He has only been out of prison for a couple of days but José Manuel Mireles, who spent three years in jail for his role in leading a self-defense militia in the fight against Mexico’s Knights Templar drugs cartel, can’t go more than a couple of steps without receiving messages of popular support.
“Thanks for standing up for us,” one woman tells the former convict, while a young man says to him: “You’ve got the balls politicians don’t have.”
From 2013 to 2014, Mireles, a surgeon by trade, headed a paramilitary movement made up of some 25,000 farm hands, ranchers and other residents of Mexico’s Michoacán state, who were fed up with the blackmail, kidnappings, beheadings and torture carried out by the Knights Templar cartel. The movement gained international attention when it took up arms against the drug lords but eventually dissolved after President Enrique Peña Nieto paid, co-opted or imprisoned its leaders.
Mireles belonged to that last group and ended up behind bars for unlawful arms possession.
We decided we didn’t want to end up with our decapitated heads decorating a town square
“They chose not to live on their knees,” says Mireles of the people involved in the militia during a lengthy interview looking at the movement that wiped 36 Michoacán villages off the drug traffickers’ map.
Now that he is a free man again, Mireles says Mexico is in a much worse state than it was and that he will take up the battle against the cartels again, although this time weapons won’t be in the equation. He blames president Enrique Peña for his imprisonment and says Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the head of the Mexican opposition party, National Regeneration Movement (Morena), has written to him to offer support on his release.
Question. Looking back, what was your chief error during your time as leader of the self-defense group movement?
Answer. The biggest mistake was trusting the federal government. It is the same thing that has happened before in Mexican history with [Mexican revolutionaries Zapata and Pancho Villa] and with [the politician] Benito Juárez, all of whom were betrayed by the government. I was warned a thousand times: “Don’t trust them because they are going to fuck you over.” But if you are tired of war, you will ignore all sorts of things.
Q. And your biggest success?
A. We chose how we wanted to die. We decided we didn’t want to end up with our decapitated heads decorating a town square or with our body parts in plastic bags. Our biggest success was letting go of the fear of making our own decisions and realizing that, if we were organized we could get rid of the Knights Templar.
For 12 years, we filed lawsuits, asked for help and demonstrated against crime in Michoacán. We have filed thousands of legal actions relating to rapes, kidnappings and beheadings but no one has ever responded. To give you an example, just a few days before the uprising [in 2013, when the militia began to take control of Knight Templar strongholds] I went with my cousin to file a complaint regarding the rape of his daughter but the prosecutor we spoke to told us the case would never be solved. A few minutes later when my cousin returned home he found the complaint ripped up in his doorway, along with a note saying that he had until seven in the evening to leave the town or he and his family would have their heads chopped off.
Q. How does Michoacán strike you now that you are out of prison?
A. The whole country is worse than when they locked me up. I told Peña Nieto back then that if he could restore peace to Mexican society by sacrificing me, I would congratulate him myself. But it has been a wasted three years and the country is 10 times worse off. The self-defense movement had three chief demands that have not yet been met: efficient public security, justice, and the existence of the rule of law. I was making these claims for Michoacán state but now the whole country is calling for the same thing. If we mobilized now, there would be millions of us and not thousands.
I will now start a fight based on reason, justice and the truth
Q. Do you see yourself as being a political prisoner? Who put in you in jail?
A. The whole country knows who locked me away: the only person in the country who can take away your freedom and make your life a living hell. But there is an explanation: I stepped on two sets of toes, those of organized crime and of the federal government. And in both cases, the same person was involved.
Q. Wasn’t it a mistake to not realize that the movement had been infiltrated [by other cartels]? Was there any offer of support from other drug cartels?
A. We saw what was going on, we looked into the issue and discussed it.
During those months there were offers of support in the form of men and weapons and even armed helicopters from other parts of the country.
But that was precisely the mistake back in 2000. Back then, there was one cartel [the Zetas] controlling everything and the business community joined together to get rid of them. But they made the mistake of asking for help from other cartels [The Michoacán Family and the Knights Templar]. And they [those two cartels] got rid of the Zetas but they also took control of everything and were doing even worse things. So we told the cartels: “First we are going to try and organize ourselves and solve our own problems.”
Q. Will you leave the self-defense movement?
A. The only people who are ‘ex-anything’ are those who spend their whole lives lying in order to become mayors, congress deputies or president. They day they leave office and stop getting their fortnightly pay check, they become a former so-and-so. But not us. We don’t get anything.
But I won’t go back to the trenches. Arms aren’t for me. I will start a fight based on reason, justice and the truth, which are the only weapons I have used my whole life.
Q. And the dream of entering politics?
A. I am not interested in politics. I don’t want to be just another puppet. If I had wanted to become a politician, I would have done it when the option was presented to me before I went to prison.
English version by George Mills.