Chiapas, Captive Territory II

Screenshot from video

Residents of the Frontera Corozal community, Ocosingo, set up community guards due to insecurity in the area, on February 6th.

The Armed Jungle

North America’s last frontier is a twisted gash that slashes the land and divides two worlds. Here, in Frontera Corozal, are the Chol people campesinosin the heart of the Lacandona jungle, on the Usumacinta River. Its pier has been the gateway for thousands of people from Central and South America to Mexico for decades, the penultimate stop on the odyssey north.

Many neighbors prospered in the heat of the businesses, more or less legal, more or less ethical, that arrived with the migrants. Others simply got used to seeing people with southern accents pass by. The pier was a hub of people and opportunities that caught the wrong eye. Today it is empty. A threat, the shadow of a war, forced it to close. The boats were stranded on the sandy shore. When the afternoon yawns, only the howls of the saraguatos are heard.


A group of farmers guards the pier. Sports t-shirts, faded caps, farming boots. They are all armed: most with old hunting rifles with blunt aim; a few, with latest model submachine guns that they have bought from the Guatemalan mafias. If chance had caused them to be born in other geographies, many would have been savoring retirement for a long time. Here, months ago they had to abandon their crops and become militia.

Alberto is there, who carries on his 73-year-old back a hunting rifle, he, who does not understand wars, only the sweat on his forehead when working in the fields, of living in peace, which here means living with your back bent over the earth until you die. There is Andrés, 26, who voted for López Obrador, but says that the president’s “hugs, not bullets” motto does not work in Chiapas. There is Fidencio, 58, who says that he does not want to kill anyone, just harvest his crops. There is Carlos, 75, who has been in the Lacandon for half a century and asks what is wrong with the people, why do they come to mistreat them.

They call it the community guard. They say it is the only thing that keeps the decomposition brought by the cartels at bay. They don’t want their home to become a battlefield, as happened up there, on the other border, that desert synonymous with so much horror in the north of the country. They are farmers, not soldiers, but who is going to defend them when the bad guys return if the Government does nothing.

Alberto doesn’t like strangers or their questions. He asks for IDs, passports, press cards. Paranoia arrived on the same day as the Sinaloa Cartel and, although it seems that they have been expelled, the fear has remained. The criminals spread their logic of war to the inhabitants of the jungle. When the old peasant finally dares to respond, he does so in the Chol language. He does not speak Spanish. One of his younger companions translates:

‘’Crime entered freely, with weapons, trafficking, killing people. The state police got involved with the bad guys. They charged the undocumented. The Prosecutor’s Office also collected its fee. The cartels had never entered so much. I’m old, but I’m going to die here, in the guard, because I don’t want it to harm our grandchildren, our future.’’

In the Lacandon the war is more discreet than in the rest of Chiapas; the violence, subtle, dressed up. Psychological terror is a powerful weapon: of the dozens of people interviewed, social leaders and farmers who have been forced to flee, only a handful dare to give their name. Fear has spread like the delirium of a jungle fever.

The Lacandon does not have a history of peace. Their communities are poor: dispossessed indigenous people who claim their lands fromcaciqueswho refuse to leave them. The west is the bastion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the inevitable reaction in guerrilla form against the misery of centuries. The jungle, isolated, has always been a fertile region for the illegal. Planes loaded with cocaine have landed on clandestine airstrips since drugs have become a profitable business. Coyotes travel the roads at will with trucks packed with migrants. Violence, however, had not overwhelmed the region as in other parts of Mexico. The current conflict is new.

The bubble burst in September.

The men from Sinaloa arrived at Frontera Corozal, they said they were envoys from the Government, they asked for lists of businesses to collect protection money. The indigenous authorities did not pay attention to them. Then the first kidnapping occurred. Then the second. Then the third. There was no need for a fourth. Since they could not trust the state or rural police on the cartel’s payroll, the assembly decided to organize the community guard. The same one that since then guards the two entrances: the one from the pier and the one from the road. All men in the town are obliged to participate in it. Some women collaborate too. Whoever does not participate pays a fine.

The assembly appointed Esquivel Cruz in charge of peace and responsible for dialogue with the Government. Sitting on the porch of his house, he explains: “We are not trained to be police officers, we dedicate ourselves to farm work. If Chiapas were at peace, we would not be doing this. We don’t want to leave the little we have because it has cost us a lot to build it. It is not life we are living, anyway, that is the new normal for us. If we leave the guard, they will enter and the first ones they will kill are us.”

Control is total. A hive mentality has taken hold in Frontera Corozal. Alcohol is prohibited. There is a curfew. They say that they are all police, that there is no longer gang activity because they also arrest suspicious kids: those who dress in black, have tattoos, have aggressive looks. They know that they have renounced basic freedoms, that if the conflict breaks out the dead will be theirs. “We hold the federal government responsible. We are exposing ourselves, but we have no other alternative,” Cruz laments. It is the price to pay for this dirty peace that looks a lot like war.

The Sinaloa Cartel did not expect this collective response, the mobilization of people who refuse to accept violence as part of their lives. A month before, the same thing happened in Nueva Palestina, a town of low houses, sweaty inhabitants, dirt streets, tuc tucs. A group of men disguised as police officers burst into the authorities’ offices with guns attached to their belts. They said they were the new law. People rebelled, called for military intervention, marched against the cartels, set up their own guard. A tense calm settled in. In the shadows, threats flew. There were people who fled, hid, suffered reprisals firsthand and no longer dare to raise their voices. Life went on.

A hundred soldiers have camped in San Javier, between Frontera Corozal and Nueva Palestine, at the same crossroads where the cartels previously collected tolls from coyotes. Even the soldiers are afraid. “There are large areas of Chiapas controlled by organized crime, and many of us are from the region or nearby, we have to protect our identity. Right now [the cartels] are calm because we are here,” confesses one of them. What the young man in uniform does not say is what happens when they are not there.

It is paradoxical: a few kilometers from the military checkpoint, in San Javier and the nearby community of Lacanjá Chansayab, is the epicenter of the cartels. The turf bosses live there, names like Cabrero Segundo or Hugo Chambor. There are also villages like Bethel, with wooden cabins and dirt floors, the photograph of absolute misery, the cheap labor of criminals, the cannon fodder. The area also attracted adventure tourism through the jungle and the Mayan ruins of Bonampak, but the agencies no longer come out of fear. The hotel zone is a ghost town. “I will never, ever go with the cartels, but I can’t run away. They have threatened me: ‘Either you relent or we will come for you.’ There is no response from the Government. And without tourists we lose day by day,” says a hotelier.

The soldiers are present more as a symbol. They do not intervene. Traffic does not stop despite their presence. People survive as they know best. Some flee. Others stare at the ground, learning to live in silence. Those who can organize themselves, swallow spit, take up arms. They are epic, they pray not to be there when the jungle spits out bullets. They are alone. When night falls on the Usumacinta River, armed peasants cook in large cauldrons over embers on the ground. The saraguatos continue howling.

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

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