Chiapas, Captive Territory I

Screenshot from video.

EL PAÍS travels along the border of the poorest state in Mexico, a region dominated by criminal groups. From Tapachula to the Lacandon Jungle passing through Comalapa and Chicomuselo, this story illustrates the fight between cartels, the abandonment of the State and the trail of murders, displacements, kidnappings and extortions, but also the attempts of the local and migrant population to survive.

A Venezuelan family locked in a rooster cage, on the way to Tapachula, awaits their turn to leave. An old man, frozen with cold, remembers the night in Comitán the escape from his home on the border, the threats of crime, that paper they wanted him to sign. “Sign, for what?” he whispers. A group of peasants, teenagers and elderly, armed with old hunting rifles and latest model machine guns, cook over the embers, while guarding the entrance to Frontera Corozal. A Guatemalan colonel and his brigade guard the mouth of the Suchiate, in the Pacific: “All the trafficking is here: drugs, weapons, people.” A group of men disguised as police officers, with guns on their belts, burst into Nueva Palestina with a message: from that moment on, they dictate the law. One of the few residents left in a community of Chicomuselo, in the center of the battle, murmurs a dangerous preference: “Those from Sinaloa came and asked us for support. “We gave it to them.”

These six images spread along more than 600 kilometers of border illustrate the battle for Chiapas these days. The poorest state in Mexico is a disputed territory, victim of the struggle between the two most powerful criminal groups in the country, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). In the seams of the fight the population survives, prisoners of an armed conflict reminiscent of Tamaulipas, Michoacán or Guanajuato, foreign to these lands until recently. Cradle of the last guerrilla that was born in America, an image of the country’s inequalities, adventure tourism and extreme poverty, Chiapas now looks to the border and its trail of murders, kidnappings, forced displacements and extortions.

The scenes above illustrate a month and a half journey of six reporters through the geography of the conflict, from Frontera Corozal and Nueva Palestine to Tapachula and the mouth of the Suchiate River, passing through Frontera Comalapa, Chicomuselo and the gates of the Mariscal mountain range. Dozens of testimonies collected during this time illustrate the terror and paranoia of the population, who feel abandoned by the State. During the tour, the presence of the authorities is intermittent. The Army, the National Guard and the police arrive when something has already happened, always late. The population looks on with distrust, as if they, those in uniform, were also part of the problem.

Documents from the Ministry of National Defense, released by the leak of the Guacamaya hacker group, show the hegemony of the Sinaloa Cartel in the criminal business in the State until 2022. Around then, the organization suffered a split after a dispute internal. The CJNG took advantage of the opportunity to infiltrate along the Pacific side, from where it launched its tentacles towards the north, explains Lantia Intelligence, a consulting firm specialized in organized crime movements in Mexico, to this newspaper.

This is how a war is forged over the border businesses of a poor region: passage of migrants, drugs, influence in the face of the June elections… In the words of the human rights organizations that monitor the situation, in the area an “unrecognized armed conflict,” a battle that has driven at least 10,000 people from their homes on the central border alone, according to calculations by the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights. The federal and state governments try to reduce the noise and even talk about a peaceful State. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) calls it a civil war.

Confusion underlies tragedy. In towns and communities of Chicomuselo and Frontera Comalapa, farmers and neighbors prefer the Sinaloa Cartel. In their eyes, the CJNG embodies evil, extortion, a thousand reasons to flee. In the Lacandon Jungle, with those from Jalisco apparently retreated to the battlefront in the center of the State, Sinaloa dominates without having to make much noise. On the coast, the old unity of the Sinaloa Cartel has broken down and now different factions are fighting to maintain control of the Suchiate and the trafficking routes that leave Tapachula for the north. In all regions, testimonies indicate that sometimes it is very difficult to know who is who. Meanwhile, between the turfs and their disputes, the neighbors, the migrants, the captives.

Against El Maiz

Not a soul walks its sorrows through the streets of Nueva América. There is hardly a sound of livestock, agricultural hustle and bustle, or rush of travelers. Nothing. The light occupies the space left by the residents of the ejido, most of them gone. Some dogs wander on the dirt floor, bewildered, bored. On the way to the dam, the skeleton of a foreign truck embodies the confusion and nervousness of those who remain. No one knows how it got there, no one says who it belongs to or why it was abandoned. It is the trend these days on the central border of Chiapas, many things are ignored, the rest are kept silent.

In a corner of the ejido square, two men murmur. They see the newcomers and one runs into the house. The other one stays. He is the only neighbor with a foot on the street, for a kilometer around. “The groups came down there,” he says, cautiously, moving his chin two millimeters. He refers to the street in front, the road to the dam, the gap where the skeleton of the truck lies. “They went down, but where they bumped into iy was already in Y,” he adds. He says “they bumped into each other,” as if two friends had met. But no, there, in the Y, where the road splits in two, the last shootout between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) broke out.

That happened on January 15th and it was not the first time. For a year and a half, the battle for the central border has kept the population of dozens of communities and ejidos terrified, such as Nueva América. It’s an old battle in new settings. According to reports from Lantia Consultores, “the CJNG has gradually moved from Tapachula to the north, where there was a very strong presence of the Sinaloa Cartel, also on the central border. These clashes that we have seen in the area are the result of that.”


The more than 15 testimonies collected in Nueva América and in other communities of Chicomuselo and Frontera Comalapa, at the beginning of February, and among the displaced population of those and other ejidos in Comitán and Tuxtla, the capital, exude fear, a sticky shadow. Their names do not appear here to avoid any type of retaliation. “Everything is very tense, we are surrounded,” says a woman in Chicomuselo town, one morning, in a low voice; “They wanted us to commit to working for them, as bait,” laments a man from Bella Vista, the neighboring town, one windy night, in Comitán, where he lives displaced.

The battlefront runs between the southern eastern slope of the La Angostura dam and the Mariscal mountain range. The town centers like Chicomuselo, on the slopes of the mountain, seem trapped in an eternal Sunday afternoon, the streets empty, many businesses closed. Communities far from the headwaters are practically unreachable. On the route, both groups install their checkpoints. Like police, they stop the traveler, ask for their credentials, take photographs… From La Trinitaria to Motozintla, passing through Frontera Comalapa, Chamic, Amatenango, Chicomuselo, Sultepec, etc., both groups live chasing each other, fighting for border wealth.

Then there is the propaganda, the tricks of the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel to convince the residents that their way is the correct one, the best for them. Unlike what they have done in other parts of Mexico, on the central border of Chiapas, where the social fabric is rich and deep, everyone seems to adapt to local ways of life. The testimonies collected indicate, for example, that the CJNG disguises itself as a social organization – or uses a social organization in the area, or a mixture of both – to convince people, or force them, to integrate into its structure.

The residents call this kind of social wing of the CJNG, “El Maíz.” The man who says that the criminals wanted him and his community to work for them “as bait” was referring to El Maíz. He explains that one day, in December of last year, people from that group came to “sign a paper.” The man is an authority in his community. “They wanted us to pull with them, to give them food, to support them, but we didn’t have any benefits… Then, people began to leave the community,” he explains. The irony is terrible. In a subsistence agricultural region, crime has perverted the relationship between a revered crop and the word for it.

The only man on the street in Nueva América illustrates cartel tricks and local preferences. “Two days before the bump, those from Sinaloa had already come here to talk to the people,” he explains, like someone describing the flight of birds. “We agreed with them, because they did not want El Maíz to enter,” he adds. The man says that the meeting that Sinaloa called had a very clear objective: that when El Maíz arrived, the residents would block the way. From what he says, there were no doubts, nor resistance. It was part of the natural state of things.

This apparent acceptance of the Sinaloa Cartel in Nueva América is heard with some frequency on the central border. Broadly speaking, the residents view the group favorably and distrust the CJNG. “They don’t want El Maíz here,” says the man from the square in Nueva América. “Those from Sinaloa do not force you to pull with them, if you want to, O.K., and if not, fine. But the others do force you,” he points out. That is, to participate in roadblocks when the group needs it, to pay fees, in some cases. To maintain them, to feed them.

A resident of Frontera Comalapa tells the case of the head of that municipality, the most important in the region, a stronghold of El Maíz, surrounded by Sinaloa. “It’s quiet here now, because everything is controlled by El Maíz. All merchants, all transporters, are forcibly integrated into this organization. All life depends on them. The last elections did not take place, the ballot boxes disappeared and it was agreed to set up a government council whose members belong to them,” he says.

It is not clear if the neighbors of Nueva América closed the passage to the CJNG on the day Sinaloa requested it. But everyone agrees that on Sunday, January 14th, the tension could be cut with a knife in the area. A religious man who frequents the region says that, by that day, the groups had already blocked some roads. A resident displaced to Comitán says that, at night, shots began to be heard at El Plan, the entrance to the community. Another remembers: “I left there on Monday afternoon and just when we arrived at the dam, they began to shoot each other at the Y. Everyone got out as best they could.”

As the hours passed, the situation became more confusing. On Tuesday morning, the Army arrived in the community. Instead of feeling relief, the neighbors saw it as a threat and gathered in El Plan to prevent any advance. A pitched battle broke out. Videos of soldiers and residents exchanging stones and tear gas bombs were shared on social networks; in others, a military leader harshly scolds them. On the road that goes down from El Plan to the houses, the residents felled dozens of trees and crossed the trunks on the track. The military removed them with a chainsaw. There were hundreds of neighbors who left the community in those days.

Why didn’t they want the Army to enter? Residents of Nueva América, religious people who are aware of the situation, displaced neighbors, give a surprising response. For everyone, the Army paves the way for the CJNG. “We didn’t want the military to enter, we don’t trust them. Behind them come the others, all mixed up,” says one, in Comitán. “People from other communities had already told us that they make way for them, and then they arrive and charge protection,” says another woman, also in Comitán. There is no evidence that this happens, of course.

There is also no evidence of the battle two weeks ago this afternoon in Nueva América. The black truck on the way to the dam is strange there, like the lack of sound, of noises. At the Y, a white, burned-out car lies on the side of the road, like the skeleton of a dead cow. Few images better represent oblivion than those bones made of rusty iron.

Original article by Pablo Ferri, Alejandro Santos Cid, Beatriz Guillén published in El País, August 14th, 2024.
Photography and Video: Gladys Serrano, Nayeli Cruz, Monica Gonzalez
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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