A judge in the violent Mexican state of Michoacan on Monday ordered the release of vigilante leader Hipolito Mora and 26 of his men who were involved in a shootout late last year that killed 11 people, in spite of his criminal background and alleged links to drug trafficking groups.
The judge, who was not identified, concluded that there was no way of determining who was responsible for the deaths after Mora and his followers clashed Dec. 16 with a group led by Luis Antonio Torres, alias "El Americano," a former vigilante leader turned rural police commander, who was also released Monday along with nine of his men.
The Michoacan state judge also argued that Mora and his 26 followers had acted in legitimate self-defense, a state justice spokesperson told Reuters.
After leaving jail, Mora told Mexican newspaper Milenio that he would consider running for a legislative position.
"I am considering this seriously, although politicians in general are thieves. But, yes, I am considering the possibility because a lot of people have asked me to run and this would be another good way to continue fighting,” he said.
The gun fight took place in La Ruana, a town about 150 miles from Morelia, the state capital. Mora's son, who died in the incident, was blamed for opening fire first. Eleven days later Mora and his followers turned themselves in to authorities. A week later a judge ordered jail for Mora and his followers while facing trial.
Michoacan has been torn by violence for years, prompting President Enrique Peña Nieto to send military reinforcements to the state in attempt to undermine control from a powerful drug gang, known as the Knights Templar cartel, whose leader Servando Gomez “La Tuta” was arrested last month.
In an unprecedented move, Peña Nieto forged an uneasy alliance with vigilante groups to restore order, despite accusations that various self-defense groups were linked to drug cartels.
According to various local news outlets, Mora was in jail last year accused of participating in the murder of two self-defense members, whose bodies were found incinerated on March 8, 2014. However, Michoacan Judge Placido Torres ordered Mora released after two months in prison arguing there were no conclusive evidence to put him on trial.
Mexico's national newspaper Reforma said that while Mora accumulated power in Michoacan, he also piled up 38 accusations against him, including trespassing, robbery, assault and battery, among others.
Reforma claims to have accessed an FBI file on Mora that shows he was detained in June 22, 1989, in possession of narcotics and was sentenced to four years in jail. It added that he is still wanted in the United States in connection with drug related charges.
In 1993, Mora was again arrested in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges, and in 1995 he was deported to Mexico.
The U.S. intelligence consulting firm Stratfor recently published a report stating that communal police and self-defense forces were enabled by various drug cartels, including the Sinaloa and the Gulf cartels to carry out armed confrontations aimed at controlling routes and areas within Michoacan.