Pantelhó and Narco-paramilitaries

Elements of the National Guard and the Army last Friday, on the the San José El Carmen highway, four kilomenters from the municipal seat of Pantelhó, after re-taking control of security in the town.  
Photo: Elio Henríquez

by Luís Hernandez Navarro

Simón Pedro Pérez López was executed in the market of Simojovel, Chiapas. The crime was the work of a professional. From a moving motorcycle, a hired hitman fired an accurate shot to the head. That July 5, his son watched helplessly as his father bled to death on the ground until his last breath had gone.

A 35-year-old Tsotsil indigenous man, father of seven children, Simón was a catechist in the parish of Santa Catalina, in Pantelhó. In 2020 he presided over the board of directors of the Civil Society Las Abejas de Acteal, who are the victims of the paramilitary massacre of December 22, 1997, in which 45 people who were praying in a chapel were savagely killed. He was also a member of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI).

He was a good man, dedicated to the defense of human rights and to demanding justice. He had recently denounced the abuses suffered by the people of Pantelhó at the hands of a narco-paramilitary group dedicated to trafficking drugs, migrants and arms, as well as stealing cars. Just a few days before his murder, on June 26, community authorities and agents of the municipality presented a document to the Chiapas Secretary of the Interior, Victoria Cecilia Flores Perez, that gives a detailed account of the relationships between local authorities and criminal groups.

The group that controls the municipal presidency of Pantelhó uses the letterhead of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). This is not a new phenomenon. Not being the only case, in the state (of Chiapas) the party has served the paramilitaries for years (https://bit.ly/3yEDilR). It won three years ago, under Santos Lopez Hernandez, who was later arrested for the crime of sexual abuse against two women, officials of that municipality. In his place Delia Janet Velasco Flores was appointed, wife of the mayor elected in the past elections with the symbols of the Aztec sun, Raquel Trujillo Morales (he claims that they divorced six months ago (https://bit.ly/3yJwMdo).

In 2019, Raquel was accused by residents of usurping roles as a municipal trustee, stealing from the citizens and diverting more than 3 million pesos from the coffers for his benefit, in partnership with the treasurer. Since then, he has been associated with the brothers Rubén and Daily Herrera to violently intimidate those who oppose him (https://bit.ly/3r05hto). The patriarch of the clan, Austreberto, is in jail for murdering two people in the municipality in April 2015 (https://bit.ly/3hXCcuy). In 2002, he wanted to appoint himself to be the local judge. It was he who opened the door to organized crime.

The case of Simón Pedro is not the only case of a member of the Las Abejas Civil Society killed in Pantelhó. In 2015, criminals murdered catechist Manuel López. Although the Chiapas prosecutor’s office knew about the incident, there was no progress in the investigation and the culprits were not punished.

With the support of gunmen from Campeche, Veracruz and Sinaloa, this group has seized territorial control through terror, assassinations, disappearances, robberies, dispossessions and forced displacements, carrying weapons and explosives authorized for the exclusive use of the Mexican Army. It is no different from the criminal organization operating in Chenalhó (https://bit.ly/2TMWejF) and the Chamula cartel.

The violence they unleashed within the municipality was exacerbated in the context of the last election campaign. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center documented the murder of 12 people, including a child and one more disappeared, since March of this year. Countless residents have been displaced due to fear and the risk of losing their lives. Checkpoints, blockades and incursions by armed groups, accompanied by police, are a daily occurrence. Several testimonies have reported that National Guard vehicles have been driven by members of the criminal group (https://bit.ly/3e0nQZu).

In the midst of this climate of coercion, 11 Tsotsil parishes of the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, headed by Father Marcelo Perez Perez, demanded the postponement of the June 6 elections in this municipality. “There is silence in the municipal seat of Pantelhó. Nobody wants to say anything. They don’t leave the communities because they fear they will be murdered,” he warned after a meeting of pastoral agents. But no one listened to his warning.

Father Marcelo was not the only one to warn of the lurking danger. We are concerned,” the bishops of Chiapas observed, “that some powerful groups linked to criminal activities are infiltrating the political parties.

The straw that broke the camel’s back (or “the drop that spilled the glass,” in Spanish) in the region was the murder of Simón Pedro Pérez Lopez, and that of being fed up with the pact of institutional impunity that protects the criminal group. Two homemade bombs were found in the home of the catechist’s murderers in the Nuevo Israelita community. Pushed to the extreme, on July 7 and 8 the El Machete Self Defense for Life group of Pantelhó confronted the narco-paramilitaries and occupied the municipal seat to defend their lives. In this context, a convoy of soldiers and police was shot at while removing a road blockade.

The conflict escalated. Hundreds of indigenous Tsotsil sought refuge in secure places. The municipal seat of Pantelhó became a ghost town. Residents of the neighboring municipality of Cancuc blocked exits and entries. More than two thousand people are displaced in the region. The pretense of having a cordon sanitaire to isolate Zapatismo and the indigenous struggles for autonomy using narco-paramilitarism became a crisis.

This article was pubished in La Jornada on July 11th 2021.
https://www.jornada.com.mx/notas/2021/07/11/politica/pantelho-y-narcoparamilitares-luis-hernandez-navarro/
English interpretation by Schools for Chiapas.