Fear and distrust as Mexico brings drug vigilantes in from the cold
‘Autodefensas’ had prospered as an alternative to corrupt local police forces
Former vigilantes receive weapons during a swearing in ceremony as members of the Fuerza Rural (Rural Police Force) in Tepacaltepec, Michoacán state. Photograph: Alan Ortega/Reuters
‘El Doctor’ and autodefensas leader José Manuel Mireles (right), co-ordinator of the vigilante groups of the state of Michoacán, and spokesperson Estanislao Beltran, known as Papa Pitufo (Papa Smurf), in Arteaga. Photograph: Reuters/Alan Ortega
On a sweltering afternoon in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán, a lot of local pride is on show – but not much by way of professionalism. The 120 officers of the town’s brand-new Fuerza Rural (Rural Police Force – RPF) are undergoing training on how to climb in and out of pickup trucks. One catches his shin on the trailer door, holding everyone else up. Another forgets that it’s supposed to be two in the front, two in the back and they have to start again.
In the next field over a teenager slaps cows through a corral. The trainees have to disperse briefly while another cow arrives in a pickup truck. Outside the makeshift arsenal – housed in a cattle shed – a teenage officer dozes with his assault rifle in his lap.
For the past 12 years, vigilante groups have struggled against the tide of drug-related violence engulfing the western state of Michoacán in Mexico. Founded as an alternative to the inefficient, corrupt state police, the untrained autodefensa groups have battled the Knights Templar drug cartel with rugged, Wild West tactics including improvised road blocks and dramatic showdowns. Their successes include the killing or capture of three significant cartel leaders and have convinced the government to authorise their activities.
The first autodefensas patrolled the roads of Michoacán in farm trucks, using hunting rifles and shotguns. Their leaders were equally colourful. “El Doctor” José Manuel Mireles, a man in a large cowboy hat, headed up the outfits until his down- home charm erred on the wrong side of “informal” when addressing the country’s president. His place has been taken by Estanislao Beltrán, “Papa Smurf”, so-called for his enormous, Old Testament prophet- style beard.
As of last weekend, there are no more autodefensas in Michoacán. They have been merged in to a single, state-sanctioned unit: the RPF. There had been talk of disarming the autodefensas. However, amid fears of a violent breakaway, the government has opted to bring the vigilantes under federal control. The farm trucks have been replaced with enormous white pick-up trucks, and the autodefensas wear uniforms and carry standard-issue assault rifles.
I ask Sergio, a burly trainer, about the difference between being a vigilante and being an RPF officer. “We were never anything else but the police,” he says. “Our mandate is from the people and we are the people, so we are 100 per cent incorruptible. We have suffered the same things as the people we want to protect. All we want is peace and quiet – nothing more.”
Array of police forces
But the odds are stacked against the rural force. Mexico is already home to a confusing array of police forces, ranging from diplomatic police to transit police to tourist police to the Federales. According to Memo, a bar-owner in Uruapan, the autodefensas are likely to become just another force once the initial rush of enthusiasm wears off. “They’re getting paid now,” he says. “Their motivation has changed.”
Michoacán is subject to corruption at an institutional level. The former state governor was recently arrested over his cartel ties, along with the mayor of the major port city of Lázaro Cardenas. Police routinely rent out patrol cars and uniforms for shakedowns and kidnappings.