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The Vigilante Protagonist of an Oscar-Nominated Drug War Movie Speaks From Jail

The documentary Cartel Land portrays José Manuel Mireles as a flawed hero who stood up to one of Mexico's most barbarous drug cartels, but who also succumbed to the temptation of abusing his new power.
February 4, 2016, 4:40pm
Photo via Cartel Land

The documentary film Cartel Land portrays Mexican vigilante leader José Manuel Mireles as a flawed hero who stood up to one of the country's most barbarous drug cartels, but who also succumbed to the temptation of abusing his new power.

Mireles is currently languishing in prison, while the movie that he has never seen is in the running for an Oscar. VICE Media is an official marketing partner on the film.

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"I want to thank the enormous effort you made alongside me for the Oscar that we are probably going to win," the imprisoned Mireles told the director Matthew Heineman in a recording obtained from a confidential source. "I wish I could see the film with you in person and be at the ceremony to receive it."

Mireles — with his easy charisma, way with words, and Marlboro Man-esque look — quickly became the most famous leader within the vigilante movement that sprung up three years ago in the Hot Land region of the state of Michoacán to fight the Knights Templar drug cartel.

At the time the Templarios ruled over the area. The cartel not only murdered, kidnapped, and extorted at will, it also ran a kind of de facto government that municipal, state, and federal forces did little to stop. In some towns cartel lookouts were paid through the municipal budget.

This changed in early 2014 when the rising influence of the militia threatened to tip the region into civil war and the government found itself under enormous pressure to prove that it could regain control of the situation. Large numbers of federal forces were deployed and joint operations with the vigilantes began that, over the course of the year, appeared to bring the Knights Templar to their knees.

Related: Where Mexico's Drug War Was Born: A Timeline of the Security Crisis in Michoacán

Cartel Land follows Mireles at the height of his popularity rallying the support of country folk in his efforts to expel the cartel. He is repeatedly shown speaking to cheering crowds, and being surrounded by adoring and grateful locals who seem genuinely inspired by him and his movement.

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But the film also highlights the moral ambiguity of both the battle in Michoacán, and of its lead character.

In one scene the doctor is seen at a nighttime vigilante checkpoint apprehending suspected cartel members.

"These people don't turn over a new leaf. Right now you all forgive him but he wouldn't forgive any of us if given the chance. They have never had compassion for anybody. Never. Ever," Mireles is heard saying to one of his men. "Get everything you can out of him and put him into the ground. Immediately."

Another scene in the film shows a vigilante base in which other suspected cartel members are being held and, judging by the screams heard in the background, tortured.

The documentary ends with mention of Mireles' detention in June 2014.

Related: Dissident Militia Leader Arrested with Drugs in Mexico, Authorities Say

The doctor was arrested in a federal sweep of dissident vigilante members who resisted joining the specially created force called the Rural Police that the government formed in an explicit effort to domesticate the militia. The government did not appear concerned that some leaders were regularly accused of maintaining associations with the criminal underworld that still seethed in the state as the Knights Templar began to disintegrate.

Weeks before his arrest Mireles had told VICE News that joining the police would strip the vigilantes of their ability to defend their communities from organized crime.

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"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," he told VICE News in the Spring of 2014.

Watch VICE News Documentary Michoacan's Most Wanted Drug Kingpin: Mexico's Hot Land

Since then the divisions within the vigilante movement have deepened and the leaders who rose to prominence alongside Mireles have mostly disappeared from the public stage. Many are dogged by accusations of criminal links, others by allegations that they have become opportunistic government stooges.

Michoacán's newly inaugurated governor, Silvano Aureoles Conejo, is spearheading a renewed push to bring the vigilantes under government control via the dissolution of the Rural Police and its replacement with a single state-level force. Aureoles has said that only those members who pass trust tests will be accepted and the others must be disarmed. From February 11, he says, there will be "zero tolerance" of armed militia.

Hipolito Mora, who was once as influential as Mireles, developed a reputation of being pro-government, particularly after he spent a spell in jail on a murder charge that was later dropped.

"There is still a lot to do to achieve the Michoacán we want," he told VICE News. "There have been positive changes but there is still a lot of insecurity, and a lot of murder."

Related: Mexico Releases Michoacan Vigilante Leader Involved in Fatal Gun with Rival Militia

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The federal government, meanwhile, now rarely talks about Michoacán, other than to claim that violence in the state has dropped thanks to the actions taken to ensure that the Knights Templar is now all but dismantled.

Official figures do indicate that homicides in Michoacán during 2015 were lower than they were in both 2013 and 2014. The number of murders was, however, still higher than in 2012, prior to the foundation of the militias. They also appear to be rising again. While the average monthly number of murders in the first three months of 2015 was 49, it rose to 79 in the last three months. December was the deadliest month with 87 murders.

Hot Land ethnographer Falko A. Ernst, from the University of Essex, says he is receiving the message from his well-connected informants on the ground that "open war" is returning to the region.

The previous period of relative tranquility, he said, stemmed from the leaders of the multiple different groups of vigilantes and criminal gangs choosing to lie low while they formed new coalitions in an effort to make a bid for dominance at a later date. Ernst added that the vigilante "episode" had left "territorial control and power" in the Hot Land more fragmented than ever, and no more institutional.

"Most of my local informants doubted the dominant narrative of the self-defense movement from the outset," he said of the militia and their claim to purity, symbolized by the white t-shirts they wore at the start of their uprising. "All the legitimate participation notwithstanding, most of my contacts spoke of the white shirts as a veil used by major players of the Templar structure to keep their thiefdoms intact."

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At his height, Mireles was the most obvious example of what Ernst calls the "romanticizing portrayal" of the vigilante movement. His detention 18 months ago initially became a cause celebre for some on the independent left who portrayed him as a beacon of honesty amid the vigilante movement that was already widely accused of slipping into criminality.

'I want to use this message to ask forgiveness of the Mexican government…for offending them with my omissions and civil disobedience.'

The doctor also released several defiant messages from jail via his lawyers and family. One of the last was a letter dated October 2015 in which he repeatedly proclaimed Si, valio la pena — "Yes, it was worth it."

This year, however, Mireles has sounded like a broken man in the face of repeated failures to obtain his release on the grounds of ill health.

"I want to use this message to ask forgiveness of the Mexican government and its official and non official institutions and its structure distributed across national territory, for having failed to show the proper respect with my words and actions and for offending them with my omissions and civil disobedience," the once seemingly fearless vigilante leader said in a recording released by his sister last month. "I humbly beg from the bottom of my heart to be forgiven for the damage that I have caused you."

Related: Michoacán, the Birthplace of Mexico's Drug War Is Still a Violent Quagmire

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz