Mexican vigilante movement dismisses spokesman

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Associated Press

Posted on May 8, 2014 at 7:05 PM

Updated Thursday, May 8 at 7:08 PM

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Vigilantes who have spent the last year beating back a drug cartel in Mexico said Thursday they have dismissed their chief spokesman after he used unusually blunt language to challenge President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Dashing vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles had become the public face of the "self-defense" movement in the western state of Michoacan, where the coalition of farmers, ranchers and laborers is fighting the Knights Templar cartel that had strangled the largely agricultural state with extortion demands, kidnappings and killings.

But Mireles also became known as a loose cannon. Earlier this week he posted a video on social media sites asking Pena Nieto to talk one on one and not through his handlers, referring to the president in a colloquial manner that could be considered offensive.

"You are a human being, just like me, maybe you've got a headache or you have to go to the bathroom," Mireles says on the video, in which he speaks to Pena Nieto using the informal form of "you" in Spanish — "tu."

Referring to allegations that Knights Templar gunmen abducted wives and daughters of Michoacan ranchers to sexually abuse them, Mireles asked Pena Nieto how he would feel in that situation.

"Enrique, you have a very beautiful wife, and you both have very beautiful daughters, just as we do in our towns," Mireles said. "How would you feel if someone came to your home and took your wife because she is very beautiful?"

Current vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran said Thursday that Mireles was dismissed for not clearing his statements with the vigilantes' leadership bodies. The approximately three dozen towns where the self-defense forces have chapters form a collective leadership council, and Beltran said any public statements have to be cleared through that council, or at least some of its members.

"Everything we do always has to be consulted with the council," Beltran said. "He didn't pay any attention; he just made pronouncements."

Beltran said the dismissal was ordered because of a pattern of behavior, not just Mireles' one-sided "chat" with the president. Mireles, a doctor who spent time as an immigrant in the United States, could not be contacted for comment on the decision.

The exchange came about a week after Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron published a full-page ad in Mexican newspapers questioning Pena Nieto's energy reform. While the director of the blockbuster space film "Gravity" used the formal, respectful "usted" in his open letter to Pena Nieto, he made clear that he doesn't agree with the way the constitutional change was passed last year.

Direct, personal challenges to a president were once rare in Mexico.

For about a century, Mexico was used to a sort of imperial presidency, in which everyone was expected to be very formal. That broke down a bit with Vicente Fox, who became in 2000 the first opposition candidate in seven decades to win the presidency and governed with folksy expressions and a taste for cowboy boots.

His successor, Felipe Calderon, also engaged in more direct, face-to-face contact with average citizens, including hugging an activist who lost his son to drug violence.

But Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party has reinstalled a more formal, distant style since regaining the top office in 2012. It was ousted from power after a 71-year reign by Fox's victory in 2000.

"The 'presidential-ist' system is over, that's something the PRI has to learn," said Guadalupe Loaeza, a cultural commentator and writer. "It would be impossible to revive it, especially now, with social media."

Even if Mireles' informal, frank tone bothered the president, "he should meet with Mireles. He represents the voices of millions of Mexicans," she said.

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