Chamula Power; Mexico's Indigenous Cartel
Tzotzil speakers wield mafia might in the heart of Chiapas
This is the second in a three part series about Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. For part one on How Cartels Invaded Chiapas click here.
While the music in the song bears the style of the corridos of northern Mexico with an accordion riff and nasal voice, the lyrics speak of gangsters from the far south of the country.
“It’s not only in Durango that there are big shots (hombres chingones),
In the state of Chiapas, there are also bad asses (vatos cabrones),
…The descendants of Mayans they have it all,
There is plenty of marijuana, and they are never short of powder,
There are beautiful Chamula girls that will drive you crazy.”
The corrido is one of a growing number of drug ballads glorifying traffickers from Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, and specifically gangsters from San Juan Chamula, a proud indigenous town in the heart of the state. The songs talk of how they have risen from peasant farmers, or campesinos, to powerful cartel members. There’s even a narco movie filmed in the town entitled “From Campesinos to the Mafia” (the top photo is taken from its poster).
As with most corridos, the ballads of Chamula speak in exalted terms but reflect elements of reality. A sprawling mafia has indeed risen among the Chamula people that wields considerable power in Chiapas’ big city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and the central region of the state. The Chamula operatives not only control human smuggling and drug sales but a lion’s share of the informal commerce in the area. And they have sparked outrage for being involved in the production of pornography of indigenous women and underage girls.
The cartel’s growth has driven violence in San Cristóbal, once one of the safest cities in Mexico. Gangs of young men linked to the Chamula mafia drive round on motorcycles and carry out hits and robberies. In April, hours of shoot outs led to schools shutting and startled parents running for their children. While I reported in Chiapas in December, gunmen shot dead a Chamula leader in a San Cristóbal car repair garage and his followers (many on motorcycles) surrounded the police station until they were given the corpse.
The Mexican federal government first recognized the Chamula Cartel in a press conference in 2021 when it blamed it for the murder of Chiapas indigenous prosecutor Gregorio Pérez. “We have arrested the mastermind [of the hit],” the Undersecretary of Public Security, Ricardo Mejía said. “He is part of the criminal group known as the Chamula Cartel.” Mexican media reports often call it the San Juan Chamula Cartel, or CSJC.
The mob grabs attention as it’s Mexico’s first cartel headed by the indigenous - those descended purely from the peoples living in the lands before the Spanish conquest. The Chamulans speak the Tzotzil tongue, part of the Mayan family, and have elaborate traditions such as healing rituals that use incense and chicken sacrifices.
Many indigenous communities in Mexico have resisted cartels or been displaced by their violence. But by creating their own cartel, the Chamulans are wielding Mexico’s violent currency of organized crime to gain a seat of power.
San Juan Chamula sits about 10 km from San Cristóbal in the rolling green hills of Chiapas. It’s famous for its eclectic church ceremonies packed with mariachis, healers and incense which tourists pay to go in and see. Participants in the rituals will also consume copious amounts of Coca Cola and then burp heavily, which is meant to cleanse the body and spirit.
The Chamulans have a proud history of resistance and rebellion and have managed to keep the political and economic power in the town in local hands. Their church claims to be Roman Catholic but it’s actually an independent break off they run. They copied the Mexican grocery chain Oxxo and created their own Osso with a ripped-off logo, which again keeps the profits local.
The town’s ruling clique, referred to as the caciques, have a habit of driving out those who don’t fall in line. From the 1970s, many Chamulans converted to Evangelical Christianity, which meant they wouldn’t participate in the ceremonies or pay the obligatory high contributions. The caciques accused the Evangelicals (and anyone they didn’t like) of desecrating their traditions and forced them out. A series of displacements followed and the refugees settled in slums in the northern outskirts of San Cristóbal.
It’s in these slums that the children and grandchildren of the Evangelical refugees have created a big base for the Chamula Cartel. But they also now work with mafiosi bosses in their historic homeland a few miles away. Where religion divided, organized crime is uniting.
Driving around San Juan Chamula, you can see various mansions such as this one below. While some could be from legitimate business, there are way more luxury houses than you would expect from a poor municipality in Chiapas. The portfolio of rackets explains the wealth.
A core business of the Chamula Cartel is human smuggling with many people from Chiapas wanting to seek their fortune in the United States as well as most migrants who enter southern Mexico passing through the state. Several people tell me the cost is now over $15,000 to be taken from Chiapas to a U.S. destination; along with higher walls and bigger demand, human smugglers have been forcing up the fees.
Drugs are of course key. The Chamula Cartel is reported to have been founded by local thugs who worked with the Zetas but they are now allied solidly with the Sinaloa Cartel and help shift their product northward. There is also substantial local trade. The Chamulans run dispensaries with a wide range of drugs on offer in houses in their northern San Cristóbal slums.
Control of informal commerce might bring even more profits. San Cristóbal has sprawling street markets running from the center toward to the north. Various stall owners say they pay a weekly fee of about 100 pesos, or $6, to market leaders from the Chamula mob. These leaders stop the authorities from turfing them off their plots and in turn they make the equivalent of the business tax.
The mafia’s involvement in pornography is particularly shocking. Investigators in Chiapas, including a feminist activist called Marta Figueroa, discovered the sales of pornographic videos with names such as “Chamula XXX,” “Indias Calientes,” and “Chamulitas.”
They are filmed on cellphones in hotel rooms with indigenous women, some looking clearly underage, she reported. Figueroa calls it “ethno-porn.”
The northern slums climb up hills on the edge of San Cristóbal, with haphazard dirt streets circling Evangelical temples and businesses with Biblical names such as “Lion of Judah.” Outside a pizza store, I speak with Benito Carrera, a 32-year-old who worked for many years in the United States and speaks near perfect English as well as Spanish and Tzotzil.
Carrera is actually from another Tzotzil town called Chenalhó but lives in the area. “There are people from different communities but they think of us all as Chamulas now,” he says. When I ask about the cartel, he shakes his head. “The mafias are very powerful here. You have to be careful. I just dedicate myself to going to church.”
Down in the south of San Cristobal, I go to a car body shop owned by Gregorio Hernández, a 57 year old born in the city. Hernández is mestizo, or mixed Spanish and indigenous. In most of Mexico this is just considered the norm and the word mestizo isn’t used anymore. But because of the big indigenous population in Chiapas, people apply it there to differentiate.
Hernández says the rise of the Chamula Cartel has coincided with an increased respect for the indigenous residents, which can border on being careful of not getting in trouble with the mob. “People used to think the indigenous people were less than them and you could boss them around. But you can’t get away with that now. The Chamulas are a real power in this city.”
This last point gives me pause. In modern Mexico, cartels are a vehicle to gain power through the use of organized violence. Perhaps more easily than forming a political party or business, forming a cartel is a path to influence and wealth.
The Chamulans don’t reject the outside world but take in the developments and make them their own. They have their own special Catholic Church with chicken sacrifices and their own Oxxo grocery stores that sell “pox,” a liquor from corn and sugar cane. And they now have their own cartel, influenced by the outside mobs, but with their own local, and bloody, touch.
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