J osé Manuel Mireles, founder and former leader of the Mexican vigilante group known as Autodefensas (Self Defenders), walked free on Friday after having spent almost three years in prison for the illicit possession of weapons. A doctor by profession, he became the public face of civilian resistance against impunity and government’s inability to quash the drug cartels. His release coincides with a steep rise in violence.
Month after month, 2017 is turning into the bloodiest year of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s tenure. In May alone, confrontations between military forces and oil thieves left 10 people dead, an assault on the headquarters of the ruling PRI party ended with five killings, activist Miriam Rodríguez was murdered and award-winning narco reporter Javier Váldez was gunned down in broad daylight.
Adding to the unease, there is widespread distrust of the authorities. A recent survey by pollster Parametría showed almost 40% of Mexicans believe cartels run the country, not the government. This is partly borne out by the evidence: the 2016 Mexico Global Impunity Index estimated that 99% of crimes go unpunished.
23,000 murders in 2016 made Mexico the second most violent country in the world, only behind Syria, according to this year’s Armed Conflict Survey by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“What would you do? Wait for them to come for you or buy a thing like this to protect yourself?” says Dr. Mireles, pointing at a rifle, in the 2015 documentary Cartel Land. Autodefensas emerged between 2012 and 2014 in Michoacán after the southwestern state was hijacked by the Knights Templar drug cartel. At the height of his popularity, the charismatic vigilante leader filled the front covers of Mexican magazines, hailed as a popular hero until President Peña Nieto turned his back on him.
“When the government ordered Dr. Mireles’ capture, we couldn’t believe it, instead of getting the army to impose order and capture criminal groups, they persecuted the defender of the people,” Carlos Guerrero from central Mexico told The World Weekly. Dr. Mireles remains, however, a very controversial figure. There are some allegations that he was ordering killings without trial.
Two days before being murdered, Mr. Váldez tweeted a picture celebrating the release of Dr. Mireles. During an interview with La Jornada Maya in March, the veteran journalist decried the passivity of Mexican society in the face of drug violence: “I think there is a lack of balls in this country.”