LATin America

“No one is going to disarm”

Michaocán self-defense forces leaders calls Mexico's moves to legitimize vigilantes a “big show”

José Manuel Mireles, leader of the self-defense forces in Michoacán.
José Manuel Mireles, leader of the self-defense forces in Michoacán.saúl ruiz

With 48 surgical screws in his head, half of his face paralyzed and a perforated lung, Dr José Manuel Mireles is slowly recovering from the injuries he sustained on January 4 in a plane crash that nearly cost him his life. In the meantime, the armed movement that he organized 11 months ago to battle the powerful Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug cartel that continues to terrorize his native Michoacán state is awaiting its next orders.

Wearing a gray jogging suit, black shirt and white Croc shoes, the 55-year-old surgeon asks his assistants to bring him his X-rays so he can show his “war wounds.” Mireles is recovering at an undisclosed location, reportedly protected by the Mexican government; his public statements have been sparse since the accident.

He sat down for an interview with EL PAÍS on Sunday morning, just three weeks after President Enrique Peña Nieto sent the federal police and military troops in to Michoacán as part of an agreement with state officials to quash the ongoing violence in the Tierra Caliente region.

Mireles called the government’s recent announcement that it had signed an agreement with some vigilantes in an effort to legitimize the self-defense forces as “a big show,” and he is critical of the way the Peña Nieto administration is trying to capitalize on the situation in Michoacán through its own media campaign.

We have no evidence that any of the Templarios were detained ”

Even though he continues to regain his strength, movement, appetite and spirits, his ideas remain intact.

Question. The army has been deployed in the region for several months now, but there have been complaints that it has not been carrying out its duties. Do you think there has been a change in strategy?

Answer. At the moment, there appears to be that intention after the federal government and the state authorities announced that they are taking hold of the situation – something that we had been demanding when we organized ourselves last February. But all during that time, state officials, instead of helping out, were the ones who were fanning the flames. In fact, they attacked us more than they did the Templarios. They have already gone into action and announced two arrests, but we haven’t even any evidence of the first person who was detained – El Toro. He was the person who was in charge of the Tepalcatepec square, the biggest rapist of them all. He would rape four or five women from the same household and nobody could stop him.

Q. So you don’t really believe they caught him?

A. Precisely. We have had bad experiences with past administrations. We come from that region so we know who the criminals and drug traffickers are, and we have seen how the previous government would go out and grab any town drunk on the street and announce that authorities had caught the king of the amphetamine empire. We demand that they give us proof, including DNA samples, because they tend to come back later, just like Tío Nacho [the cartel’s number three leader] or Nazario Moreno, El Chayo. [Past President Felipe Calderón announced in December 2010 that the leader of the Templarios was killed in an ambush, but the vigilante forces say they are certain he is still alive and operating in the area.]

Q. What do you think about the pact signed between the government and self-defense forces?

A. It is a political agreement that has nothing to do with reality. The fact of the matter is that my companions the following day took over the Los Reyes and Peribán municipalities and continue to advance to other areas. Also, we already had that agreement, and we said we would follow it as soon as the last of the Templarios was arrested.

Q. What do you think about the statements made by some people who say they are not going to hand in their weapons?

The previous government would grab any town drunk and announce it caught the king of the amphetamine empire”

A. No one is disarming. In fact, the pact states that those who want to continue possessing weapons can do it legally under a rural security structure. But this already has been in existence for some time – there is nothing new here. We don’t need any big shows in Michoacán to obtain peace, what we need is real action, like what occurred when the port of Lázaro Cárdenas was taken over. That really took us by surprise because the federal government showed that it was capable of resolving the problem.

Q. Personally, would you prefer to be legalized or go back to practicing medicine?

A. No, I am returning to my profession. I have my job, and those of us who have our own lives and activities won’t be registering our weapons as part of any self-defense force. In fact, it is an insult to the federal government if my own companions go to register a pistol that they do not use in the self-defense force. Both sides are insulting each other. Nothing has been formalized – this is all one big show.

Q. You say that you will disarm as soon as all the Templario chiefs are caught. What happens next? Will there be elections?

A. Organized crime has contaminated the entire state. All state elections – for president, for deputies – were held at gunpoint. I don’t agree that Michoacán’s powers should be abolished because then we really would have a social revolution on our hands. But I do agree that the federal government should do what it needs to do to clean up that state. The elections are coming up, and we are going to be the main vigilante force there to ensure that no one is forced to vote because they have a gun pointing at their head.

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