A meeting between a senior government official and a leading member of Mexico's self-defense militias in Michoacan has put both sides on the defensive after details emerged of the vigilante leader's alleged ties to drug cartels.
On February 5, the Mexican government's special security envoy to Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, met with Juan Jose Farias, alias "El Abuelo," a member of the self-defense militias who was signaled by security forces and witnesses to be a regional commander of the Valencia clan, also known as the Milenio Cartel.
Farias was arrested in 2009 on weapons and drugs charges. He was sentenced to three years in prison but had already served the time while on remand and his conviction was later quashed on appeal.
In interviews with the Mexican media, Castillo admitted meeting Farias but insisted he had approached the official as "just one more citizen" at a public event and the talk had not been pre-arranged, reported Proceso.
The Michoacan vigilantes responded to the scandal by denying Farias' cartel ties. One of the militias' main spokespeople, Hipolito Mora, told Excelsior Farias had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice and that police had planted the weapons and drugs on him when they arrested him.
The scandal has also drawn in Farias' brother, Uriel, alias "El Paisa," a former mayor of Tepalcatepec and the founder of the vigilantes in that municipality. Like his brother, Uriel was accused of involvement in the Milenio Cartel and later absolved.
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While the accusations of the Farias brothers links to drug cartels have never stuck in court, the suspicion buzzing around them is not a good sign for the vigilante movement, nor for the government, which is now moving to try and legalize the movement.
From the very beginning, rumors of cartel connections have swirled around the militias, ranging from accusations levied by their enemies in the Knights Templar to recent announcement by the Attorney General's Office that they were investigating claims the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation were providing them arms.
The appearance of the Farias brothers fits into that narrative perfectly. The Milenio Cartel was displaced by the Familia Michoacana in the mid-2000s. The Familia later split and parts of it formed the Knights Templar, which have since become the reason for the current vigilante uprising. Now it appears as if the former overlords could be making a comeback.
In regions such as Michoacan, the line between narcos, politicians and businessmen can often be blurred, and as the vigilantes grow and gain power and influence, the more likely they are to attract murky figures looking to co-opt or manipulate them.
Such characters may have shady backgrounds, but they can also often offer something the militias desperately need: funding. According to a recent investigation by Cronica, the vigilantes need over $2.4 million a month to operate -- excluding what is spent on arms and munitions. While they receive donations from sympathizers abroad, claim to sell lemons at home, and receive "voluntary" protection money from companies, it still may be hard to cover the costs.