A Mexican court sentenced 26 members of a self-defense group in Michoacan state to prison on Saturday, including its leader Hipolito Mora, following a deadly confrontation with a rival group in December.
The sentencing by judge Maria Lopez the Michoacan capital, Morelia, mentioned 10 victims during the clash with the rival gang of Luis Antonio Torres aka “El Americano.”
Initial reports said the 11 people were killed in the shootout included members of both groups, including Mora's son. However, Lopez's verdict stated that the caliber of the bullets that killed the 10 men only matched the guns carried by Mora's group.
The judge added that Mora and his men could appeal the sentence within three days, and that the courts would provide a verdict regarding Torres’ group by Monday.
Background: Michoacan Self-defense Forces
In Michoacan, self-defense groups date back to the 1990s, when small farmers began to organize in order to recover the lands that drug-cartels; essentially the Knights Templar.
The groups benefited from the formal support of the Mexican army, until the federal state started to consider them as a dangerous competitors in the management of national security.
In early 2013, the members of the self-defense forces were urged to join the newly-created Rural Forces, aimed at formalizing a local defense force under state control.
Despite facing threats of criminalization, the majority of groups refused to demobilize or turn in their weapons, arguing that the new state-run force was not given appropriate resources, given the security needs of the region. One prominent leader, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, was subsequently arrested last June, which provoked the anger of many social organizations.
The day before, leaders of the various forces had reached a nine-point agreement with the Mexican government in a bid to maintain peace in Michoacan, establishing limits to their activities.
The agreement included dissolving the G250 group, which dedicated itself to the hunt of Servando Gomez, aka La Tuta, the leader of the Knights Templar.
When the agreement was signed, state security commissioner Alfred Castillo declared that it would bring security to Michoacan. Many previous attempts of the federal state to put the self-defense groups under control had been criticized as inefficient, and the violent events that occurred one day after the agreement appeared to undermine this agreement.
Shortly after the shooting, Mora accused Castillo of being responsible for the incident, saying he had warned him repeatedly of a possible fight with Torres' band.
“I blame Alfredo Castillo, for he knew everything, many times I begged him to support us... but he did not pay attention and here are the consequences,” Mora told local media. “They [Torres' men] had already spoken out here, in the village [La Ruana], saying they were going to assassinate us.”
He accused federal police of supporting Torres' band, claiming the police had seized his groups weapons and then helped the other band's members with their injured.