Mexico's citizen militias infected by the rot they hoped to cut out

Infighting and corruption by the drugs cartels have turned a movement of hope into just another facet of the problem

The boys on a dirt lot outside a corral in the Mexican state of Michoacán could barely see over the dashboard of the red truck they were driving. And yet José Santiago Perez, 16, and Bernabe Perez, 14, were the emissaries of a former drugs cartel henchman.

Their father, José Santiago Valencia Sandoval, had experienced both sides of the conflict between a citizen militia and the drug gang it was formed to drive out. He had worked for the Knights Templar cartel, then defected to join the militia when it started in the little hillside town of Tepalcatepec more than a year ago.

After so many years and tens of thousands of deaths, the drug war still casts a long shadow over Mexico. Whole swaths of the country – the states of Michoacán and Tamaulipas, the cities along the US border – live by the rules of cartels that now do far more than transport drugs. There is an anxiety of random violence, the frustration of forced cartel taxes, and the fear of kidnapping or worse.

In his first year in office, the new President, Enrique Peña Nieto, wanted to change Mexico's image from a country at war to a rising economic power. But it was not long before he reverted to deploying soldiers to patrol streets where the main authority had been the cartels' teenage spotters with their two-way radios.

In these places, the police can be more dangerous than the outlaws, and politics and crime go hand in hand. There appears little hope that Mexico's enduring curse is ending. In a world of shifting alliances, it is hard to know what to believe or whom to trust.

Valencia was training a prancing horse and listened to ranchero music in his yard. In his living room, decorated with his hunting trophies, he cracked open beers and told tall tales in his breezy manner: how he faked his own death by pouring red paint down his neck; how he recorded himself in a video tell-all he planned to have sent to the Drug Enforcement Administration in the event of his murder. Last week, that day arrived.

Valencia and his wife, Blanca, the two boys, and his 11-year-old daughter, Bianca, were stopped while they were driving in their red truck in the neighbouring state of Jalisco. Videos later showed the vehicle peppered with bullet holes. The Attorney General's office reported that there were signs of torture on the corpses. Nobody survived.

Before his death, Valencia had not seemed fazed by the dangers he faced, but he was serious about the problems in his home town. He felt that the militia movement that has spread across Michoacan – supported by the government – was being corrupted by the out-of-state New Generation drug cartel based in Jalisco.

The group he had joined, he said in May, was becoming a front for criminals and could end up as rotten and abusive as the cartel he had left. "We feel threatened by certain people within the movement," he said.

Three weeks later, Valencia said he had "good" news. Over the following days, he mentioned he had a recording that showed all the "trash and corruption of the government". Soon after, he was dead.

Many of the former gangsters who had switched to become vigilantes were simply fair-weather gunmen. And at the movement's higher levels, personal rivalries and power grabs became so intense there were fears they would provoke a new round of violence.

Dr José Manuel Mireles, the mustachioed surgeon who was once the militia movement's most respected figure, has been disowned by several of his former comrades. Dr Mireles accused them of being paid off by the New Generation.

On Friday, soldiers and police arrested 83 suspected vigilantes, including Dr Mireles, on charges of carrying unauthorised weapons in the villages of La Mira and Acalpican.

The federal envoy to Michoacán, Alfredo Castillo, told Milenio Television that Dr Mireles held an assembly with about 500 people to start a new "self-defence" group in the area near the port city of Lazaro Cardenas. By Friday about 150 of the vigilantes had set up roadblocks, he said.

Dr Mireles was the only founding member of the movement who had not joined a new rural police force set up by the federal government to regain control of Michoacán from the Knights Templar cartel. He became the public face of the "self-defence" crusade, appearing in dozens of interviews, but he was dismissed as the movement's spokesman in May when the government began demobilising vigilante groups.

Against this backdrop, the killing of Valencia and his family merited barely a mention in the news. Most murder cases in Mexico are not solved.

A little over a month ago, Valencia had said he hoped speaking out would make people "correct their ways". If they did not, he said: "I'm going to call you and give you first and last names, to send into the light of the world."

Washington Post