Narco Governments and Organized Crime Add to the Repression in Chiapas

Presentation of the self-defense group El Machete, in Pantelhó, Chiapas, last July.
Photo Image taken from YouTube.

Hermann Bellinghausen

The hegemony of the PRI, assumed a given [in politics] for decades in Chiapas, was broken in one night on the New Year of 1994. The reality was much more porous, it turned out that the complexity of the indigenous peoples came from deep within, having great diversity and being marked by important historical tensions that, after the visibility gained in the political agenda, came to be of national interest. Great and terrible days followed in the next decade. Chiapas became a rehearsal for the future on two opposing fronts. The organized indigenous people in rebellion and resistance, or at least in protest against the government and the state of things, were and are very numerous. Against them, acute militarization, massive by the standards of 25 years ago, established a land of exception in the Mayan mountains of Chiapas.

Segregation, racism, invisibility, and contempt toward the indigenous people had been the hallmark of the urban population and of the property owners, the so-called cashlanes. The inequality was abysmal, even after the Revolution and its distant agrarian reform. In the communities, they died of the flu, diarrhea, hunger, and no one cared. Many were slaves. Elections came and went, and the ballot boxes filled themselves.

The unexpected indigenous emancipation altered the balances and calculus. As never before, the state governments became non-existent for practical purposes (with the relative exception of Roberto Albores Guillén, a proactive collaborator of the generals, and Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía, who soon squandered his credentials as a democrat). The state came from being governed from the center to governing itself, both for good and for bad. Zapatista discipline and its autonomy in the territories where it is exercised, are a guarantee of governability, but has generated any number of replicas of the paramilitary type, that evolved to powers in and of themselves. The pacifist communities and organizations that inherited the liberation theology of tatik Samuel Ruiz García receive the same response.

The partisan game in Chiapas since the arrival of democracy in 2000 according to the center, despite its charade, has been no less merciless against the communities, which with the continuous ingredient of the military presence in their territories was always loaded with counterinsurgency propaganda. Not to mention the role of the innumerable christian denominations that in varying degrees of legitimacy and transparency have fuelled divisions, violence, and pretexts in favor of the State.

Long-term War

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation declared war on the federal government. This declaration is indeed still in force. And the government, especially since 1995, responded with long-term warfare. The initial clashes in January of 1994, with the Salinas government responding to war with war, were dwarfed by what was experienced during the administration of Ernesto Zedillo. 

Community division was considered strategic and was stimulated wherever possible: the confrontations between evangelical or pentecostal Christians and Catholics; the red or green parties against the yellow or purple; the insidious regulation of cattle lands recuperated by indigenous people thanks to the insurrection; the emergence of clearly paramilitarized groups, both aggressive and well-armed. 

The multitude of layers and folds that unleashed such division is explained by the great economic, political, logistical investment of intelligence, manipulation and corruption in the indigenous regions of the jungle, the highlands and the northern zone. 

These ingredients have generated a great disarray that complicates coexistence between brothers and sisters in communities, ejidos, municipalities and traditional indigenous regions. All of it, naturally sprinkled with a sustained introduction of weapons. Faced with the challenge of the Zapatistas, the government, although it said yes, never intended to comply with the rebel demands that became national for the indigenous peoples, but instead responded with armed escalation seasoned with alcohol, prostitution and drugs. 

Continuous Shooting

All of this should be taken into consideration in order to interpret the terrible and absurd events, like the continuous shooting endured by some 15 Tsotsil communities of Aldama (or Magdalena). The existence of shock groups, militias, paramilitaries and now sicarios (hitmen) in Chamula, Pantelhó, Chenalhó, Simojovel, Ocosingo, Pueblo Nuevo and Altamirano comes as much from the old guardias blancas (white guards) of the plantation owners as from the marginalized and criminal empowered as paramilitaries in the Highlands and the Northern Zone.

The emergence of self-defense groups, in principle on the side of the people and against delinquency, could be a product of the example of the armed Zapatista resistance and the efficacy of its autonomies, and not just the historical perversity of local political powers. This would be the case of El Machete in Pantelhó and perhaps the self-defense groups announced in Simojovel and Altamirano.

The contest between two candidates for governor from the bloc currently aligned with the federal government also seems to weigh heavily, which would guarantee the continuity of the Chiapanecan political farce anchored to it [the federal government], and reinforces the storms sown by government agencies and institutions, the armed forces, and political parties in the past four or five administrations. The municipal presidencies of the Highlands make-up true narco governments (Pantelhó, San Cristóbal, Chenalhó). Add to this the expansion of criminal organizations in the Highlands of Chiapas that are dedicated to the trafficking of drugs, weapons, pornography and migrants. Let us not forget that the state has been converted into the port of entry for the growing wave of Central American and Haitian families. The border with Guatemala is heavily militarized. 

Political groups within the indigenous communities have been blocking highways, and detaining machinery and officials for years; usually with explicit demands, or due to electoral conflicts that are endemic in Oxchuc and other municipalities.

Now the communities intercept the National Guard (the paramilitaries have done it in Santa Martha, Chenalhó; and the residents of Mitontic have done so to stop the National Guard from entering the communities), and have also disarmed it. 

Negotiating commissions from the government come and go in Aldama, Chenalhó, Pantelhó and Altamirano without the violence being contained. The most serious executions, although not the only ones, have been those of the special prosecutor in the case of Pantelhó, Gregoro Pérez Gómez, this past August 8th on the main avenue of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and that of the former president of the Abejas de Acteal, Simón Pérez Gómez on the 5th of July in the market of Simojovel. In both cases, they were targets of hitmen on motorcycles, which has become a new modus operandi. It is no longer repression, but organized crime.

This article was published in La Jornada on October 19th, 2021. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2021/10/19/politica/. English translation by Schools for Chiapas.