Why Chiapas is different

Hermann Bellinghausen

Following the pandemic, a perverse concept was coined: the new normal, implying that life was back to the way it was before, although not quite. A similar idea is what they are trying to sell us with what is happening in Chiapas (and with what has happened to it). Criminal violence, the culture of daily danger and the coexistence with dead and disappeared people (targets of a single shot) is common to too many regions and localities in Mexico. So why should it be surprising that this is happening in this southeastern state?

The president has already reassured us by assuring us: we have seen it here, and I am going to remind you, it is one of the states with less violence in the country. He considered as adverse propaganda the information that suggests something different and magnifies or exacerbates the situation (La Jornada, 9/28/23).

We must admit that if the country is worse than Chiapas, it must be that it is in a continuous emergency: the dead are adding up in other states, missing persons are a daily occurrence and anyone can be hit by a bullet. Roads blocked by flames, an execution here, an ambush there. People kidnapped, displaced, extorted.

For six decades we have been accustomed to the escalation of the game of cops and robbers, charros (cowboys) versus gangsters, which evolved into a confrontation between the armies of good and evil. The country’s (and the world’s) narco-map is expanding at a fungus-like rate. The Mexican cartel concept has become paradigmatic, universal, cinematographic. One gets used to everything, but let’s admit that we live in a dangerous country.

All of this begs the question: why is Chiapas not the same? What is the gravity of its current circumstances, given the seriousness of the sustained expansion of organized crime, its territorial controls, the corruption of many relationships and transactions, the trafficking of people and substances?

In the first place, it is the only real border with the south of America, from where drugs (cocaine) and abundant dollars come in an inevitable route to the United States. The generalized exodus from the south to the Anglo-Saxon north enters through there. In recent weeks, the number of migrants arriving in Mexico has become stratospheric. It is reflected in the rescued or crashed trailers full of migrants, in parks and shelters, highways and trains, on the vast border with the United States. But practically all of this human mass enters through Chiapas. And it is urgent to get out of there. This makes the commercial value of that undocumented multitude that goes successively from hell to limbo and back to hell as raw material for mafias and criminal networks so juicy.

The predictable action of large cartels on this border is not new, although it has never been so unsettled. The former state prosecutor during the first six years of the 21st century, Mariano Herrán Salvati, is credited with having achieved a skillful pact with the Gulf (and Zetas) and Sinaloa cartels, dividing the routes in divergent directions: one along the Pacific coast, and the other towards the Gulf of Mexico. I learned firsthand that there was a ranch belonging to El Chapo Guzman on the southern coast of Chiapas, where the most wanted man in the world sometimes stayed. It was vox populi in the region, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, everywhere.

This undoubtedly calmed the internal front, in such an explosive state at that time, with the Zapatista uprising still at the center of the political table. The government’s tail was being stepped on for the terrible massacres just yesterday in the highlands and the Chol region. The profuse militarization was unique in a country not yet overpopulated with troops and patrols, as Calderón and García Luna would leave us after 2007. The originary peoples, above all those of Mayan origin, were very unsettled, and the best organized were autonomous, revolutionary, armed and not given to compromise.

In Chiapas, other real indigenous powers were born and consolidated, such as the chiefdoms of the Tsotsil Chamula people, divided into traditionalists within their influential municipality, and expelled (in the 1980s for religious intolerance, refugees in the north of the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and other parts of their municipality, such as Betania). The media called it Chamula Power. It is known for its booming regular and irregular businesses: lumber transportation, arms and drug trafficking, trafficking indigenous migrants to the United States, and homegrown pornography. At both ends of the chamulidad there is real power and strength.

In the highlands, the jungle and the north, counterinsurgent paramilitary groups still operate. Converted into criminal gangs, they cause anxiety in Aldama and agitate the waters in Chenalhó, Pantelhó, Sitalá. They prove that all of Chiapas is a route for traffickers.

Despite its popular counterweights, the ingredients of exception in the state proved to be a breeding ground for the territorial, social and political implantation of the real narco-power, which dominates areas, neighborhoods or regions throughout the country and has a global presence.

“Chiapas is one of the states where the rule of law is least respected. According to the Rule of Law Index in Mexico 2021-2022 there is a strong deterioration of the justice system,” writes Carlos Soledad. And he accuses the absence of institutional counterweights, a stagnation in the fight against corruption, in addition to a growing insecurity.

People speak of narco-politics with ease. Mayors, representatives and officials fall into the temptation by hook or by crook. This, considering that the last three governors (Sabines, Velasco, Escandón) were decorative, almost absent, anything but governors in a state where the official authority lacks real authority before many towns and communities.

New elections are coming. The never trustworthy political class of Chiapas, today huddled in Morena and its ally Verde, profits and speculates with the denial of what is happening, having their hands in the dough and and being part of the matter.

Daily life has changed. More insecure, more cynical, more fatalistic. Perhaps the official figures are comparatively correct, but after half a century of knowing the state, I believe that in terms of crime things are, as never before, as bad as ever.

Original text published in La Jornada on October 2nd, 2023. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/10/02/opinion/a04a1cul
English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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