A prominent leader of a civilian militia was released from prison in Mexico on Monday night, and his rival militia leader is expected to be released soon as well, raising the specter of further potential unrest in the Tierra Caliente region of the troubled western state of Michoacan.
Hipólito Mora, founder of one of the first so-called autodefensa groups in the town of La Ruana, Michoacan, was released along with 26 of his men after a judge ruled that the group had acted in self-defense during a shootout that left 11 people dead, including Mora's 32-year-old son, Manuel.
Mora's band exchanged gunfire for at least two hours with members of a rival vigilante militia from the neighboring town of Buenavista during the December 16 daylight shootout.
Mora and the leader of the Buenavista group Luis Antonio Torres, or "El Americano," are described as bitter enemies.
Along with the release and pardon of Mora's group, Torres and nine of his men were also exonerated on Monday, after an unnamed judge ruled both groups had acted in "legitimate self-defense."
It is not yet clear when exactly this second group of men will be released, but Mora and his supporters in Michoacan already warned on Tuesday that there could be more violent confrontations if "El Americano" is also allowed to return to the region.
'He is the person I most hate.'
Mora expressed frustration that the pardoning he received apparently also applies to "El Americano," telling reporters on Monday that Torres and his men are a "group of murderers."
"He is the person I most hate," Mora said of Torres in December, after the death of his son.
Both have struggled for control of an area overrun by the Knights Templar cartel, and more recently by an newer group called the Viagras, part of an unraveling of allegiances that began since the Familia Michoacana cartel began to crumble in the state.
Mora and his group turned themselves in to police a week after the feud's disagreements culminated into the chaotic gun battle.
There is no indication that the tension between the rival groups will let up. Father Jose Luis Segura, speaking with VICE News on Tuesday, said La Ruana is divided.
"Here in La Ruana, there are relatives from both El Americano's side, and Hipólito, so there's going to be a reaction," Segura said. "They're not going to get over their problems easily, because they've killed each others' people."
A member of the rural police force in Buenavista, who did not say which faction he supported, echoed this sentiment on Monday night, hours before Mora's release. "If Hipólito is freed, blood is going to flow," the citizen officer told VICE News at the time.
Father Segura said the air could be increasingly ominous in Michoacan when Torres finds freedom.
"He should stay locked up," Segura told VICE News. "If [Torres] is let out, he's going to lead a group that could become violent again."
The fatal December 16 encounter was caught on amateur video.
The encounter in December, which ended in bloodshed for both sides, is not the first time Mora has found himself behind bars.
In March 2014, he was arrested for allegedly ordering the killing of two men, Rafael "El Pollo" Sánchez Moreno and his bodyguard, who reportedly had ties with Torres. The autodefensa leader was accused after both men were found incinerated in the back of a pickup truck.
Mora was released two months later, after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to keep him.
"I am going to keep fighting for the people," Mora told reporters hours after his release on Monday, adding that he would continue on as an active member of the rural police force in Michoacan.
On Tuesday, Mora went even further, hinting that he may consider running for a seat in Mexico's Congress in the upcoming June elections. His name is being floated as a possible candidate for the small opposition party Movimiento Ciudadano.
"I have said before that [politicians] are a bunch of crooks, but the people are putting a lot of pressure on me to go into politics," Mora said in a radio interview.
VICE News reporters Rafael Castillo and David Agren contributed to this report.
Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter @MetabolizedJunk.