Mexico City, Mexico – Hipólito Mora, one of the founding members of the “autodefensa” citizen militia group that rose up in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán during 2014 to battle cartel gunmen, is ready to start a new chapter in his life.
Mora, an unassuming middle-aged man who wears frameless glasses and usually trims his grey-specked beard into a neat goatee, rose to prominence after convincing a group of his neighbors to take up arms against the notorious Knights Templar cartel that seized control of a wide swath of Michoacán during the administration of former Mexican president, Felipe Calderón.
He battled Templar gunmen, and also “autodefensa” allies, whom he viewed to be compromised by connections to organized crime groups. In a strange on-again, off-again relationship with Mexico’s government, he’s been jailed twice after gunfights between his followers and gunmen loyal to Luis Antonio Torres, a fighter who goes by the nickname “The American.”
On Monday, a Mexican judge ordered Mora released from prison. The former vigilante leader may now be turning his attention towards politics.
After leaving prison on Monday, Mora held meetings with Mexico’s Citizen’s Movement (MC) political party about pursuing a seat in congress.
“I’m going to keep talking to the Movement and if we reach an agreement, I’ll enter,” he said.
If Mora does decide to enter the political fray, the former gunmen is likely to face mixed reactions from the public.
Enstanislao Beltrán, a short and heavily bearded man who goes by the alias Papa Pitufo and fought alongside Mora in the militia and later in the institutionalized Fuerza Rural police force, told Fox News Latino, “[Mora] wants to go into politics. I hope [he] succeeds, but Mexican politics is a real fight if you don’t understand the laws. It won’t work.”
Beltrán added that he isn’t sure that fighting cartel gunmen is enough of a qualification for a politician. “Politics requires knowledge to be able to debate,” he said. “The experience we have is fighting, defending ourselves and taking over towns from the Knights Templar.”
Mexico City-based political analyst Ramon Peña Franco echoed Beltrán’s concerns. “I don't think being an autodefensa is enough preparation,” he told FNL.
Peña Franco explained, “It's definitely true that he organized people, and he filled a power vacuum in dangerous places in the state … but he doesn't have experience in economics, and politics is complicated. I don't think he has the required group of advisors that is the defining factor of success for any politician.”
He added, “Popularity is not enough.”
As for what kind of impact he could have, Beltrán fears that it might potentially discredit the citizen militia movement.
“It could be bad because people might think that we fought in order to build up our profiles and go into politics,” he said. “I just want to go back to work.”
Carlos Bautista, an avocado grower and exporter from Uruapán, a city in central Michoacán, expressed less concern about Mora’s political aspiration. “He’s going to be a politician, but it’s a distraction,” Bautista told FNL. “It’s political theatre.”
But he believes Mora has a shot at being successful. “He has the ability to lead people,” he said. “He’ll win.”
Mora's background could give him an advantage in one way, Peña Franco said. His grassroots connections to the state's autodefensa fighters may discourage criminals from attacking him.
“It's not safe to be a politician in Michoacán,” Peña Franco pointed out. “Nobody can guarantee your safety. Cartel groups are powerful enough to take you down.”
“Hipólito Mora—we all know his background, but he is not immune to threats,” Peña Franco said.
Beltrán, for one, sees the situation in Michoacán improving. The arrest of Knights Templar leader, Servando “La Tuta” Gómez on Feb. 27, he believes, will make a huge difference.
“Now things have changed completely,” Beltrán said. “There's peace ... People are going back to work. The nightmare of the Knights Templar is over. Detaining 'La Tuta' was one of our main goals.”
Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @NathanielParish and Instagram: @nathanielparish.