Municipal Councils in Chiapas: Between Pacification of Municipalities and Intervention in Autonomous Processes

Residents of Pantelhó, July 2021. Photo: Ángeles Mariscál

By Araceli Burguete Cal y Mayor

The indigenous struggle in its armed expression was rekindled in Chiapas in the final months of the year 2021 — in Pantelho, “El Machete,” came to public light on July 10. Another armed group that called itself “People of the Jungle” declared itself on social networks on October 3 in support of El Machete, although there was no social base to support it. Another group, “Armed Forces of Simojovel,” disseminated images on social networks on that same date. In Altamirano, armed civilians who named themselves as the “Self-Defense Group” broke out on October 7th.

What do these armed manifestations have in common? 1) In all cases, the eruption is happening in indigenous municipalities; 2) They are all part of a context of post-electoral conflicts. The one in Pantelhó took place after the results of the municipal elections held on June 6 were known; and the others, hours after the inauguration of the municipal powers, which falls on October 1st on the electoral calendar.

3) These are armed protests against new cacicazgos (local political dynasties) that are being formed in those municipalities, since the president and/or the president has her spouse as predecessor. They are “presidential couples” who have made instrumental and perverse use of the constitutional principle of gender parity to monopolize the municipal institution. In Pantelhó, president-elect Raquel Trujillo Morales would receive the office from the hands of his wife Yaneth Velasco Flores; in Altamirano, Gabriela Roque Tipacamú, president-elect would succeed her husband Roberto Pinto Kanter, the acting president; and in Simojovel, Gilberto Martínez, now president-elect, his wife Viridiana Hernández Sánchez handed him the presidential chair.

4) Of the three municipal councils elected, two were nominated by the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), and one by the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD); and, 5) Of the three municipalities in conflict, in two of them Municipal Councils were created, in Pantelhó on August 18, and in Altamirano on October 28.

Other post-electoral conflicts that erupted in the state in 2021 responded to other variables. Of particular relevance was the political instability caused by the presence of organized crime groups in these municipalities, which prevented the election day from taking place, so that in some municipalities there were no elected municipal authorities, which led the State Congress to create Municipal Councils.

Thus, between August 2021 and June 2022, the State Congress has approved the integration of 13 Municipal Councils1, adding one more recently, in the municipality of Teopisca, on June 24, due to the political crisis that led to the resignation of the Council (except for the trustee), after the murder on June 8 of José Rubén Valdez Díaz, municipal president (PVEM).

Thus, as it happened three decades ago, the municipal issue is once again at the center of the struggle for power in the state, which places one possible scenario for 2024 in a sort of “militarized democracy.” Several analysts have called attention to the politicization of criminal actors as a new phenomenon in the country; it is a national problem that is expanding, in an intersection between the political and the criminal making politics, and politicians linked to criminal networks2.

Diagnoses carried out in the last decade already mentioned the southern border of Chiapas as a place of transit, a corridor for cartels and criminal groups carrying out various crimes, including the transit and destination of migrants3 But today the novelty is their presence in politics as relevant actors in electoral processes and municipal life, so understanding this phenomenon requires a methodological perspective that sheds light on the intersection of both, the politics of state and organized crime5

In this tumultuous scenario in the state, the municipality is the space where the intersection between politics and organized crime is made explicit, and not only in electoral processes, but also in the exercise of government. Faced with this unprecedented situation, the state government seems to be relying on the local Congress to create Municipal Councils that allow it some room to maneuver to recover governability in these municipalities, and to contain the control of organized crime in the state territory through the municipalities.

But, on the other hand, another strategy has emerged, that of the indigenous peoples who have deployed actions in their territories, who question the municipal councils elected in 2021 because they represent the cacicazgos, and some of them have been clearly identified in their connections with organized crime groups. Then, a new dispute erupts with the State in the electoral arena, in the form and content of how the Council authorities are elected in the indigenous municipalities.

These are the new indigenous struggles in Chiapas in the second decade of the 21st century, which are once again being reactivated in the armed arena, which is why the formation of self-defense groups was expressed as a strategy to prevent the family chiefdoms from taking over the town hall, and with it, the indigenous government. For this reason, the post-electoral conflict was the terrain in which they emerged at this time, but they may eventually return if the clamor for justice that they embody is not met.

Another sphere of confrontation between these new indigenous struggles is in the field of the Municipal Councils that have been formed, where sometimes the interests of the government coincide with those of the towns, as happened in Altamirano, as we will see later on. But in other cases, the Municipal Councils are political resources for intervention from the state government and the local Congress, to diminish the autonomous edge, as has happened in the municipality of Pantelhó, after the public mobilization of the self-defense group El Machete.

This group emerged to demand justice, to make visible the actions of organized crime, and to expel organized crime from the municipality and has expressly pointed out the group of “Los Herrera,” “Los Capotes,” and “Los Ciriles,” among others, who for almost two decades violated the ejidos and communities. Their crimes remained in impunity due to the failures of government institutions, deaf to the denunciations and negligence in the application of justice.

The tragedy now is that since August 2021 there have already been four Municipal Councils created in that municipality, and not only has justice not materialized, but the ejidos and organized communities perceive harassment, and have felt that they have been manipulated. Therefore, contrary to the hope that justice would step in to arrest the people identified with the groups linked to organized crime, it is now the other way around, since the authorities of the Popular Municipal Council have been arrested and their defender, Father Marcelo, has been criminalized.

All this has weakened El Machete, generating internal tensions among its members, so it is likely that with so many interventions the purpose is to make it lose strength; and this is happening without the violence ceasing, so there are several hundred people displaced. Experiences in other countries have made visible how the actions of organized crime undermine the bases of indigenous autonomy6.

So, in these scenarios, I ask myself: Are the Municipal Councils the reason for the conflict, as the citizens point out where they have been installed? Are the Municipal Councils governmental strategies for pacification in the municipalities in conflict? Are the Municipal Councils resources to intervene the indigenous struggles that have been expressed in an autonomous way?

In this paper, I develop the hypothesis that the creation of a Municipal Council is a device that the government has used when the political actors could not resolve the dispute for power through democratic electoral procedures, so they entered into conflict, as happened in Oxchuc; which is exacerbated now, in many cases, by the presence of weapons, as much in expressions of the autonomous struggles in indigenous municipalities, as in the presence of organized crime groups, which has created a picture of insecurity for electoral processes to develop with guarantees for citizenship and democracy.

Clashes in Oxchuc.

It is such that, although the emergence of the armed option in the indigenous regions cannot be ignored, it was the strategy they resorted to in order to force the state government to look around and recognize the impunity in their absence. The violence generated by the armed groups, both the groups of hired killers and the self-defense groups, creates a climate of generalized violence that the citizens suffer, and when justice does not prevail, new conflicts can be created, and reconfigured into a breeding ground for armed violence that can escalate, penetrated by organized crime.

The struggle against cacicazgos in the indigenous municipalities in Chiapas, almost three decades later; History repeats itself.

Winning a municipal council is an perennial indigenous demand. It is not for nothing, there is the indigenous government of a people, and in an electoral process this can be seized by actors that do not respond to the community interest; one reason why achieving the indigenous municipal government is a recurring aspiration. So, one key to reducing the conflict is for the electoral legislation to improve the regulation and procedures to guarantee that in every indigenous municipality there is always an indigenous government; when this is not the case, the conflict erupts. This happened in the 2021 elections, and also three decades ago.

We recall that the first armed actions of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in 1994 were directed against the cacique powers that were entrenched in the municipalities. January 1, 1994 began with the rebels attacking five municipal buildings, in some cases taking them over and destroying them, as was the case in the municipality of Altamirano, where they knocked down the clock tower with hammers.

And, as if history were repeating itself in a circular fashion, on September 16, 2021, a group of Tzeltal and Tojol-Ab’ales again took over the municipal building of Altamirano and set it on fire. The actors in 1994 and 2001 are the same, and so are the problems, which shows their permanence.

In 2021 the protest was directed against the electoral results of June 6. The popular explosion took the form of the seizure and burning of the municipal building, and the kidnapping of the then municipal president, Roberto Pinto Kanter, who on October 1 was to hand over the presidential chair to his wife, Gabriela Roque Tipacamú, who had been elected as municipal president, nominated by the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM). This post-electoral conflict, which lasted several months, included the emergence of an armed self-defense group that joined the dissatisfaction with the electoral result, which represented the continuity of the Pinto Kanter family cacicazgo, which had alternated in municipal power for 9 years.

The electoral results in Altamirano came as a surprise, because according to the Affirmative Action Policies promoted by the Institute of Elections and Citizen Participation of Chiapas (IEPC), indigenous people were proposed to be the authorities in their municipality. According to the rules of the IEPC, Altamirano was an indigenous municipality that was placed in “Population Group 2”, that is, with a significant indigenous population. In fact, Altamirano registered 87.79% with indigenous self-ascription8. At that moment it contained the authoritarian impulse of the federal government that had reacted with measures of war against the EZLN. As a first reaction to the armed uprising, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sent the Army to quell the rebellion. The fighting between the two forces lasted eleven days.

The Zapatista uprising questioned the legitimacy of the political-electoral system in Mexico, so that in its first stage (1994-1995) its main demand was the Reform of the State (until 1996). It rejected the subordination of the peasant-indigenous people to the local oligarchies, who had economic and political power in their hands through their networks and loyalties with the leadership of the then dominant party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). One of the ways in which this questioning was expressed was through the rejection of the city governments in office.

From the first moment of the uprising, the voices of civil society took to the streets to demand a ceasefire, calling for peace. Prominent pacifist intellectuals, such as anthropologist Andrés Fábregas Puig and writer Eraclio Zepeda, led the demand, calling the president to reason, inviting him to deploy strategies for the pacification of the state and to stop the fighting.

On January 8, 1994, Salinas decreed the creation of the “Special Autonomous Commission for Peace in Chiapas,” inviting the same Fábregas and Zepeda to join it, as well as Senator Eduardo Robledo Rincón. Its mission was to open spaces for dialogue with the different social sectors of Chiapas, and to contain the expansion of the war, which was already spreading like wildfire on the ground. That same day, the president launched an energetic call addressed to the municipal presidents: “do not try to eliminate your adversaries”9.

At the beginning of the nineties, the municipalities were in the hands of racialized cacicazgos, excluding the indigenous from the Council positions, in municipalities where they were a demographic majority. Behind the seizures of municipal palaces initiated by the Zapatistas came others, whose actors were social organizations and organized civil society, most of them adhering to the State Council of Indigenous and Campesino Organizations of Chiapas (CEOIC).

By March 1994, twenty-four municipal buildings had been taken over. The dialogue to pacify the state required the redistribution of power through the creation of Municipal Councils, formed with criteria of political pluralism and cultural diversity, but also incorporating territorial diversity; that is, that within the City Councils the micro-regions of each municipality were also represented, creating a municipal design with a pluralist composition10.

In the context of the armed conflict, 38 Municipal Councils were created between 1994 and 1995. In the context of the armed conflict, the Municipal Councils were used as political means for pacification, although many of them for counterinsurgency purposes. The municipality was the terrain from which the federal and state governments responded to the discontent in the state, particularly in the indigenous municipalities, and it was from there that the state regrouped its hegemony.

Almost three decades later, the municipalities are today once again in the throes of violence, but now with the aggravating factor of the presence of organized crime as new actors. For two decades now, criminal violence has entered the state and progressively taken over the municipalities. Its presence as a political actor in the territories has complicated the performance of electoral processes and public administration, but also undermines the autonomy of indigenous peoples, day by day penetrating deeper.

This article was published in Chiapas Paralelo on July 11th, 2022. https://www.chiapasparalelo.com/opinion/2022/07/concejos-municipales-en-chiapas-entre-la-pacificacion-de-los-municipios-y-la-intervencion-a-procesos-autonomicos/ English interpretation by Schools for Chiapas.

Footnotes

  1. Four in Pantelhó; two in Oxchuc; and one each in Altamirano, Venustiano Carranza, Siltepec, El Parral, Emiliano Zapata, Honduras de la Sierra and Frontera Comalapa.
  2. Baltazar, Edgar (February 7, 2022). “The politicization of criminal actors.” In Contraréplica Veracruz. Retrieved from: https://contrareplicaveracruz.com/tiraditos/la-politizacion-de-actores-criminales
  3. López, Gerardo (2014). “Tensions for territorial control in the border region of Chiapas: a methodological proposal.” In IV Encuentro Latinoamericano de Metodología de las Ciencias Sociales. Retrieved from: https://www.memoria.fahce.unlp.edu.ar/trab_eventos/ev.8333/ev.8333.pdf
  4. .

    Hence Chiapas, today. Faced with a reality that challenges us, since violence is in the streets that we pass through every day, it calls us to reflect on the problem that now overwhelms us. In this regard, the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas issued a communiqué in which it refers to something that had been diagnosed as early  as 2020: “Organized crime occupies more and more spaces in the territory of Chiapas […] These groups and forces, in many municipalities, manage to control the municipal authorities. All this causes insecurity, violence, extortion and forced displacement of people and families”4Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas (July 3, 2022). Communiqué on the increase of violence in Chiapas and the persecution of defenders of life. Retrieved from: https://www.memoria.fahce.unlp.edu.ar/trab_eventos/ev.8333/ev.8333.pdf https://frayba.org.mx/sites/default/files/2022-07/Comunicado_Di%C3%B3cesis_SCLC%2C_ante_la_criminalizaci%C3%B3n_de_Aacps_y_Aps%2C_en_b%C3%BAsqueda_de_las_construcci%C3%B3n_de_la_paz.pdf.

  5. For a reflection on this problem in Colombia, see the text by Velasco, Marcela (April 1, 2022). “El narcotráfico en Colombia socava las bases de la autonomía indígena”. In Debates indígenas IWGIA. Available at: https://debatesindigenas.org/notas/155-narcotrafico-en-colombia.html
  6. . It was therefore strange that this municipality, with such a high percentage of indigenous population, was once again in the hands of the finca family.

    This was the reason for the armed uprising in Altamirano, until a Municipal Council that was installed on October 28th corrected this institutional error. The post-electoral conflict, and the emergence of the self-defense group that accompanied it, would not have broken out if the affirmative actions had worked in favor of the indigenous people, which calls for a correction in the design, so that such a thing does not happen again.

    To pacify the municipality and secure the release of the then president Kanter, the State Congress proposed the formation of a Municipal Council: 84 communities met in an assembly to deliberate on the appointment of the five people it would propose: María García López (from the Tseltal zone) as Council President; Gabriel Montoja Oseguera (from the municipal seat), as Síndico. Mayra Teresa Pérez López, from the middle zone; Oscar Gómez Velasco, from the Tojolobal zone, and Cristóbal Gómez Sántiz, from the highlands, were appointed to the positions of councilors, who will be in office from October 28 to September 30, 2024. The formation of the Municipal Council succeeded in decentralizing power from an intercultural perspective, thus opening the opportunity for new micro-regional representation agreements and weakening the Pinto Kanter cacicazgo in the municipality.

    The events in 2021 in Altamirano, recall historical processes and episodes that unfolded 27 years ago, when in the context of the armed uprising of the EZLN, between 1994 and 1995, 38 Municipal Councils were created, with multi-ethnic and micro-regional integration, with the purpose of dispersing power among the diversity they contained.

    The redistribution of power at the municipal level opened a political route at the point of the Zapatista armed conflict7The federal and state governments worked on two tracks: on the one hand, they set up the tables for the Dialogues in San Andrés Larráinzar, signing agreements that President Ernesto Zedillo already knew he would not comply with. At the same time, he deployed a municipal strategy directed at the indigenous peoples of the country, as a strategy of pacification and using a municipal interpretation of autonomy. This argument is developed in the following text: Burguete, Araceli (2009). The municipality in Chiapas in the Zapatista context: An unexpected actor. Encrucijada Americana, 3 (1), 139,176. https://doi.org/10.53689/ea.v3i1.128.

  7. La Jornada Newspaper (January 9, 1994). “Salinas a 13 ediles de los Altos: no traten de eliminar a sus adversarios.” Mexico City.
  8. A paradigmatic example of what happened in those years was the experience of Ocosingo, which built an enlarged Municipal Council, with annual party rotation, which was a culturally situated construction, built by local actors (Tseltales from social organizations adherent to Zapatismo and Tseltales militants of the PRI). This experience was systematized by Ricardo Hernández. Hernández, Ricardo (1999). “Ocosingo: local power and good government: the experience of the Extended Plural Municipal Council.” In Araceli Burguete (Coord.), México: experiencias de autonomía indígena, IWGIA. pp. 261-282.