The self-defense forces in the troubled Mexican state of Michoacán have appointed a new coordinator and spokesman to replace their increasingly well-known leader, Dr José Manuel Mireles, who is recovering from injuries he sustained in a January 4 plane crash.
Estanislao Beltrán, known by his nickname “Papá Pitufo” (Papa Smurf), confirmed in a phone interview that he has been the official spokesman for the movement since Mireles’ accident. “He asked me to step in, but it is the general coordinators assembly who determines this. And the assembly just authorized me to become the only spokesman for the self-defense forces,” Beltrán said.
The announcement came after Mireles, in an exclusive interview with EL PAÍS, called the Mexican government’s attempt to legalize the vigilantes, by agreeing to allow them to register their weapons and serve as a rural security force, “a big show.”
“We have made public this announcement because Dr Mireles’ statements were not authorized by the citizen’s council and they are of a personal nature,” said Beltrán. “I just spoke to the doctor and I respect and admire him a lot, but he doesn’t know the realities we are facing today because he is still convalescing. And he doesn’t know about the meeting we have had with Commissioner Alfredo Castillo.”
Castillo was appointed by President Enrique Peña Nieto as special commissioner to oversee security and government funding operations for Michoacán. Last month, the federal government announced that it had signed a deal with the self-defense forces in which they would be legitimized under a new structure where they would serve as a rural force but would have to register their weapons and follow local security regulations.
In his interview with EL PAÍS, Mireles said that none of his vigilantes will disarm and he criticized the announcement, saying that such a structure was already in place and that the Mexican government was taking advantage of the situation in Michoacán for publicity purposes.
The self-defense forces were organized in February 2013 under Mireles, a physician, to battle the powerful Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug cartel, who he accuses of subjecting the citizens of Michoacán a reign of terror, including extortion and rape. Since late last year, the vigilantes have taken control of more than two dozen municipalities in the state.
Beltrán, for his part, said that negotiations between the federal government and the vigilantes are at an advanced stage. “If the day comes that the government doesn’t comply [with the agreements], then we will take our own decisions. But at the moment, we are walking hand-in-hand,” he said.