A man who co-founded and led a self-defense force that took the fight to the drug cartels in Michoacán died on Wednesday from Covid-19.
José Manuel Mireles Valverde, a medical doctor who more recently worked as an official in the state health system, died in a hospital in the Michoacán municipality of Charo three weeks after he was admitted. He was 62.
Mireles led a call to arms in 2013 against the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) cartel, which at that time was the main instigator of violence in Michoacán, especially in the Tierra Caliente region.
He helped put together a self-defense force made up of vigilantes from several regions of Michoacán. They fought to retake control of scores of communities where the Caballeros Templarios and other organized crime groups held sway.
Mireles’ bravery in standing up to the criminal organizations won him national fame and acclaim. He was the self-defense force’s leader, spokesman and most visible figure. Mireles was widely respected in Tepalcatepec, where he worked as a doctor prior to helping clear that municipality and others of criminal activity.
Less than a year after co-founding the self-defense force, the doctor-turned-vigilante survived a light plane crash that he always believed was an attempt on his life. The January 2014 accident left him with a punctured lung and 48 screws had to be inserted into his skull.
Five months later Mireles was arrested along with scores of other self-defense members on weapon possession charges. He would spend almost three years in jail before being released in May 2017 following the introduction of the new criminal justice system under which his alleged crime was not classified as serious. A federal court dismissed the case against him in July 2018.
Mireles was aligned with the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in the 1980s but in more recent times was an ally of President López Obrador and his Morena party.
The current government appointed him to the position of medical services sub-delegate of ISSSTE, the government workers health service, in Michoacán in August 2019, a role that allowed him to use his training and experience as a doctor.
But while in that job, Mireles faced heavy criticism for referring to the female partners of ISSSTE beneficiaries as “whores” in a video that circulated on social media in September 2019. In March this year he was suspended from his duties for five days for the derogatory comment and similar remarks he made about women.
In addition to facing allegations of misogyny, Mireles was accused of domestic violence by his first wife and two of his children. The latter allegations were investigated but Mireles was never charged. His ex-wife said that he reconciled with his children before passing away in hospital Wednesday night.
A charismatic yet controversial figure, Mireles also made headlines in 2019 when he married a woman almost four decades younger than him.
Despite the controversies he created, the criminal charges he faced and accusations that he was actually in cahoots with some criminal groups, Mireles will be best remembered for his willingness to do what most people are too afraid to do: take on Mexico’s notoriously violent cartels.
“He will be remembered as a great social fighter,” said Ramiro López Elizalde, an ISSSTE director.
López Obrador acknowledged Mireles passing at his regular news conference on Thursday, sending condolences to his family and all Mexicans who are suffering in any way from the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 103,000 lives across the country.