Community flees from the place where family was murdered in Chiapas. Their houses were burned.

In la Piedad, the site of burned houses where an entire family was murdered. Photo: Ángeles Mariscal

*A week later a 17 year old boy was murdered, this fact was recognized by the authorities. 

From the community of La Piedad there are only ashes left. Among the remains of the burned houses there are charred pots and pans, some machetes and metal utensils also destroyed by the fire, the remains of sacks with coffee seeds that did not escape the fire, and some bullet shells lying on the ground.

La Piedad was a community of religious people, perhaps only five Tsotsil indigenous families. Their religiosity is known because among the ashes that razed the wooden walls and tin roofs of the houses, there are containers of candles and three incense burners, on which the resin that is lit for prayers is placed.

The remains of three houses burned by the fire can be seen; two other buildings remain intact, but abandoned. It is noted that, before fleeing, the settlers wanted to rescue the few utensils or metal sheeting that could still be useful, and they remained piled up.

There is no one in the community, nor are there any remains of human bodies. On May 20, residents reported that a family had been murdered there: the father, the mother and four minors. The  Peace Commissioner of the municipality said that, according to what they were told by inhabitants of La Piedad, an armed group had come to take money from them for the sale of coffee, and then killed the family.

President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, during his daily conference, denied that this was true and accused – as he has done on other occasions – that they were lying to create a false perception of violence, which he denies exists.

The president’s version was based on the reports presented to him by the personnel of the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) and National Guard (GN), who since July 2021 have had a presence in the municipality of Pantelhó.

On that date – almost three years ago now – the local population formed an armed self-defense group to expel those known in the area as “Los Herrera,” a group accused of belonging to organized crime, who also had political and administrative control of the municipality, and who subjugated the population.

Now, almost three years later, the dispute between the self-defense group known as El Machete and the “Los Herrera” group continues, despite the strong military presence in the area.

Given the two conflicting versions of what happened in the community of La Piedad, this media outlet asked SEDENA to go to the town and verify the facts directly.

La Piedad is located about 10 kilometers from the municipal capital, but to get there it is a two-hour walk up steep paths through the mountains.

The soldiers who accompanied a group of journalists to the community explained that they arrived there the day after the family was reported murdered, but that they did not find any remains of bodies, only the burned houses and a monolingual indigenous woman, who then disappeared into the mountains.

They pulled up the report indicating that there was no evidence of people killed. That was the information on which the president based his denial. The Chiapas Prosecutor’s Office did not initiate any investigation either, even though despite the fact that there were no bodies at the time SEDENA personnel arrived, there is a displaced community and remains of a violent aggression that led to the burning of the houses.

The Prosecutor’s Office did not initiate any investigation with the argument that no affected person came to denounce the incident, so no investigating agent arrived in La Piedad, so officially and statistically there is no record of what happened there.

If the indigenous people of La Piedad had wanted to file a complaint, they would have had to go to the offices of the Attorney General’s Office in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, 60 kilometers away, because in Pantelhó there is no presence of said institution, despite the fact that practically every day there are reports of people shooting high caliber weapons, and homicides.

As an illustration, this Sunday, one day after this media outlet arrived in the municipality, and one week after the report of the aggression in La Piedad, a 17 year old boy was killed and four more were wounded in the municipal capital of Pantelhó.

The new aggression -according to the report sent to this media outlet by residents via whasapp- occurred around 9:00 a.m., in an event in which they allege that military personnel were involved. Esteban Perez Perez, 17 years old, died there.

A military source that was consulted said that the death occurred in the context of a confrontation between the vigilante group El Machete and Los Herrera. The source added that it was in a ford, located two kilometers behind the Municipal Presidency building, where the body of Esteban Perez Perez was left lying in the brush, shot in the head. Unofficially it was reported that villagers took the four wounded youths to a clinic, and that one of them died there. But when the authorities arrived at the scene, almost six hours later, the wounded were no longer there, so officially it was not recorded either.

Community flees the place where a family was said to have been killed in Pantelhó, Chiapas. Their houses were burned Photo: Ángeles Mariscal.

The State Preventive Police report states that “At 3:00 p.m.” personnel from the Indigenous Prosecutor’s Office arrived in Pantelhó from San Cristóbal de Las Casas. The report adds that an hour and a half later, at 4:20 p.m., they went to the place where the body of the young teenager who had been shot in the head was found. His parents were also at the scene.

The State Attorney General’s Office later sent a communiqué stating that the agency “initiated the corresponding investigations against whoever is responsible for the events that occurred in the last few hours in the municipality of Pantelhó, where a man was killed by a projectile from a firearm.”

In the municipal seat of Pantelho, gunshots can still be seen on the municipal council building and on a patrol car at the entrance to the town. A soldier explains that “Los Herrera” – an armed group accused of belonging to organized crime – “shot at it” when they tried to recover the municipal presidency in July 2023, almost a year ago.

The violence in Pantelhó worsened, or became public, when in July 2021, a month after the elections of that year, they killed Simón Pedro, pacifist leader of the Abejas de Acteal, who along with the residents had sought out the state government authorities to denounce the situation of subjugation in which the group known as “Los Herrera” had kept them, who had also imposed a like-minded person in the position of municipal president.

After the murder the population made it known that they had formed a self-defense group known as “El Machete”, they expelled those they considered belonged to the organized crime group “Los Herrera.” They also formed a municipal council that took administrative control of the town hall.

Two years later, in July 2023, to commemorate that date, “Los Herrera,” led by the one known as “Jose Herrera” held an armed rally in the kiosk in the park in front of the building and reopened some houses that the Attorney General’s Office itself had closed two years earlier, as part of the investigations against them. In other words, this group returned to the municipality and the municipal seat from which they had been expelled.

Since they had their building shot at and the Herrera’s returned to the town, the municipal council moved its headquarters to the community of Las Limas, where they feel safer. In the Limas region, the towns have sought the protection of the self-defense groups.

Members of the Council have questioned that, after the arrival of the armed forces, “Los Herrera” felt strong enough to return to the municipality, particularly to the municipal seat and to some communities where they have presence and sympathizers; they have said so in public statements in which they ask for the arrest of people linked to organized crime because to date, there has been only one person arrested, Dayli Herrera.

In the three years since the installation of a military detachment in Pantelho, its presence has not been able to stop the murders and acts of violence of which “Los Herrera” and the self-defense groups accuse each other.

“They tell me: ‘that person who is walking there is the murderer, there are weapons in that house.’ But I can’t arrest anyone or enter any house. There has to be an order from a judge and the Attorney General’s Office is the institution empowered to investigate and apply the measures. I have asked several times that they install an office of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in this place, but they have not done so. Whoever wants to report a crime must go to San Cristóbal and they do not do it, because of the distance, because of the money for the trip, because they are asked to present evidence, because they do not speak Spanish, for many reasons,” says a military officer.

He confesses that when there is an incident of violence or aggression, when the military or the National Guard arrive at the place, the aggressors have already left or hidden in some houses and, unless they are found in flagrant violation, the armed forces cannot intervene. Practically, the military presence has, in the best of cases, a “dissuasive” function for those who want to commit a crime, which has not been completely effective either.

In fact, the bureaucracy of the judicial system, the lack of political will, or the network of complicities and interests among the power groups, prevent justice from reaching Pantelhó, and it extends to the point of wearing down the population, who pay the price with their dead.

The risk increases due to the quantity and caliber of the weapons that the armed groups use, they are large caliber weapons, of exclusive use of the Army; anyone in this place knows where they can be bought because in this area, it is no longer a problem of Pantelhó, but of the entire neighboring region that includes the municipalities of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, San Juan Chamula, Chenalhó, Aldama, Simojovel, and recently San Juan Cancuc, among others.

In these municipalities, criminal groups have links with each other, and it is common for people from various municipalities linked by common interests to participate in confrontations or aggressions. In all cases the use of high caliber firearms has intensified.

The “disarmament strategies” implemented by the authorities have been to set up modules for people to voluntarily turn in their weapons in exchange for televisions, stereos or household goods. It has not yielded results.

In a tour that this media outlet made through the municipal capital, accompanied by SEDENA elements, it was observed that most of the houses are closed, empty, some with the lights on, even though it is daytime.

One of the escorts commented that only 30 percent of the population is still living in the area, the rest fled in the face of the now escalating violence. A new warning sign weighs on the municipality: the pressure of the electoral authorities, the political parties and “Los Herrera” so that, even under these conditions, the elections will be held on June 2.

This despite the fact that, in an assembly, the communities decided that they do not want this type of elections, but instead they want the ratification or appointment of a new municipal council elected through the indigenous normative system; in Pantelhó more than 90 percent of the population is indigenous.

Another symptom of institutional abandonment is that in Pantelho, despite the strong military presence, the schools remain closed because the teachers have decided not to go because of the risk of being caught up in the confrontations. Doctors do not attend the local clinic either.

There are few people on the streets; some young people go to the kiosk in the central plaza because there they can buy internet service for a few minutes on a pay-as-you-go system.

Connecting to social networks is the only way to get information, although the discourse on these platforms is also biased, because both “Los Herrera” and the self-defense groups have their pages on Facebook where they disseminate their messages and where they accuse each other of the murders and acts of violence.

In Pantelhó time passes slowly, it is a place trapped between structural poverty (which means that the average daily income is 30 pesos a day per family) and the absence of justice. Institutional neglect contrasts with the interest of criminal groups to take over the place, and of political parties to have political and administrative control of the municipality.

Original article and photos by Ángeles Mariscal published in Chiapas Paralelo on May 28th, 2024.
Translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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