Mexican vigilante leader detained
Published 12/03/2014 | 06:57
One of the main leaders of the civilian "self-defence" groups that rose up to challenge a drug cartel in Mexico has been arrested as a suspect in the weekend killings of two vigilantes.
The detention of Hipolito Mora, who had become the affable public face of the vigilante movement, came as federal authorities sought to heal a rift between his faction and another group since the Knights Templar cartel was driven out of much of the western farming state of Michoacan.
State prosecutors said Mora was detained after witnesses told investigators he and other members of his group participated in the killing of two men in the town of Buenavista. Mora previously denied having any involvement in the deaths.
The federal government's envoy to Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, said prosecutors had 48 hours to file formal charges against Mora or release him.
Mora has been involved in a dispute over leadership in the township of La Ruana with Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, a vigilante leader known by the nickname "Simon El Americano", because he grew up in the US.
Torres Gonzalez told local media that the two dead men, Rafael Sanchez Moreno and Jose Luis Torres Castaneda, were part of his defence group. Their bodies were found inside a pick-up truck that had been set on fire.
The dispute between the two men came to a head when hundreds of police and soldiers were sent in to separate the two armed factions in La Ruana on Monday.
The confrontation revived fears that the government has created a monster by letting an estimated 20,000 heavily armed vigilantes take over basic law enforcement duties in Michoacan state without knowing who is really behind the movement.
Vigilante leaders say their movement is supported by contributions from farmers, growers and businessmen, but there are concerns that a rival drug cartel, personal interests and local feuds could also play a role.
The vigilantes are now the de-facto authorities in about 15 of the state's townships, and several top drug cartel leaders have been arrested or killed.
The Michoacan state public safety department said authorities "are conducting mediation efforts to defuse the conflict between self-defence groups".
Mora was one of the founders of the movement that began in February last year after he and fellow residents wearied of the cartel's demands for protection payments. Torres Gonzalez joined later.
The two represent different wings of the movement, which is comprised mainly of farmers, ranchers and farm workers and seeks to end the Knights Templar's reign of kidnapping, murder and extortion. The easygoing Mora has often been the spokesman for the movement, while Torres Gonzalez has been more closely involved in armed operations aimed at kicking cartel gunmen out of the state.
In addition to questions about possible links to the weekend killings, Mora has been accused of abusing his position by allegedly holding on to lime orchards and farm fields taken over from the Knights Templar, which had seized them from the owners.
A recent increase in price for limes, the mainstay of the economy in Michoacan's semi-tropical lowlands, might have brought the vigilantes' infighting to a head because lime orchards have become enormously profitable.
Mora has denied the accusations, saying he returns land to rightful owners when they can show proof of ownership. He also denies any role in the two killings.
Mora contends that the rival faction led by Torres Gonzalez has allowed former Knights Templar gunmen to join the vigilante group, a complaint frequently heard in the area. "They will do anything for money," Mora told local media.
Ramon Contreras, a town official in La Ruana, where the movement to combat cartel extortion began, said Mora's vigilantes had grown arrogant and abused the local population.
"Hipolito is doing well, but only with the media," Mr Contreras said. "People are saying, 'We're more afraid of the self-defence forces than the Knights Templar'."
It was a development that many had feared as largely untrained vigilante forces armed with assault rifles have sprung up so quickly.