in jail, was taken into custody last Wednesday, after federal police handed him over to Michoacan officials.
Mora had been airlifted out of his Michoacan hometown of La Ruana on Tuesday by a federal police helicopter, after members of a rival vigilante group threatened to invade the town and arrest him by force.
According to prosecutors in Michoacan, Mora is possibly involved in the murder of two vigilante group members who were killed earlier this month near La Ruana. State Prosecutor José Martí Godoy added on Friday that Mora has also been accused by locals of breaking into homes, arresting people and taking private property. According to Martí, the vigilante leader faces 35 separate criminal complaints.
Mireles, the vigilante spokesperson who lashed out at the government this week, claims that Mora is no criminal. He said that the vigilante leader’s arrest was a “grave mistake” that could have been organized by officials who have ties to the Knights Templar Cartel.
“There is no justice here,” Mireles said. “Michoacan is governed by the Knights Templar.”
On Monday, Mireles also accused the Mexican government of not complying with certain deals that had been made by both sides, such as liberating members of self-defense groups who were arrested last year on charges of illegally possessing military-grade weapons.
Mireles pointed out that since the government killed Knights Templar leader Nazario Moreno, federal officials have stopped referring to vigilante groups in Michoacan as self-defense organizations, and have instead called them “organized members of the community.”
“They want to eliminate us, first in the media, and then by arresting Hipólito” Mireles said.
However, Mireles acknowledged that on Monday vigilante group leaders were set to talk with officials at a meeting that he had not been invited to attend.
He stressed that vigilante groups in Michoacan would not lay down their weapons until all Knights Templar leaders are in jail, and until their political influence in the state is diminished.
“We don’t want to divorce the federal government,” Mireles concluded. “We just want them to give us some support and let us do our job.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.