After years in California, doctor returns to Mexico, fights drug gangs

Jose Manuel Mireles, a physician who leads the self-defense group in Mochoacan, secretly began forming Tepalcatepec's self-defense group, which emerged publicly on Feb. 24.
Jose Manuel Mireles, a physician who leads the self-defense group in Mochoacan, secretly began forming Tepalcatepec's self-defense group, which emerged publicly on Feb. 24. MCT

Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles dons a white lab coat and attends to patients at a clinic during the day. But during off hours, he has a second calling: chief of a ragtag band of armed vigilantes who are trying to keep gangsters out of the small city of Tepalcatepec.

After living a decade in Modesto, Calif., Mireles, 55, returned to this corner of Mexico’s Michoacan state in 2007, bringing his family with him.

His return was not easy. Drug-trafficking gangsters marauded across the land, and his hometown had grown unrecognizably violent.

“We used to have seven or eight executions every week,” Mireles said, and nearly every business and ranch was paying extortion fees to the dominant drug-trafficking crime gang, known as the Knights Templar.

So on Feb. 24, Mireles and a cabal of other disgruntled citizens took up arms, set up sandbag bunkers at the four entrances to the city and hung banners that said the Knights Templar gangsters would face the armed wrath of residents if they entered city limits.

“For eight months now, we’ve had no murders, no extortions, no rapes, no turf taxes, nothing,” Mireles said.

Mireles is now famous in these parts, known simply as “the doctor,” instantly recognizable with his shock of wavy graying hair, a bushy moustache, movie-star good looks and deep resonant voice.

He’s also a hero to many of the 400 families of Tepalcatepec migrants living in the Modesto area of California’s fertile Central Valley.

“He’s got the support of 100 percent of the community here,” Salvador Andrade Mendoza, the head of the Casa Michoacan Federation in Modesto, said in a telephone interview.

Mireles said his self-defense group, part of a network of armed citizen groups that over the past weekend captured the seventh of Michoacan’s 113 townships, wasn’t looking for war with the Knights Templar. Rather, the groups just want to keep the gang away.

Mireles said Article 10 of Mexico’s Constitution permitted citizens to carry weapons “for their protection and legitimate defense,” even though some of the assault rifles the self-defense groups carry are restricted to use by police and soldiers.

Since local police operate in tandem with organized crime, and state law agents are often in collusion as well, Mireles said the group had no option.

“It is a legitimate and legal movement,” he said. “We are not criminals. What we need is justice. We need to restore the rule of law to Michoacan.”

On a recent day, Mireles let a journalist accompany him to meetings with leaders of other municipal self-defense groups. While Mireles himself didn’t seem to carry a gun, many escorts carried weapons in a caravan of some 10 pickups and SUVs that sped along with blinking flashers. Some didn’t have license plates. But all carried placards on doors saying they were part of the self-defense forces.

The caravan sailed quickly through army checkpoints, indicating military tolerance, if not support, for the citizen groups.

Mireles couldn’t work in his profession when he took his family to the United States because his Mexican medical certificate isn’t valid there. So he took odd jobs, everything from breaking rocks to canning boneless chicken, making auto rims to harvesting almonds.

In his free time, he and a daughter volunteered as translators for the Modesto branch of the American Red Cross, later translating first aid booklets and other Red Cross materials for the Michoacan migrants in the region.

In 2007, Mireles brought his family back home, partly so that his eldest son, Jose Mireles Valencia, who’s now 26, could attend medical school, as well.

The son’s voice quivered a bit as he recounted how his father had gathered the family together earlier this year to announce that he’d form the self-defense group, alerting them to the dangers inherent in taking up arms.

“He said he loved us and he was proud of us. Because I’m the eldest, he asked me to take care of the others when the time comes,” the son said.

The son is nowhere near as confident as the father that the self-defense groups will succeed in keeping well-financed, heavily armed drug gangs at bay.

“The chances of another cartel taking over here are 90 percent,” said the son, speaking in the English he learned at Evelyn Hanshaw Middle School and Modesto High School. “Emphasize this: It’s a temporary peace. In two years, we’ll be put back in the same or a worse situation.”

“My children don’t want to be here,” the elder Mireles acknowledged.

The threats are real, he said, and lots of corruption in the city has been exposed. When the self-defense group started up, Mireles said, he discovered that 124 police officers were on city payrolls, when in reality only 22 officers were employed. The rest was featherbedding, profits raked off by corrupt officials. The city’s mayor, Guillermo Valencia, fled and hasn’t returned.

Mireles said his experience in California had showed him that good government was possible in his homeland.

“I learned that you live better if you have better elected officials. In the United States, the police are honest, the tax system is not corrupt. Here, it is all crap,” he said.

Asked why he stayed on, Mireles said, “There’s a bit of patriotism in some people, and in me it is strong.”

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