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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants