Chiapas: Violence and Territory

by León Enrique Ávila y Peter Rosset

Since the Zapatista uprising on January 1st 1994, the state of Chiapas has experienced various iterations of the poorly-named low-intensity warfare, or counter-insurgency, that combines anti-zapatista paramilitary violence ( with different political and social measures, including  media blackouts, public assistance programs, and the instrumentalization of  social organizations and political parties, all with the purpose of isolation and containment of the rebels. 

If at the beginning, the violence was directed specifically against the Zapatista bases of support and allied communities (adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle), during the state government of Manuel Velasco Coello (2012-2018) the creation of new shock groups, often made up of narcos was favored, with the aim of striking in indigenous areas, not only at Zapatismo, but at any group that opposed the PRI-Green Party coalition. This extended to the cities, like San Cristóbal de las Casas, where criminal gangs emerged, like the motonetos, who sow terror in the population and are dedicated to drug dealing, huachicol, selling lots in natural protected areas (forests and wetlands) and the control of water and its sales in pipes.

With the change in the federal government comes the hypothesis that the national policy regarding narco-trafficking is one of “hugs, not bullets” or laissez faire. The hypothetical or apparent corollary for Chiapas, first with the Green-Morena alliance and then with the tensions between them, together with the narco-parties, has been that of giving free reign to criminal groups throughout the state, as much in the countryside as in the city, with the dual purpose of keeping Zapatistmo cornered and under attack, and to control and even clean up the territories and resources sought after by capital, be it for mining, petroleum, tourism, highways, and in the cities, housing speculation likely fed by the laundering of money. This is translating into very notable increases in drug trafficking, human trafficking and widespread cases of irregular armed groups shooting at communities and intimidating populations.

In the government of Rutilio Escandón Cadenas, said groups enjoy nearly complete impunity, and have expanded their territorial control, looking to displace any organizations or social movements that defend land and territory, whether in the countryside or in the city. Their ultimate expression is the combination of the drug-trafficking forces, as has been experienced in the northern part of the state, where in municipalities like Yajalón, Amatán, Aldama and Chilón among others have municipal authorities and city councils, according to complaints filed, that respond to said interests. According to the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Center for Human Rights, in Chiapas there are more than 40 socio-environmental conflicts, a euphemism for the same thing. All of this along with the continued or intensified harassment of the Zapatistas. (

In the municipality of Pantelhó, in the Altos of Chiapas, the decomposition of the government and the execution of opponents has made itself evident, with the assassination of Simón Pedro, the former director of Las Abejas, who was murdered just days after having presented evidence of collusion of the municipalities with the narcos, which has led to a true humanitarian crisis with more than 3 thousand people displaced, and provoking the creation of armed civilian self-defense ( Meanwhile, there have been shootouts between the narcos in Tuxtla and in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the increased violence of the motonetos and other shock groups is seen with shots fired into the air in the neighborhoods. On July 16 there was a confrontation between the motonetos and the defenders of the wetlands in the neighborhoods of the south, and the execution of and italian volunteer (, among other events.

Everything indicates that the apparent policy of Rutilio Escandón of giving  free reign to armed crime in Chiapas to control the territory and the anti-Zapatista counterinsurgency, has devolved into a war between cartels and of those against the citizenry (, in such a way that today Chiapas resembles the era of the rise in narcopolitics in states such as Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Sonora and Tamaulipas. It is in this context of widespread deterioration in Chiapas that the EZLN  and the National Indigenous Congress carry out  its denunciation tour in Europe.In such a dark landscape, however, there are elements of hope. The sad fact that almost any community or organization can be a target of attack creates new conditions for agreements. Among them, the historic accords from below to put an end to more than half a century of violence in the Lacandon Jungle ( and create a plan for life for the coexistence of all the beings in the region ( There is also the announcement of the new national initiative on the part of the EZLN (>). The Chiapas of Rutilio Escandón is living an extraordinary battle between the forces of good and those of evil.

León Enrique Ávila, professor at Universidad Intercultural de Chiapas (Unich), y Peter Rosset, professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (Ecosur).

This piece was published in La Jornada on July 24th, 2021.
English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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