The phenomenon of paramilitarism is historical and widely studied in Latin America. Paramilitaries are groups of armed civilians, trained, financed and/or enabled by states. Through violence, their task is to maintain control of the population, eliminate resistance and sustain local, regional or national power groups. Paramilitaries are the irregular troops that perform tasks that, by law and agreement, regular armies do not usually carry out. These groups have political interests or serve those who hold them.
In the second half of the 20th century, their role in Latin America was to counter the advances of popular armies and revolutionary guerrillas. Gilberto López y Rivas has described how paramilitaries are used to implement tactics such as the hammer and anvil, in which the army is in charge of containing or immobilizing the rebel forces and the people who support them, while the paramilitaries carry out the attacks. This makes it possible for governments that use such strategies to deny that they are State operations, and even go so far as to argue that they are intra-community conflicts.
In Mexico, the antecedents of these groups are the white guards, at the service of large landowners to facilitate land dispossession processes and reinforce control over the enslaved indigenous populations. Some of these structures survived the colonial period and were able to adapt and update themselves to the creation of the independent nation-state with its formal army and its claim to monopoly on legitimate violence. Landowners, farmers and landowners relied on their private armies to guarantee their power and control over peasants and indigenous people.
Also in the second half of the 20th century, the Mexican State systematically resorted to paramilitary groups to repress movements. The names of the Olimpia Battalion and the Halcones, at the service of the federal government and used to repress the movements of 1968 and 1971, respectively, remain in popular memory. Allied with the right wing and its youth, in states such as Puebla and Jalisco, there are experiences of how local governments formed or allowed paramilitary organizations to act with total impunity to repress members of popular structures fighting for a more just world.
The public appearance of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in 1994 was another moment in which the persistence of paramilitary groups, their links with the army and the permissiveness and impunity guaranteed to them could be observed. Groups such as Paz y Justicia, Chinchulines or Máscara Roja attacked Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities in order to wage war against the EZLN, but also to sow terror among the population. The Acteal massacre, where a paramilitary commando killed 45 indigenous people, is an unforgettable event.
In the case of Chiapas, since the advent of the democratic shift in 2000, the power groups and their paramilitaries changed the colors of their tricolor shirts to match those of the government in power: blue, yellow, green, green, purple. Justice did not catch up with them, because when some were investigated, powerful structures moved to defend them, as happened with part of the paramilitaries responsible for the Acteal massacre who were defended by Hugo Erick Flores.
Similarly, former popular organizations were co-opted to operate on behalf of the State. Today we also speak of second generation paramilitaries, groups that inherited weapons, contacts, strategies, and impunity, and that made paramilitarism a way of life. Although their origin is different from that of the traditional formations, their function is the same — to maintain control of the population, eliminate resistance and sustain or sustain themselves as a power group through violence.
With the expansion of criminal corporations throughout the country, organized crime armed groups carry out operations equal to and expanding those of the paramilitaries, but at the service of a kind of parallel state that converges and intertwines with the formal state. The paramilitaries of the formal State and the armed groups of organized crime come to coincide and coordinate in their tasks of territorial control and expansion of criminal or extractive economies. In some cases, as has been documented in Oaxaca, the government of Ulises Ruiz resorted directly to organized crime groups to carry out counterinsurgency and repression tasks.
Identifying, in the confusing panorama of Chiapas, who the paramilitary groups serve and what are their interests is key to finding those responsible for years of war and those who today invoke it.
As truth and justice await, for right now one thing is urgent: to stop the war in Chiapas.
Original article published in La Jornada on June 17th, 2023. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/06/17/opinion/013a1pol
English translation by Schools for Chiapas.