Narco, Zetas and Paramilitaries: The New Reality in Chiapas.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas. –
In the north, Los Altos and the border between Chiapas and Guatemala, there’s a fight going on between different organised crime groups, and almost no one wants to talk about it. These are areas that even the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional – EZLN) won’t get involved in, as the criminal gangs have gained strength since joining up with the paramilitaries and members of the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (Partido Verde Ecologista de México – PVEM).
Life in some of the indigenous communities in these areas has changed radically. Cocaine and crack addiction rates have increased among the indigenous youth population since they started to circulate in their towns, communities and neighbourhoods. One of these is the infamous Hormiga, in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas, which is known as a trading ground for drugs, weapons and stolen cars. A recent incident exposed the virulence of the ongoing territorial battle. On the 17th of July, 2015, it was reported that the activist Toni Reynaldo Gutiérrez had been disappeared in the municipality of Tila, by municipal police officers and armed civilians. A week later he was found dead, with marks of torture: his eyes were missing and the skin had been removed from his face.
Magaly del Carmen Cruz Pérez, wife of Gutiérrez, and inhabitants of Tila, have denounced the presence of Los Zetas and paramilitaries in this area of the state. So too have priests Blas Alvarado, from Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacán, and Marcelo Pérez, from Simojovel, who accuse the governor Manuel Velasco – elected in 2012 at the head of a PVEM-PRI coalition – of trying to hide the existence of organised crime in Chiapas to avoid dampening his prospects in the 2018 presidential elections.
Since 1994, public interest in Chiapas has focused on the EZLN, following its declaration of war on the Mexican State. But even then, the presence of powerful drug trafficking groups in the region was felt.
In May 2003, Joaquín Loera Guzmán was captured for the first time on the border between Guatemala and Chiapas. There were reports that the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel had been in San Cristóbal de las Casas (Proceso 867). In 2010 he was reported to have been sighted in the municipality of Villa Flores and more recently, after his second escape, he was seen near Comitán, having slipped through the fingers of a marine operation in Tamazula, Durango, where he had been in hiding (Proceso 2033).
Luis Alonso Abarca González, from the Chiapas based Human Rights Committee Digna Ochoa (DH-DO), maintains in an interview that the assassination of Toni Reynaldo is a clear sign of the presence of drug trafficking groups like Los Zetas, who are fighting the Sinaloa Cartel and its allies from the New Generation Jalisco Cartel for control of the area.
The social activist observes that since the municipal elections last year – in which the PVEM, governor Manuel Velasco’s party, took 57 of the 122 seats disputed – there has been a rise in the number of active paramilitary groups, such as Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice), Movimiento Indígena Revolucionario Antizapatista (Anti-Zapatista Indigenous Revolutionary Movement – MIRA), Los Diablos, Los Gómez and Los Petules, amongst others, who have been linked to drug trafficking. He describes it:
‘It’s about disputes over strategic locations in the cartography of organised crime. They want to control Comitán and Frontera Comalapa because of their proximity to the Guatemalan border, gateways for the movement of drugs and weapons.’
‘In Tila, because of its proximity to Tabasco, there is a mew migrant route. In Nueva Esperanza they say there are migrant traffickers who have local council protection.’
‘This is the violent context. And now we’re talking about the reactivation of a paramilitary group, but with different factors compared to 1994. Then, it was formed to keep the EZLN under control, stop them amassing recruits and gaining in popular support. Now, you’ve got the additional factors of organised crime and territorial reorganisation that has everything to do with oil and mining interests.’
According to the map that certain organisations have drawn up, there have been outbursts of violence in Simojovel, Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacán, Tila, Palenque, Ocosingo, Marqués de Comillas, La Trinitaria, Frontera Comalapa, El Bosque, Oxchuc and San Cristóbal de las Casas – formerly areas of Zapatista influence.
But now the Zapatistas have withdrawn or only have surveillance points, notes Luis Alonso Abarca González, of DH-DO.
‘What’s happened to the EZLN?’, we ask him.
‘In Tila the EZLN has stayed on the side-lines, we think they no longer play a significant role in the region. There are some support bases but the number has gone down dramatically in the last few years. The paramilitaries and organised crime groups have gained ground there. The EZLN appears to have reached a point of impasse or indefinite withdrawal. It no longer has the strength it had up until 1998 or 1999. Even in the Las Cañadas region, he observes, where the EZLN first formed in 1983, there has been a radio silence from the Zapatistas, who have said nothing regarding drug trafficking.
‘They’ve completely gone into hibernation, suddenly all we know is that there are certain contacts in the communities. I remember a compañero commenting once, that you can measure the growth of drug trafficking in the area by the kind of bands that play in Las Cañadas and even some Zapatista communities. Before, it would have been unthinkable that bands like Maguey, Calibre 50 or El Komander would play there.’
The army, he remembers, announced they had destroyed a thousand poppy hectares in Las Cañadas, but he believes this claim was intended solely to link Zapatismo to organised crime.
‘Organised crime has been present in Chiapas for a long time. But is it increasing?’, we ask him.
‘Yes, but the new factor is that there’s a strategic aim: territorial control. There’s particular interest in appropriating mineable resources, water, other natural resources, and the border.
‘From Los Zetas?
‘In Tila there are Z-40 and Z-42 tags. In San Cristóbal there are MS-13 tags, that’s Mara Salvatrucha 13. This graffiti matches the changes in migrant routes, because the Tapachula-Hidalgo City railway was shut down and people are heading inland. San Cristóbal is en route, and then they go through San Juan Chamula, Bochil, Pueblo Nuevo and Tabasco. The other route is from San Cristóbal to Ocosingo, Yajalón and Tila, heading towards Tabasco.
He explains that in Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacán there are groups of criminals who are part of the government, and that gangs like the New Generation Jalisco Cartel are also looking for a way in. Frontera Comalapa, he says, is a strategic point because it borders Guatemala. Los Zetas control it.
“Since 2009 the government of (the then PRI governor) Juan Sabines recognised in a report that Chiapas was controlled by Los Zetas, and that was why there was no violence. But we believe that today under the PVEM things have changed and new groups have been muscling in. This has reactivated what we presume to be paramilitary violence. We think there is more going on in the background, that this is more than a series of isolated cases; rather, it is a context of organised crime much like that in other parts of the country.”
Paramilitaries and Narcos
In Chiapas, the big organised crime groups joined up or made alliances with local gangs – whose origins can be found in the paramilitary groups that Ernesto Zedillo’s government put in place in 1996, to combat the EZLN.
The parish priest of Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacán is Blas Alvarado Jiménez, regional coordinator of the migrant refuge known as ‘La 72’, in Tenosique, Tabasco. In an interview, he warns that Manuel Velasco wants to hide the paramilitaries to protect his presidential aspirations.
‘What we might call peripheral groups have definitely made an agreement with one of the strong cartels, who finance them. They have goat horns (AK 47), weapons that go through armour-plating…And they don’t just traffic drugs, they also make people pay them fines to be allowed to go on working. They’ve already destroyed coffee plantations, burned down houses and displaced whole families to different communities.
‘Are the Zetas present?’, we ask him.
‘Yes, they come from north of Chiapas, from Reforma, Pichucalco, from the Teapa area. These people work and run the migrant zone there in Tenosique and they’re making an inroad into the north of Chiapas. Los Zetas don’t just do weapons trading and kidnapping, but also drugs and people trafficking. In reality, Los Zetas are everywhere here in the south-east.’
On the 1st of January this year, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Centre for Human Rights (CDH-BC) denounced that the PVEM is linked to the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia in Tila and Sabanilla (northern Chiapas), municipalities that it won in the June 2015 elections.
“Paz y Justicia was never dismantled as such. From the nineties up until the year 2000 they carried out offensives, and the organization was never disarmed”, accused the then coordinator of the Area of Influence of the CDH-BC, Jorge Luis Hernández. Luis Alonso Abarca González, of the DH-DO, mentions that residents from near Tila confirm that the people traffickers have municipal protection.
In this municipality, collective landholders who pertain to the EZLN have denounced ex-mayor Linder Gregorio Gutiérrez Gómez, his wife, the local PVEM diputada (MP) Sandra Luz Cruz Espinoza, and the current local government member Leopoldo Édgar Gómez Gutiérrez, of forming part of Paz y Justicia.
In this area, they maintain, the embers of another paramilitary group called Los Chinchulines is still in operation, while in the jungle, the Anti-Zapatista Indigenous Revolutionary Movement (MIRA), founded by the siblings María Gloria and Norberto Santiz, is now linked to people trafficking.
The cartels have also increased the circulation of drugs among indigenous young people.
‘In Tila it’s now a constant. Young people don’t just consume marijuana, cocaine too. What’s more, we can see a change in the aspirations of these young people. Now they want to work in organised crime, and you even see it in San Cristóbal de las Casas’, Luis Alonso Abarca comments.
Marcelo Pérez, the priest from Simojovel, has been threatened by Juan and Ramiro Gómez – PRI ex-mayors known as ‘Los Gómez’ who are linked to arms and narcotics trafficking. In an interview, he identifies the issue of addiction to stimulants among young people in indigenous communities.
‘Simojovel and Pueblo Nuevo have already become markets. In Simojovel there’s the group Los Diablos, who have terrorised the population, provoked forced displacement and only a short time ago, killed two people.’
‘Furthermore,’ he goes on to say, ‘they collect a property tax from business owners.’
In fact, he himself has already been threatened, he denounces, and has heard that they’re offering ‘a lot of money’ for his head.
The priest of Pueblo Nuevo, Blas Alvarado, confirms the consumption of cocaine and crack in indigenous communities, not only in the north but in the centre of Chiapas:
‘The hard drugs are coming in now. Before cocaine was the limit, now they sell rocks and all of that toxic stuff. There are kids of 12, secondary school age, getting into crack.’
‘In Tila?’, we ask him.
‘Not just there, in Los Altos too, in the whole of the San Juan Chamula area…’
‘Why is it being kept quiet?’
‘Because there are big interests tied up in it and the people who deal the hard drugs are the people who finance political affairs. They’ve created an atmosphere of terror, and nobody dares get involved, so they are going to end up getting control of everything, they are going to choose who is in power and who isn’t, they are going to control everything.’
Translated by Ruby Zajac for the UK Zapatista Translation Service