Chiapas and the Zapatistas Face a Dramatic Increase in Violence

By: Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez | Part 1 of 2

When discussing the increased violence in Chiapas, it’s helpful to remember that there is a neoliberal effort underway to bring indigenous peoples in southeast Mexico into the capitalist marketplace. The vehicle for bringing this about is a massive infrastructure development plan, originally named the Plan Puebla-Panama and then re-named the Mesoamerica Project. It’s also helpful to remember that Chiapas is Mexico’s southernmost state and has an extensive border with Guatemala, one of the Northern Triangle countries in Central America that expel both migrants and contraband into Mexico, thus contributing to the violence that takes place.

Media reports and analysis, Zapatista communiqués and anecdotal stories from Chiapas residents indicate increased violence due to the following sources: counterinsurgency (low-intensity war against the Zapatistas), the presence of national organized crime cartels, the San Cristóbal to Palenque superhighway, municipal elections and migration. 

Counterinsurgency – “Low-Intensity War against the Zapatistas”

After the 1994 Zapatista Uprising, the Mexican Army was in charge of counterinsurgency actions to capture, contain and repress the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). A February 1995 Army offensive against the Zapatistas brought about massive civil society demonstrations throughout Mexico in support of the Zapatistas and a negotiated peace in Chiapas. The Mexican Congress responded to civil society by enacting the “Law for Dialogue, Conciliation and Dignified Peace in Chiapas,” published in the Diario Oficial (the official government bulletin) on March 11, 1995. It amounted to a truce between the Mexican Army and the EZLN. After this law was signed, we saw paramilitary groups emerge, replacing the Mexican Army’s role of armed counterinsurgency. Those paramilitary groups have continued in one form or another to this day, sometimes active and at other times dormant. In the last three or four years we have seen an increase in paramilitary activity.

Paramilitary violence aimed directly at the civilian Zapatistas has clearly increased in intensity and frequency in specific areas: Aldama (Caracol 4, Oventik) and Nuevo San Gregorio, as well as surrounding communities in Lucio Cabañas Autonomous Municipality (Caracol 10 Patria Nueva).  Both involve disputes over land and frequent armed attacks. 

In Aldama, the attacks are several times a day every day from paramilitary groups in Santa Martha, Chenalhó. Seven residents of Aldama have been killed by gunfire and others have been injured or have died from illness caused by the conditions they suffered during forced displacement. According to press reports, some of the same paramilitaries who perpetrated the 1997 Acteal Massacre are involved, but now with a younger generation added. Aldama is the official name of the municipality. The Zapatistas are organized in Magdalena de la Paz autonomous municipality (Caracol Oventik) within the official municipality of Aldama. 

In Nuevo San Gregorio, the armed attacks are frequent and aimed at taking land, crops and animals away from the community. Attackers are members of the Regional Organization of Ocosingo Coffee Growers (ORCAO, its Spanish acronym). Residents of Nuevo San Gregorio refer to them as “The 40 Invaders.” The origin of the conflict with ORCAO is an old one and attacks have happened off and on for almost 20 years, but the frequency and intensity have increased over the last 2 or 3 years and also extend to other communities within the Lucio Cabañas autonomous municipality. 

Importantly, no level of government intervenes in these attacks! No level of government has intervened to stop the attacks in Aldama, where the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has issued precautionary measures. No level of government has intervened to stop attacks in Nuevo San Gregorio, where the aggressor group has also threatened human rights observers. The threats against observers were such that the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba) took the unusual step of withdrawing observers from a community in conflict. These attacks on Zapatista communities are denounced by human rights and solidarity organizations and reported in the press. Of concern is whether there are other communities suffering violence that don’t denounce or report due to fear.

The attacks on Aldama and Nuevo San Gregorio seems to be a continuation of the federal government’s low-intensity war against the Zapatistas, now on steroids, an escalation rather than something completely new or different.

A Big Increase in Organized Crime

What has produced the most shocking/attention-grabbing headlines is the emergence of the Motonetos (Scooters) in San Cristóbal and the shootout in San Cristóbal’s Northern Market between local organized crime groups.  We see a DRAMATIC INCREASE in the day-to-day distribution of drugs by local organized crime groups, including the former paramilitary groups, which are now narco-paramilitary groups, meaning those groups have even more money to buy high-powered weapons and other military equipment. Two recent reports help to detail and explain the increased violence due to organized crime: a statement from the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and a report from the National Citizen Observatory.

Statement from the Diocese of San Cristóbal

On July 3, 2022, religious leaders of the San Cristóbal de Las Casas Catholic Diocese issued a statement denouncing a scenario of murder and other terrifying forms of violence, including the sale of organs, human trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation, as well as for pornography, all of this taking place within its jurisdiction, which includes most of the heavily indigenous eastern side of Chiapas, also considered the area of Zapatista influence.

The statement came just a few weeks after the shootout between armed groups fighting each other for control of San Cristóbal’s Northern Market, in which one person died after being struck by a ricocheting bullet. On June 14, masked men dressed in black with high-powered rifles blocked streets and fired shots into the air as terrified residents and shoppers in the area took cover wherever they could. One group was identified as the “Motonetos,” also known as “Scooters,” a group of young San Cristóbal residents who travel on motorcycles and work with organized crime.

The Diocese stated: “Every day organized crime occupies more space in Chiapas territory, painfully it’s adding to the national situation, and there is a struggle between competing groups at the state and local level.” This confirms the information San Cristóbal residents and NGO workers have given to solidarity folks visiting Chiapas from the United States: two national drug cartels are fighting for control of Chiapas and local organized crime groups have links to one or the other national cartels.

The Diocese recalls the murders of Simón Pedro Pérez López, a catechist and past president of Las Abejas of Acteal, and the indigenous prosecutor Gregorio Pérez in 2021. It also recalls several murders in 2022:  the journalist Fredy López Arevalo, Señora Paula Ruíz and very recently the municipal president of Teopisca, a municipality adjacent to that of San Cristóbal.

The Diocese is, in part, motivated by recent arrests of its “pastoral agents.” It specifically refers to the May 31 arrest of Manuel Sántiz Cruz, a Tseltal defender of human rights and territory in the parish of San Juan Cancuc, and four more members of the parish. It further mentions the arrests of the councilor president of Pantelhó Municipality, Pedro Cortés López and Diego Mendoza Cruz, a municipal council member, with a luxury of violence.

The straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back was the state attorney general’s request that a court issue an arrest warrant for Father Marcelo Pérez Pérez, currently a parish priest in San Cristóbal, but until very recently the parish priest in Simojovel municipality, next door to the conflictive municipality of Pantelhó. Father Marcelo served as a mediator after the El Machete Self-Defense group rose up and removed the municipal council, as well as a group of 21 alleged hit men (sicarios) for a former municipal president’s organized crime group referred to as “Los Herrera.” At that time, these acts appeared to have the support of a large majority of the population, and they supported Cortés López as the new municipal president.

Nineteen of the alleged hit men who El Machete removed from their homes on July 26, 2021 have not been heard from since; their whereabouts are unknown. Their relatives are demanding action and are represented by a lawyer. They are pressuring the State Congress and the press. Now, the state government blames Cortés López, Mendoza Cruz and Father Marcelo for their disappearance. 

The National Citizen Observatory

The denunciation from the Diocese follows a June 8 report from the National Citizen Observatory that the presence of organized crime has skyrocketed in Chiapas. The report details the increase in complaints to state authorities about the crime of drug dealing. Complaints rose 400% in just one month. It adds that there are municipalities with a 2,000 % increase in the same time period (April 2022).

Pueblo Creyente, a people of faith organization affiliated with the Diocese of San Cristóbal, denounced that: “insecurity, violence and territorial disputes provoked by organized crime (…) bring very strong consequences for our municipalities and our peoples, such as narco-politics, drug addiction in the ejidos, the increase of bars, car and motorcycle theft and murders.”

A member of Pueblo Creyente denounced in a meeting that last April, when she was riding in a public transport van, “some armed men stopped us, they took the women out, not me, I believe because I am an elderly person. They took them away (three women), their families didn’t find them, we haven’t heard from them again, but there is fear of denounciating”

A dramatic example of this struggle for control took place after the Diocese issued its statement. A violent two-day battle for territorial control took place in the border municipalities of La Trinitaria and Frontera Comalapa between two local organized crime groups working for national crime cartels. More than four thousand people had to leave their homes to avoid the gunfire. After several days, the Mexican Army was able to stop the gun battle, arrest 3 people and confiscate an arsenal of weapons.   

There are other factors contributing to the violence and repression. Not all violence can be attributed specifically to the presence of national organized crime groups. However, the presence of two national cartels battling each other for control of the state increases the volume of weapons of war in the state, which, in turn, increases the intensity of other conflicts, such as counterinsurgency against the Zapatistas, electoral conflicts, protests against the construction of megaprojects and migration.

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