A two-hour gun battle between rival Rural Defense Force factions in Mexico reportedly left 11 people dead, a sign that elements of this government-supported force remain caught up in a conflict involving interests distinct from defending local communities from extortion and other threats.
The firefight took place December 16 in Michoacan state, a stronghold of Mexican vigilantism. It reportedly involved two vigilante groups that have long had a tense relationship -- one led by Luis Antonio Torres, alias "El Americano," a controversial figure who had previously been accused of criminal ties, and another led by Hipolito Mora, El Americano's rival, who is no stranger to controversy himself.
Six of El Americano's followers were left dead after the shootout, while five gunmen loyal to Mora were killed, including his son, according to El Universal.
In an evening press conference, Michoacan security commissioner Alfredo Castillo said that authorities were investigating the incident, and added that there was no need to "martyrize" any of the victims.
Both El Americano and Mora formed vigilante groups in rural Michoacan, purportedly to defend local communities from criminal groups such as the Knights Templar.
As detailed in InSight Crime's special investigation on Michoacan's vigilantes, the formation of these militias led to speculation they might actually be fronts for rival criminal groups to fight each other. Despite these reservations, the government tried to regulate the militias by integrating them into their official security strategy earlier this year, allowing them to apply to join a "Rural Defense Force" controlled by the army.
InSight Crime Analysis
This gun battle was the culmination of a long-running feud between El Americano and Mora. Earlier this year, Mora was arrested for alleged involvement in the murder of two gunmen loyal to El Americano, but was released due to insufficient evidence. Mora accuses El Americano of working for the Knights Templar, while El Americano has thrown similar accusations at Mora. The death of Mora's son now gives him reason to pursue a personal vendetta against El Americano's forces, which does not bode well for Michoacan's security in the coming weeks.
As has been evident for awhile now, the interests driving the conflict between El Americano and Mora have never been as straightforward as a desire to protect locals from drug gangs.
Since the surge of militias in Michoacan began in 2013, many official authorities expressed doubts over the actual motives of these groups. Those who make up Michoacan's vigilantes are a disparate bunch, involving a wide range of actors, from former gang members deported back to Mexico from the US, to civilians with a sincere interest in protecting their communities. Catering to suspect interests was a risk that the government took on by legtimizing the vigilantes, and now Michoacan must deal with the fallout.