How Cartels Invaded Chiapas
Mexico's crime war sets alight the indigenous south
This is the first of a three-part series from Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. Para leer en español click aqui.
The smattering of houses and shops at San Gregorio Chamic is 25 miles from the sprawling town of Frontera Comalapa, in the far south of Mexico by the border with Guatemala. Between them is one of the many front lines dividing cartels that zig-zag across Mexico like cuts on shattered glass.
Chamic is the territory of the Sinaloa Cartel and its local affiliates while Comalapa is controlled by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The mafias both command paramilitary wings and mobs of “civilians,” who blockade roads and control who enters.
Last month, the Sinaloa Cartel shut down all transit going through Chamic as well as from the other side through a town called Motozintla and managed to starve Comalapa of supplies. Desperate residents posted videos of supermarkets with empty shelves. Finally, the two sides erupted into a new round of firefights and torching cars and the Mexican army rolled in. The blockade on transit was lifted. For now.
The area was also the scene of this viral video below in September showing a convoy of trucks, some with makeshift turrets, rolling through Chamic packed with gunmen to a cheering crowd. It was portrayed as the Sinaloa Cartel liberating the town from the Jalisco mob to happy residents.
But that story, I find, is deceptive. The Sinaloa Cartel already controlled the territory. And the civilians, residents of the area tell me, were either part of the cartel’s larger forces or were ordered under duress to go out and cheer (or be forced to pay a fine). It was a new type of narco propaganda video, and one that proved to have a big impact.
Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas has long avoided the worst of the cartel wars plaguing swathes of the country. It was better known for the Zapatista rebels that rose up in 1994 and became a symbol for indigenous rights and the anti-globalization movement. The colonial town of San Cristóbal and the pyramids of Palenque are popular tourist spots.
But this year, Mexico’s criminal crisis has hit Chiapas with a vengeance. In April, San Cristóbal was shaken by hours of shoot outs that closed schools. In June, gunmen kidnapped 16 police officers on the road to state capital Tuxtla and they plead for their lives on film before their release. And the viral video of the Sinaloa convoy marks how the region by the Guatemala border has been the hardest hit of all.
The cartels move and sell drugs in Chiapas as everywhere they go. And the state is a pathway for migrants heading to the United States, which means there is a human smuggling business they can tax. But they are also taking over broader rackets such as control of informal street vendors, giving them money from tens of thousands of people.
They have gained power by taking over local forces, not just of criminals but of community groups and village militias. And by doing so, they have mixed old local beefs with the new narco war, making Chiapas an especially explosive front.
Frontera Comalapa by the Mexico-Guatemala border
Travel Between Barricades
I travel from San Cristóbal to Comalapa with a local driver in an old VW of his nephew; the car is battered and missing a back license plate, which helps it blend in. The road is normal through to the town of Comitán, albeit with a big military checkpoint. But arriving in Chemic, we find a mob at the entrance who wave us through, a scraggly bunch of men and women, young and old. A teenager follows us from the entrance on a motorcycle then rides alongside us, staring at me hard through the window before he speeds off, likely to report what he saw.
We drive up to an Oxxo store to buy coffee and an SUV appears and blocks us in. Its occupants are in black t-shirts and baseball caps, smarter and with more swagger than the mob at the entrance, and they stare us down as we sip from the paper cups. I give them a nod and after ten minutes they drive off and we get out of town.
We roll into the border crossing with Guatemala, known as La Mesilla. It’s normally a thriving market for cross-border trade, with Mexicans buying cheaper Guatemalan clothes and Guatemalans buying Mexican canned goods and produce. But now people are staying away because of the violence and it’s totally dead, smashing the local economy.
The crossing was also a big corridor for undocumented migrants but again the fighting has killed the route and voyagers are crossing further south at Tapachula or further north at points such as Tenosique. I wonder if a cartel has deliberately shut down the route to hurt the business of the other. Cartels can be better at controlling migration flows than governments.
A pair of state police officers stop us and search the car. They demand a passport but back off when I flash a press pass. They talk about the shoot outs and how crazy recent fighting was at Motozintla but assure us the army will make it go back to normal.
We pass another mob into the town of Comalapa, this time of sturdy looking men, one with a machete, and head through the streets to a pastor who has agreed to meet us. We sit down in his home next to his church and he serves us roast chicken and rice and tells us about the situation. “We have been invaded,” he says.
The Left Hand of the Cartel
The pastor is an evangelical who converted from Catholicism after he suffered a drink problem then was born again and he set up his church here over a decade ago. His congregation grew and things were going fine until about two years ago when the Jalisco Cartel arrived, he says. “They got all the leaders of the organizations together and they said ‘You have to work for us.’ ”
I ask about these “organizations,” and he explains they are everything from street vendors to taxi drivers to farmers to neighborhood committees, a structure that emerged across Chiapas over decades. By taking over them, the pastor explains, the cartel is able to extort money from a large chunk of the economy. “Everyone is made to pay their quota,” he says.
This “civilian” wing of the Jalisco Cartel in Chiapas is known as El Maiz, which means corn but is said to be short for Mano Izquierda. This could imply the left hand of the cartel, as opposed to the right paramilitary hand. (To make it more confusing, a Zapatista group also used the acronym El MAIZ but released a statement denying any connection to the new mob.)
The arrival of the Jalisco Cartel and its war with the Sinaloans has been devastating for the pastor’s church. In the last two years, 60 percent of his congregation has fled, either to other parts of Mexico or the United States. “We have lost most of our brothers and sisters,” he says. “We are struggling to just keep going.”
The cartel sends informers to see what he says in the services so he’s careful what he preaches. He cites a teacher who organized a local march against the insecurity. In October, gunmen went to his home in the nearby town of Chicomuselo at 3 am, tied up his wife and son, and beat him in front of them before putting a bullet in his head.
When I ask about the army, the pastor shakes his head. The Jalisco Cartel openly has what he calls “offices,” where they organize and the military don’t mess with them. “There is nobody here to protect us,” the pastor tells me.
As we drive out of town, we see a splattering of soldiers loitering on the streets. But even if the troops did go after the cartel gunmen, they can act like guerrillas and disappear into the hills and safe houses only to reappear later. And as military strategists have pointed out, to combat such a guerilla threat you have to control every inch of ground.
The Absence of Government
It blows my mind how the Mexican government can allow these regions to fall; how mobs can take over entire towns and shake everyone down and put up blockades and cut off supplies. I raise this point with Enriqueta Lerma Rodríguez, an anthropologist who has spent a decade working in Comalapa and written books and articles on the area.
Enriqueta points out that the Mexican state has always been lacking in this region and armed groups have long been operating, such as those of the paramilitaries of ranchers and profiteers.
“It is a place on the border lands, far away from the Mexican center of power but close to Guatemala. There is fluid population going through it. There are many divisions, between the long term residents and migrants, between the ranchers and campesinos. There is a history of violence.”
With such a checkered past, these developments can seem less extraordinary than in a place that has known peace and good governance. “Now it’s difficult to distinguish between social groups and organized crime groups,” Enriqueta says.
The narco presence also has a history in the area, albeit with less violence as the Sinaloa Cartel used to operate unchallenged. As well as moving cocaine through the state, the Sinaloan gangsters used it to launder money. Residents of San Cristóbal talk openly of a chain of hotels and gas stations owned by an infamous narco; the official owner is a former shoeshine boy who suddenly became a major investor.
However, Enriqueta says the Jalisco Cartel appeared about five years ago and gradually expanded its territory until it sparked the current war. The new strength of the Jalisco mob in Chiapas owes much to their links with powerful Guatemalan gangsters from a clan known as Las Huistas. While the Huistas are no household name, the U.S. State Department offers a whopping $10 million reward for their alleged head, Don Dario, who is accused of smuggling vast amounts of cocaine.
Enriqueta says the Jalisco mob built their power base from the south, expanding territory from Guatemala into Mexico. This explains how they managed to be surrounded by the Sinaloa Cartel inside Mexican territory. But despite being hemmed in, they have defended their position well. “They have a very disciplined paramilitary structure,” Enriqueta says.
A Mexican army intelligence dispatch in 2022 reported cartel gunmen in the area moving back and fourth from Guatemala. The soldiers also found uniforms from Guatemala’s elite Kaibil wing, which specializes in jungle warfare and anti insurgency. Former Kaibiles have worked for Mexican cartels before, including the Zetas, and have proven to be deadly warriors. The Kaibil slogan is, “If I retreat, kill me.”
Chiapas is a varied state. “It has diverse nature, it has a diversity of cultures, and it’s diverse politically,” Enriqueta says. Likewise, the current cartel war is different in different places. The highlands around Ocosingo are the center of the Zapatista movement, which has tried to resist the incursion of organized crime. The indigenous town of San Juan Chamula has given birth to its own mafia.
But the situation on the southern border is the most extreme. With such a sudden rise of violence and extortion, I wonder how big the reaction could be. Several autodefensas, or self-defense squads, have announced their formation this year including one calling itself the Civil Army of Indigenous People.
With its history of rebellion and armed groups, Chiapas could face a conflict like that which erupted in Michoacán State in 2014 when vigilantes and narcos faced off in trench warfare. But tragically while that conflict led to thousands of deaths, it ultimately failed to stop the endemic cartel war.
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Photos/graphics 4,5,8 by Ioan Grillo