MEXICO CITY — One of the best-known leaders of Mexico’s vigilante “self-defense” movement has been arrested on suspicion of participating in a double homicide, raising new doubts about the federal government’s strategy of partnering with armed campesino groups in the fight against a powerful drug cartel in Michoacan state.
Hipolito Mora Chavez, a lime grower who gained fame for leading one of the first local uprisings of autodefensa groups early last year in the small city of La Ruana, was arrested Tuesday evening by state officials. The state prosecutor’s office said Mora and other members of his group were suspected of “co-participation” in the slaying of Rafael Sanchez Moreno and Jose Luis Torres Castañeda, whose burned bodies were discovered in the nearby town of Buenavista Tomatlan on Saturday.
Many of the details in the killings remain murky, but the slayings occurred as tensions had risen between Mora’s group and another local vigilante faction, perhaps because of an inter-family spat over the love life of Mora’s niece. Such grudges are not uncommon in Michoacan, where a complex tangle of multigenerational blood feuds can be just as deadly as the dynamics of the drug game.
But the arrest has revived questions about the wisdom of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s strategy of deputizing the vigilante groups as members of Mexico’s Rural Defense Corps and having them work side by side with federal troops and police in the effort to rid Michoacan of the Knights Templar cartel.
“First we coddle the autodefensa groups. Then we put leader Hipolito Mora in jail,” Javier Lozano, a member of Mexico’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, tweeted Wednesday. “We’ll see how this schizophrenia ends.”
Peña Nieto’s decision not to disarm the vigilantes has drawn criticism, with warnings about the unintended consequences of ceding the state’s monopoly on power to armed amateurs. There have also been rumors that the Knights Templar has infiltrated the self-defense groups and that at least some of the vigilantes are being used by a competing drug cartel to fight a proxy war against the Knights Templar.
In late January, Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said that at least some of the weapons used by the vigilantes had been supplied by the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel.
At the same time, however, the government has notched some successes since flooding Michoacan with thousands of troops and police in January and working alongside the vigilantes. Federal authorities have killed or arrested a number of Knights Templar members in recent weeks, including the group's spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, who was slain in a shootout with troops Sunday morning.
Vigilante groups say they have been instrumental in providing the government with intelligence that led officials to Moreno and others.
On Monday, Mora’s vigilante group reportedly engaged in an armed standoff in La Ruana with a rival vigilante group led by Luis Torres Simon, nicknamed “El Americano.” Troops and police had to be sent in to head off a clash.
Jose Manuel Mireles, a vigilante spokesman, said in a radio interview Wednesday that Mora’s niece had been living with Torres but that the relationship soured, and Mora responded by kicking Torres’ mother out of town.
As for the two slain men, Mireles said they had fled the area months ago but had recently returned and had been asking Torres for help “in returning to their properties.”
Mireles said he believed that Mora had nothing to do with the killings.
Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times’ Mexico City bureau.