Criminal groups displace residents from the Lacandón Jungle

Moctezuma Velasco.

By: Ángeles Mariscal [1]

On December 16, 2021, the Velasco family was expelled from Nueva Palestina community, the largest community in the Lacandón Jungle [2], Months before, the family’s father, Versaín Velasco García, had denounced the impact that groups linked to trafficking drugs, arms and people are having on the population to state authorities.  

“My father saw it as human rights, he saw the [human rights] abuses they were committing, supported by community authorities. The last thing my father reported was that they arrested some young people and had them locked up for 12 days, without water and without food. After that, they came at us,” said Moctezuma Velasco, son of Versaín, who was 17 years old at the time, in a video.

On Wednesday, December 16, 2021, when Versaín returned from the municipal capital of Ocosingo, where he went to file a complaint with the Public Ministry in the case of the detained youths, a group of armed men arrived at his house. He was there with his wife, his sons and daughters, his sons-in-law and grandchildren. They entered, beat them, sexually abused one of the women, some were shot, wounded on the spot. Other family members fled to the mountains.

Among the aggressors were people appointed as community police, explained Isaura Velasco, daughter of Versaín, who was injured inside the house. “They beat me very hard, shot me and left me there because they left me for dead,” she said in an interview.

Fredy Gómez Santíz, Versaín’s son-in-law, was shot. So far, his body has not been located, so the surviving family members filed a complaint in this case for the crime of forced disappearance.

In a video recorded by a resident of Nueva Palestina, it can be observed that on the day of the attack, neighbors approached when they saw the aggression, but when they heard the shots, they dispersed and ran.

34 people displaced from Nueva Palestina

Moctezuma was also injured, his attackers left them lying there and forbid his neighbors to help them. After several hours, “as best we could, we got up and started looking for some women in the family, my little nephews. The women were locked up in the prison inside the community,” the young man said.

“We got together and saw that we had to flee the community. In total 34 people left, including children and adults. We arrived in Ocosingo and there my dad said that we had to report what had happened; but when I arrived at the Prosecutor’s Office, they set a trap for my father and imprisoned him; they accused him of homicide, fabricated a crime and now he is being held in the San Cristóbal de Las Casas prison,” Moctezuma explained.

Chiapas State Prison in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

His sister, Isaura Velasco, and Antonia Aguilar Solorzano were also accused of robbery with aggravated violence; They were imprisoned for a year until they were released for lack of evidence.

The family saw that Ocosingo was not a safe place for them either, because some of their attackers, who they say were traveling there, have links with municipal authorities and the Chiapas Prosecutor’s Office.

They decided to move to San Cristóbal de Las Casas and seek help from civil society organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights in that city. With their support, they denounced through institutional channels the wrongs committed against them.

Drugs, arms and human trafficking in the jungle

– How did the population begin to get involved with criminal groups, what has changed in the jungle?

– They are not the majority of the community, they are just groups of people who have power in the community, who have dedicated themselves to these types of activities. They are engaged in the trafficking of migrants, as well as drug and arms trafficking. But they also agree with the same authorities of the community, explained Moctezuma.

Groups that traffic in illegal merchandise and persons have used the territory that is on the border between Mexico and Guatemala for decades; but the difference in the current situation -he explains- are the violent acts against the population that doesn’t agree, it’s the use of weapons, and the control of roads and transportation routes.

Just last March 21, in the capital of Chiapas, during his press conference, the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the head of the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), Luis Cresencio Sandoval, acknowledged that the presence of organized groups has increased in the area of the Lacandón Jungle where the town of Nueva Palestina is located.

They explained that drug cartels have taken over airstrips that exist in the area. These strips help the population, who would otherwise have to walk long distances through the jungle, in order to leave the community.

Invisible displacement

The Chan Ulich (Las Golondrinas) Tourist Center, also known as the Las Golondrinas Waterfalls, is near Nueva Palestina.

Civil society organizations working in the jungle have documented the silent departure of people displaced by violence being generated in the jungle by organized crime groups. Most of these departures have taken place in silence, fearing reprisals.

The Velasco family is one of the few who decided to make it known. So far, it has filed three complaints: one in the Office of the Prosecutor of Indigenous Justice, for attempted homicides, injuries, threats, damages, and those that result; another in the Specialized Unit for the Investigation of the Crime of Torture, for sexual torture; and the third in the Office of the Prosecutor Against the Forced Disappearance of Persons and That Committed by Individuals, for the forced disappearance of Fredy Gómez Santíz. No criminal proceedings have been brought against those likely to be perpetrators.

They have also asked the State Council for Comprehensive Attention to Internal Displacement, without this instance having met to respond. At the international level, on February 1, 2023, the United Nations Committee on the Forced Disappearance of Persons asked the Mexican State to take Urgent Action 1569/2023 regarding the forced disappearance of the indigenous Tseltal Maya Fredy Gómez Sántiz.

This measure urges the search for and location of Fredy Gómez Sántiz and the protection of his life and personal integrity. The family also demands the release of Versaín Velasco, who’s hearing to define his legal situation is this March 28; and their relocation to some other region. They left 70 hectares of land in the Lacandon Jungle that belonged to the family. Now they live as displaced people, crammed into a couple of rooms, without a job that allows them to buy food.

Translator’s Notes

[1] Ángeles Mariscal is a Chiapas-based journalist who has covered the Lacandón Community for years, including Nueva Palestina.

[2] Nueva Palestina has a population of 11, 984 and is one of two towns Mexico’s federal government used to relocate indigenous residents of the Lacandón Jungle who were being dispossessed and displaced by the government’s massive land grant to the Lacandón Community. Those indigenous Tseltal Mayas who accepted relocation were sent to live in Nueva Palestina with the Lacandóns.  Indigenous Chol Mayas also live in the Lacandón Community. Some residents of Nueva Palestina requested and participated in the eviction of jungle settlements; they also participated in the Viejo Velasco Massacre.

Originally Published in Spanish by Chiapas Paralelo, Wednesday, March 22, 2023,  and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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