Narco violence and indigenous youth

Some members of the armed gangs that disputed control over the popular market in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas.

By: R. Aída Hernández Castillo*

Last June 14, strongly armed indigenous youth took over the popular market of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, and maintained control of the northern zone of this city for more than three hours, stealing, burning vehicles and terrorizing the population, without the different security forces doing anything to stop them. The press and the social networks explain these actions as the confrontation between different criminal groups over control of the market, mentioning the Motonetos, the Vans and the San Juan Chamula cartel as some of the groups that confronted each other in these fights over territorial control. The images that circulate in the social networks are those of young men with high-power weapons circulating freely through the streets. The “Coletos” fears of the indigenous occupation of their city and racist imaginaries are expressed by emphasizing the indigenous identity of the aggressors and their capacity for violence.

A taboo theme among anthropologists is revealed in these images: organized crime has infiltrated the indigenous communities, physically or culturally kidnapping their youth. Tsotsil, Tseltal, Mayo-Yoreme, Yaqui, Me’phaas, Mixteco, Rarámuri and Purépecha men, forced or seduced by narco-cultures, are being recruited by the cartels. The tourism, political and cultural importance of San Cristóbal that influenced these acts had a wide media coverage. However, similar incidents are happening in different indigenous territories of the country, without then press or academia denouncing the profound impacts that these processes are having on community fabrics.

The risks involved in doing research in territories controlled by organized crime, coupled with the fear of contributing from our academic work to the criminalization of the native peoples, has influenced the fact that few researchers take on the task of documenting and analyzing the cultural and political transformations that drug trafficking networks have brought to the indigenous communities. An elderly Mayo-Yoreme man, whose grandson was disappeared and murdered in a community taken over by drug traffickers, described to me these transformations this way: “About 10 years ago, things began to break down, when coca entered [the community] and then crack. Then they started to insert drugs into the schools, miasmas that leave the boys blind, deaf, crazy. They started to work with the government and to kidnap the boys, many never returned and some returned crazy. They return addicts so that that they will work for them and when they are no longer useful to them, they kill them.”

Some members of criminal groups unload trucks in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

We are facing a new manifestation of colonial violence that dispossesses them of their lands, desecrates their sacred spaces, forces them to move and kidnaps their sons and daughters. Now the “enemy” is inside their own homes, speaks their own language and has the knowledge to dismantle community power structures, making resistance increasingly difficult.

In many regions, such as Chiapas, the cacique political powers have armed these groups and used them to control and terrorize their opponents; in others they are hired by business groups to impose megaprojects, intimidating and, if necessary, murdering those who oppose the dispossession and plundering. The most worrisome thing is that they are creating new indigenous masculinities willing to kill or be killed for a nickname, an automobile or a cell phone. Behind many of these young assassins there are terrorized indigenous women, with little possibility of denouncing or breaking away from violent relationships. Femicide, trafficking and disappearances of indigenous women have increased exponentially, without gender alerts that recognize the specificity as to the contexts of their vulnerability.

It is urgent to document and denounce this ethnocidal violence, to accompany the efforts of indigenous organizations to protect and recover their young people. Silencing these processes not only doesn’t contribute to finding solutions, but it also makes us complicit in the impunity and indifference that has allowed the kidnapping of indigenous youth.

* Doctor in anthropology, researcher at Ciesas


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Sunday, June 19, 2022, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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