After more than two months recovering from a near-fatal air crash, José Manuel Mireles, the leader and one of the founders of the self-defense forces in Mexico’s troubled Michoacán state, reappeared in public on Monday.
The 55-year-old physician, who helped organize the paramilitary force last February to defend Michoacán residents from the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug cartel, announced that he was reassuming his duties as spokesman for the citizens vigilante group in his native Tepalcatepec.
Mireles issued a call for the vigilantes to take Morelia, the state capital. “We are going over there. We want to clean up this state,” he said.
The controversial vigilante leader said that February 24, 2013 – the day the self-defense forces were officially organized – was an important date in Michoacán history. “We are going to call it the day of Michoacán dignity because it has been a year since we overcame our fears and recovered our own dignity.
“We are proud to say that for the first time in 12 months we haven’t had to pay extortion money; none of our daughters have been raped.”
For the first time in 12 months we haven’t had to pay extortion money”
According to the vigilante forces, residents of the state’s Tierra Caliente agricultural and ranching region have suffered at the hands of different drug cartels for over a decade: first, it was the Zetas; then the Michoacana Family; and currently it is the Caballeros Templarios.
Shortly after 5pm, hundreds of residents of Tepalcatepec, a city of about 15,000 inhabitants, dressed in paramilitary uniforms and formed a march, with Mireles joining in midway.
It was just three weeks ago that the physician lost his role as spokesman for the entire vigilante force after he criticized a January 27 agreement signed between the government and the paramilitaries to legalize their units.
While skeptical at the time, Mireles appeared more optimistic on Monday. “It is going to get better for us because now we have the support of the federal government and state, which has been restructured as we wanted,” he said.
Celebrations to mark the first anniversary of the creation of the self-defense forces began in the morning in La Ruana, a town with about 10,000 residents, which is a 30-minute drive from Tepalcatepec. Hipólito Mora, the principal founder of the force, led a large parade that ended in a festival where current spokesman, Estanislao Beltrán, popularly known as Papa Smurf, joined in.
In contrast to the march in Tepalcatepec, only about 30 men wore military uniforms in La Ruana.
“The movement is united,” said Beltrán, who announced several weeks ago that he had replaced Mireles as spokesman. For his part, the physician attributed the internal conflicts over the past months to “a lack of communication.”