The narco’s shadow extends throughout the Lacandón Jungle

The Lacandón Jungle formally occupies 1.8 million hectares of land. Photo: Ángeles Mariscal

By: Ángeles Mariscal

Crime has been incrusted in the recesses of the Chiapas jungle and advances non-stop throughout the State, under the cover of omissions, bureaucracy and lack of political will of governments. “They left us alone to face this problem,” denounce communal authorities.

In the last two years, on at least five occasions, authorities in the Lacandón Community Zone, located on Mexico’s border with Guatemala, went with officials from all three levels of government to call for actions to slow the advance of organized crime groups in this region. No one listened to them. Criminal groups seized airstrips, controlled roads, and expelled residents from rural and indigenous communities.

But the people affected speak little about this. The fear of retaliation is great. They know they have been abandoned by the state.

On March 20, in his morning conference, the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said that there were clandestine airstrips in that area being used by drug cartels, and spoke of the participation of the local population.

The president’s version not only criminalized the population, but also made invisible the calls for help they made, said authorities of three of the largest communities in the jungle: Chankin Kinbor Chambor, Enrique Andrade Vázquez, deputy commissioner of Frontera Corozal, and Emilio Bolom Gómez, deputy commissioner of Nueva Palestina.

“We were left alone with this problem.”

Chankin Kinbor Chambor, President of the Lacandón Zone Commons.

The narco, which “erases borders”

The border between Mexico and Guatemala is just under a thousand linear kilometers, two-thirds bordering the state of Chiapas. In a fraction of this region, on the Guatemalan side is the Jungle of the Petén and on the Mexican side, the Lacandón.

The thick vegetation in some areas, the mighty rivers, the distance between communities, and the limited communication routes with which to cross the jungle, served for years as a natural barrier to prevent drug cartels and organized crime from settling in the region, despite the fact that the roads that border it have been used for trafficking arms, drugs and people, who come from the south of the continent.

Residents interviewed for this report recall that this situation changed radically since the end of 2019.

A campesino of Tseltal origin who asks not to be identified explains that in his community, located in the heart of the jungle, there is an airstrip for small planes that was built when his grandparents and great-grandparents arrived to populate the place; this was the only way out in an emergency. The other way out was to walk several days until you reached a dirt track or road. Over the years, more roads were opened and the landing strip was only to take out the sick, or occasionally when health brigades or public servants from some government institution arrived in the area and wanted to avoid the winding road by land. However, in late 2019 and early 2020, some people he prefers not to identify came to his community.

“They came to ask to rent the runway. They said it was to carry merchandise, we thought they were medicines to distribute in the area, and since there was a need for medicine and vaccines to arrive, we accepted. Other communities (where they also arrived) were told that they were going to be paid for the use of the landing strips, and they also accepted.”

“Then,” he says, “they arrived with packages and boxes, they carried large weapons, they were not (hunting) rifles or pistols; they were different. We were afraid, we saw that it was not a good thing but we could no longer refuse because they began to stay in the community. Those who opposed it were threatened, beaten; They killed some and left their bodies torn to pieces, as if they were animals (…) we had to leave our land. Others stayed there out of fear, because they have nowhere else to go.”

He, his wife, children, and other families left the community.

There are dozens of small communities in the Lacandón Jungle, some with 10 families and others with more than 20,000 people. Photo: Ángeles Mariscal.

Subduing the opposition: murder and forced displacement

The Lacandón Jungle formally occupies 1.8 million hectares. There are dozens of small communities, some with 10 families and others with more than 20,000 people. They are mostly Tseltal Indians, some are Tsotsils, a group of Lacandóns, and those who arrived from other states of the country in the middle of the last century in search of land.

[There are 2 YouTube videos with footage shot from a small plane that accompany this article. Both are of the jungle landscape. There is no dialogue. The first can be seen by clicking here. And the second one here.]

Legally, the Lacandón is part of the municipalities of Las Margaritas, Altamirano, Ocosingo, Palenque, Maravilla Tenejapa, Marqués de Comillas and Zamora Pico de Oro. The places currently most coveted by the cartels in that region are those that allow them to transport, store and redistribute their merchandise without any protests or surveillance.

In a video that was accessed for this report, and that was recorded by residents who live in what is known as the Río Negro area, a subregion of the Lacandón Jungle, the interior of a house is observed; in the center there is a table of boards and on it, a coffin; campesinos place inside the coffin the pieces of a body. As if it were a puzzle, they are accommodating legs, arms, torso.

There is an incense holder on the floor from which resin smoke emanates, with which they try to dampen the smell of the decomposing body because there the temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius. Around, watching, there are campesinos; also, a woman dressed in the colorful attire characteristic of the Tseltal inhabitants of the jungle, cries inconsolably; There are children with distressed faces. As they can, they assemble the body and dress it with a white sheet to bury it with the greatest possible dignity.

After the murder and torture of the campesino, who is now known to have opposed the installation of a new airstrip by organized crime groups on his land, 88 people from that region, most of them children, had to leave the area.

They were among the first to be displaced by the cartels in the Lacandón jungle.

The colorful attire of Tseltal women in the Lacandón Jungle.

 [Protective] bars in the middle of the jungle

In larger communities, people of the locality started -or increased- the consumption of drugs. They tell stories about some inhabitants who, whether out of fear or conviction, began to collaborate actively in the trafficking of humans and merchandise.

Leaders of the Lacandón Zone Commons say that, in the middle of 2021, threats from the criminal groups were also directed at them.

Given the distrust generated by the authorities of the Chiapas government, whom they had notified of these facts without doing anything, they focused on asking the federal government for help.

“It was raised directly with the federal government; measures were requested from the Ministry of the Interior. Because of the security issue, we didn’t want the state government to know, but the first one to know was the state government.”

Chankin Kimbor threatened

As president of the Lacandón Commons, Chankin Kimbor was directly threatened to prevent him from continuing the complaints.

“But the people in the assembly are demanding that we look for a solution … we went to Alejandro Encinas -Undersecretary of Human Rights, Population and Migration in the Interior Ministry – and what he did was request precautionary protective measures for me; but what is the use of having a house with bars in the middle of the jungle? It’s like we’re in a jail.”

Bureaucracy stops calls for help

Between 2021 and 2022 the presence and violence of these groups became unsustainable, “it was when there were more murders, beheaded, dismembered; Then, in the assemblies of the communities they insisted that we look for a way to solve this. We went again with the government of Chiapas,” Chankin Kinbor, Enrique Andrade Vázquez and Emilio Bolom Gómez explain in an interview.

“One of the first meetings of 2021 we had was with the Chiapas Prosecutor, Olaf Gómez Hernández. There, he clearly told us that these were federal crimes, that the [state] government could not intervene, that we should look at it with the Army, with the Attorney General’s Office. Time passed, the pandemic came, and the situation got worse,” Chankin says.

Boats on the Usumacinta River.

Enrique Andrade details that they then spoke with the personnel of the Military Battalion in Frontera Corozal, and with the Navy, the institution that is responsible for monitoring the Usumacinta River, which separates Mexico and Guatemala.

“They replied that they could not intervene, that they needed an order from their superiors, and that we needed to make a complaint at the Public Ministry; but there is no Public Ministry here, there is no Attorney General’s Office. In order to make a report, we have to go to the municipal seat of Ocosingo and when we arrive, they respond that the period to file a complaint has passed.”

During 2022, in the community assemblies the population again demanded to go to the authorities. On August 10 of that year there was an assembly of inhabitants of the towns of Nueva Palestina, Frontera Corozal, Caribal Ojo de Agua Chankin, Naha and Puerto Bello Metzabok.

The minutes that were drawn up that day detail that one thousand 29 (1,029) heads of families attended, and reiterated that they agree that the municipal police of Ocosingo intervene, the delegate of the government of Chiapas, Jaime Ramírez Maza; the Office of the Indigenous Prosecutor, the Ministry of Public Security and Defense, “in order to prevent the proliferation of organized crime.”

Two months passed without concrete actions on the part of the security forces, therefore, on November 11, the communal authorities went to the Chiapas capital, to deliver to the Official Office of Parties of the Governorship a request for an audience with Governor Rutilio Escandón.

The only response they received that day was an acknowledgment of receipt with folio 007644-2022 that states: “You can consult by telephone the number 9616188050 Ext 21010 and 21013, or go to this office to know about the competent Unit that will attend your request and the status of your request.”

“One day we were received by some people, on other days by other people; sometimes the Army, the National Guard were summoned to the meeting; But there were no actions. The Army is in their barracks and when we ask them for help, they tell us that they need an order from their commanders to intervene; in the Prosecutor’s Office they do not receive the complaints,” says Chankin.

A month after the request for a hearing, on December 14, they were finally received at the Government Palace, but not by the governor. They were with the official Jaime Rodríguez Maza and with representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, the National Guard, the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection and the National Institute of Migration.

The topic to be discussed was security. In the minutes of agreements that were made at the end of the meeting, the response that each institution gave to the community stands out. They are told that the intervention of the security and investigative forces must go through a series of bureaucratic procedures that they ask the population of the jungle to fulfill.

For example, the Secretary of the Navy tells them that it cannot respond to requests from the population until it receives a request from the Attorney General’s Office.

“The National Guard explained that the functions of this corporation are based on collaboration with other security forces, through surveillance and maintenance of public order, with a defensive and non-offensive sense,” they explain in the sixth point of the minute.

To the demand that the Office of the Prosecutor of Indigenous Justice open an office of attention in the town of Frontera Corozal, so that the population can arrive there to file criminal complaints, they respond that they must send a request to the Attorney General’s Office.

In short, the community members explain, “they tell us they cannot act.”

Dozens of families have been displaced from the Lacandón Jungle as a result of threats from organized crime groups. Photo: Ángeles Mariscal

A cry in the desert

On March 24, four days after the president of Mexico spoke about clandestine airstrips and said that “drug traffickers have agreements with those communities,” the authorities of the Communal Assets (the Commons) of the Lacandón Zone responded in a letter to López Obrador, denying that the population has agreements with drug traffickers.

“President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, we express our recognition and we wish to have you visit Frontera Corozal (one of the communities where the president said there were clandestine airstrips) so that you can keep our word and our willingness to solve the problems we suffer in this territory,” says the document that so far has not had a response.

Ten days later, on April 4, the bishops of the Diocese of San Cristóbal – to which the Lacandón jungle belongs – denounced that the population affected by the crime groups that dispute the territory in almost the entire territory of Chiapas has not been heard.

In a public statement, Rodrigo Aguilar Martínez, Luis Manuel Lopez Alfaro, the bishop and auxiliary bishop; as well as María Reyes Arias Sarao, Miguel Ángel Montoya Moreno and Carolina Lara Rodríguez, secretary and vicars, explained that in the region where the Diocese is present, as well as in the rest of the state, there is an “increase in insecurity and violence overwhelmed by crime cells.”

“The social decomposition is on the rise due to the generalized violence in the state (…) at this time we have heard loudly, like a cry in the desert, the situation of structural and institutionalized violence with the presence of organized crime, the proliferation of armed groups, some doing the task of shock groups, “they explain in their statement where they request attention.

This document has not received a response either.

Originally Published in Spanish by Chiapas Paralelo, Monday, April 24, 2023, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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