Considered a symbol of defiance against corruption, impunity and organized crime, the self-defense militias may be coming to a bloody and bitter conclusion.
In January 2014, the Mexican so-called vigilante groups that operated in the central state of Michoacán celebrated one of their finest moments. After a fierce gun battle of several hours, a caravan of trucks loaded with members of this ragtag group of heavily armed farmers drove victoriously into the town of Nueva Italia and vanquished their mortal enemy, the Knights Templar cartel.
Spurred by massive media attention and the support of many Mexicans who considered them a symbol of defiance against corruption, impunity and organized crime, the self-defense militias had taken one of the last bastions of the Templars in the Tierra Caliente region and, with bravado, vowed to keep pushing until they would achieve what Mexico's military and federal policy could not, or, as many of them claimed, would not.
But with last week's arrest of Semeí Verdia, one of the few early militia leaders that remained, the story of Michoacán's self-defense groups may have come to a bloody and bitter conclusion.
Verdia, leader of the civilian militia of Santa Maria Ostula, a mostly indigenous village, was arrested on charges of illegal weapons possession and for allegedly burning ballots during last month’s local election. His arrest triggered a bloody clash between his supporters and soldiers, which took the life of a 12-year-old boy and wounded other six.
“Semeí's arrest and the ensuing violence were the result of the government trying to end the citizens' right to defend themselves against criminals,” said Héctor Zepeda, Verdia’s cousin and commander of the rural police in a nearby town, to Fox News Latino. “But the government has done nothing to help people in the region. Michoacán isn't any less violent,” he added.
Semeí Verdia and his men were among the first citizens in the region to take up arms in 2009 against the now mostly defunct Familia Michoacana cartel and then against Familia’s offshoot, the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar terrorized the region for years. Led by eccentric drug lord Servando Gómez, alias 'La Tuta' ('The Teacher'), it controlled the lucrative drug trafficking routes along the Pacific coast and reportedly made a fortune through kidnappings and the extortion of lemon and avocado farmers and ore miners, killing anyone who stood in their way.
In February 2013 another group of Tierra Caliente farmers decided to follow Verdia's example and took actions into their own hands -- they accused the state government of being in cahoots with organized crime. Inspired by José Manuel Mireles, a physician, thousands of farmers took up arms and began chasing the gunmen of the cartel out of their communities. Fierce fighting went on for almost a year, after which the militia controlled most of the region.
A year later, in early 2014, Mexico's federal government tried to restore order by appointing a special state 'security commissioner,' sending hundreds of troops and federal police to Michoacán and assimilating militia members into a newly formed “rural police force.” Those who refused to become rural police were told to lay down their arms.
But some groups, such as Verdia’s and Mireles’, refused to join, saying it was infiltrated by former criminals and accusing the federal government of still not doing enough to combat crime. Mireles was arrested in January of 2014 and remains in prison.
“The situation didn't improve at all,” said Zepeda, whose group agreed to join the new police corps and soon became disappointed. “Some rural police force squads were infiltrated by former cartel members,” he told FNL, “and the government severely underfunded us.”
Meanwhile, violence in Michoacán did not subside, even when the Knights Templar were, according to the government, largely dismantled after the arrest of 'La Tuta' in February of this year. The Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel reportedly moved in to take control of the newly available drug trafficking routes — more than 700 have been killed in Michoacán between January and April of this year alone, according to the National Public Security System.
Criminal groups remain very much active in the Tierra Caliente region but the autodefensa groups are quickly beginning to crumble. Several prominent militia leaders who refused to lay down their arms have gone into hiding. Others eventually fell victim to infighting over mutual accusations of colluding with organized crime, such as Hipólito Mora and Luis António Torres, two prominent rural police leaders in the town of La Ruana.
With Mora now retired, Mireles behind bars and Verdia arrested, Héctor Zepeda remains as perhaps the last prominent Autodefensa leader in the Tierra Caliente.
“It certainly looks like the government has decided to finish the Autodefensa movement”, Hipólito Mora told FNL. “But that doesn't mean the situation has improved in any way. The way I see it, things are worse than ever.”
Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen