MEXICO CITY (CNS) — Father Andres Larios once supported the highly effective self-defense groups, which formed to fight off drug cartels carrying out various crimes in the western state of Michoacan.
He lent them spiritual support, endorsed their activities and let them ring the church bells to call the community to meetings or warn of pending dangers.
But when some members of the groups recently arrived at his parish in Coalcoman asking to ring the bells, he rebuffed them. His refusal signals the sagging support from priests for such movements in the region of rugged hills and lime groves 300 miles west of Mexico City.
“I told them, ‘You know what, I no longer believe in these self-defense groups. I don’t trust you,'” Father Larios recalled saying.
“People don’t trust the authorities, nor do they trust the self-defense groups.”
To hear Father Larios and other priests in the Diocese of Apatzingan tell it, self-defense groups have become badly divided and broken — and still receive backing from the federal government.
The government insists that it is returning order to a long-lawless region by registering the self-defense groups’ guns and turning rag-tag militias into a new Rural Police force. The groups are being armed with assault rifles despite having little, if any, formal training.
The federal government ordered the loose network of self-defense groups to disarm by May 10, when it debuted the Rural Police to lay down the law in isolated areas where drug cartels acted with impunity in recent years. Many Rural Police members are former vigilantes.
“It’s you today who will have the responsibility going forward to defend your brothers, your families, your neighbors and all those that could be injured by organized and common crime,” said Alfredo Castillo, the government’s commissioner for Michoacan and the point man for its negotiations with the self-defense groups.
Priests expressed their reservations with the new police, however. Father Larios alleged they were being given badges and uniforms to give the appearance of the state being calm and under control.
“It’s laughable,” he said.
On May 10, he added, “They were training them how to salute.”
The priests also said the composition of the self-defense groups has changed since the first groups formed in February 2013 to fend off attacks from the Knights Templar cartel. Father Larios noticed it was farm folk who formed the groups to protect their families and property in the early days.
But the priest now sees more ex-cartel members in the ranks of the “autodefensas,” as the groups are known, while many more he alleged are acting out of private interests — such as taking advantage of timber reserves in his area — than protecting ordinary people.
“These people are going to feel all powerful, now that they have permission to kill, permission to control the rest of the population who don’t have weapons,” Father Larios said. “Those who don’t have weapons, what are they going to do?”
Some leaders of self-defense groups remain on the outs with the federal government. Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, who was stripped of his position as a spokesman for the coordinating council of self-defense groups and accused by his former colleagues of having lost his mental faculties, accused the government of working with criminals.
Mexican media reported a new cartel known as H3 has surged with members of self-defense groups among its participants.
Priests described the groups and their leaders as, “authentic,” or “false,” with the authentic ones failing to fall into line with the government.
“People have stopped supporting the self-defense groups,” said Father Patricio Madrigal, parish priest in Nueva Italia, where people once welcomed the vigilantes into their communities in an effort to combat crime.
“People are staying silent and have withdrawn to their homes. The community is no longer participating,” he said.
The original groups were organized with high hopes. They effectively fought off the quasi-religious Knights Cartel, running them out of communities and enduring weeks and months of having henchmen try to take back the town by blocking deliveries of everything from food to gasoline.
Bishop Miguel Patino Velazquez of Apatzingan highlighted the plight in an October pastoral letter, which gained national attention. He touched on the same topics again in an April 30 homily, while celebrating Mass for Mexico’s bishops prior to their meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto.
“This world (in Michoacan) has many nuances. It’s never simply black and white, but has many shades of gray,” Bishop Patino said.
“A group can be doing a lot of good for its people today, and tomorrow we’re not so sure. We notice that the pace of normal life is normalizing bit by bit, although with the pain, the culture of death refuses to disappear,” he said.
Many churchmen are keeping a low profile, while the outspoken vicar, Father Gregorio Lopez Geronimo, who made headlines for celebrating Mass while wearing a bulletproof vest and leading protests, was sent to spend time in a French monastery.
“We’re disappointed,” Father Madrigal said.
“But it’s left us free to have the option of working with the base, not directly confronting anyone, only warning people, accompanying them, maybe continuing to pressure the government so that it does its part.”