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Michoacan, Mexico, Breaks Bad — Again — After Shootout Between Rival Militias Kills 11

The son of the founder of the first civilian militia in Michoacan is among the victims. One parish priest tells us: "We used to know who the bad guys were. Now we don't."
Photo by David Agren

Hipólito Mora, founder of the first autodefensa civilian militia in Michoacán, Mexico, stood in the scorching sun on Wednesday at the site where his son was killed in a shootout the previous day, the latest sign that the troubled western state is far from being pacified.

"It's gotten worse. I don't care who that bothers, I'm going to speak the truth," Mora told reporters on the road running past his ranch in the town of La Ruana, 340 miles west of Mexico City, where a battle between his self-defense group and a rival autodefensa from the nearest town claimed 11 lives on Tuesday, including Mora's son.


"I'm inconvenient for people who are only interested in money and power," he said.

The deadly shootout was the latest confrontation between men loyal to Mora, a lime grower, and others who follow Luis Antonio Torres, a.k.a. El Americano, who was born in the United States and leads a separate self-defense force just 11 miles down the road in the town of Buenavista.

Mora's son Manuel, 32, was among those killed. He was buried on Thursday.

Federal and military forces moved into La Ruana in response, while state authorities signaled they would seek the arrests of 50 people — including Hipólito Mora — in connection to the daylight battle partially recorded in amateur footage below.

Mora said Torres's men came in "70 trucks" to attack his team of approximately 40 men. Members of Torres's group told reporters they went in smaller numbers, with "clubs" not firearms, and were shot at by Mora's men as well as the Gendarmerie, a recently formed elite federal police unit.

"He's the person I hate worse than anyone else on earth," Mora said of Torres this week.

Michoacan captured international headlines in early 2013 as men and women like Mora grabbed guns and declared they would rid the region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, of the Knights Templar cartel. The cartel had been accused of everything from committing sexual assaults to running extortion rackets to taking a cut of the profits at public toilets.


Watch the VICE News documentary Fighting the Knights Templar Cartel.

Self-defense militia leader Hipólito Mora speaks with the press near the site of the shootout that left his son dead. (Photo by David Agren)

Almost a year after the autodefensas first started fighting off the Knights Templar, the government of president Enrique Peña Nieto responded by appointing a special commissioner tasked with pacifying the state.

Peña tapped Alfredo Castillo, a close associate of the president from his days as a state governor, for the position. Analysts describe Castillo as a de facto governor, and critics call him the state's "viceroy" — a crude reference to Mexico's viceregal colonial history.

This week's violence in Michoacan poses yet another crisis for the embattled Peña Nieto administration and its aims of drawing international investment by downplaying the violence and insecurity still gripping many regions of Mexico. The Mexican leader had spoken sparingly of insecurity in public until 43 students were kidnapped and probably killed in September in the neighboring state of Guerrero.

'Our cause is to finish off the Templarios, but they won't let us.'

Some observers see the situation in Michoacan as the product of a government attempting control perceptions as opposed to actually curbing crime.

Now, the self-defense groups — which were regularized by the federal government as Rural Forces earlier this year, in an attempt to rein them in — are accused of committing some of the same crimes committed by the cartel they've successfully kicked out of so many communities. Rival groups routinely launch accusations at one another in the press.


Mora — who brought an assault rifle and two pistols to his meeting with the press — said the federal authorities armed "well-known criminals in Michoacan" when it organized the new Rural Forces. Others insist that there are no angels anywhere in the equation, as organized crime has sunk roots so deep in parts of Michoacan that it is inevitable to see the wrong sort of people end up in the autodefensa ranks.

"The problem is that when you turn those involved in the uprising into a regular force, you regularize the legitimate businessman who rose up to defend his family and business, but you also get the bastard who sold four kilos of cocaine once upon a time," said Miguel Angel Sánchez, director of the Michoacan news agency Quadratín.

"There's an attempt to put a happy face on all of this," Sánchez added.

Dissident Militia Leader Found with Drugs in Mexico, Authorities Say. Read more here.

Mexican troops moved into La Ruana after the shootout. (Photo by David Agren)

Discontent with the government peaked over the weekend as some members of the "Fuerza Rural," as the legalized groups are known in Spanish, turned in their badges, blocked highways, and burned their blue uniforms. Autodefensas in the town of Tepalcatepec announced they would resume patrols, even though the federal government warns it will imprison anyone with illegal weapons.

The group said it wanted to fight an apparently new organized crime group called, "Los Viagras" (yes, like the pills), which the Tepelcatepec crew promised to pursue and claimed in a Facebook message that "the government has protected." The group remains shadowy in the region and hasn't been recognized the government.


"They're getting paid. The [authorities] need to do their jobs," Mora said of the government and its security agencies. "It they're not going to do it, we will."

Ivo Esquivel, a member of the self-defense group in Buenavista, said he has been frustrated with the Rural Force experience, mainly because his group wants to pursue Knights Templar leader Servando Gomez Martinez, a.k.a. La Tuta, instead of just patrolling their own region.

He said he joined the Buenavista autodefensa group after his uncle was murdered in September 2013, and after he couldn't continue with multimedia studies at a university in Morelia, the state capital.

"Our cause is to finish off the Templarios, but they won't let us," he told VICE News in La Ruana's town square.

Ordinary people are uncertain of who to trust, said Father Patricio Madrigal, a parish priest in the town of Nueva Italia. He told VICE News that incidents of extortion and kidnapping are once again on the rise.

"It's worse than ever," Madrigal said. "We used to know who the bad guys were. Now we don't."

'We Had Everything But Freedom': Inside Mexico's Shelter of Horrors. Read more here.

Follow David Agren on Twitter @el_reportero.