Protests have erupted in Mexico in response to the arrest of vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles after he led the takeover of a Michoacan town, as the rift between the authorities and the remaining illegal militias deepens and tensions build.
On June 27, Mireles was arrested in Michoacan for allegedly violating a federal firearm and explosives law, reported El Proceso. He was detained along with 69 other vigilantes in a joint operation carried out by several government agencies, the federal police, and the Attorney General’s Office.
In response, self-defense militias set up barriers at several points along a coastal highway and vowed to maintain the blockades until Mireles and other captured vigilantes were freed, reported Vanguardia. They also expressed outrage that Mireles had been arrested, while Servando Gomez Martinez, alias “La Tuta,” the leader of the Knights Templar cartel the militias formed to fight, remains at large.
Michoacan’s security commissioner, Alfredo Castillo, stated that all armed civilians in the state who are not part of the Rural Defense Forces — new units set up to formally legalize the militias under the state’s umbrella — would be detained.
Mireles was arrested the day after he led the vigilante takeover of La Mira, a town near the strategic port of Lazaro Cardenas.
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The government of Enrique Peña Nieto seems to want it both ways: fierce vigilantes who are also model citizens. And his administration’s policy of legalizing a section of the vigilante movement while targeting those that remain on the outside has already begun to backfire. The arrest of Mireles is exacerbating the conflict, with outraged vigilante forces saying they will now take over Lazaro Cardenas in retaliation.
Mireles has been a vocal critic of government efforts to combat organized crime in Michoacan and has accused authorities of failing to keep their end of the agreement reached with self-defense militias in January. He has also publically fallen out with vigilante leaders that have joined the state forces, making him a focal point of the dispute.
If the government is to defuse the situation, it will need to convince the people of Michoacan that it is in their interests to back the Rural Defense Forces and not hold out militias such as the one led by Mireles. However, up until now, there has been little sign of action from the legalized forces, creating the opportunity for Mireles to build support by taking the initiative.
If Mireles manages to garner popular support, while cynicism builds over the institutionalized militias, then his arrest and others like it may further discredit the government and the legalization process in the eyes of the crime weary residents of the state. In other words, more battles may follow.