Mexican Self-Defense Leader Recovers Under Threat From Cartels

Jan 13, 2014
Originally published on January 13, 2014 5:53 pm
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It was a violent weekend in Mexico's western state of Michoacan. Clashes erupted between so-called civilian defense groups and the Knights Templar drug cartel. The civilian defense group says Mexico's security forces are not protecting people from cartel kidnappings, murder and extortion. Among these groups, one man in Michoacan has risen to become a popular leader. He had immigrated to California but recently returned to his hometown. He found it had been overtaken by criminals and drug traffickers.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles spent 10 years in the California farming town of Modesto. He couldn't practice medicine with his Mexican license, so took odd jobs in the town's agricultural industry. He decided to come back to Mexico more than six years ago and resume his medical practice and says he would have quietly done just that but the hometown he returned to was nothing like the one he left a decade earlier.

DR. JOSE MANUEL MIRELES: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: In this YouTube video posted last summer, Dr. Mireles, with his thick gray hair and bushy mustache, says everyone has been a victim here. Everyone has a brother, a son, or parent that has been killed, kidnapped, or extorted by organized crime. And local, state, even the federal police didn't stop the violence.

So early last year, he and hundreds of residents formed a self-defense group and took the law into their own hands, running out the cartel and organized criminals. Since then, his self-defense movement has spread. Dr. Mireles' rag-tag band of armed men now control more than a dozen towns in Michoacan. And just this weekend, hundreds took over another. The doctor, however, wasn't there to see it. He was recuperating from a plane crash earlier this month at a private hospital in Mexico City.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: The entrance to the hospital was guarded by two dozen armed federal officers. One, who declined to give his name, says the police have been stationed here for more than a week. Authorities say they are protecting him from the cartels. Dr. Mireles has not given any interviews. And today, news reports say he was flown out of the hospital by helicopter. Stanislao Beltran Torres, a member of the Michoacan self-defense group, says Dr. Mireles' whereabouts are not going to be made public for his security.

STANISLAO BELTRAN TORRES: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Beltran says the doctor is a hardworking person who is dedicated to making life better for those in Michoacan and will return to the self-defense group as soon as possible. The rise of armed civilian groups in Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero is complicated. Many, including Dr. Mireles, have been accused of being fronts for rival drug traffickers and, at times, it's not so clear-cut who is fighting whom. The self-defense groups have also been an embarrassment for Enrique Pena Nieto. The Mexican president has spent much of his first year in office downplaying the drug war.

ALEJANDRO HOPE: This is more than embarrassment.

KAHN: Alejandro Hope is a security analyst at IMCO, a Mexico City think tank. He says despite Pena Nieto's reassurances, his strategy in Michoacan is insufficient and an armed protracted conflict looks likely.

HOPE: Everything is pointing that this will get worse before it gets better.

KAHN: Yesterday, a local congressman in Michoacan warned of a civil war breaking out if the government doesn't step in soon. For his part, Dr. Mireles and his supporters are not backing down.

MIRELES: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: In his YouTube video, Dr. Mireles says if the situation gets worse and police cannot protect the citizens that depend on them, then the citizens will continue to protect themselves. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.