As Mexican town mourns slain anti-gang leader, brother warns community would take up arms again

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Olivia Mora cries over the casket of her brother Hipolito Mora during his wake at his home in La Ruana, Mexico, Friday, June 30, 2023. Hipolito Mora, the leader of an armed civilian movement that once drove a drug cartel out of the western state of Michoacan, was killed Thursday on a street in his hometown. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

LA RUANA – As people mourned the slain leader of an armed civilian defense movement, his younger brother warned Friday that he and others who fought with Hipólito Mora would take up arms again if the government does not provide swift justice.

Mora, a beloved lime grower-turned-vigilante leader, inspires loyalty in the rural west of Michoacan state. And much as they did when he led an uprising a decade ago, residents feel abandoned by the government to the whims of multiple criminal organizations battling over the territory.

“If the governor does nothing to get us justice in the next few days and get these (gangsters) out of here, we’re going to call on the people; we’re going to take up arms,” Guadalupe Mora Chávez, the slain leader's younger brother, said. He said many people had called him offering their support and ready to join the fight again.

“There has to be justice,” Mora Chávez said. “If the government doesn't do it, we are going to do it.”

The Michoacan state prosecutors’ office said Mora was killed Thursday when unidentified gunmen cut off his SUV and his bodyguards’ pickup truck on a street in La Ruana, his hometown. The assailants opened fire, riddling Mora’s vehicle with bullets, and then set it on fire, the prosecutors' office said.

Three other men, believed to be members of his security detail, were also killed. Prosecutors said one of the four bodies matched Mora’s description.

Mora was one of the last surviving leaders of Michoacan’s armed vigilante movement, in which farmers and ranchers banded together to expel the Knights Templar cartel from the state in 2013 and 2014.

In more recent years, Mora unsuccessfully ran for congress and governor. He continued speaking out about the violent gangs and went back to tending his lime orchards.

His younger brother blamed another homegrown cartel terrorizing the area for Mora's killing. “The cartel that is here, the Viagras, were the ones who killed him,” Mora Chávez said.

Mora Chávez said he saw armed men driving around La Ruana earlier Thursday and called his brother to warn him. He said his brother told him he was aware.

Mora Chávez, who lives beside a local military base for Mexican army and National Guard troops, said that after seeing armed men in town, he climbed onto his roof to look over a base wall. There was no one inside.

The soldiers had left the base early Thursday and did not arrive at the scene until after the attack, which lasted nearly an hour, he alleged. He does not think it was coincidence.

“They left in agreement with them (the attackers) so that they could come him and kill them,” Mora Chávez alleged. “The townspeople threw buckets of water to put out (the fire) and (the troops) didn't arrive.”

The security forces at the base in La Ruana fought to keep the hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation cartel from entering but did nothing against the homegrown Viagras as they extorted locals and taxed everything from tortillas to soft drinks and beer, suffocating local business, the grieving brother alleged.

Mora Chávez said people should remember his brother as “a leader who fought for his people, but unfortunately, this government didn’t support him. It was against him.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denied the military was in any way involved in Mora’s death.

Michoacan Gov. Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla had asked Mora to leave La Ruana for his own safety, López Obrador said the governor had told him.

Meanwhile, in the state capital, Morelia, another person who fought alongside Mora read Friday from what he said was a posthumous message from the slain leader.

“I said it many times, I knew this day would come," David Cevallos said as he read the words that he said Mora composed at some point before his death. "I said it, I am going to die fighting.”

The message also addressed those in power, telling government leaders to “focus on the citizens before your campaigns and your pockets.”

“Don't let my death be in vain, and to my family, my friends, my loyal followers, do what you have to do so that the fight that I started continues being on behalf of a just cause for citizens,” Mora wrote.

Back in La Ruana, small knots of people, perhaps 50 in all, gathered quietly on the dirt road outside the home where Mora’s coffin lay, surrounded by candles and religious imagery.

Many of the mourners — some of whom participated alongside Mora in the 2013 uprising — spoke on condition of anonymity, citing their fear of the drug cartel gunmen who they say still lurk in the area. Mora's brother lamented fear had kept more people from showing up to pay their respects.

One relative drew a long sigh when asked if the yearslong struggle to throw out the cartels was worth it. “No,” she said, “I think it wasn’t. We’re worse off now than we were.”

López Obrador said Mora’s killing was very regrettable. But he also said that violence in Michoacan state had antecedents. The president then embarked on one of his preferred harangues about how former President Felipe Calderón launched the failed war on drugs from the very state of Michoacan, something López Obrador blames for the violence that continues to plague Mexico today.

Asked during his daily news briefing Friday to comment on Mora's killing, López Obrador said, “That is a remnant of the violence that the government sponsored and allowed.”

A relative of Mora's who also requested anonymity fearing reprisals brushed off the president's assurance that Mora had been warned he was in danger. “This is his town. His lime orchards are here, he was watching them,” the relative said. “Of course he had to come back. How wouldn’t he?”

Mora's brother accused the governor of being in bed with the Viagras. “Those who govern here are supporting organized crime,” he said.

At the spot a short distance away from where Mora died, there was nothing left but a charred patch of dirt street, traces of a tire, someone's eyeglasses and broken glass. The windows of a house facing the street were completely shot up.

There was no visible presence of the National Guard, soldiers or police.

A witness to Thursday’s attack who requested anonymity out of fear said the attack had been an ambush. The witness said that while under attack, Mora got out of his armored SUV and returned fire. After he was killed, the attackers set fire to his vehicle and started shouting in celebration.

A video showed gunmen firing from inside a white truck with what appeared to be wood slat sides around its bed. A number of shots from a large caliber gun thunder, followed by rapid fire from a machine gun.

Others in the town felt bereft and unprotected following Mora’s death.

“(Mora) answered for the people, he fought,” a retired lime packer said as he and his wife had lunch at a local restaurant. “Now who is going to look after us?”

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Fernanda Pesce contributed; Christopher Sherman and María Verza contributed from Mexico City.