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Mexican 'Viceroy' Sent to Pacify Michoacan State Leaves Murky Legacy

Alfredo Castillo was sent to Michoacan one year ago, on personal orders from President Enrique Peña Nieto. Today, local cartel chief 'La Tuta' remains at large and self-defense militias are battling each other in fatal shootouts.

by David Agren
Jan 23 2015, 8:25pm

Photo by Juan Jose Estrada Serafín

Alfredo Castillo, a trusted confidant of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto who had been tapped to calm the conflictive western state of Michoacan, was removed from his post on Thursday, leaving a legacy as mixed as the security situation in the agricultural and drug-producing state.

Mexican interior minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced the move, saying circumstances had changed and the state was safer. But Castillo leaves without fully resolving Michoacan's complex security problems.

The drug cartel currently dominating the state, the Knights Templar, has been weakened but not dismantled, while its leader, a figure known as "La Tuta," remains at large. Recent gun battles between rival factions of the self-defense militias that emerged in the state to battle the cartel have claimed dozens of lives, showing that Castillo was unable to placate the vigilantes as he had promised.

In radio interviews on Friday, Castillo dismissed the idea that he failed as the president's special commissioner for security in Michoacan.

"Anyone who wants it look bad, will look for arguments to make it look bad," Castillo told MVS Noticias. "Twelve months was and will always be insufficient to attend a problem that's been around, if not for a decade, then for many years."

Michoacan, the birthplace of Mexico's drug war, is still a violent quagmire. Read more here.

Members of the self-defense militia in La Ruana fire shots in the sky in honor of a fallen comrade. (Photo by Brett Gundlock)

Castillo lasted a year and eight days in his post in Michaocan. His strategy — especially in demobilizing the vigilante groups and putting them under government control — was often unclear, critics said. After a while, skeptics took to calling him "viceroy," in reference to the period when the monarch of Spain would send a personally chosen envoy to govern the Mexican colony.

"They sometimes think that the repairs are easy: Take the photo, shake hands, now everything is at peace," the archbishop of Morelia, Cardinal Alberto Suarez Inda, told VICE News prior to Castillo's resignation. "It's an appearance of repair."

Some analysts had questioned whether the appointment was even legal.

"There's violence in many parts of the country, but only in Michoacan did Enrique Peña Nieto send a commissioner," said Eduardo Nava Hernandez, political science professor at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo.

New rural police force emerges after the death of Mexico's autodefensas. Read more here.

Members of the newly formed rural police force in Michoacan, in May 2014. (Photo by Jose Estrada Serafín)

Michoacan politics have been especially messy in recent years, adding to the sense of instability.

The current governor, Salomon Jara, is seen as subservient to Castillo, while predecessor Fausto Vallejo resigned last July, partly due to health reasons but also under scrutiny after a damaging video surfaced of his son drinking beers with La Tuta.

Jesus Reyna, Vallejo's right-hand man and the former interim governor, is behind bars on drug and organized crime charges.

The state elects a new governor on July 7, an event in which Castillo had already become something of a wedge figure and the target of attacks from opposition-party hopefuls for governor, including Luisa Maria Calderon, the sister of former Mexican president Felipe Calderon.

'It's worse to mess with Castillo than with La Tuta.'

Most controversial of Castillo was his handling of the self-defense groups. He pinned badges on the vigilantes and gave them guns to protect their communities, but critics say Castillo never conducted proper background checks and ended up deputizing ex-members of the Knights Templar.

Castillo also arrested the most prominent vigilante leader Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, after Mireles criticized the forming of the rural police force, or "Fuerza Rural," and its inclusion of controversial figures with known ties to organized crime.

"It's worse to mess with Castillo than with La Tuta," said Andres Larios, parish priest in the town of La Ruana, and an early supporter of the vigilante groups.

The rural police forces have fought among themselves, most recently in a December 16 shootout in La Ruana that left 11 people dead, including the son of Hipólito Mora, founder of the first vigilante group in the state.

Dissident militia leader arrested with drugs in Mexico. Read more here.

A rural police officer is laid to rest after the December 16 shooting in La Ruana. (Photo by Brett Gundlock)

A gang known as Los Viagras, which locals say includes many ex-Knights Templar members, also has surged in the area around the city of Apatzingán, and is alleged to have carried out many of the same crimes the Knights Templar have been accused of committing, mostly extortion and kidnapping.

The gang is accused of briefly occupying city hall in Apatzingán in December, until federal forces evicted them in an operation that resulted in at least nine deaths and allegations of human rights violations.

The situation has left locals not knowing who is who or which authority figures they can trust, Father Larios said. "Instead of feeling support from this government, you feel fear."

On the eve of Castillo's one-year anniversary in the post last week, an editorial in El Cambio newspaper listed positives under his term, such as reports of a decrease in crimes like extortion and kidnapping — though home robberies and so-called "express kidnappings" increased — and the ridding of corrupt officials from some municipal governments.

"In essence, the correct path has been followed, but it's still too early to proclaim victory," the editorial read. On the downside, the newspaper said, Castillo had "an eagerness to get into areas that were none of his business, such as politics and the economy."

Watch VICE News' documentary: Fighting Mexico's Knights Templar Cartel.

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero.