The Mexican Doctor Who Leads a Militia Against the Cartels

The western Mexico state of Michoacan is in the midst of war. Groups of armed civilians have banded together to fight the drug cartels, and they're led by a local doctor named Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde.

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Jan 10 2014, 6:01pm


"I attend to my patients every day from seven in the morning till noon, but after noon, I go to war," said Dr. Mireles at his Tepalcatepec office last November. All photos by Hans-Maximo Musielik

Michoacan, the fertile agricultural state in western Mexico, is in the midst of war. There are three main players: the cartel known as Los Caballeros Templarios (the Knights Templar), the Federal Police and Mexican Army forces, and the armed civilian groups that have emerged in Michoacan—as well as other states—in the absence of peace and safety.

A sort of moral leader has arisen from these militia groups. Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde heads the General Counsel for Self-Defense and Community Police Forces of Michoacan. Since communities in the region took up arms to defend their towns from crime last February, Dr. Mireles has been their public voice, appearing on magazine covers and in televised interviews, defending every Mexican’s right to protect themselves from lawlessness.

Last week, photographer Hans-Maximo Musielik spent five days with Dr. Mireles, getting closer to the leader than anyone before. He documented Dr. Mireles, as well as his guards and commanders, as they kept road blocks and sought the expansion of the territory under the command of the self-defense council. On December 29, they peacefully overtook the municipality of Churumuco. Everything remained calm until January 4 when the community police forces took over Paracuaro, the tenth municipality to be added to the self-defense zone. But unlike Churumuco, the arrival of the self-defense groups met resistance, leading to fatal fighting. At least two gunmen for the Templarios were killed during the reported shootings. Two Mexican Army soldiers died in an ambush nearby. Hans-Maximo's photos also capture the death of one member of the self-defense forces, a killing that was not counted in the major news reports.

After the taking of Paracuaro on Saturday night, Dr. Mireles was traveling on a light aircraft from Guadalajara when it crashed in the municipality of La Huacana. The leader, who took up arms with the community police of Tepalcatepec, survived the accident. So far, it looks like there was no foul play involved.

Dr. Mireles is currently recovering in Mexico City, under the custody of the Federal Police. The federal government has stated that they are granting protection to Dr. Mireles because, basically, he has become a national political figure. Without him, the communities who now trust the self-defense council would be left without a figurehead who symbolizes the people’s fight against organized crime.

But in Michoacan, the threat of a cartel carries more weight than just any criminal gang. Hans-Maximo's photos show that the Templarios, as well as their predecessors, La Familia Michoacana, are a social force. Some citizens of the conflict zones wear their loyalty to the cartel on their sleeves—or, in this case, on their shirts.

"It's a rebellion," said Hans-Maximo, who has traveled to Michoacan several times in the past year to cover the conflict. "It is an historical event.”

Introduction by Daniel Hernandez

Sunday, December 29, 2013. Churumuco, Michoacan.

10:03 AM. On the basketball court in the town of Churumuco, Michoacan, Dr. Mireles speaks to the townspeople, explaining the reasons for the takeover and guaranteeing his support in the fight against Los Caballeros Templarios.

"Today, the community of Churumuco is officially taken over by the citizens’ movement. Anyone who wishes is welcome to bear arms to defend their family and town. If you are carrying weapons and come across the Federal Police or Army, do not run. It is Los Templarios who should run. The Army and Federales are our friends. Show them respect by lowering your weapons when they pass through. "

About 20 vehicles, lead by Dr. Mireles, went into the town at 9:30 AM. There were no registered incidents.

11:38 AM. After taking over the town of Churumuco, Dr. Mireles [sitting, right, with an escort and another commander] talks with the mayor of Churumuco, Gildardo Barrera Estrada. Dr. Mirales informs him that, upon the town's takeover, they will remain there to "clean up the town of Caballeros Templarios."

11:48 AM. A mother and her children from Churumuco make their way through the self-defense forces, who have just taken over the town. The mother's T-shirt is defiantly opposed to the arrival of the new forces: "Congratulations Father, on your day, thank you for being a Father, and for being Templario."

12:40 PM. After the takeover, two members of the miltia, armed with assault rifles, patrol the road to the village of Poturo from the back of a truck. They have built barricades to defend the townspeople against any attacks from the Los Templarios cartel.

1:07 PM. Dr. Mireles' bodyguard, known as El Siete ["the Seven"], salutes victoriously after the successful takeover of Churumuco.

Monday, December 30, 2013.

9:00 AM. Zicuiran, Michoacan. Dr. Mireles looks at his phone and a map of the area in front of him. On December 18, the self-defense groups under his leadership took control of the community of Zicuiran in the municipality of La Huacana. Since then, they operate out of a local restaurant.

3:23 PM. El Chauz, Michoacan. Two self-defense guards rest near the main barricade at El Chauz, a few miles away from Zicuiran. The barricade is located over the main Patzcuaro-Apatzingan highway. The guards take turns surveilling every two to four hours. They will remain in the barricades for days, resting, eating, and bathing near the checkpoints. They rarely go home.

3:40 PM. El Chauz, Michoacan. A self-defense guard, sleeping.

4:37 PM. El Chauz, Michoacan. Another self-defense member, resting a bit.

4:40 PM. El Chauz, Michoacan. At El Chauz's main barricade, every vehicle is subject to an inspection—even trucks belonging to candy and soft drink companies.

4:50 PM El Chauz, Michoacan. A self-defense guard picks up his AK-47 at the main barricade for El Chauz as he prepares to begin his shift.

6:00 PM. Zicuiran, Michoacan. Dr. Mireles reads a story in the local paper on the peaceful takeover of Churumuco at his temporary operating base. He appears in a photo on the front page.

6:58 PM. Zicuiran, Michoacan. Two of Dr. Mireles' bodyguards, El Siete, center, and El Tormenta, right, shoot pool near the temporary operating base in Zicuiran.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013.

2:09 PM. La Huacana, Michoacan. A self-defense member known as Mi Rey holds his assault riffle as his truck arrives at La Huacana.

3:17 PM. La Huacana, Michoacan. Papá Pitufo ["Papa Smurf"] wears his custom-made holster while he keeps guard at La Huacana's City Hall, awaiting Dr. Mireles' arrival. It's common for self-defense members to personalize their weapons.

3:31 PM. La Huacana, Michoacan. Tormenta's holster as he climbs into his truck.

3:50 PM. El Ciruelo, Michoacan. A self-defense member ready to test-shoot his AK-47. El Ciruelo's barricade is one of the most strategic and dangerous. It controls the access to the Lazaro Cardenas-Uruapan Highway, which enters Tierra Caliente and comes very near to Apatzingan, the Templarios's base.

3:55 PM. El Ciruelo, Michoacan. A self-defense guard rests behind El Ciruelo's barricade and recharges his cell phone battery.

5:07 PM. El Ciruelo, Michoacan. About seven hours before the new year, Dr. Mireles visits El Ciruelo's barricade to personally congratulate the team and the supporters of the self-defense movement. Two days earlier, the Caballeros Templarios spread rumors of an imminent strike that night in an attempt to psychologically exhaust the fighters. The attack never took place.

Saturday, January 4, 2014.

3:06 PM. Paracuaro, Michoacan. A self-defense member in the aftermath of a confrontation with Los Caballeros Templarios during the takeover of Paracuaro.

4:04 PM. Paracuaro, Michoacan. A self-defense member takes cover behind a truck during a confrontation against Los Caballeros Templarios in the town of Paracuaro, where one self-defense member died. Others take cover behind a palm tree.

4:58 PM. Paracuaro, Michoacan. A self-defense member shows a book authored by Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, a drug-trafficker and founder of the cartel La Familia Michoacana. The book was found during a raid of the home of a Caballero Templario in Paracuaro, following the takeover of the town a few hours prior.

5:56 PM. Cuatro Caminos, Michoacan. Military units guard the stretch of the highway blocked by Los Caballeros Templarios. This was in reaction to Paracuaro's takeover by Dr. Mireles' self-defense group a few hours earlier.

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