Two Deaths Divide the Mexican Self-Defense Movement (Paula Chouza, Verónica Calderón, EL PAÍS)

This article was published in El País on 25 March 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

Two Deaths Divide the Mexican Self-Defense Movement
By Paula Chouza and Verónica Calderón

-Hipólito Mora is the only person under arrest for the double homicide; those who carried out the crime have not been identified.

Hipólito Mora, one of the founding leaders of the self-defense groups in Michoacán (southwest Mexico), is in a Morelia prison. He’s accused of having ordered the assassiantions of two people found dead on 8 March: Rafael Sánchez El Pollo and José Luis Torres Castañeda. Mora is the only person under arrest for the crime, and up until now the investigations have not led to any other suspects, not even the identities of those who committed the crime.

“There’s no evidence to support the judge’s decision,” reassured Eduardo Quintero, the lawyer of the leader of the self-defense forces from La Ruana, last Friday. Judge Juan Salvador Alonso Mejía on Wednesday decided that Mora should await trial from jail. According to Quintero, no clear evidence indicates a link between the self-defense force leader and the deaths. “It’s as if I were to say, right now: I think you are young and beautiful, I have no inkling why but I believe it. And, that’s how they sent him to prison, based on testimony like that.”

According to this version, a witness confirms seeing and hearing Mora and his people hit Rafael Sánchez and José Luis Torres. With this testimony, and accounts by the victims’ families, they said that Hipólito “was the one who gave the order” for the murders, so the judge thought that sufficient proof existed to imprison him.

Strong Disputes Centre Around Some Lime Orchards

Sánchez and Torres, both members of the self-defense movement, used to belong to a group outside Hipólito Mora’s control, instead under the control of Luis Torres, better known as Simón El Americano. The night before their murders, both were patrolling the Buenavista-Tomatlán area, in the township that belongs to the La Ruana community. It seems that they were ambushed in the early morning. They were killed and set alight. They were discovered the following day.

The group led by El Americano had already had differences with the group in La Ruana, and decided to enter the town to “end [Mora’s] leadership.” The two groups had fought over ownership of two lime orchards (the region is one of the country’s principle citrus producers), seized by hitmen belonging to the Knights Templar. The self-defense forces declared war on the drug gang in February 2013. El Americano’s men did not directly accuse Mora of the murders, but they did demand the surrender of Sánchez and Torres’ murderers whom they believe to belong to the ranks of La Ruana’s self-defense forces.

According to sources within the movement, Rafael Sánchez, alias El Pollo, fled the township after civilians rose up against organized crime, and months afterwards returned repentant and with the intention of joining the movement. At that moment he demanded Mora return his lands. In a telephone interview last week, José Manuel Mireles, the leader of Tepacatepec’s self-defense forces, stated that the spokesperson “refused to give ranches to him and his friends, but he also discounted that La Ruana’s leader might be involved in the murders.”

The victims were surprised by an ambush. Then they were set alight

One of the dead men, José Luis Torres Castañeda was the father of an advisor to Senator Iris Vianey Mendoza, who last month asked permission for a thirty-day absence from the Senate. She is being investigated by Mexico’s federal Attorney General after attracting attention for a picture of her dancing with one of the sons of the cartel leaders. The senator returned to her post after a few days even though the investigation’s results have not been disclosed.

Hipólito Mora rejects any relationship to the crime. “It’s not right. I didn’t kill them and the whole world knows it. The decision surprises me. I feel betrayed.” He also said that he worries for the lives and security of the members of his family. “They have treated me excellently. I feel safe inside the penitentiary but I fear for the lives of members of my family,” who, he said, are threat from El Americano. “The Government isn’t doing anything.” He repeated that he does not regret starting the self-defense movement more than a year ago: “The fight has been worth it so even if I die in prison, there are many people who my movement’s affected. They are the ones who put me here, so that I can’t damage them.”

Various sources agree that Mora has a criminal background in the United States for drug possession and distribution. But nobody has specified either the city where the arrests occurred or the substance for which he was detained. His lawyer argues that the information is false and Mora stated to the judge that this is the first time he has been arrested.

Mora rejects involvement in the crime and says that he fears for his family

Hipólito Mora was arrested on 11 March, just a couple of days after El Americano’s men stormed into La Ruana. In the following hours, the 10,000-person community was under siege. After complaining tht the group was trying to kill him, and that El Americano was a criminal serving as El Chayo’s messenger, the Policía Federal transferred Hipólito Mora to Mexico City where he stayed one night. The Interior Ministry has denied that its head, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, or its officials have met with him. After the arrest on Wednesday, the military disarmed 30 men with ties to Mora.

Self-defense groups rose up in arms in several of the region’s townships on 24 February 2013 to free residents from abuses by the Knights Templar cartel. This mafia mostly engages in drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion, among other crimes. Violence has overwhelmed the region, and Enrique Peña Nieto’s government announced a pacification strategy for the state, naming trusted associate Alfredo Castillo as commissioner.

Several high-ranking cartel leaders have been detained since then, including the fallen kingpin Nazario Moreno El Chayo, founder of the Knights Templar. Felipe Calderón’s government incorrectly declared dead Moreno in 2010. An operation on 8 March 2014 killed him.

The Interior Ministry Denies Meeting with Mora

This same Friday, Mora’s defense appealed the judge’s decision. The timeframe to resolve the dispute, even though not exact, might be 45 days. “Hipólito is in good condition,” his lawyer says. “They are treating him well in jail.” In spite of a preliminary instruction, the self-defense force leader will remain in Morelia and not be transferred to an Apatzingán jail, where alleged members of the Knights Templar are imprisoned.

Hipólito Mora, born in 1955, is a lime grower, father to 11 children and eight times a grandfather. For some time his people have heard him often complain about his vulnerability. “This is the most important battle I have waged in my life and I know it will take me to my grave,” he commented in February.


Journalists Paula Chouza and Verónica Calderón report from Mexico for El País. Follow Chouza on Twitter @pchouza, and follow Calderón @veronicacalderon. This story first appeared with the title, “Las dos muertes que han dividido a las autodefensas mexicanas,” available at:

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist based in the Americas. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP). Follow him on Twitter@patricktimmons.

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