The so-called autodefensa militias in the southwest Mexican state of Michoacán —which took up arms against the Knights Templar cartel more than a year ago — are now refusing the government’s demand to put down their weapons.
The militias, formed by citizens who armed themselves as protection against the violence inflicted by the narco cartel, claim that the federal government’s plan to restore peace to the region has, so far, failed. On Sunday, two members if the autodefensas were injured in a shootout with alleged members of the Knights Templar cartel in the municipality of Tingambato, according to José Manuel Mireles Valverde, the father of the armed self-defense group.
As the self-defense groups expanded in the past year, President Enrique Peña Nieto decided to legalize part of the movement, transforming them into “country police,” so that they may function more as backup to the federal security efforts in Michoacan. The government’s ultimate goal is to “rid all of Michoacán of the Knights Templar,” they said.
In January, the government signed an agreement that would allow the autodefensas to keep their arms —with permits. But in early April, the Mexican government announced its intent to remove all weapons from civilian hands in Michoacán. The autodefensas have stated that they will comply only once they begin to see the leaders of the Knights Templar cartel start to fall or be arrested.
“We prefer to die at the hands of the government than at the hands of a goddamned son of a bitch who dismembers and butchers you — without releasing even a fingernail to your family. Because, that’s what the criminals do,” Mireles told VICE News.
The autodefensa groups are opposed to the disarmament because, they say, the cartel hitmen who serve the criminal bosses are still free, as well as the group’s founder, Servando Gómez, alias “La Tuta” or “El Profe,” who also remains at large.
“La Tuta,” alongside Templario leaders Enrique Plancarte, alias “La Chiva,” and Nazario Moreno González, alias “El Chayo,” founded the Knights Templar in 2011, after the fall of their precursor group, La Familia Michoacana. The Knights use extortion, kidnapping, and illegal mining as their main source of funds for the organization. Narco-trafficking is, in comparison, a minimal resource for them.
In the last month, two of the Templario leaders died in battles with the federal police. First, Nazario Moreno died in Apatzingán, Michoacán, in a shootout with the Mexican army on March 9, the day after his 44th birthday. On March 31, Plancarte was killed in a shooting with Mexican marines in the city of Queretaro. “La Tuta” is the only cartel head still alive.
For the past week, the autodefensa groups have been protesting against the proposed mandatory disarmament in Tierra Caliente, one of the most dangerous regions in Michoacán, which has a strong Knights Templar presence.
With road checkpoints and blockades against police and soldiers, community forces have avoided disarmament. But the government insists that it is imminent.
On April 10 Mireles said the roadblocks could be extended to all of the counties in Michoacán where autodefensa forces are present. This amounts to 33 of Michoacan’s 113 municipalities.
Mireles rose up as one of the most prominent leaders of the movement since its inception in early 2013. After living in California for 10 years, he came back to Mexico and worked as a doctor. Since his return, extreme violence in Michoacán has affected Mireles personally, as some of his relatives have been killed by cartel members, and he too has been kidnapped, for his participation with the autodefensas, and his vocal opposition to organized crime in the region. His kidnappers considered his medical skills to be an asset, so he managed to survive the ordeal.
After leading the autodefensa group for just under a year, Mireles began negotiations with the government, who considered him an ally in the fight against the Knights Templar. On January 4 he was involved in a plane crash while flying through Michoacan in a Cessna. After the crash he was rescued by Federal Police and transported to Mexico City. After returning to Michoacán, Mireles’ relationship with the federal government began to weaken, as the self-defense group felt that the government was not upholding its end of the agreement and was unable to guarantee protection in exchange for disarmament.
On April 10, members of the autodefensa commemorated the death of 14 local lime producers, who were shot by members of the Knights Templar at Cuatro Caminos, in the Tierra Caliente region. The lime producers had recently met with state officials to request better working conditions, an end to the violence, and some semblance of safety. They sympathized with the efforts of the autodefensa group, and died because of it.
Mireles said that although the government had announced the impending disarming of the autodefensa groups, they will not release their weapons. He told VICE News that the criminals would return if the autodefensas were to disarm, and the lives of Michoacan’s residents would remain in danger.
“The government has always asked us to abandon our weapons, and have threatened to disarm us themselves and throw everyone who chooses to stay armed in jail. But let’s see what happens, because there are people who truly will not release their arms,” Mireles said.
But Mexican Secretary of Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Cong maintains firmly that the government’s position is that “they have to leave the job up to the authorities.”
“We have made agreements, and the government needs to continue to preserve the stability and security in Michoacan. [The autodefensas] must disarm and return to their daily activities. Those who are found with illegal weapons will be arrested,” he said.
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