A vigilante leader in Mexico has been accused of ordering the murder of a mayor who opposed having self-defense militias in his town, in a sign that in some areas these groups now consider themselves to be the real authority and thus above the law.
Authorities arrested Enrique Hernandez Salcedo, the leader of a self-defense group in Yurecuaro, in the western Pacific state of Michoacan, for the killing of Gustavo Garibay, the mayor of the small nearby town of Tanhuato, reported El Universal. In addition to Hernandez, police detained 18 members of his self-defense group, three of whom have confessed to carrying out the murder.
Garibay was gunned down in front of his home March 22 by heavily armed assailants, according to La Jornada.
Alfredo Castillo, Michoacan’s security commissioner, said the gunmen claimed they were following instructions from their leader, Hernandez, and that preliminary investigations show Garibay was killed because he “had refused to maintain and repeatedly rejected the presence of vigilantes in his municipality.”
Hernandez handed over the guns used in the crime and tried to pin the murder on a former member of the group, but messages recovered on a cell phone, coupled with the confessions of the militia members, connected him to the mayor’s death, said authorities.
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For more than a year, self-defense militias in Michoacan have been fighting the Knights Templar drug cartel, but there have been increasing signs the vigilante movement has gotten out of control. The latest case indicates the groups feel they are the de facto authority and have the right to administer “justice” as they see fit.
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Despite the Mexican government implementing a legal framework in January to give these groups a facade of legitimacy, recent events have led to mounting tensions between state authorities and the vigilantes. The arrest of Hernandez comes shortly after the arrest of another vigilante leader, Hipolito Mora, for the murder of fellow vigilantes. High-level self-defense militia members have also been accused of criminal backgrounds and cartel ties.
As similar experiments in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru have shown, the legalization of homegrown paramilitary groups tends to end badly.
While the self-defense militias may be successfully combating their Knights Templar adversaries, who have suffered a number of recent blows to their top leadership, the brazen killing of a local mayor is a bloody reminder of the vigilantes’ power and criminal potential. If the Knights were to fall, it is not inconceivable elements from these militias could step in to take their place.