MEXICO CITY – Mexico's vigilante "self-defense" groups have been riven by internal disputes after driving the vicious Knights Templar drug cartel out of much of the western state of Michoacan.
Officials and residents said Tuesday the dispute came to a head when hundreds of police and army troops were sent in to separate two armed factions in the town of La Ruana on Monday.
The confrontation revived fears that the government has created a monster by letting the heavily armed group of an estimated 20,000 vigilantes take over basic law enforcement duties in the state without knowing who is really behind the movement. Vigilante leaders say their movement is supported by contributions from farmers, growers and businessmen. But there are concerns that a rival drug cartel, personal interests and local feuds may also play a role.
The vigilantes are now the de-facto authorities in about 15 of the state's townships, and several top drug cartel leaders have been arrested or killed.
The Michoacan state public safety department said authorities "are conducting mediation efforts to defuse the conflict between self-defense groups." The department identified the leaders of the two factions as Hipolito Mora, who founded the movement in February 2013 after he and fellow residents wearied of the drug cartel's demands for protection payments, and Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, a vigilante leader known by the nickname "Simon El Americano."
The two represent different wings of the movement, which is comprised mainly of farmers, ranchers and farmworkers and seeks to end the Knights Templar's reign of kidnapping, murder and extortion. The grandfatherly Mora has become a public face of the movement, with frequent press interviews, while "El Americano," so-named because he lived in the United States, is viewed as rougher, less communicative and far more involved in armed incursions aimed at kicking cartel gunmen out of the state.
Mora has been accused of abusing his position, holding on to lime orchards and fields that were seized from the Knights Templar, and possibly having a role in the deaths of two vigilantes found murdered over the weekend. A recent increase in price for limes — the mainstay of the economy in Michoacan's semi-tropical lowlands — may have brought the dispute to a head because lime orchards have become enormously profitable.
Mora has denied those accusations, saying he returns the land to its rightful owners when they can show proof of ownership. He also denies any role in the deaths of the vigilantes whose bodies were found Saturday in a burned-out pickup truck. Mora says the rival faction has allowed former Knights Templar cartel gunmen to join the vigilante group, a complaint frequently heard in the area. "They will do anything for money," Mora told local media.
The federal government's envoy for Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, said Mora had been flown Monday from La Ruana to Mexico City for meetings with authorities, and more meetings were planned Tuesday in an effort to iron out differences.
Neither Mora nor Torres Gonzalez answered phones on Tuesday, but Ramon Contreras, a town official in La Ruana, where the movement to combat drug cartel extortion began a year ago, said Mora's vigilantes had grown arrogant and abused the local population.
"Hipolito is doing well, but only with the media," said Contreras. "People are saying 'we're more afraid of the self-defense forces than the Knights Templar.' "
It was a development that many had feared, with largely untrained vigilante forces armed with assault rifles springing up so quickly.
"The division among the self-defense forces in a natural phenomenon when spontaneous leaderships spring up ... and the leaders quickly begin to accumulate power," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
The federal government — which at first sought to arrest the vigilantes, then let them grow and finally sought to incorporate them into rural defense corps — urgently wants to defuse the confrontation.
"We cannot permit this kind of confrontation to occur," Castillo said.