Mexico’s protection of a vigilante leader draws widespread criticism

Some analysts believe President Peña Nieto is “playing with fire” by providing security

A member of the self defense forces of Michocán cleans his weapon.
A member of the self defense forces of Michocán cleans his weapon.Eduardo Verdugo (AP)

Dozens of police officers and soldiers have been guarding a hospital in Mexico City where the leader of a growing vigilante group in Michoacán state is recovering from injuries he sustained in a plane crash last weekend.

José Manuel Mireles is in stable condition after suffering head injuries and a dislocated jaw after the plane he and others were traveling in made a force landing on a highway in La Huacana, some 440 kilometers from the capital, on January 5. But the overwhelming security provided to him by President Enrique Peña Nieto has been criticized by many sectors of Mexican society.

Mireles is the leader of an armed group of citizens who have taken over approximately one-fifth of Michoacán in their struggle to rid the state of members of the Los Caballeros Templarios drug cartel and their supporters.

On Tuesday, the president’s chief of staff, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, announced that he ordered special protection for Mireles because “he is a person who has done a lot of harm to the cartels, especially Los Caballeros Templarios.” If necessary, Osorio Chong said, the government was willing to pay for his medical expenses. “I gave instructions to give him all the support he needs,” he said.

Hipólito Mora, the head of a similar vigilante group in La Ruana, Michoacán state, who along with Mireles, is one of the most high profile leaders of the self-defense forces, explained that the Peña Nieto government knows about the dangers they face.

A truck burned on Thursday by a group of citizens who are demanding that the vigilantes leave Parácuaro.
A truck burned on Thursday by a group of citizens who are demanding that the vigilantes leave Parácuaro.E. CASTRO (AFP)

“Many civil servants and municipal leaders don’t face the same risks as Mireles because he is on the Los Caballeros Templarios’ hit list,” Mora told the local media.

Raúl Plascencia, president of the National Human Right Commission, urged the government to re-establish law and order in Michoacán – one of the most violent states in Mexico – where authorities have lost control of security.

“When a government decides to abandon it responsibilities and leaves society to fend for itself, these groups begin to appear,” he said. Plascencia warned that the self-defense forces are taking the law into their own hands and believe they “are above the rule of law.”

Journalist Carlos Puig, who claims that the government is “playing with fire,” also warned that as time passes these groups become powerful and could later become a problem for authorities.

“I think we have seen this film before. That is what happened in Colombia,” Puig said, referring to the paramilitaries that emerged in 1990s as a counterforce to the guerrillas and drug trafficking operating in the country.

The Mexican government is “playing with fire”

Analyst Alejandro Hope, a specialist in security issues, said Thursday that vigilante groups reach areas where “the federal government isn’t present.” But to provide them with protection, he warned, was “a dangerous game.”

Michoacán has become one of the most violent states in Mexico since the government began cracking down on the drug cartels in 2006. Last year, there were some 990 murders that took place – the state’s highest homicide rate since 1998.

On Sunday, two soldiers died in an ambush and dozens of people have been setting up road blocks demanding the withdrawal of the vigilante groups. However, the self-defense forces leaders say that the protestors were forced to take to the streets by Los Caballeros Templarios.

Since they emerged in February last year, the vigilantes control at least 40 of the 113 municipalities in Michoacán. The cartel in the state is one of the largest producers of marijuana, meth and other synthetic drugs; Michoacán also serves as a transshipment point for cocaine to the United States.

Political instability has also been a problem. Governor Fausto Vallejo Figueroa, of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was forced to step aside temporarily for health reasons in April 2013. He was replaced by Jesús Reyna, whose spokesman Julio Hernández has accused Mireles of having a prior criminal record.

When Vallejo returned to office in November, he called on the armed citizens to “obey the rule of law.” They didn’t listen, and took another municipality, Parácuaro, on January 4.

Members of the self-defense force in Parácuaro, Michoacán, on Saturday.
Members of the self-defense force in Parácuaro, Michoacán, on Saturday.JORGE DAN LOPEZ (REUTERS)

“We are very scared, but that is the way it is,” said one woman from Apatzingán, who preferred not to give her name. Cartel members extorted money from workers, she said. My sister wanted to organize a quinceanera [a traditional debut party for girls who turn 15] and we had to ask them if we could have it.

“We are living under very difficult circumstances but there is no other choice,” she said.

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