Chiapas, Captive Territory III

Screenshot from video

Suchiate, crime witness

Everyone saw him floating. Down the river, contained in garbage bags, his face sallow, his eyes closed. His swollen features on the networks and on cell phones. They all recorded it as he passed by. Beyond that, nobody knows. The journalists or the army don’t know, neither do the politicians nor the ejidatarios, those who man the boats don’t know, the person who directs the cemeteries doesn’t know. Who was he before he was thrown into the dirty waters of the Suchiate? How did he end up mixed up here? They picked him up at the end of the route, battered by an ocean that returns to the river everything that does not belong to it: garbage and offerings. Some say that his washed body is still at the Tapachula Forensic Service. Without identification, it will soon end up where those who die without a name on this border go. He will have the dirt from a mass grave on him. The company of a plastic bottle with a piece of paper inside: the number of the investigation folder that does not answer who he was or why he was killed or why he went to the river. The fierce logic of a war is stamped on his body, now in Chiapas. Everyone saw it, no one recognizes it.

The Suchiate River rises on the slopes of the Tacaná volcano and reaches the Pacific Ocean. Its dark channel separates Guatemala and Mexico. It is because of it that Tecún Umán and Ciudad Hidalgo are two different cities. They are the door and the river, the hallway. Thousands of trailers with goods cross above it every week, and below, wet, everything else. The Guatemalan army and Mexico’s politicians describe it the same: this is a porous border.


The border was managed for decades on both sides by the Sinaloa Cartel. In Tecún Uman (Guatemala), Erick Súñiga, alias El Pocho, elected successor of the Chamalé group, pastor and businessman, ruled for 11 years. He was extradited to the United States at the end of 2019 for his ties to drug trafficking, he died a few months later, and his daughter, Isel, who was Miss Guatemala, now runs it. “The house has been filled with Jalisco and Sinaloa. It can’t be controlled,” says a reporter, after remembering the 200 bullets fired at the director of the municipal police.

The Guatemalan Mountain Operations Brigade, led by Commander Juan Ernesto Celis, patrols these banana plantation lands, reaching the mouth of a dried up river, crossing the sand that receives the Pacific. “We have increased presence in these areas. The order we have is to have this political border stabilized,” he points out and a few meters further it is already Mexico. The Army arrived because the Guatemalan communities on the border had begun to denounce the entry of members of organized crime. The problem, the commander points out, is that when they leave, no one looks. That’s when everything crosses: the people, the weapons, the drugs.

On the other side of the murky waters, the mayor of Ciudad Hidalgo, Sonia Eloína Hernández, alias La Chona, asked mothers to take care of their children, because the situation was “out of control”: “Behave well and whoever misbehaves, please I ask you to respect the citizens.” Shortly after, the United States Government prohibited its people from approaching this town. In this area the data does not lie. In 2023, the District Attorney’s Office, called Fronterizo Costa, opened 723 homicide investigation files — 136 of murdered migrants — in 14 municipalities on the border and reach the Pacific. Now everything has multiplied: those executed appear at the Walmart in Tapachula and on the roads, next to a school, in front of houses.

With thunderous music, in an empty bar with very high green walls, two politicians who were linked to the Ciudad Hidalgo city council talk about fear. In January, David Rey, an opposition candidate for the municipal presidency, was shot dead. They executed him after visiting an area where Xóchitl Gálvez was due to arrive to hold a rally a few days later. “This city is no longer controlled by the Government,” say those who were officials. Then who? “Well, Sinaloa.”

El Tío Gil, Chapo Guzmán’s right-hand man, managed trafficking here for years. In 2016 he was arrested in Guatemala and extradited to the United States for cocaine distribution. He was succeeded by his son: El Junior. A commando killed him in 2021 and the hierarchy became complicated.

The reporter is so threatened that he recognizes that he is only allowed to do his job half-heartedly; in exchange, he can take his children to school. He draws the picture: two factions from Sinaloa, one often also confused with the CJNG, have been fighting for a year and a half over this opening, the entrance to Mexico. He whispers names and links: El Botana, who is bloodthirsty and brother of a municipal president of MORENA, El Memo, who was arrested after making a pact with death to survive the bullets, El Señor de los Caballos who has an all-out war against El Güero Pulseras. And those who remain between the paws of the big guys: the drug dealers who traffic and die, the hawks who watch and die, the polleros who transport and die, the migrants who cross and die. Is one of them the corpse floating in the Suchiate?

It hasn’t rained for months and the river can be crossed on foot. Even so, almost all migrants choose Guatemalan rafters: they cheat them out of quetzales, but they do not risk the children or the documents they have been carrying for thousands of kilometers. They have camped on the shore of the Mexican side, because the National Migration Institute has set up a checkpoint there, which promises them buses to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital. The migrants are many and the buses are few. “Those who have money are transferred quickly and those who don’t have to endure until the migration wants,” summarizes Heyman Vázquez, a priest from Ciudad Hidalgo.

The prospect of a week waiting on a wet piece of cardboard, in front of a stinking river and under a 40-degree sun forces many to begin the journey on foot. But if the shade burns, the asphalt burns.

Genésis and his family were walking on the side of the road towards Tapachula when they were taken. It was mid-February and they had left Caracas a couple of weeks before. Four motorcyclists approached and offered to take them part of the way. “They talked to us about God, that’s why we got on,” says this petite woman who trembles. The drivers took them to armed men. “They locked us in some rooster cages.” They asked for 1,100 pesos per person (about $60) to free them. “But we didn’t have it,” she cries. They spent hours caged with other migrants they did not know. He cannot identify the place, only the mountain was visible. They released them when it was already night. The hitmen kept two of the women. The rest arrived exhausted and lost at dawn at an immigration booth, right where it reads: “Viva Mexico.”

The road to the north (Huehuetán, Huixtla, Mapastepec, Pijijiapán, Arriaga) is full of checkpoints. But Immigration and the National Guard only detain migrants if they are inside a vehicle, they let them pass if they are walking. “The Government is betting that the migrant will get tired, physically and economically worn out,” Father Heyman describes: “What they are making with the migrants is a fortune. The people who work moving them also give their money to the authorities.”

This is an obstacle course with a prey that stumbles through the green of the banana trees. At the height of Mapastepec, Yamineth shows a photo from his cell phone: it is an ink tattoo of a phoenix on his forearm, put there, he says, by the cartel. They were sold like cattle to a gray truck that was paid to bring them a few kilometers. “When they took us down, the first thing we saw were heavily armed people, with hoods. They took us to a corner and told us: ‘This is not a kidnapping as many people call it, this is so that you can travel through the town of Tapachula without anyone bothering you. We are going to charge you 1,100 Mexican pesos, those people who do not have it, do not leave. Here we have Western Union, we receive the money they send them. If we see something strange, we have to act.” They searched them, taped their cell phones, and locked them in a fenced pen. “There were children, tiny babies, months old, people who had been there for three days. We had the money. We paid and left.” There were roosters around. The north is still far away. “Is it true that it gets worse up there?”

In the Suchiate River, in the Lacandon Jungle, in the Mariscal mountain range, life goes like this: on the side, with one eye looking forward and the other back, with ears wide open, alert, always alert. Despite this, the state and federal governments try to downplay the issue. The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said in February, for example, that the complaints are part of “media campaigns” against him. The governor, Rutilio Escandón, close to the president, assured in January that “in Chiapas we live in peace.” There are figures that support his statements, in the case of the relatively stable annual murder rate. But that stability fuels the confusion. In many cases, the victims do not report, in others, reality exceeds the law, blinded by forced displacement, fear and anxiety of the population.

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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