The armed men burst into the town to announce that from that moment on they were the law. They assaulted the rural police, surrounded the commissioner’s house to leave no doubt as to who was in charge, and when they left, they left behind a message: “From now on we take control of the town and the region.” They said they were members of the Sinaloa Cartel, hitmen of Ismael el Mayo Zambada. The community of New Palestine revolted despite the threats. On September 6, he sent a public letter to the President of the Government, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, begging for military intervention, for the State to defend them from the commandos. The pulse is in the air and one thing is clear: drug trafficking has become strong in the Lacandona jungle, the symbolic heart of Chiapas.
The clichés, the commonplaces, are wildcards that help, but fall short. For example: Chiapas is a time bomb, a pressure cooker, a glass that threatens to overflow, a spiral of violence, a powder keg — “on the edge of civil war,” says the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) — . Formulas used ad nauseam during the last three decades that, however, remain true. The reality is that the poorest State in Mexico is all that and much more: a latent armed conflict for the last 30 years, an amalgamation of paramilitaries, soldiers, guerrillas and self-defense groups that, in recent times, has seen the situation worsen with the entry into the scene of organized crime. To understand it, it is an arsenal loaded to the brim with a thousand and one types of gunpowder, surrounded by a fire that, instead of going out, is becoming more and more fueled. The explosion seems inevitable. And it’s getting closer.
People march in Mexico City as a show of solidarity towards the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, on June 8. Iñaki Malvido
The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel have found a new vein to exploit in the border region: a porous territory, fertile for illicit businesses, with three major arteries for drug trafficking that cross Lacandona, Frontera Comalapa and the Pacific coast. . The possibility of doing business is immense in the heat of megaprojects such as the Mayan Train, tourism and the speculation that they bring hand in hand. The breeding ground is served. The destruction of the social fabric caused by the maelstrom of weapons that is devouring the region is increasingly urgent, and, as always, it is civil society that is paying the most, especially women and indigenous communities, according to all reports, analyses, testimonies from specialists and people who suffer from it themselves. Massacres, femicides, kidnappings, sexual violence, disappearances, forced displacements. The horror repertoire is extensive.
The escalation of a covert war
Diana Iztu Gutiérrez has been living in Chiapas for 12 years and studying these dynamics. He is currently doing a stay at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology: “We are seeing a worsening of organized crime in the last three years: from the arrival of armed commandos in armored vehicles that lead to kidnappings, car thefts, and apartment charges. . At the same time, femicides are increasing, there is a lot of depression and suicides, death and daily disappearances of young people. In the communities there is an increase in (consumption of) alcohol, drugs, weapons and prostitution.”
Experts point out that the arrival of the Mayan Train, mining, tourism and exploitation of the region’s natural resources projects, coincides with the rise of the mafias. “All this is going to lead to greater consumption and here organized crime comes in,” says Iztu Gutiérrez. “There is control of the territories, obviously where there is water, oil, minerals, but we also have to understand how the political class becomes part of organized crime. Here we see no difference between politicians and drug traffickers,” she adds.
As Mario Ortega Gutiérrez, coordinator of the systematization and advocacy area of the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba), says, it is very difficult to demonstrate with evidence that the opportunities to get rich offered by megaprojects like the Mayan Train are what attracts organized crime, “but it always coincides.” “We also don’t want to think that it is the only thing. We understand that at the national level there is still a cartel dispute and we do not know what ruptures have occurred so that Chiapas, which historically had not entered into the situation of the rest of the country, is now.
Tzotzil, Chol and Tojolabal Mayan indigenous people march against the growing armed conflict in San Cristóbal, on June 5. Carlos López (EFE)
Chiapas has a great history of peasant organization, assemblies and protests. A strong associative movement that, for the expert, helps explain the resistance that had existed to the incursion of organized crime in the region: “Possibly, it has a lot to do with the fact that the cartels had not known how to enter due to the strong reluctance and the articulated society , and now they have been able to through social control.”
The main cartels that operate in the region, Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación, as well as dozens of regional groups, use three main arteries to traffic, explains Ortega Gutiérrez. The central one: from Frontera Comalapa to San Cristóbal de las Casas. “This has been the route so far most in dispute between the two large cartels, with a red light on the border, but the conflict tends to spread.” The north, which begins in the Lacandona jungle, one of the places where the situation is worsening: “Historically, since the 70s, it has been documented that it is an area where there are various clandestine drug trafficking routes, where most of the drugs arrive and other resources of organized crime in small planes, and the route follows an entire highway that crosses the northern area of Chiapas until reaching Palenque, Tabasco, Veracruz….” The third way is through the Pacific coast.
Members of the Mexican Army and the National Guard guard a town in the municipality of Comala. Carlos López (EFE)
Remilitarization and paramilitarism
There is no easy answer to a conflict with a thousand facets. For example: the military intervention requested by the Lacandona community in its public letter is a measure that many other areas of the State reject. Often, critics say, the presence of soldiers is part of the problem, not the solution. “What we have seen is that communities often have a dilemma when it comes to requesting security. The very strong psychosocial impact of the militarism of the 90s, with many violations of human rights, is in the collective imagination. It is very respectable that communities demand the presence of public security as a desperate measure against violence, we do not doubt that it can have an immediate effect, but it does not solve it in the long term,” explains Ortega Gutiérrez.
On January 1, 1994, the same day that the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) came into force, the EZLN, formed by thousands of farmers from Chiapas, took up arms and put the Government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in check. They sought to put an end to the lacerating inequality suffered by indigenous people in Mexico. Over the years they gained influence, becoming the bête noire of the Mexican State, a solid opposition outside Congress and a kind of beacon of the global left. Although they have now spent years following a strategy of silence, they continue to be spied on, monitored and surrounded by military intelligence and attacked by paramilitary groups.
The Zapatista uprising was followed by the first process of militarization in Chiapas. That is why many experts now prefer to talk about remilitarization, a reinforcement of what already existed. “Since I arrived in Chiapas, especially due to the context of the Zapatista uprising in 1994, I found a militarized State. It has been a constant for the last 30 years,” says Iztu Gutiérrez. The Government unleashed a counterinsurgency strategy to isolate and reduce the EZLN communities, which have since lived in autonomous regions, outside the Mexican authorities.
In the heat of the counterinsurgency, numerous paramilitary groups with dark connections emerged. The emblematic case, the one that remains like an open wound in the region, is Acteal: on March 22, 1997, a death squad murdered 45 people in cold blood in a church, including 18 children. Two years ago, the López Obrador Government recognized that the hand of the State was behind the massacre and stated that the hitmen belonged to “paramilitary groups with the complacency of the authorities.”
Members of the National Guard deploy towards the border from San Cristóbal, on September 10. Carlos López (EFE)
“Documenting Army headquarters (in Chiapas) always leads you to paramilitary groups, trained and armed by themselves,” says Iztu Gutiérrez. “In the 2000s, the State’s bet was the corporatization of paramilitary organizations that later played this dirty game of war of attrition,” agrees Ortega Gutiérrez. Currently, the EZLN strongholds continue to suffer a constant paramilitary siege. “The situation wants to lead the Zapatistas to use weapons,” warns the researcher.
There was never disarmament, not even after the EZLN and the Government signed a kind of symbolic, but not practical, peace with the San Andrés agreements of 1996. “Chiapas has not had a process of transition to peace nor (a commission of) the truth for all the crimes that were committed. The spiral of violence is obviously not new, the element of organized crime is adding to it and making it much more complex,” says the Frayba researcher. The expert adds one more factor: that currently the old paramilitary groups and the new cartels are beginning to link up to maintain control.
For Frayba, remilitarizing is not the solution to the problem: “Despite the presence of the military and the National Guard, criminal groups are mobilizing right under their noses. We are clear that it is not the answer. We believe that the strongest bet is below: communities have the possibility through peaceful alternatives to shield themselves, understanding that this war for control is not only armed, it is also cultural. “We must rebuild and strengthen the social fabric.”
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