05/14/14 (written by callison) — The May 10 deadline for members of Michoacán’s self-defense groups (grupos de autodefensa) to either disarm or officially join the Rural Defense Corps and register their weapons has passed. As part of the Peña Nieto administration’s strategy to rein in the security situation in Michoacán, on April 4, self-defense groups agreed to the terms with the federal government in exchange for the release of the nearly 100 self-defense group members being held under arrest. Several groups waited until the last day to register their weapons, including those from the municipalities of Tepalcatepec and La Ruana. As group leader Estansliao Beltrán, also known as Papa Smurf or Papá Pitufo, said following the registrations, “With this we now have a commitment. We are the government.” For his part, Michoacán Security Commissioner Alfredo Castillo Cervantes, recognized that the people of Michoacán “did not rise up against the State, but rather requested the presence of the State.” He continued, “And today, those who now represent the State are you.” According to the Associated Press, as of May 10, authorities had registered more than 6,000 weapons, and more than 120 group members had been provided with uniforms, 9mm pistols, .223 caliber rifles, and perhaps most importantly, the legitimacy of the State.
Despite the passing deadline, it is clear that unilateral disarmament is far from over, and that internal rifts continue to divide the self-defense groups. Largely at the center of such resistance and concern over the government’s strategy has been José Manuel Mireles, the former leader of the Tepalacatepec group and widely known as the face of the movement. Leading up to the May 10 deadline, Mireles expressed his concern with dismantling the groups. He argued that the groups’ presence in Michoacán has made the municipalities safer, while the areas still under government control continue to suffer and experience high levels of daily violence, “between three and five murders…and hundreds of cases of extortion.” In an interview with Noticias MVS, Mireles clarified that the disarmament deadline only means the groups’ “outfits are going to change, though [their] fight will remain the same.” As Proceso reported, Mireles sees autonomous self-defense groups as playing a fundamental role in achieving a safer Michoacán and thus vowed that the fight would continue until Michoacán had been secured.
Tension within the groups has further grown with the removal of Mireles as the movement’s official spokesman and from his seat on the General Council of the Self-Defense Groups (Consejo General de las Autodefensas). The reasoning behind the removal was two-fold. First, in the days leading up to the May 10 deadline, the former leader released an unauthorized 20-minute video speaking to President Enrique Peña Nieto, expressing his concerns and his hopes for Mexico, and asking the president to engage in direct dialogue and conversation with the groups. Mireles then proceeded to explain his desire and the desire of the people of Michoacán to be able to live free from the fear of violence.
Second, authorities announced they have launched an investigation into Mireles’ alleged connection with the murder of five younger autodefensa members in an incident that occurred in Caleta de Campos, Michoacán on April 27. Mireles denies the claim, saying that he did not arrive to the scene until hours after the murders had occurred because he was at a village meeting when the news broke. He also clarified that a picture that had surfaced of him standing next to one of the bodies was only taken per orders from the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público, MP) who were on the scene. The allegations of Mireles’ involvement surfaced from group leader Estanislao Beltrán, among others. Beltrán has portrayed Mireles as an out of control vigilante who refuses to cooperate with the Mexican government. In response, Mireles has publicly claimed that Beltrán has extensive ties to a gang known as “Los Viagras,” a small group in the Knights Templar. Mireles claims that the allegations against him are a fabricated attempt to remove him from power, as he has been a nuisance to both the government and KTO operations. Furthermore, Mireles claims that he remains the last line of defense between the people of Michoacán and KTO control.
Since the creation of the self-defense groups in February 2013, a lack of centralized power and coordination has been a point of concern for the groups and the Peña Nieto administration. As Proceso reports, Mireles admits to a “Colombianization” effect in which each regional self-defense group has operated autonomously from both the Mexican state and other organizations. Mireles has expressed concern that such disaggregation could lead the groups to become more like the unchecked paramilitary forces in Colombia than the self-defense community groups Michoacán citizens have created. Regardless of the term used to describe the groups, it is evident that the security situation in Michoacán remains unclear.
For more information available in English on the self-defense groups and situation in Michoacán, check out the Justice in Mexico Project and Mexico Voices.
Olmos, José Gil. Mireles, “El alzado líder de las autodefensas en Michoacán.” Proceso. November 23, 2013.
Fausset, Richard and Cecilia Sanchez. “Mexican vigilante leader refuses government order to disarm.” Los Angeles Times. April 7, 2014.
“Self-defense groups agree to disarm or officially join “Rural Defense Corps” in Michoacán by May 2014.” Justice in Mexico Project. April 15, 2014.
Redacción. “Preocupa a Mireles la conversión de comunitarios en paramilitares.” Proceso. May 5, 2014.
“Mensaje de José Manuel Mireles a Enrique Peña Nieto.” Rio Doce. May 7, 2014.
Arce, Alberto. “Mexico to Transform Anti-Cartel Vigilante Forces.” Associated Press. May 10, 2014.
Olmos, José Gil. “Empieza la verdadera guerra” en Michoacán.” Proceso. May 10, 2014.
Redacción. “Autodefensas ahora son policías rurales; “somos gobierno”: Papá Pitufo.” Proceso. May 10, 2014.
Redacción. “El MP me pidió bajar un cadaver y sostenerle la cabeza para una foto: Mireles.” Aristegui Noticias. May 12, 2014. (Mexico Voices’ English translation)
Hernández Navarro, Luis. “El teatro de sombras michoacano.” La Jornada. May 13, 2014. (Mexico Voices’ English translation)