Chenalhó, Chiapas, the struggle for land via the armed path

A woman flees violence in the Chiapas Highlands.

By: Ángeles Mariscal

Seven days of constant attacks have passed, without the government being able to intervene to stop the confrontation that is being waged within the Santa Martha Chenalhó armed group, over the possession of 49.5 hectares of land. “If I had no land we would be like beggars,” say those who, now at a disadvantage, have had to leave the town behind and leave behind the dead that this conflict is leaving.

In October 2020, the inhabitants of Santa Martha, Chenalhó, located in the indigenous area of the Altos de Chiapas, managed to get the government to recognize as theirs the 22 hectares they disputed with their neighbors in the municipality of Chalchihuitán; on November 27, 2020, they did the same and obtained 27.5 hectares from the municipality of Aldama. They achieved 49.5 new hectares of land for themselves.

In both cases the dispute over those lands was via the armed path, continuous shooting, constant and with high-power weapons, against their neighbors in Chalchihuitán and Aldama.

Now, confesses a government official, “the serpent bites its tail,” because contrary to official omens, the delivery of land has not brought peace to Santa Martha, located in the indigenous area of Los Altos (The Highlands); now the dispute is between the interior of the armed group over the differences in the distribution of the lands obtained.

This has displaced more than 200 people from Santa Martha, the most recent event has developed since last September 29, and has left an undetermined number of people murdered and houses burned, without as of this moment any government authority having entered the conflict zone.

Defenders of the land

Defenders of the land.

Juan Ruiz Ruiz is assumed to be a “defender of the land.” He explains that he had to fight for the possession of the 27.5 hectares that previously belonged to Aldama, whose inhabitants suffered attacks day after day, until they gave in and agreed to give up part of their land.

Juan says that “defenders of the land pay what is fair,” a kind of fee that Santa Martha authorities asked them to pay for supplies in order to accomplish their purpose.

Once they were gaining ground, they began to sow, which made the authorities of Santa Martha recognize the right to have possession. But in the middle of this year, “the Commissariat and its people began to extort money from us, they began to fine us, until they told us that these lands were not going to be ours, that they had to be distributed. “

The same thing happened with those who had possession of the 22 hectares from Chalchihuitán. They were dissatisfied, and division came about in Santa Martha. On June 25, those dissatisfied with this new distribution of land were expelled from Santa Martha. The men left but their families remained.

On September 29, members of the expelled group tried to harvest crops from the land, and that again detonated the dispute, with a balance so far of houses burned, people killed, shots fired for seven days in a row, and the displacement of entire families of those who had already been expelled.

Families left Santa Martha to save their lives. Photo: Ángeles Mariscal.

Total disarmament

Agustín Pérez is another land defender,” displaced from Santa Martha. He says that on September 29, the group they call “the Commissariat,” persecuted several people and murdered an old man also named Juan Ruiz, his wife and children.

Also, his father, who died at home. Then they set fire to the house, with his father’s body inside. He says that in the hours that followed he saw six people die at the hands of this group, and for three days he resisted the armed attacks until he finally fled through the mountains and arrived in the community of Polhó, where there are now more than 200 displaced persons.

“We fought for that land, we paid the necessary expenses,” he laments.

Manuel Gómez Velasco also talks about the fees they had to give to have something to “fight the land” with. “But even though we won it, fines and fines came against us.”

Manuel acknowledges that “the commissariat group accuses us “of being the violent ones, of being the bad guys, but we are not.”

In an interview, Manuel says that they were willing to sign a pact of civility with this group, but this could not materialize. Now, on behalf of the displaced people, he calls for “total disarmament in Santa Martha” and the permanent surveillance of security forces such as the National Guard.

“We have asked for flyovers, but we see that there is no authority. On this day there are still many children and women hiding in the bush, afraid of being killed, without any authority intervening. We want the government to see exactly who is the one with the weapons. What we are asking for now is total disarmament,” he explains.

A new Acteal

Majomut Displacement Camp, Chenalhó. Photo: Isaín Mandujano.

José Vázquez survived the Acteal Massacre, which occurred on December 22, 1997, committed by an armed group that was also formed in Chenalhó during that era. Now he, who assumes being a human rights defender and aids those displaced from Santa Martha, says that what is taking place is “a new Acteal.”

“How many deaths does the government want to happen? Who is going to stop this violence? We need there to be a right to life, but there are the dead, there are the displaced, there are the women and children who are leaving the mountain to reach this place,” he says, while pointing to the esplanade of what is the Majomut community’s sandbank, where they set up a provisional camp for people who have managed to leave Santa Martha.

Juan reports that seven days have passed since the recent confrontations. “Right now, there is no control, there is violence, shooting, burning of houses, and the rumor in Santa Martha is that they want to exterminate the displaced, so there is fear in the camp. “

From September 29 to date, those who manage to leave Santa Martha have been arriving at the camp, especially children and women, some pregnant, such as Amalia Pérez Gómez, who is eight months pregnant, and had to walk away among the mountains.

No humanitarian aid from the Chiapas government or the federal government has arrived in this place. As the people displaced left carrying only a plastic bag or a costal with a few belongings, they have just managed to obtain a tarp and some covers to use at night.

Over an improvised campfire, the women prepare some tortillas, that will be their only food of the day. A youth takes the census of displaced persons; yesterday, there were 159, but three new families arrived today; more have sought refuge in nearby municipalities.

The conditions in this camp, the impunity with which armed violence has been exercised and the governmental abandonment -Juan insists- remind him of events prior to the Acteal Massacre.

Some 20 kilometers away, in the municipal seat of Chenalhó, authorities of the three levels of government met with Santa Martha authorities; the latter accepted that security forces led by the National Guard make rounds tomorrow, but only in the downtown area of Santa Martha, they will not let the Guard enter the 21 small communities that make up Santa Martha, and that is where the conflict is taking place.

There are at least 138 people displaced from Santa Martha in the Majomut Camp. Photo: Cuartoscuro.

Originally Published in Spanish by Chiapas Paralelo, Thursday, October 6, 2022, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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