Social Decay and Rampant Violence Batter Chiapas

This past July, self-defense group, El Machete, broke out in Pantelhó. Photo: Elio Henríquez

By Hermann Bellinghausen

The succession of violent events occurring in the indigenous regions of Chiapas leaves the impression that they happen outside of institutional control. For hours every day, for many months, the Tsotsil families of various communities in the municipality of Aldama have been showered with large caliber gunfire or are intimidated by explosives; there have been seven deaths, several wounded, traumatic displacement, hunger and fear. An isolated scenario, indeed (a presumed agrarian dispute). Every scenario of armed violences seems isolated. The fearsome motonetos 1 take over the days and nights of the once peaceful and touristic San Cristóbal de las Casas, the most indigenous city in the country.

In Pantelhó and Chenalhó, armed groups and those affiliated with the municipal governments kept the population terrorized until the armed self-defense group, El Machete, emerged and threw them out, even as the paramilitaries and hired killers, who the people identify as narcos, threaten to return. Among those killed was the former president of Las Abejas de Acteal, Simón Pedro Pérez López, whose community is displaced, among others. And among leaders [of the paramilitary group], are members of the PRD and PVEM2.

The former ORCAO coffee growers’ organization maintains harassment, sabotage, kidnappings, shootings, blockades and theft of land against the Zapatista bases of autonomous Tseltal communities. The 11th of September, they kidnapped Sebastian Nuñez y José Antonio Sanchez, members of the autonomous Zapatista government of Patria Nueva. The violent decay  affects communities of Chalchihuitán attacked from Chenalhó, the same that is happening in Aldama. In San Juan Chamula, armed political-criminal groups have controle life and commerce for years, and their tentacles reach all the way to San Cristóbal and other municipalities where the  Chamula population has spread.

As the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) signals in its concise and tremendous communiqué (September 19th) that Chiapas finds itself on the brink of civil war, it is evident that the federal civil authorities, their National Guard and the federal Army itself are complacent, and in fact leave dozens of communities defenseless  under attack. The local police are either non-existent or complicit. As subcomandante Galeano suggests when characterizing the wildcard party, or the green gatopardismo3, which artificially predominates in the region courtesy of the PRI “it is seeking to destabilize the regime in power” (Morena).

He  accuses officials of corruption and looting, as they prepare for a collapse of the federal government or place bets on a change of the party in power. The EZLN holds Morenista governor Rutilio Escandón directly responsible for this irresponsible and dangerous lack of control.

The paraphrasing of leitmotif turned commonplace becomes necessary, from the great novel Conversation in the Cathedral, by the disgraced businessman Mario Vargas Llosa, nowadays more quoted than read. At what moment did Chiapas get fucked up? Not that there was not plenty of fucked up reality in the severe, impoverished and yet full of riches state of the Mexican southeast, but that the life of its inhabitants, particularly the indigenous, had not fallen into decay, even in spite of the massacres at the end of the XX century, and certainly not to the point of violent crime, like that which has disgraced a good part of the Mexican territory in recent six-year periods.

Control from the Center

The place called Chiapas (as a documentary by Canadian Netty Wild is titled) has always been a geographical and historical exception. We have a canonical book that relates it admirably, [title translated from Spanish] Resistance and Utopia: Memorial of Offenses and Chronicle of Revolts and Prophecies Fulfilled in the Province of Chiapas during the last 500 years of its History, by Antonio García de León (1985). An obscure corner of the homeland, Chiapas was always governed from the center, which is to say, since it was so far away that news, independence, reforms, wars and revolutions arrived late.

Previously an exclusive subject of ethnology, archeology, costume photography and the occasional red note4, as of 1994 the ink began to flow over and from Chiapas.  The communities of Mayan origin rebelled, achieving international renown with a new and convincing discourse. For the forest time in history, the most forgotten corner came to occupy the center of the national agenda. To such a degree that the absence of the state government was accentuated, because the President of the Republic turned Chiapas into the primary theater of operations of war and counterinsurgency, establishing in its military zones and regions, a veritable army of armies. 

The state governments, previously distant and now made minions, continued to shine in their absence. As historian Andrés Aubry recalled, Emilio Rabasa governed Chiapas from Mexico City, practically from  Porfirío Díaz’s office. The unfolding of the revolutionary era converted it into a land of caciques5 and landowners, more than a consolidated federal entity.

The 1994 explosion evidenced this periferal condition. The last governor before the indigenous uprising, Patrocinio González Garrido, had tried to escape from the center, and his president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, pulled him in to remove the crown from the tropical petty monarch, making him a late Secretary of the Interior and thus shortening his rein. This episode is part of the tragicomedy of the Chiapas political class (to call it something).

Today as a brutal, and seemingly absurd violence, explicitly thrashes the indigenous regions of the Chiapanecan mountains, it is essential to remember what fueled such a breakdown. The decay comes from the non-compliance with the Acuerdos de San Andrés of 1996 between the federal government and the EZLN and the definitive interruption of the most important negotiations in history between the state and the indigenous peoples throughout Mexico, led by liberated communities struggling for self-determination.

This article was published in La Jornada on October 18th, 2021. English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. A gang of armed motorcyclists that terrorize San Cristobal in recent years. Their marauding has become increasingly visible and fearsome.
  2.  Party of the Democratic Revolution and the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico.
  3. Referring to the charade of changing power in the electoral system. In Chiapas, this charade is currently dominated by   the Green Party (PVEM).
  4.  Sensationalized journalism highlighting violence, crime and disaster in gory detail.
  5. In Latin America, a local political boss.
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