'True Mexican hero?' Founder of Mexico's vigilante movement under fire

Dr. Mireles helped found Mexico's movement of armed self-defense forces last year, which put drug cartels on the run. Some still praise him, but he's embroiled in scandal, including murder charges.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP/File
Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, leader of his town's self-defense group, poses for a portrait on his property in Tepalcatepec, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, Nov. 6, 2013.

As a founder of a citizens’ movement to take action against organized crime in Mexico’s Michoacan state, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles has evolved from small-town hero to national political figure.

Supporters post videos hailing him on YouTube. Politicians court him. A nascent movement wants to take his armed vigilante group nationwide.

But ask Dr. Mireles how things are going and he says simply, “Very badly. Very badly.” All is not well for the physician, who spent nearly a decade living in California’s Central Valley, mostly in Modesto, before returning to his home state.

Since taking the spotlight last year, Mireles has suffered a series of travails. His home life is a wreck, and his 27-year marriage seemingly over. His health has faltered from serious injuries when his small plane went down Jan. 4. He’s squabbling with some of his fellow vigilante leaders. Death threats are routine, and he moves around in an armored car. A security czar to President Enrique Peña Nieto suggests Mireles may have been involved in the killings of five men.

Still, Mireles is now widely known in Mexico, and he’s admired for launching a movement that encouraged citizens – fed up with corrupt police, feckless politicians, and gangsters run amok – to take matters into their own hands.

The movement of armed vigilantes – or self-defense forces, as they prefer – that Mireles helped found in February 2013 spread rapidly from township to township, putting the dominant Knights Templar drug cartel on the run, getting results where federal forces had failed for most of a decade.

Early this year, as the vigilantes threatened to move on to larger cities in the state to finish off the outlaw crime group, the federal government seized control of security functions from state officials. President Peña Nieto appointed a security czar and sent thousands of soldiers and federal police to Michoacán.

Knights Templar gunmen are now on the run, several of their top leaders dead or captured, and Michoacán roads are mostly safe from marauding gangster patrols.

But the year started with a painful jolt for Mireles. As the physician was returning from Guadalajara to his hometown, the Cessna Centurion II in which he was flying fell to the ground. The co-pilot died, and Mireles was seriously injured.

“I had seven broken ribs, all on the right side. I have 48 screws or plates in my jaw and forehead,” Mireles said. “They took some bone out from down here,” he added pointing to a scar on his shin, “and put it here,” signaling his right eyebrow.

Mireles was flown to a hospital in Mexico City and remained convalescent for more than a month. He still undergoes regular rehabilitation.

Today, he thinks the plane was shot at from the ground, forcing it to crash.

The incident was only the onset of his troubles. When the feds took over security functions in Michoacan in January, their early goals were not only to capture gangsters but also to disarm the vigilantes.

As an enticement, authorities offered to incorporate vigilantes into a rural defense force, equipped with new weapons, vehicles and uniforms.

Among those who accepted was Mireles’ personal bodyguard, Estanislao Beltran, a stout man with a bushy beard who’s known by his Spanish nickname as Papa Smurf. While Mireles recovered from the crash in Mexico City, Mr. Beltran claimed that fellow vigilante leaders had voted to relieve the doctor of his role as spokesman for the movement, a blatant power grab.

Relations soured further. Earlier this month, Beltran brought forward witnesses who said Mireles had arrived first at the scene of a quintuple homicide near the port of Lazaro Cardenas, making him a suspect. Michoacán security czar Alfredo Castillo warned Mireles he’d seen photos of the doctor “holding up the head of one of the dead as if it were a trophy” and that he was under investigation for murder.

Mireles offered an explanation. He said he’d heard that vigilantes were under attack from gangsters and rushed to the scene of the firefight. Along with a coroner, he found corpses in a vehicle, and when the coroner asked for help, Mireles said he’d held up one head for requisite crime-scene photos.

A brooding Mireles now says the government wants to throw him in jail under “false accusations” for offering biting criticism of its strategy in Michoacán.

“I have to go around in hiding. I can’t leave my town,” Mireles said. “I can’t go anywhere.”

Last week, Mireles obtained an armored Jeep Grand Cherokee that can withstand attack from AK-47 assault rifles. Texted threats to his cellphone don’t end.

“You want to see one of the messages I received today?” he asks as he fumbles with his phone. He can’t find the message but repeats its contents from memory: “We’ve located you, your staff and all your supporters, and we will kill you all because the mafia never forgives.”

If such pressures aren’t enough, Mireles has serious troubles at home. He’s left his wife for a teenage beauty queen who’s younger than any of his children, though her exact age is in dispute.

“These kinds of girls are just gold diggers,” says Mireles’ daughter, Briana, who’s 26. “He’s like a hero for the people, and he’s like a devil for our family.”

Mireles has acknowledged the affair in radio and newspaper interviews but when a visitor asked about it, he snapped: “That’s personal. We’re not going to talk about that.”

To Mireles’ supporters, the personal travail is unimportant.

“The great majority of people who have changed history have had quite complicated personal lives,” says Talia Vazquez Alatorre, a lawyer who launched a national campaign emulating the Michoacán self-defense movement.

The campaign has won the backing of a Roman Catholic priest who’s an advocate for undocumented migrants, Alejandro Solalinde; a Catholic bishop of Saltillo, Raul Vera; retired army Gen. Jose Francisco Gallardo; and prominent poet and rights activist Javier Sicilia.

Those men, along with dozens of others, appear in an 18-minute video on YouTube that hails Mireles as “a true Mexican hero.”

A half-day convention in Mexico City next Wednesday will explore how to take the self-defense movement to other troubled states, such as Veracruz, Morelos, Tamaulipas, and Tabasco, although without the aim of having the citizens wield weapons.

For his part, Mireles offered a fatalistic view about his future.

“Right now, the biggest fear is one of those solitary hunters that go around on a motorcycle and empty their pistol into you,” he said.

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