MEXICO CITY (AP) – One of the main leaders of the civilian "self-defense" groups that rose up to challenge a drug cartel in Mexico's Michoacan state was detained late Tuesday as a suspect in the weekend killings of two vigilantes, authorities announced.
The detention of Hipolito Mora, who had become the affable public face of the vigilante movement, came as federal authorities sought to heal a rift between his faction and another group since the Knights Templar cartel was driven out of much of the western farming state.
In a statement, Michoacan state prosecutors said Mora was detained after witnesses told investigators that Mora and other members of group participated in the killing of two men Saturday in the town of Buenavista. Mora previously denied having any involvement in the deaths.
The federal government's envoy to Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, said prosecutors had 48 hours to file formal charges against Mora or release him.
Mora has been involved in a dispute over leadership in the township of La Ruana with Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, a vigilante leader known by the nickname "Simon El Americano," because he grew up in the U.S.
Torres Gonzalez told local media that the two dead men, Rafael Sanchez Moreno and Jose Luis Torres Castaneda, were part of his defense group. Their bodies were found inside a pickup truck that had been set on fire.
The dispute between the two men came to a head when hundreds of police and soldiers were sent in to separate the two armed factions in La Ruana on Monday.
The confrontation revived fears that the government has created a monster by letting an estimated 20,000 heavily armed vigilantes take over basic law enforcement duties in Michoacan state without knowing who is really behind the movement. Vigilante leaders say their movement is supported by contributions from farmers, growers and businessmen. But there are concerns that a rival drug cartel, personal interests and local feuds may also play a role.
The vigilantes are now the de-facto authorities in about 15 of the state's townships, and several top drug cartel leaders have been arrested or killed.
The Michoacan state public safety department said authorities "are conducting mediation efforts to defuse the conflict between self-defense groups."
Mora was one of the founders of the movement that began in February 2013 after he and fellow residents wearied of the cartel's demands for protection payments. Torres Gonzalez joined later.
The two represent different wings of the movement, which is comprised mainly of farmers, ranchers and farmworkers and seeks to end the Knights Templar's reign of kidnapping, murder and extortion. The easygoing Mora has often been the spokesman for the movement, while Torres Gonzalez has been more closely involved in armed operations aimed at kicking cartel gunmen out of the state.
In addition to questions about possible links to the weekend killings, 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. A recent increase in price for limes, the mainstay of the economy in Michoacan's semi-tropical lowlands, may have brought the vigilantes' infighting to a head because lime orchards have become enormously profitable.
Mora has denied the accusations, saying he returns land to rightful owners when they can show proof of ownership. He also denies any role in the two killings.
Mora contends that the rival faction led by Torres Gonzalez has allowed former Knights Templar gunmen to join the vigilante group, a complaint frequently heard in the area. "They will do anything for money," Mora told local media.
Neither Mora nor Torres Gonzalez answered phone calls earlier Tuesday before Mora was detained.
Ramon Contreras, a town official in La Ruana, where the movement to combat cartel extortion began, said Mora's vigilantes have grown arrogant and abuse the local population.
"Hipolito is doing well, but only with the media," Contreras said. "People are saying, 'We're more afraid of the self-defense forces than the Knights Templar.' "
It was a development that many had feared as largely untrained vigilante forces armed with assault rifles have sprung up so quickly.
"The division among the self-defense forces in a natural phenomenon when spontaneous leaderships spring up ... and the leaders quickly begin to accumulate power," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
The federal government, which at first sought to arrest the vigilantes, then let them grow and finally sought to incorporate them into rural defense corps, urgently wants to defuse the confrontation.
"We cannot permit this kind of confrontation to occur," Castillo said.