Chenalhó, Chiapas, the Struggle for Land by Way of Weapons

In the Altos of Chiapas, a crisis continues to unfold – an ongoing saga of a dispute between the municipalities of Aldama and Chenalhó. The deepening of paramilitary influence and power in the region, and particularly, in Santa Marta, Chenalhó, has ravaged the communities of Aldama continuously for over 3 years, aggressions which have left thousands displaced, and several dead or wounded. In the past week, these forces have now turned on families on their home turf of Chenalhó, burning homes and killing several. As the families flee the violence, the conditions of vulnerability remind many of the conditions that preceded the massacre in Acteal, 25 years ago.

by Ángeles Máriscal

Seven days of constant attacks have passed without the government being able to intervene to stop the confrontation within the armed group of Santa Martha, Chenalho, over the possession of 49.5 hectares of land. “If we didn’t have land we would be like beggars,” say those who, now at a disadvantage, have had to abandon the village and leave behind the dead that this conflict is leaving in its wake.

Chiapas. In October 2020 the inhabitants of Santa Martha, Chenalhó, located in the indigenous zone of the Highlands of Chiapas, managed to get the government to recognize as theirs 22 hectares that they disputed with their neighbors from the municipality of Chalchihuitán; on November 27, 2020 they did the same and obtained 27.5 hectares from the municipality of Aldama. They managed to acquire 49.5 new hectares of land for themselves.

In both cases the dispute for these lands was by means of arms, continuous, constant and high-powered gunfire against their neighbors in Chalchihuitán and Aldama.

Now,a government official admits, “the snake is biting its own tail,” because contrary to official predictions, the transfer of lands has not brought peace to Santa Martha, which is located in the indigenous Highlands. Now the dispute is being fought within the armed group itself over the differences in the distribution of the land obtained.

This has displaced more than 200 people from Santa Martha itself, the most recent event took place last September 29, and has left an undetermined number of people killed and houses burned, without any government authority having entered the conflict zone so far.

Photo: Chiapas Paralello

Defenders of the Land

Juan Ruiz Ruiz considers himself to be a “defender of the land. He explains that it fell to him to fight for possession of the 27.5 hectares that used to belong to Aldama, whose residents have been attacked day after day, until they conceded to the handover.

Juan says that the “defenders of the land paid what was fair,” a kind of fee that the Santa Martha authorities asked them to pay for supplies in order to fulfill their purpose.

Once they were gaining land, they began to plant, which led the Santa Martha authorities to recognize their right to possession. But in the middle of this year, “the Commissioner and his people began to extort us, they began to fine us, until they told us that these lands were not going to be ours, that they had to be distributed.”

The same thing happened with those who had possession of the 22 hectares of Chalchihuitán. They disagreed, and then came the division in Santa Martha. On June 25, those who did not agree with this new distribution of land were expelled from Santa Martha. The men left, but their families stayed behind.

On September 29, members of the expelled group tried to gather the harvest from the land, and that triggered the dispute once again, with the result so far of houses burned, people killed, gunshots fired for seven days in a row, and the displacement of the entire families of those who had already been expelled.

Families of Santa Marta fled to save their lives. Photo: Angeles Mariscal

Complete Disarmament

Agustín Pérez is another of the “land defenders” displaced from Santa Martha. He says that on September 29, the group they call “of the Commissioner” chased several people and killed an elderly man also named Juan Ruiz, his wife and children.

They also killed his father, who died in his house. Then they set fire to the house with his father’s body inside. He says that in the following hours he saw six people die at the hands of this group, that he resisted the armed attacks for three days, until he finally fled through the mountains and arrived at the community of Polhó, where more than 200 displaced people are now concentrated.

“We fought for that land, we bore the costs that had to be paid,” he laments.

Manuel Gómez Velasco also talks about the fees they had to give to have something to “fight for the land”. “But even though we won it, more and more fines and fines were levied against us”.

Manuel recognizes that they, “the Commissioner’s group accuse us of being the violent ones, of being the bad guys, but we are not”.

In an interview, Manuel says that they were willing to sign a civility pact with this group, but this could not materialize. Now, on behalf of the displaced people, he asks for “a total disarmament in Santa Martha” and the permanent surveillance of security forces such as the National Guard.

“We have asked for flyovers, but we see that there is no authority. Today there are still many children and women hiding in the bush, afraid of being killed, without any authority intervening. We want the government to take a good look at who has weapons. What we are asking for now is total disarmament,” he explains.

Displaced persons encampment in Majomut, Chenalhó Photo: Isaín Mandujano

Another Acteal

José Vázquez is a survivor of the Acteal massacre, which happened on December 22, 1997, by an armed group that was also formed in Chenalhó during that time. Now he, who considers himself to be a human rights defender and helps the displaced people of Santa Martha, says that what is happening is “a new Acteal”.

“How many deaths does the government want to see? Who is going to stop this violence? We need the right to life, but there are the dead, there are the displaced, there are the women and children who are leaving through the hills to get to this place,” he says, while pointing to the esplanade of what is the sandbar of the Majomut community, where they set up a temporary camp for  people who have managed to leave Santa Martha.

Juan says that seven days have passed since the recent confrontations. “Now there is no control, there is still violence, shooting, burning of houses, and the version in Santa Martha is that they want to exterminate the displaced, which is why there is fear in the camp.”

Since September 29 to date, those who have managed to leave Santa Martha have been arriving at the camp, especially children and women, some of them pregnant, such as Amalia Pérez Gómez, who is eight months pregnant and had to walk through the mountains.

No humanitarian aid from the Chiapas or federal government has arrived. Since the displaced people left carrying only a bag or sack with few belongings, they have barely managed to get a tarp and some blankets to spend the night.

In a makeshift campfire, the women prepare some tortillas, which will be their only food for the day. A young man takes the census of the displaced, yesterday there were 159, but today three new families arrived; others have taken refuge in nearby municipalities.

The conditions of this camp, the impunity with which armed violence has been executed, and the governmental abandonment – insists Juan – reminds him of the events prior to the Acteal massacre.

About 20 kilometers from the site, in the municipal capital of Chenalhó, authorities from the three levels of government met with the authorities of Santa Martha; the latter accepted that security forces headed by the National Guard (GN) would make a patrol tomorrow, but only in the central zone of Santa Martha.hey will not allow them to enter the 21 small communities that make up the area, which is where the conflict is taking place.

This article was published in Chiapas Paralelo on October 6th 2022. English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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