Above Photo by Ángeles Mariscal – “Our struggle is not political, but rather for life,” people of Pantelhó.
By: Ángeles Mariscal
The San José Buenavista Tercero community, located in the cañadas (canyons) of Pantelhó, became the meeting place for indigenous Tsotsil and Tseltal peoples who decided to arm themselves in order to stop the siege of organized crime, which they have experienced for years.
“It was a little while ago that we were thinking about getting together to talk about what we suffered,” explained Jeremías Pérez. He and his family were among the more than 3,500 people who, on the morning of Sunday, July 18, traveled on foot, and some in small trucks, the footpaths and roads of this fertile and paradise-like land, which had become a land beset by organized crime.
Hundreds tell about the horror stories they experienced. One of the commanders of the self-defense group explained that their assailants, people who still occupy positions in the Pantelhó municipal presidency, kidnapped his daughter when she was only 4 years old.
Dressed in olive green camouflage print clothing, with a squad-type pistol that hangs at his waist, and a radio through which he communicates, the commander cannot avoid that through the ski mask it is noticed how his eyes cloud up when recalling that event.
The assassination of the ex director of the Las Abejas de Acteal organization, Simón Pedro Pérez, last July 5, was what made them decide to try to expel their assailants from Pantelhó’s municipal seat, the place where they had found refuge. But the history of the formation of what are now known as the El Machete Self-Defense Forces of the People (“Autodefensas del Pueblo El Machete”), dates back many months.
They analyzed their situation, made visits to state government authorities, and delivered different documents asking for state government intervention to arrest their aggressors; the last letter asking for help was dated last June 26.
They wanted to solve the organized crime siege peacefully, because people like Simón Pedro and others, resisted the armed path as a solution. But they didn’t obtain an answer from the authorities that indicated to them they should abandon the path of self-defense groups.
Quite the opposite! Organized crime members were killing various community authorities and other leaders in the region. One of them was Enrique Pérez Pérez, who was ambushed at the beginning of this year when he was on his parcel of land. He was one of the founders of the self-defense forces and in his honor they placed a canvas with his image in the center of the meeting this Sunday.
So, little by little, in silence, they cooperated in donating the money they were getting from the sale of coffee; they bought weapons, uniforms, trained, designed the logo of their organization, which is now stamped on the black shirts they wear, on the canvas they placed at the entrance to San José Buenavista Tercero, and in the center of the town where the meeting was held that representatives of the Pantelhó communities attended to show their support for the self defense forces.
Residents of Pantelhó, Chiapas – Photo: Ángeles Mariscal
They began arriving in San José Buenavista Tercero in the first hours of this Sunday, July 18. Women with their traditional clothes of the Tseltal and Tsotsil ethnicities, men with calloused hands and leathery skin, tanned from working in the field, were positioned around the basketball court that occupies the center of town. There were more than 3,500 people coming from the 86 communities in Pantelhó.
Never had so many people met in the center of this small town, this day they only fit by placing themselves on roofs of the school and on some nearby buildings. It was important that they publicly show their support for the El Machete Self-Defense Forces. At the meeting, they also reiterated their decision to expel their own people who have besieged them, people involved with organized crime.
They invited journalists as witnesses and so that there was no doubt about the fact that their fight is not against the Mexican government, that it is not political, but rather “for life.” They also called on federal government authorities, who were represented at the meeting by Josefina Bravo, head of the Commission for Dialogue with the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico in the Interior Ministry.
After settling in and introducing themselves, their first action was to say a prayer in their maternal languages. The sound of prayers and supplications flooded the place and became an energy that vibrated.
Translation wasn’t needed to understand some words related to their petition to “God the Father,” “God the Mother,” that the violence ends and that the drug traffickers abandon this activity and find the path of life. The voice of the elderly man who guided the prayer broke, and tears came from some of the eyes of those present.
This region is strongly influenced by the teachings of Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, who formed what is known as the “native church,” recognized the knowledge and beliefs of the native peoples, and created an emancipatory doctrine that allowed them to question the Church and the situations of injustice in which they live, and to struggle “for the construction of the kingdom of God on earth.”
There are now people of different religious faiths in the region, but who retain the guidance of the emancipatory doctrines, which allowed them to organize to form self-defense forces, regardless of the religion they profess. Today all the people who were gathered together prayed together.
Later, one of the women leaders read the petition of the 86 communities of people of Pantelhó. They identified with first and last names those who they locate as their aggressors; many of them embedded in the municipal government apparatus. “Under the coordination of the mayor’s office, the municipal and sectorial police count on the participation of organized crime, which is the reason it has been of no use to demand justice,” they pointed out.
“During these years all the communities have been afraid, without the right to live in peace, without security, without justice (…) that’s why the indigenous peoples’ self-defense group rose up, for the purpose of defending the life and the rights of our brothers,” their communiqué points out.
They reported that they don’t recognize the authorities elected last June 6, because they also accuse them of belonging to organized crime. They announced that they will elect their new authorities next October 1 through the system of uses and customs and that the self-defense forces will be maintained until the siege and presence of the criminal groups is over.
After giving their word, they turned it over to Josefina Bravo. The official recognized that the Pantelhó region is part of an organized crime corridor that operates in Chiapas. She said that she would promote dialogue, that complaints will be investigated, and that she respects the decisions of the communities that organized their self-defense group.
Originally Published in Spanish by Chiapas Paralelo
Sunday, July 18, 2021
Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee