Cartels arrive in the Lacandon: “It’s the worst time in the Jungle,” residents point out

This may be the first journalistic report of drug cartels murdering jungle residents, taking over a community and causing forced displacements.

On the left, small planes that transport drugs land in the Lacandon Jungle. On the right, map of the Jungle. Chiapas Paralelo.

By: Ángeles Mariscal

They take possession of landing strips in the area

Chiapas – In the Lacandón Jungle, located at the border between Mexico and Guatemala, the population has been constructing landing strips since the 1970s, to be able to get sick people out by air, without having to travel on foot for several days through the mountains of thick vegetation; now, drug cartels are taking possession of the landing strips and entire towns.

This region was populated by indigenous peoples who fled from the semi-slavery that existed on the big coffee and cattle estates (fincas), by campesinos without land coming from other states in Mexico, and by Lacandons coming from the Caribbean.

They went into the jungle because it was a place where the estate owners couldn’t reach them, and because this was the only place where the government could provide them with land to plant; There were more than 957 thousand hectares (more than 2 million acres) of fertile and inhospitable lands crossed by turquoise rivers.

Juan López arrived in the Jungle as a child, in the middle of 1985. He grew up there and formed his own family. In the village that they founded, two of his children died from curable diseases, while for decades they were experiencing threats of eviction that environmental authorities exercise over his village, by accusing them of impacting the ecosystem.

“But we never experienced anything like what we’re experiencing now. This is the worst time in the jungle,” he said when he reached the municipal seat of Ocosingo, in the middle of 2022, accompanied by his whole family. He is one of the hundreds of displaced persons who, little by little, are escaping from the Lacandon Jungle.

The reason is that his community, whose name he asks not to be identified for fear of being located and killed, was taken over by a group of people who arrived, first to offer them monthly rent to use the airstrip and, later, heavily armed, to expel them from the place.

“There were only some of the villagers who agreed with what is happening there. The rest of us escaped walking through the mountains, some went to their relatives, others are renting… And we can’t even denounce, because they have already killed two people from my community,” he explained on that occasion. He asked not to make his testimony public, until there were better security conditions.

Small planes with drugs on landing strips

Bonampak is one of Mexico’s national monuments located in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas. Photo is a reconstruction of the Bonampak murals by Antionio Tejeda.

In the morning of March 20, the president of Mexico arrived in Chiapas and, in his daily press conference, he recognized the problem that exists in the Lacandon Jungle region, due to the presence of drug cartels.

From December 2018 to date, the federal government has detained 30 aircraft transporting drugs onto Chiapas soil; but this figure is only 56 percent of the “aerial alerts” that the Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA) has had in Chiapas territory located at the border of Mexico with Guatemala, among these places, the Lacandon Jungle.

According to the report given by Luis Cresencio Sandoval, head of the SEDENA, they have destroyed three airstrips, and have seized marijuana, cocaine, more than 30 thousand ampules of fentanyl; as well as weapons, grenades and other equipment used by organized crime groups operating in the area.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) acknowledged that the cartels are having a strong impact on the population of the Lacandon Jungle, which they subject in order to use the airstrips that for decades, the population has used as a means of transportation. [1]

When asked, he said he knows of a person who was killed this year because he opposed the use of his community’s truck. “Indeed, it’s a family in the Lacandon Jungle, near Bonampak. There are clandestine airstrips run by one of the cartels. Planes are landing with drugs.”

He said that according to SEDENA reports, drug traffickers have agreements “with some people, not all the people. Either because they are giving out handouts or money, or because they are threatening.”

He even acknowledged that drug traffickers and some residents have confronted the army so that drug seizures cannot be carried out.

“I take this opportunity to make an appeal to the people of Corozal (one of the largest communities in the Lacandon Jungle) and the entire region (…) There is going to be more surveillance and we are already reinforcing that entire area so that these cases don’t occur,” the president said.

Drug seizures on aircraft

The Cessna that landed in the Jungle in January full of drugs.

In January 2021, a Cessna with registration No. N1700-F, allegedly coming from Colombia, landed on a local landing strip belonging to the Bonampak ecotourist center, in the heart of the Lacandon Jungle.

On December 17, 2022, inhabitants of the Lacandon Jungle held military members until they returned a shipment of six packages of cocaine left by a small plane in the town of San Javier.

On January 24 of this year, members of the Mexican Army intercepted a jet aircraft that had landed just over 20 kilometers northeast of San Quintín; It was transporting 270 kilos of cocaine wrapped in various packages.

On February 18, the Guatemalan government reported that it was notified by its Mexican counterparts that an aircraft was attempting to land on a runway in the Lacandon Jungle; When detected, the plane returned to Guatemalan territory, where it was finally intercepted by the Guatemalan army. They seized 19 sacks with 397 packages of drugs.

[1] There are no roads in remote sections of the Lacandon Jungle.

Originally Published in Spanish by Chiapas Paralelo, Monday, March 20, 2023, and Re-Published with English translation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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