Mexican vigilantes dismiss spokesman

MARK STEVENSON
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2013 file photo, Doctor Jose Manuel Mireles, leader of his town's self-defense group, poses for a portrait on his property in Tepalcatepec, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. Vigilantes who have spent the last year beating back a drug cartel in Mexico said Thursday, May 8, 2014 they have dismissed Mireles as their chief spokesman, after he used unusually frank language to challenge President Enrique Pena Nieto. He had become the public face of the "self-defense" movement in the western state of Michoacan. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, File)

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 frank 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 are fighting the Knights Templar cartel. The cartel had strangled the largely agricultural state with extortion demands, kidnappings and killings.

But Mireles has also become known as a loose cannon. Earlier this week he posted a video on social media sites challenging Pena Nieto to a dialogue, using colloquial language not usually directed at the president.

"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 the absent Pena Nieto as 'tu," the informal form of address in Spanish.

Referring to allegations that the 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 is someone came to your home and took your wife because she is very beautiful?" Mireles starts and concludes the video with a plea to talk directly to the president.

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 (Mireles) didn't pay any attention, he just made pronouncements."

Beltran said it was a pattern of behavior, not just Mireles' one-sided 'chat' with the president, that led to the dismissal. Mireles, a doctor who spent time as an immigrant in the United States, was not immediately available to 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" form in the open letter to Pena Nieto, he made it clear in the letter he doesn't agree with the way the constitutional change was passed last year.

Such direct, personal challenges to the president were once rare in Mexico, though intellectuals have long signed group appeals on rights issues.

For about a century, Mexico had been used to a sort of 'imperial' presidency, in which everyone was expected to be very formal and respectful of the president. That broke down a bit with Vicente Fox, the first opposition candidate to ever win the presidency in 2000, introduced a more informal style of governance, 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.

But Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party — known as the PRI, it held the presidency without interruption from 1929 to 2000 — has seemed eager to reinstall a more formal, distant style. During a visit to a university campus during his 2012 election campaign, Pena Nieto was forced to flee by student protesters chanting "Out! Out!" Since then, as president, Pena Nieto's appearances have been carefully stage-managed.

But writer Guadalupe Loaeza noted that "The "presidential-ist" system is over, that's something the PRI has to learn," noting "it would be impossible to revive it, especially now, with social media."

Loaeza said that, even if Mireles' tone and use of "tu" ''must have bothered" the president, "he should meet with Mireles. He represents the voices of millions of Mexicans."

Referring to Pena Nieto's most recent appearance in social media — a "selfie" with U.S. actor Kevin Spacey — led Loaeza to ask, "let's see if he posts a selfie with Mireles."