One of the main leaders of the civilian armed movement that formed to drive a drug cartel out of Mexico’s Michoacan state was charged on Thursday with the murder of two members of a rival vigilante group.
State prosecutor Jose Martin Godoy said investigators had found enough evidence to link Hipolito Mora to the killings of two men whose bodies were discovered in the back of a burned pick-up.
The “self-defence” groups split into two factions in the town of La Ruana when Mora had a row over leadership with Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, another vigilante leader known by the nicknames of “El Simon” or “El Americano” because he grew up in the US.
The two dead men were allies of Torres Gonzalez. Prosecutors said witnesses testified that Mora had threatened to kill one of the men for opposing the way he wanted to collect money to run the vigilante uprising.
Mora’s lawyer, Eduardo Quintero, said prosecutors were building a case with suppositions by the victims’ relatives.
“He had nothing to do with the murder,” Quintero said. “The attorney general’s office is trying to calm everyone down by charging Hipolito Mora.”
Mora was one of the founders of the vigilante movement that was launched in February last year after he and fellow farmers and ranchers grew tired of the Knights Templar cartel’s reign of kidnapping, murder and extortion.
He became the public face of the “self-defence” crusade, appearing in dozens of interviews, while Torres Gonzalez was more closely involved in armed operations.
Vigilantes are now the de facto authorities in many of Michoacan’s townships, but they have also served as a means to keep the government accountable. They have demanded the arrest of the main leaders of the Knights Templar and have pointed out ties between public officials and drug traffickers.
On Sunday, Mora applauded one of the biggest takedowns of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration – the killing of the gang’s top capo, Nazario Moreno, who was wrongly reported dead by authorities in 2010 but who had continued to be seen by Michoacan residents.
Along with Mora, a judge ordered the arrest of nine other suspects in the killings of the two vigilantes. The state prosecutor also said 28 people had been detained wearing “self-defence” T-shirts and driving cars and trucks that were reported stolen.
Godoy said his office has also gathered 35 complaints from the community accusing Mora of stealing and kidnapping.
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 rightful owners. Mora has denied the accusations, saying he returns land to rightful owners.
Estanislao Beltran, another vigilante leader in the nearby town of Division del Norte, said he trusts an investigation will reveal the killer’s true identity. “We are hoping that Hipolito is found not guilty,” Beltran said. “But to be honest, we are very confused. We don’t know what to think.”