Amid government inaction, Indigenous communities in the highlands of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas are throwing their support behind a self-defense group that formed to fend off attacks by organized crime groups on their communities.
Thousands of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Indigenous community members gathered recently in the municipality of Pantelhó to back a local self-defense group known as the Autodefensas del Pueblo El Machete, local media group Chiapas Paralelo reported.
The armed group, made up of local community members, came together earlier this month "to drive out the hitmen, drug traffickers and organized crime groups," they said in a statement. "We came because we don’t want any more killings.”
The group's emergence occurs in the wake of at least 3,000 people being forced to flee their homes in Chiapas following targeted attacks carried out by an unidentified criminal group. One early morning ambush in an Indigenous region involved high-powered weapons and explosives.
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President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has denounced the formation of the force, saying that "in no case is it acceptable for self-defense groups to take up arms."
Chiapas' highlands have since become increasingly militarized, adding to the "fear and terror of people forcibly displaced as a result of the generalized violence caused by organized crime," according to the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center (El Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas - Frayba).
Indigenous community leaders are being targeted across Mexico. On July 5, in broad daylight, an assassin shot dead Indigenous rights activist Simón Pedro Pérez López, former president of the civil society organization Las Abejas de Acteal.
Pérez López had denounced ties between local politicians in Chiapas and armed groups linked to drug trafficking and other criminal activity. Early reports suggested the criminal group may have links to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), but InSight Crime has found no evidence to support this claim.
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Many unanswered questions surround the recent violence in Chiapas. First, the CJNG had been thought to have only a minimal presence in the state, and there are few details about their motives for potentially moving further into the highlands.
That said, the latest attacks and killings do not bode well for the community defense forces that have long been a fixture of Indigenous communities across Mexico. They now face an uphill battle in fending off incursions from organized crime groups as the government fails to ensure their security.
The Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center reported that the politically connected criminal group has killed at least 12 people and disappeared one other this year in Pantelhó. “Checkpoints, blockades and incursions by the criminal group accompanied by elements of the municipal and state police are a daily event,” the foundation said.
Armed actors colluding with or operating with the approval of government officials in this area of Chiapas have had deadly consequences. In late 1997, a paramilitary group massacred 45 Tzotzil Indigenous women, children, and men - all members of Las Abejas de Acteal - while attending a prayer meeting in what became known as the Acteal Massacre. Twenty-two years later, the federal government acknowledged its role in deliberately failing to intervene and allowing the group to carry out the mass killing.
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Today, community members are again criticizing the government’s inaction and alleged links to criminal actors. “The Chiapas state government is fully aware of the situation in this municipality, however, so far it has not acted to protect the life, integrity and personal safety of the population,” according to the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center.
Evidence from elsewhere in the state suggests that the violence could grow worse still. Earlier this month, alleged CJNG gunmen shot and killed Gilberto Rivera Maravilla, alias “El Junior,” in the capital city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. He is the son of former Sinaloa Cartel boss Gilberto Rivera, alias “Tio Gil,” who reportedly controlled the group’s operations in Chiapas and along the border with Guatemala before his capture in 2016.