The Challenges of Zapatismo Today: Cartels, Government and Militarization

In the third article of the series “30 years since the EZLN uprising,” we recount the extraordinary presence of security forces in Chiapas, compared to other Mexican states, and how narco-violence came to be in this southeastern Mexican state.
Zapatista women during the celebration, in the Caracol Dolores Hidalgo, of the 30th anniversary of the EZLN uprising. Photo: Daliri Oropeza

The celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, between December 30, 2023 and January 2, 2024, show the world that the indigenous rebel project is still alive and well. However, the Zapatistas themselves warned that the celebrations were not taking place at just any time and at the same time that they invited participation, they “discouraged” it and reported on the alarming situation that had been brewing for some time in the state. “Chiapas, on the brink of a civil war,” that is how the EZLN titled what was happening in the state on September 19, 2021. They were not lying, because what is happening today in the border state is just that, the beginning of a war involving different actors of the civil society, armed forces and state security forces, alleged self-defense groups, as well as two organized crime cartels with at least three splinter groups.

What did the Zapatistas see? What forced them to publish such a harsh communiqué that today has become a reality? Mainly four things: the permanent presence of paramilitaries, such as ORCAO; the growing militarization during the current six-year term, with close to 25,000 elements of the Secretariat of National Defense, the Marines, the National Guard, and state and municipal police. There is also the appearance of a new cartel in the area, the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG), which is competing for the state with the cartel that has always had a presence in Chiapas, the Sinaloa Cartel; and the growing wave of migrants crossing the Southern Border seeking to reach the United States, which represented “easy profits” for the criminal groups. A perfect breeding ground for violence to break out in the state.

The paramilitary presence harassing the Zapatistas has been talked about since the 1990s, as well as the  inaction, complacency and financing of the authorities. However, despite being a permanent danger, the EZLN had managed to deal with them and contain their attacks. Throughout these three decades they have reported on the attacks and have demanded that the government cease its aggressions, which have even led to the assassination of several compañeros. Militarization in Chiapas is also decades old, but it has never been observed as much as it is now. By the end of 2023 there were 24 National Guard barracks in Chiapas, grouped in four military zones.

According to official information, of the 25,000 security elements that have a permanent presence in the state of Chiapas, 12,000 are military personnel. This is much more than in other states with larger territorial extension such as Durango (4,000), Sonora (6,000) or Chihuahua (7,000), so it seems that the cause of such a deployment is not explained by the size of the state. Neither does the number of inhabitants in Chiapas (5.5 million), if we compare it with states such as Guanajuato (6.6 million and 6,600 elements), Michoacán (4.7 million and 6,500 elements) or Mexico City (9, 13 million and 200 elements). And much less the incidence of crime, where Chiapas ranks second to last with a rate of 17.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, when the national average is 133.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, and there are states like Colima with less than 800,000 inhabitants and a rate of 263.9 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. So what explains why the government has militarized the state of Chiapas to this level? Among other reasons, because of its star megaproject, the erroneously named “Mayan” train, which crosses through several Zapatista territories and which they have opposed since its announcement.

When narco-violence reached Chiapas  

López Obrador has accused the EZLN of being a “conservative” group, “with leftist garb, supposedly very radical” and has insinuated that “its leaders” profit from the poverty of the people. We suppose that in order to prevent them from protesting or impeding the imposition of their projects, the current Mexican president decided to lock them up, watch over them and contain them militarily while he finishes building his megaproject. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center has documented the constant presence of the military in Zapatista communities, including ground patrols and flyovers. The President has dismissed these reports and has said that such patrols do not exist and that if they do, it is to provide security for the people.

On the other hand, it must be clear that the presence of cartels in the country is longstanding and that Chiapas has not been exempt from this. It is known that since the 1990s there has been a presence of organized crime groups that control the entry of drugs from Central and South America. The Sinaloa cartel was until three years ago the only one with a clear presence in the state; the faction controlled by Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, built clandestine airstrips where drug-laden planes landed and monitored the secure transit of these until they flew from the south to the north of the country. And as is the case throughout Mexico, as long as a single cartel controls the territory, there will rarely be the kind of violence that occurs when another cartel tries to take it over. That is what has been happening in Chiapas for the past three years.

Ismael Zambada Garcia had a “trusted” man in the area for a long time. His name was Gilberto Rivera Amarillas, alias ‘El Tío Gil,’ who was arrested in Guatemala in 2016 and extradited to the United States in 2017 where he was wanted by the Eastern District Court of Columbia. Since ‘El Tío Gil’ arrived in Chiapas, there was talk of his close relationship with the man who from 2012 until 2018 held the position of State Attorney General, Raciel López Salazar, during the governments of Juan Sabines, of the PRD, and Manuel Velasco, of the Green Party. In 2018, Rivera Amarillas was a candidate for federal deputy for the VII district of Chiapas for the PRI alliance with the PVEM. “El Tío Gil” died in 2017 due to a terminal illness in a prison in the United States and was relieved in Chiapas by his son, Ramón Gilberto Rivera, alias ‘El Junior,’ who was later assassinated in 2021.

After his death, a new character appeared in the area, Jesus Esteban Machado Meza, nicknamed ‘El Güero Pulseras’. It is known that he was born in Culiacan, Sinaloa, and that he was sent by ‘El Mayo Zambada’ to replace Gilberto Rivera. However, by 2021 it was already known that the CJNG had begun its incursion into Chiapas, so when ‘El Güero Pulseras’ arrived in the state he found in another character close to ‘El Mayo’, Juan Manuel Valdovinos Mendoza, alias ‘El Señor de los Caballos,’ not an ally, but a rival who wanted to take the place of ‘El Junior.’ When Valdovinos Mendoza learned that he would not be in charge of the area, he betrayed Zambada Garcia and allied himself and his people with the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation. The stage was set for the war to begin.

But it is not just the movement of drugs – cocaine and precursor chemicals for methamphetamines and fentanyl – that is in dispute. In the last 10 years or so, exacerbated by the poverty and violence in virtually all Central and South American countries, migration has grown exponentially. Those huge caravans some eight or nine years ago with people from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador caught the attention of criminal organizations. They represented tens of billions of dollars for them, if they managed to control their flow and take over the human trafficking business. Thus, the cartels, in addition to controlling the drug trafficking route, began to control the route for the passage of migrants, whom they extorted, kidnapped or murdered if they could not pay or refused to do so.

The Sinaloa cartel became a human trafficker and established a route that goes from Chiapas to Tijuana, Baja California, mainly through the Pacific States. For its part, the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel took over the route from Chiapas to Tamaulipas, passing through the Gulf of Mexico states. Disputes over migrants’ destinations are constant. The New York-based migrant advocacy organization “1800 migrante” has reported countless mass kidnappings of Ecuadorians, Guatemalans or Venezuelans. The migrants are kidnapped and taken to safe houses. From these places, if they bring money to pay they are taken to the border, otherwise they call their relatives in the United States or in their countries of origin demanding the payment of their ransom. It is said that they ask for between $5,000 and $10,000 for each migrant. And all this happens in a completely militarized State where the presence of criminals could not be explained without the collusion of all the authorities and obviously of the military elements.

Communities defenseless in the face of collusion between security forces and cartels

In mid-January 2024, a series of videos circulated on social networks showing groups of residents confronting elements of the Army and the National Guard who were trying to enter communities in the municipality of Chicomuselo. During the first days of that month there was a series of confrontations between criminals from the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel. The residents had asked the government for help, but it did not arrive until that day. The villagers had already decided not to allow the military to enter their municipality, because they had ignored their pleas for help published in several communiqués, but also because they accused the security forces of being in collusion with the cartels. The people claim that there are military personnel who collaborate with the Sinaloa cartel and others who collaborate with the CJNG. In a communiqué signed by the Civil Society of the People of Chicomuselo, the inhabitants demanded that the government withdraw the security forces because their entry provoked confrontations in their towns, between soldiers who collaborate with organized crime groups and their enemies. The military elements, for their part, accused the citizens of not allowing them to enter their towns because they were protecting the cartels. And in the face of all this, the López Obrador government insists that it is addressing the problem and not infrequently asserting that the claims about the problem are “exaggerated.”

Subcomandante Moisés observes the events marking the 30th anniversary of the EZLN uprising celebrated on December 31, 2023, at the Caracol Dolores Hidalgo. Photo: Daliri Oropeza

In one of the most recent communiqués, in which they reported on the Zapatista restructuring, Subcomandante Moisés made clear the response of the communities: “The structure and disposition of the EZLN has been reorganized in order to increase the defense and security of the villages and of Mother Earth in case of aggressions, attacks, epidemics, invasion of companies that prey on nature, partial or total military occupations, natural catastrophes and nuclear wars. We have prepared ourselves for the survival of our peoples, even in isolation from each other.” Militarily, the current capacity of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation is unknown, but its powerful social organization that little by little has been gaining more territories over the years is known, because they have found solutions to old problems that no government or political party has been able or wanted to solve.

The idea that they will implement a new way of holding land may be key in the face of the criminal organizations that threaten them. Let’s keep in mind that the cartels aim to take over as much territory as possible; they call these places “la plaza.” The current structure of the EZLN would prevent them from taking over these territories, because the criminal organizations, in order to take over a ranch or property, threaten and even take the lives of the owners. The EZLN proposal would prevent them from achieving this, because the territories, the ejidos, would cease to have owners and would be the property of what they call “the commons,” that is, of everyone who is willing to work that land, harvest it and share the profits among all. What owner or owners could the cartels intimidate? An entire people? An entire community? This also reverses one of the great community problems that were the source of conflicts between communities, the ownership of the land.

In his speech during the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, Subcomandante Moisés also makes it clear that no matter what happens, they will continue their anti-capitalist struggle, now with the ingredient of the most brutal manifestation of capitalism, narcotrafficking: “We cannot humanize capitalism and nobody is going to tell us how we the people are (…) We are going to follow this path and we are going to defend ourselves. We do not need to kill the soldiers and the bad governments, but if they come we are going to defend ourselves. That is the reason that we have pushed them aside for 30 years.”

Original article by @ARIZZ published in El Salto June 9th, 2024.
Photos by Daliri Oropeza.
Tranlation by Schools for Chiapas.

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