A prominent figure in the tangled vigilante movement in western Mexico is under arrest and facing drugs and weapons charges, which has become the latest development to cast uncertainty over the troubled agricultural and mining state of Michoacan.
Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a lanky gray-haired physician who came to prominence earlier this year as the symbolic face of the autodefensa movement in Michoacan, was arrested on Friday during a heavy federal and military operation, along with 82 other dissident militia members in a small community in the region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land.
Mireles had previously refused to go along with a plan by Mexico’s government that required all citizen militias in the state to lay down their arms by May 10 and fold their efforts into a little-known agency known as the Rural Forces. He frequently called the government corrupt and claimed authorities were colluding with Michoacan’s most powerful cartel, the Knights Templar.
Mireles said he wouldn’t disband the vigilantes he had helped organize until Mexico’s government met its end of an earlier bargain with the groups, which called for authorities to locate and capture the Knights Templar leader known as “La Tuta.” Servando “La Tuta” Gómez remains at large.
In May, the government successfully convinced other leaders and their militias to join the Rural Forces, a push aimed at diffusing the widening influence of the grassroots autodefensa groups that proliferated in response to the Knights’ unchecked use of extortion and kidnapping in towns and cities across the state.
Alfredo Castillo, the federal-level special commissioner in charge of bringing order to Michoacan, said during a press conference on Monday that Mireles and three bodyguards were found with 14 firearms, as well as ammunition, marijuana, cocaine, and 30,000 pesos in cash, or about $2,300.
“With these actions, the state institutions and the federal government are making the law count … with the only goal being the return of peace and tranquility to all the people of Michoacan,” Castillo told reporters.
Mireles was transported to a prison in the state of Sonora, north of Michoacan, and awaits an indictment, officials said.
The doctor’s supporters immediately cried foul. Ándres Manuel López Obrador, a former two-time leftist presidential candidate, said while visiting Michoacan on Monday that Mireles’s arrest was political in nature.
“The doctor was jailed because he didn’t fall in line behind the commissioner,” López Obrador said in the community of Nueva Italia.
Nonetheless, Mireles's record isn't exactly clean. In 1988, he was arrested by federal authorities after being caught with 86 kilos of marijuana, the Mexican daily Excelsior reported in January. He served three years and eight months in prison for the related charges.
Mireles’s lawyer, Talía Vázquez, claimed in an interview with VICE News this week that the government must have planted the drugs on Mireles in order to detain him. She also alleged that the doctor was “tortured” by authorities and kept isolated for 24 hours before being permitted to meet with her.
“Doctor Mireles was detained in an irregular manner for creating discomfort for the government and because they want to police a social problem with force,” Vázquez said. “Since there is a grave conflict in Michoacan and since they are unable to arrest the Templarios, it’s better to arrest Mireles.”
She added: “The autodefensas are not the root of the problem, they are the solution that the people gave to the problem.”
Castillo on Monday denied that Mireles had been tortured, but did not address the other claims against the doctor’s arrest. He also said the investigation of Mireles is ongoing and that other charges could follow.
The operation that led to Mireles’s arrest was unusual because it involved all the major Mexican security forces, including the army, the navy, the federal police, and state-level police and prosecutors. The doctor was captured as he attempted to organize a fresh autodefensa group in La Mira, which lies on a highway to the Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas that is strategic for illegal mining and other criminal interests, his lawyer said, calling the coincidence suspicious.
“La Mira is strategic for the Templarios,” Vázquez said. “It’s a very small community but it is an obligatory stop from the mountains to the port [Lázaro Cárdenas]. Drugs, guns, and minerals pass through there, and it is a position that belongs to La Tuta.”
The Mireles arrest comes nearly two weeks after the resignation of Michoacan’s governor, Fausto Vallejo. Vallejo is reportedly battling a serious illness, which had forced him to designate most of his duties to a substitute. A few days before Vallejo announced his resignation, photos emerged that allegedly depict his son, Rodrigo Vallejo Mora, in a meeting with “La Tuta.”
Vallejo has been dogged by allegations of links to organized crime almost since the start of his term in office in 2012.
Mexico’s federal government says that so far 5,000 former militia members have registered for the Rural Forces, with more than 800 of them already active.
But the Rural Forces have not avoided their own problems. Claims of corruption against some recently integrated members are already casting doubt on the ability of the Rural Forces to help bring order to the state of Michoacan. A town hall meeting with the Rural Forces in the community of Aguililla descended into a brawl and then gunfire in mid-June, leaving one dead.
Follow Rafael Castillo on Twitter: @tntemalasombra