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Mexico’s Self-Defense Militias Follow Cartels Into Deadly Internal Conflict

Mexican "autodefensa" groups were founded to protect citizens from drug cartel violence. Now they too have descended into bloodshed.
Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik

By Daniel Hernandez and Hans-Maximo Musielik

Days after the killing of an elusive Mexican cartel leader who had first been declared dead more than three years ago, a feud between heads of the citizen self-defense forces is heightening tensions in the “Hot Land” region of the troubled state of Michoacán.

The “second death” of the Knights Templar leader Nazario Moreno, known as el Chayo, was confirmed on Wednesday by fingerprints held by the DEA from his time in a Texan prison. But this news has been eclipsed by a simmering dispute between two autodefensa viligante leaders and their respective factions in the Michoacán municipality of Buenavista — and the feud has turned deadly.


The conflict in the broader Tierra Caliente region is being played out in a hazy arena where blood ties, political goals, and personal interests are always in the foreground.

This week, one of the original founders and spokesmen of the autodefensa movement was arrested by state authorities in connection with the killings of another self-defense militia leader and his driver last weekend.

Hipólito Mora, a local businessman who co-founded Michoacán’s first militia in the town of La Ruana last February, was arrested on Tuesday. He is accused of involvement in the deaths of autodefensa leader Rafael Sánchez Moreno, also known as el Pollo, and his bodyguard José Luis Torres Castañeda.

The two victims were found burnt to death in the back of a pickup truck on March 8 in the community of Dieciocho de Marzo, within Buenavista municipality.

Mora was formally charged on Thursday with “co-operation” in the murders and 35 other charges. El Pollo was high up in the autodefensa group in the town of Buenavista Tomatlán. That militia is led by Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, a vigilante also known as el Americano because he grew up partly north of the border.

Mora’s group is battling el Americano’s faction for control of the whole of Buenavista. Mora’s arrest, however, throws Michoacán’s entire autodefensa map into uncertain territory. On Wednesday, Mexican troops entered La Ruana and disarmed Mora’s loyalists without significant resistance, decommissioning 44 weapons in total.


Then further complicating the picture, the second victim of the March 8 deaths, Torres Castañeda, has been identified as the father of an aide to a senator representing Michoacán, Iris Vianey Mendoza, who had been accused but cleared of allegations of links to the Knights Templar cartel.

Separately, the moral leader of the vigilante movement, physician Jose Mireles, claimed in a radio interview on Thursday that the root of the conflict between Mora and Torres lies in an inter-family dispute. Dr Mireles claimed that a niece of Mora became romantically involved with el Americano, angering Mora. In retaliation, the leader of the La Ruana militia exiled Torres’s mother from the town, where she lived.

Mireles explained that he believes that el Americano discovered who was responsible for the killing of his men, that they were in La Ruana, tried to take them in, but Mora refused to hand them over. “In my view, Hipolito had nothing to do with it, but he didn't let them take the two guys that did the killing,” Mireles said.

As the Knights Templar cartel is further dispersed by the expanding militia movement, the legitimacy of each autodefensa leader becomes a point of contention in the pursuit of stability in Michoacán.

View “Fighting Mexico’s Knights Templar Cartel,” a VICE News special report.

In Buenavista, for example, Torres has accused Mora of not promptly returning lime farms and other properties and ranches to their rightful owners once the militia seized them away from the ruthless Knights Templar. On the other hand, Mora accuses Torres of maintaining ties with the cartel.


Whatever the source of the dispute in Buenavista, in a video message also published this week, Mireles suggested the conflict there is “sown from outside.”

“Death and impunity remain in Michoacán. We still don’t have confidence in the authorities,” Mireles said. “Regrettably, in the recent operation that resulted in the take down of el Chayo, the intelligence provided by the autodefensas of Michoacán has not been recognized [by the government].”

Dozens of autodefensa members helped federal police to set up a security perimeter to catch el Chayo and were present throughout the operation by Mexican Navy infantrymen that netted the narco leader.

With el Chayo gone, the Knights Templar cartel looks weaker than ever. Whatever happens next in Michoacán will depend on the ability of the federal government to keep the militia movement free of corruption and internal squabbling. But if the history of other such conflicts in Mexico is any indication, that’s a tall order indeed.