Jose Manuel Mireles in La Mira

A militia led by ousted vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles has seized a town near the port of Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan as divisions in the self-defense movement threaten to derail moves to legitimize the groups, and create a new cycle of chaos in the southwestern state.

On June 26, around 300 armed vigilantes led by Jose Manuel Mireles -- the former spokesman of the General Council of the Michoacan Self-Defense Forces -- took over the town of La Mira an hour outside of Lazaro Cardenas, reported El Diario.

The group did not include members of the recently institutionalized "State Rural Defense Forces." Mireles told El Diario he had decided to advance because "the government doesn't act while Michoacan remains in flames."

Mireles also stated the federal government had only created rural defense units in two municipalities, with 34 remaining for the vigilantes to protect. 

According to El Proceso, Mireles said the group's goal was to establish a citizen self-defense council in La Mira and then move on to Lazaro Cardenas and the city of Morelia. One of the group's leaders said they had come to La Mira at the request of local citizens and had not encountered resistance from security forces or criminal groups on the way into town.    

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Moves to legalize Michoacan's self-defense forces, which were originally created in Michoacan to fight the Knights Templar cartel, have exacerbated tensions in the movement's leadership by creating a clear dividing line between those involved in the new Rural Defense Forces and those left on the outside.

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Mireles has been at the center of much of the controversy after he was removed from his position as spokesman for the militia's leadership council, with rivals claiming he was in an unstable mental state. The fact Mireles is now leading a large armed force in offensive actions is a clear statement of intent that he does not plan to back down and cede the movement to the leadership that has joined the state forces, and he now poses a significant threat to the legalization plans.

The choice of La Mira was a significant one; a day before the legalization deadline 155 people were arrested and accused of being "false" vigilantes -- 122 of them in La Mira -- in what was likely an attempt to halt the activities of militias not part of the legalization process. According to Proceso, Mireles has declared the arrested people "innocent civilians" and is working towards their release.

Even more of a concern is his stated plans to march on Lazaro Cardenas -- a strategic port that was a former stronghold of the Knights Templar and a key territory for controlling criminal activities in Michoacan.

Michoacan's security commissioner officially launched the rural defense forces in May, but only roughly 3,000 of the estimated 20,000 vigilantes applied to join the force before the registration deadline, meaning the chances of further rebel militias continuing to operate remains high.