Chiapas and the Zapatistas face a dramatic increase in violence II

The Agua Azul Cascades, Chiapas, Mexico.

By: Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez | Part 2 of 2

Part 1 of this article began to expose factors that contribute to the dramatic increase in violence in Chiapas: 1) counterinsurgency (the government’s “low-intensity war” against the Zapatistas) and 2) two national organized crime groups battling each other for control of the state and local organized crime working with one or the other of the national criminal organizations. Part 2 addresses other sources of violence: 1) the Mesoamerica Project; 2) Municipal Elections and 3) Migration.

The Mesoamerica Project and the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway

There is a neoliberal effort underway, promoted by the World Bank, to bring indigenous peoples in southeast Mexico into the capitalist marketplace. The vehicle for bringing this about is a massive infrastructure development plan, originally named the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) and then re-named the Mesoamerica Project.” The name change took place because the PPP was so unpopular and generated so much national and international resistance that it went underground for several years to seek financing and also to make people think it had gone away, but it had not gone away or been forgotten. The PPP simply changed its name and the government stopped referring to projects as part of the unpopular mega-plan.

The Mesoamerica Project focuses on infrastructure projects geared to developing energy, telecommunications, health, cybernetic information and tourism. Two kinds of infrastructure projects that cause controversy and opposition are energy (think dams) and tourism, both projects that displace indigenous peoples from their lands and communities.

The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO, is implementing the PPP/Mesoamerica Project through infrastructure projects such as the Maya Train, the Trans-Isthmus Corridor, the Dos Bocas Refinery, a new international airport near Mexico City, and other less well-known projects. He just doesn’t say that the projects are part of the World Bank’s plan for developing the Mexican Southeast. Some infrastructure projects AMLO announced specifically for Chiapas include new and improved railway systems, more dams and new highways.

Infrastructure projects completed during prior administrations did not generate controversy or opposition, unlike AMLO’s current project: the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway, which has created opposition since people first learned about it in the early days of the Vicente Fox administration (2000-2006).

Opposition and resistance to the original highway route led to violence between pro-government folks in favor of the highway and pro-Zapatista folks opposed to the highway, which led to three deaths. The Los Llanos ejido filed a lawsuit against construction of the highway that a court resolved in their favor in 2016. The court’s decision prohibited the government from building a new highway in the municipalities of Huixtán and San Cristóbal de Las Casas, due to the government’s failure to consult with the affected indigenous communities prior to starting construction. This left the government with two options: develop an alternative route or expand the current highway. Initially it looked like an alternative route was selected, but that also met with opposition and resistance from the affected communities.

Temple of the Inscriptions (Pakal’s tomb), Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.

Consequently, in 2019 AMLO decided that a completely new route for the highway either wasn’t feasible or would take too long to complete. So, he decided to expand the existing two-lane highway between the cities of San Cristóbal and Palenque, and to re-name it the “Highway of the Cultures.” The new plan contemplates expanding the number of lanes on the current highway, the creation of lookout points, small places for the sale of artesanía and elimination of the speed bumps that residents of towns the highway cuts through placed on the highway in order to prevent vehicles from traveling through town at high speeds.

The government’s goal is to attract more tourism by providing tourists a faster and easier way to visit the Agua Azul Cascades and the Palenque Ruins, as well as the Misol Há Waterfall and the Toniná archaeological site near the city of Ocosingo. But that’s not all! Additionally, the Chiapas State Congress has approved plans for a Pijijiapan to Palenque Transversal Highway Axis. The Transversal Highway would provide a superhighway from the southwestern Pacific Coast region of Chiapas to Palenque in the state’s northeast (the Highway of the Cultures would be one segment of this highway). In other words, the Transversal Highway would cut diagonally through the state and cut the driving time in half.

Current route from Pijijiapan to Palenque.

It’s no coincidence that a station of the Maya Train is also being constructed in Palenque. Once the Transversal Highway is complete, double decker tourist buses can shuttle passengers from cruise ships that dock at Puerto Chiapas to Palenque. From there, they can hop on the Maya Train to Cancún and points south on the Riviera Maya. An extension of the Maya Train is also planned northward into Tabasco and Veracruz to connect with the train planned to travel across the Isthmus. The Maya Train project envisions an immense increase in both tourism and commerce.

Organized indigenous communities in Chiapas reject the Highway of the Cultures. It will dispossess their lands and damage Mother Earth, so they protest with signs, marches and roadblocks. Previous attempts to build a new highway have resulted in government repression of protests and violence against protestors by soldiers and police, as well as arbitrary arrests and torture.

Not all resistance to the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway is from those who stand to lose some of their land to the current highway’s expansion. There is resistance from indigenous peoples and environmentalists because the highway is the backbone for an economic development zone; specifically, an upscale tourist zone that would remake the approximately 35-mile corridor between the Agua Azul Cascades and the Palenque archaeological site into a world-class resort for elite tourism.

The plan for accomplishing this makeover of an entire Chiapas micro-region is the Palenque-Agua Azul Planned Integral Center (PPIC, its initials in Spanish). What is known about this plan is that the government intends to construct a 5-star European hotel, a Conference Center with golf course and a Lodge with helipad overlooking the waterfall at Bolom Ajaw, a Zapatista community on land reclaimed in 1994. The PPIC envisions that these upscale facilities will require a lot more electricity, so there are plans to build dams on 3 of the rivers in this region.Without an improved highway, the PPIC is not likely to become a reality.

The Palace at the Palenque archaeological site, Chiapas, Mexico.

The Palenque site is an archaeological wonder left to us by ancestors of the modern-day Maya who inhabit this part of the state. The Agua Azul Cascades are a series of turquoise waterfalls that cascade down a mountain surrounded by lush green jungle. A number of large ejidos (collective farms), many of them containing communities of Zapatistas and their supporters, are located within that 35-mile corridor. Many could face displacement and the loss of their food security. Thus, they protest and face the violence of State repression and/or violent attacks from pro-government groups. Several recent incidents are described below.

The statement from the Diocese of San Cristóbal specifically mentions the arrest of its Pastoral Agents, among them Manuel Sántiz Cruz, first arrested by the National Guard without a warrant on May 30, 2022, released the next cay and immediately re-arrested with a warrant by state police and charged with murdering a local police agent. Sántiz Cruz is an indigenous Tseltal defender of human rights and territory in the San Juan Cancuc parish, as are the other four members of the same parish arrested and imprisoned with him. At the time of his arrest, Sántiz Cruz was president of the San Juan Cancuc Human Rights Committee, which opposes both the National Guard’s presence and expanding the Highway of the Cultures.

A forced displacement of civilian Zapatista families took place on July 14, 2022 in El Esfuerzo, Comandanta Ramona autonomous municipality, official municipality of Chilón, due to a violent attack by members of the Muculum Bachajón Ejido. Few other facts are available, but Chilón is one of the municipalities in which the Highway of the Cultures will be expanded; it’s close to the Agua Azul Cascades. Banners in El Esfuerzo community express opposition to the megaprojects.

New highways or expanded ones are built to bring economic development. The Highway of the Cultures and the Transversal Highway are seen as part of capitalism’s effort to drag the indigenous peoples of Chiapas into its global economic system, as well as an effort by politicians and business interests (both legal and illegal) to dominate the region.

Municipal Electoral Violence

There has always been some electoral violence between political parties in Chiapas. That’s not a new phenomenon. Now, electoral violence, like counterinsurgency, seems to be on steroids. The presence of competing national organized crime groups and the money from crime has perhaps increased what’s at stake and also the intensity of the violence. The most recent electoral cycle in June 2021 generated violence in a number of Chiapas municipalities.

Pantelhó residents elect their municipal authorities.

There are two municipalities where electoral violence broke out as a result of the June 2021 municipal elections and there has been enough media coverage to make a comparison: Pantelhó and Altamirano. Both municipalities experienced violence in their efforts to overthrow anti-democratic municipal governments allegedly linked to organized crime.

A self-defense group (autodefensas) calling itself El Machete emerged in Pantelhó and forced out the municipal president and his municipal council. El Machete also removed a group of alleged sicarios (hit men) from their homes and forcibly took them away from the municipal seat. El Machete alleged that the sicarios were responsible for the murder of 200 people in Pantelhó and were responsible for the. murder of Simón Pedro Pérez López, a catechist and past president of Las Abejas. It was the murder of Pérez López on July 5 2021, that motivated the population to rise up and throw out the municipal president and the council. El Machete further alleged that the sicarios worked for a local organized crime group headed by the municipal president. As of this writing, 19 of the alleged sicarios have not been heard from since they were kidnapped on July 27, 2021.

Soon after residents of Pantelhó threw out the municipal president, they proceeded to elect a new municipal government through their own traditional method of electing municipal authorities, which does not rely on political parties or official government procedures, but is acceptable to the population. It took the State Congress five months to accept and approve those authorities! And now two of them, Pedro Cortés López and Diego Mendoza Cruz, have been arbitrarily arrested and the State Congress has appointed an entirely new municipal council.

Meanwhile, residents of Altamirano municipality were faced with a situation that shared some similarities to that of Pantelhó. Altamirano’s municipal president-elect, Gabriela Roque Tipacanú, was the wife of the outgoing municipal president, Roberto Pinto Kanter, a member of the cacique family that had dominated the municipality for years and was alleged to work with a local organized crime group referred to by its initials as the ASSI. Roque Tipacanú was supposed to taken office on October 1, 2021. However, a day or so before October 1, her opponents, members of the Altamirano ejido, apprehended her husband, placed him in the ejido jail and said they would not release him until she resigned. The municipal president-elect resigned, as did the entire municipal council. They released Pinto Kanter, and Altamirano residents selected people to replace the former authorities and asked the State Congress to approve them.

The State Congress approved a new Altamirano municipal president (mayor) and other members of the municipal council one month after the municipal president-elect resigned. After that approval, ASSI members who supported Pinto Kanter and his wife responded by kidnapping 54 people to use as leverage with the State Congress to remove the municipal council it had just approved. The kidnappers, alleged to have ties to organized crime, also burned vehicles and houses, as well as killing a cousin of the new municipal president and wounding a young girl in a shooting incident at one of their roadblocks. Despite these efforts of the opposition, State officials did not remove the new council. Many of the hostages were held in captivity for five months, but the State eventually was able to negotiate their release and the new municipal council remains in power.

Municipal President, María García López (right front), with council member Gabriel Montoya (in white shirt).

A self-defense group also emerged in Altamirano. It did not disclose its name “out of respect for our Zapatista brothers.” No reports have been published about this group of autodefensas having engaged in violence, but the group issued videos with a political analysis. In one of the videos the self-defense group made it clear that it would not accept a non-indigenous person as municipal president. The new municipal president is María García López, an indigenous woman from the Tseltal zone of the municipality.


Chiapas is the state where many migrant peoples enter Mexico on their way to the United States (US). The US pays Mexico to arrest and turn back migrants who cross the Chiapas/Guatemala border illegally. Mexico’s Army and National Guard patrol in large numbers. For those migrants who choose to travel through Mexico legally, there are big backlogs in Chiapas, especially in the city of Tapachula, an entry point for many migrants. Tapachula is often like a holding cell, full of desperate migrants who await permits to travel through Mexico legally. There are also militarized checkpoints throughout the routes that migrants usually travel. News reports say that migration attracts organized crime. NBC News and Telemundo published a report on the cartels that prey on defenseless migrants near Mexico’s northern border. Organized crime cartels also prey on migrants in Chiapas, Mexico’s southern border. Smuggling migrants across and between borders is now a profitable business and drug cartels have diversified their business plan to exploit migrants and reap those profits.

Migration is a huge issue of its own taking place in Chiapas apart from those of us involved in reporting on the Zapatista movement for indigenous rights and autonomy. Migration draws both organized crime and law enforcement forces to the state. Once in Chiapas, organized crime groups are involved in other criminal activity involving violence, such as the activities described by the Diocese in its statement. In addition to repressing migrants, law enforcement becomes involved in other violent repression. In the case of the National Guard, it is involved in containing migrants, but also in containing the state’s civilian population protesting extractive activities like mining, or against mega-infrastructure projects, such as highways or dams. Such repression causes defenders of human rights and territory to speak of the criminalization of social protest. Likewise, migration is criminalized. The violence of both organized crime and law enforcement against migrants adds to the violence taking place in the state around megaprojects, electoral power struggles, drug trafficking and “low-intensity war” against the Zapatistas.

Increased militarization

AMLO created the National Guard and distributed them throughout the country. This has led to the construction and/or planned construction of National Guard barracks in Chiapas and increased militarization of the state, which was already heavily militarized. A majority of the barracks are near routes used by migrants and organized crime. Some camps are located in areas that are heavily Zapatista.

National Guard barracks constructed on indigenous territory in the Municipality of Chilón without prior consultation with the communities.

According to a research paper entitled “Militarization of the Mexican Southeast” and compiled by the Latin American Observatory of Geopolitics, as of August 28, 2021, Mexico’s National Defense Ministry (Sedena, its Spanish acronym) reported that 10 National Guard barracks had been built in Chiapas and are located in the following municipalities: Villaflores, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Tonalá, Huehuetán, Tapachula, Chilón, Las Margaritas, Frontera Comalapa, Bochil and Palenque. It also reported that there were plans to build 6 more barracks in the municipalities of Cintalapa, Arriaga, Acacoyagua, Altamirano, Palenque and Solistahuacán. More recent sources report that 6-8 additional barracks are planned, including one for Ocosingo and a second barracks in Las Margaritas.

Defense Ministry’s Map of National Guard Barracks in Chiapas.

There has been repression around the protests over construction/installation of National Guard barracks in Chilón municipality near San Sebastián Bachajón and recently around protests in San Juan Cancuc over expansion of the Highway of the Cultures. Those protesting are indigenous Zapatista sympathizers and supporters organized in large movements like MODEVITE and Pueblo Creyente. Additionally, some protesters are CNI-CIG (National Indigenous Congress-Indigenous Governing Council) and are adherents to the EZLN’s Sixth Declaration. An example of such repression is described below.

César Hernández Feliciano and José Luis Gutiérrez Hernández. Photo: Frayba.

On October 15, 2020, the Maya Tseltal people of Chilón peacefully demonstrated against the construction of the National Guard barracks in their territory, located in the Northern Zone of Chiapas. In the morning, around 300 members of the municipal police, State Police and National Guard repressed the protest at the Temo crossroads on the Ocosingo-Palenque Highway. Two community defenders, César Hernández Feliciano and José Luis Gutiérrez Hernández were arbitrarily arrested, tortured and then indicted on charges of rioting. Eleven other people were injured during the repression. César and José Luis were released “under caution” on November 1, 2020, with the requirement to sign in at the control court every 15 days while awaiting trial. The judge limited their ability to travel to the municipalities of Chilón and Ocosingo.

There are concerns about National Guard barracks being located near Zapatista caracoles (centers of government and resistance). For example, Bochil is located in the Highlands, not far from Oventic (Caracol 2), Las Margaritas is close to La Realidad (Caracol 1) and Altamirano is the municipality in which Morelia (Caracol 4) is located. The National Guard has multiple responsibilities, one of which is to assure tourists that Chiapas is a safe place to visit. Therefore, the location of its barracks can serve multiple purposes. An example of this would be Palenque, which is already a big tourist area and will be even bigger when the Maya Train is up and running. Roberto Barrios (Zapatista Caracol 5) is not far from the city of Palenque and the archaeological site of the same name, so a National Guard barracks in Palenque can serve the dual functions of tourist safety and monitoring/repressing the activities of the Zapatistas and their supporters in a region the government wants to develop into an upscale tourist resort.

The remaining National Guard barracks seem to be concentrated on routes used by both migrants and and organized crime.

Since 1994, the Mexican Army has had numerous large military headquarters, bases and small camps strategically placed throughout Zapatista Territory. Since the United States discovered Mexico’s long and “porous” border with Guatemala, militarization of the border zone has skyrocketed.

In Chiapas, the increase in military personnel is not only to assist the Army with organized crime battles and to back up the Army in containing migrants; it is also there to protect the government’s infrastructure projects., which means it is there to repress those who oppose the projects.

Summary and Conclusion

Violence can play an important role in economic development projects. Violence is perpetrated by criminal groups, some of them paramilitary-style groups, others who traffic drugs and humans. But those groups require governmental support in the form of impunity in order to function. Impunity means that the government’s forces of law and order, including the courts, stand idly by and fail to deter or punish those committing crimes that inflict violence on the civilian population. The result of such impunity is that organized crime thrives and the population suffers displacement, dispossession of land, murder, and other physical and psychological violence. Consequently, the population lives in fear.

Added to unpunished organized crime violence is the repression from paramilitary groups, the Army, National Guard and various police forces against those who protest. The sum total of all this violence is intended to leave the population weakened and afraid, and thus clearing the way for the infrastructure projects deemed necessary for economic development. Violence and repression create fear in the population, the fear of worse violence and repression if they organize and mount a strong opposition.

The World Bank and its Latin American branch, the Inter-American Development Bank, see fertile land, sweet water, a wealth of natural resources and beauty, cheap labor and archaeological wonders in Chiapas and believe that lots of money can be made by exploiting them. They also believe that they have the right to exploit them. So, they back the financing of infrastructure projects, even when a large segment of the population objects. This is what some analysts of the economic system call accumulation by dispossession and the Zapatistas call the “Fourth World War.”

The Zapatistas and their supporters and sympathizers face a difficult situation, possibly the most complex and difficult threat they have faced in recent years. It would seem to follow that those of us in solidarity with the Zapatista movement ought to be stepping up our solidarity work in response.

Published by the Chiapas Support Committee, an adherent to the EZLN’s Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, and a 501c.3 nonprofit in Oakland, California.

One Comment on “Chiapas and the Zapatistas face a dramatic increase in violence II

  1. Pingback: Chiapas and the Zapatistas face a dramatic increase in violence II +Armed group burns houses, murders opponents, displaces 32 families.. – The Free

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