Chiapas: New blood, old wars

The intensification of anti-narcotics operations in key areas of the Mexican state – such as along the border with Guatemala, or in the Lacandona jungle – has resulted in the umpteenth escalation in the armed conflict. In this seriously wounded state, tensions are ready to explode

Elementos de la fiscalía estatal en el sitio de la masacre, en Chenalhó
Officers from the State Prosecutor’s Office at the site of a massacre in Chenalhó, Chiapas, on June 2, 2023.Cuartoscuro
Alejandro Santos Cid

Armed men burst into the town, making it clear that they were the law. They assaulted the rural police station and surrounded the commissioner’s house, leaving no room for doubt as to who was in charge. They left behind a message: “From now on, we control the town and the region.” They said that they were members of the Sinaloa Cartel – specifically, hitmen working for Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Despite these threats, the community of Nueva Palestina revolted. On September 6, the residents sent an open letter to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, begging for military intervention, for the state to defend them from the criminal groups. Clearly, drug-trafficking has become strong in the Lacandona jungle, the symbolic heart of Chiapas.

There are many clichés that are applied to the southern Mexican state, but they all fall short of describing the situation that has unfolded over the last three decades. Just to give a few examples: Chiapas is a time bomb, a pressure cooker, a glass that threatens to overflow, a spiral of violence, a powder keg… it’s “on the verge of civil war,” says the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the local militant group. The reality is that the poorest state in Mexico is all that and much more. It has been living through an armed conflict for the last 30 years, with an amalgamation of paramilitaries, soldiers, guerrillas and self-defense groups. In recent times, the arrival of organized crime has made everything worse. Chiapas is surrounded by a fire that – instead of being put out – is becoming more and more fierce. An explosion seems inevitable. And it’s getting closer.

In Mexico City, people march in solidarity with the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, on June 8, 2023.
In Mexico City, people march in solidarity with the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, on June 8, 2023.Iñaki Malvido

The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel have found a new vein to exploit in the region that borders Guatemala. It’s a porous territory, fertile for illicit businesses, with three major arteries for drug trafficking: the Lacandona jungle, Frontera Comalapa (right on the border with Guatemala) and the Pacific coast. The possibilities of doing business are immense, with megaprojects such as the Mayan Train, a growing tourism sector and widespread land speculation. The destruction of the social fabric – caused by the influx of weapons that is devouring the region – has been accelerated. As always, civil society is paying the price, especially women and Indigenous communities, according to reports from specialists and testimonies from the locals. Massacres, femicides, kidnappings, sexual violence, disappearances and forced displacements are common – the repertoire of horror is extensive.

The escalation of a covert war

Diana Iztu Gutiérrez has been living in Chiapas for 12 years. She has been studying these dynamics at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology: “We’re seeing a worsening level of organized crime in the last three years: from the arrival of armed militants in armored vehicles [who commit] kidnappings, car thefts, extortion. At the same time, femicides are increasing, there are [many cases of] depression and suicides, killings and daily disappearances of young people. In the communities, there’s an increase in [the consumption of] alcohol, drugs and prostitution.”

Experts point out that the arrival of the Mayan Train project, mining and tourism have coincided with the rise of the mafias. “All of this is going to lead to greater consumption [of substances]… organized crime comes in,” Iztu Gutiérrez affirms. “There’s obviously control over the territories where there’s water, oil and minerals… but we also have to understand how the political class becomes part of organized crime. Here, [in Chiapas], we see no difference between politicians and drug traffickers,” she adds.

Mario Ortega Gutiérrez – coordinator of advocacy at the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba) – explains how it’s very difficult to present evidence that demonstrates that the economic opportunities offered by megaprojects – such as the Mayan Train project – are what attract organized crime, “but they always coincide. We also don’t want to think that this is the only [cause]. We understand that, at the national level, there’s still a dispute between the cartels… we don’t know what ruptures have occurred so that Chiapas – which, historically, hasn’t been in the same situation as the rest of the country – is now [having these issues].”

Members of various Indigenous groups – the Tzotzil, Chol and Tojolabal Mayans – march against the growing armed conflict in San Cristóbal, on June 5, 2023.
Members of various Indigenous groups – the Tzotzil, Chol and Tojolabal Mayans – march against the growing armed conflict in San Cristóbal, on June 5, 2023. Carlos López (EFE)

Chiapas has a long history of peasant mobilizations and protests. A strong movement that – for Ortega Gutiérrez – helps explain the resistance to the incursion of organized crime in the state. “Possibly, it has a lot to do with the fact as to why the cartels didn’t know how to enter [the state], due to the strong reluctance [of the] society… but now they’ve been able to do so by exerting 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 routes to traffic drugs, Ortega Gutiérrez explains. The central one is from Frontera Comalapa to San Cristóbal de las Casas. “This has been the route that, so far, has been most-disputed between the two large cartels… but the conflict tends to spread [away from the border with Guatemala].” The north – which begins in the Lacandona jungle – is another one of the places where the situation is worsening: “Historically, since the 1970s, it has been documented that it’s an area where there are various clandestine drug-trafficking routes, where most of the drugs belonging to organized crime arrive in small planes. The route follows an entire highway that crosses the northern area of Chiapas until reaching Palenque, Tabasco, Veracruz…” The third route is through the Pacific coast.

Members of the Mexican Army and National Guard on patrol in the municipality of Comala.
Members of the Mexican Army and National Guard on patrol in the municipality of Comala.Carlos López (EFE)

Remilitarization and paramilitarism

There’s no easy answer to a conflict with a thousand facets. For example: the military intervention that the Lacandona community requests in its public letter is a measure that many other areas of the state reject. Oftentimes, critics say, the presence of soldiers is part of the problem – not the solution. “What we’ve seen is that communities often have a dilemma when it comes to requesting security. The very strong psychosocial impact of the militarism of the 1990s – with many violations of human rights – remains in the collective imagination. It’s very respectable for communities to demand the presence of public security as a desperate measure against violence – we don’t doubt that it can have an immediate effect – but it doesn’t solve the problem in the long-term,” Ortega Gutiérrez notes.

On January 1, 1994 – the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force – the EZLN, formed by thousands of farmers from Chiapas, took up arms and put the federal government of then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in check. They sought to put an end to the extreme inequality experienced by indigenous people in Mexico. Over the years, the EZLN gained influence, becoming a solid opposition outside the halls of Congress, as well as a kind of beacon for the global left. While this group has spent years observing a strategy of silence, EZLN members 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’s 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 Mexican government unleashed a counterinsurgency strategy to isolate and reduce the EZLN communities, which have since lived in autonomous regions, beyond the reach of the Mexican authorities.

In the heat of the counterinsurgency, numerous paramilitary groups emerged. The emblematic case – one that remains in the memory of the region like an open wound – was the Acteal massacre: on March 22, 1997, a death squad murdered 45 people in cold blood in a church, including 18 children. Two years ago, López Obrador’s administration recognized that the hand of the state was behind the massacre. He stated that the hitmen belonged to “paramilitary groups which operated with the complacency of the authorities.”

Members of the National Guard are deployed to the border from San Cristóbal, on September 10, 2023.
Members of the National Guard are deployed to the border from San Cristóbal, on September 10, 2023. Carlos López (EFE)

“Documenting [the Mexican] Army headquarters [in Chiapas] always leads you to paramilitary groups, trained and armed by [the security forces],” says Iztu Gutiérrez. “In the 2000s, the state bet on corporatization of paramilitary organizations, which later played this dirty game of [waging a] war of attrition,” Ortega Gutiérrez agrees. Currently, the EZLN strongholds continue to suffer from a constant paramilitary siege. “The situation wants to force the Zapatistas to use weapons,” the researcher warns.

There was never a proper 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 hasn’t had a transitional process towards peace, nor a truth commission 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,” the researcher from Frayba sighs. He also mentions another factor: that the old paramilitary groups and the new cartels are beginning to link up, so as to maintain control.

For Frayba, remilitarizing isn’t the solution to the problem: “Despite the presence of the military and the National Guard, criminal groups are mobilizing right under their noses. [Remilitarization of the region] is not the answer. We believe that the strongest [option] is that communities have the possibility – through peaceful alternatives – to shield themselves, with the understanding that this war for control isn’t only armed… it’s also cultural. We must rebuild and strengthen the social fabric.”

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