Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, birthplace of the Zapatistas and once a safer part of the country, has seen a dramatic increase in violence. A scholar from Chiapas explains how cartel conflict and a glut of weapons are creating a perfect storm.

Locals seen next to the memorial and place where a young mother of four was killed in downtown San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, February 26, 2022. (Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For many years, the southern Mexican state of Chiapas thought itself to be free of the violence that has plagued the other end of the country. Not anymore.

With the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels engaged in a fierce dispute for control of the border with Guatemala and its lucrative trade in migrants and merchandise, the violence produced by that conflict is threatening to set off a tinderbox of social strife among a heavily armed population. In the face of this mounting threat, both governments and the Zapatista movement have struggled to respond.

Kurt Hackbarth sat down with anthropologist and columnist Leonardo Toledo to analyze the dynamics at play in the troubled state.

Kurt Hackbarth

In a recent article, you argue that the common suspects in Chiapas are always there: the local bosses, extractive industry, paramilitary groups, capitalism, and racism. But what’s happening now in Chiapas is being caused by other factors as well. What are they?

Leonardo Toledo

Thirty years ago, we were living in a semifeudal situation where the big ranchers had a stranglehold not only on their territories but on state politics. They controlled elections, they controlled the economy.

What the Zapatista movement did changed everything: social relations, our way of seeing each other. It was a big leap in terms of political participation and public presence. And it brought about a host of new dynamics. Historically, Chiapas has always suffered from an absence of the state and its institutions. And that translated into people taking matters into their own hands. The ranchers used to do it by force, hiring armed thugs who settled things with bullets. Now things have become more horizontal and everyone has weapons. The dynamic hasn’t changed; it’s just become more even.

That is to say that the transformations brought about by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) were for the better, but also for the worse in other terms. Not on purpose, but they unleashed a series of circumstances that created new challenges and perspectives.

Kurt Hackbarth

What are some of these circumstances?

Leonardo Toledo

First of all, the idea of conceiving of people from the pueblos as political subjects, as active members of the political and economic arena. Before, the use of the word “Indian” as an insult was a normal, everyday occurrence. Or the example that’s often used: indigenous people had to step off the sidewalk for the whites to pass. And it was after 1994 that this changed and these little changes added up to a cultural transformation for everyone.

Now, there is also another dynamic that’s existed since the ’90s and early 2000s of looking at Chiapas exclusively from the perspective of Zapatismo. When big foreign visitors came, it was always to see the Zapatistas with their balaclavas, weapons, and parades. For the rest of the population, what they saw was, “They only pay attention to them.” So arming oneself became an aesthetic issue, a desire among rural dwellers to be more, to be better, to be cool. Having weapons put you in a different standard.

Arming oneself became an aesthetic issue, a desire among rural dwellers to be more, to be better, to be cool. Having weapons put you in a different standard.

This created solid ground for organized crime to establish itself because everyone had weapons, and then — also due to the absence of the state — many community conflicts began to be resolved through the force of arms. Conflicts that were often very simple, from family matters to boundary disputes between landowners and municipalities. And then people linked to organized crime settled in those areas and with them, the drug trade, human trafficking, the control of alcohol and prostitution.

Kurt Hackbarth

In your article you also mention two factors I found interesting: the López Obrador administration’s eliminating of the federal trust funds that previous governments had used in a discretionary manner to co-opt local groups, and the delivery of social-program benefits directly to individuals, without the need for intermediaries. Can you talk a little about those two factors?

Leonardo Toledo

Chiapas subsists on federal resources. And these resources have been distributed in a discretionary manner for many years. One governor in the 1980s, Juan Sabines, was famous for bringing an assistant with a briefcase around with him everywhere he went. He would just open it up, take out wads of bills, and hand them out, and that was his way of solving problems all over the state. This method was repeated with all the more force after 1994 to contain the Zapatista insurgency. Many organizations besides the EZLN already had a presence in the state. And without participating in the armed struggle, they also joined the protest for better conditions. And the way to control them was by distributing money.

Then they started splitting, because if you showed up with another name, they gave you the same amount of money. So these big organizations became fragmented into a thousand small ones. To finance this, the government of Ernesto Zedillo created three trust funds that were not part of any formal program, hence no accountability or reporting of results. Organization leaders received wads of cash and, after taking out a good chunk for themselves, distributed it. Then after 2018 two things happen: first the López Obrador government gets rid of the trusts. That means there is no longer any way to control the actions that were carried out to get those resources. At the same time, AMLO’s policy of direct-transfer programs made those intermediaries unnecessary. So in many places, they decided to retaliate by blocking the federal benefits census so that people couldn’t access those resources: no pension, no scholarships, nothing.

This obviously caused a crisis of leadership in the organizations. All their negotiation and mobilization skills, everything they had learned over the last thirty years, was no longer useful. And in many cases, not in all, these leaders and organizations moved into darker places. Some became paid pressure groups. When a pueblo in the highlands wanted to force something through, they would show up with their weapons. In the cities, they moved into selling protection. Signs began to appear on storefronts in San Cristóbal, Comitán, and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, saying, “This business is protected by . . .” and the name of the organization would appear with images of Che Guevara, Subcomandante Marcos, or Lucio Cabañas.

Kurt Hackbarth

Another undeniable factor is the pandemic. Overnight, thousands of domestic, restaurant, and tourism workers were thrown out into the street. What was the effect of that?

Leonardo Toledo

After the uprising of 1994, there was a large migration of people from the Highlands to San Cristóbal. What was essentially a small town grew into a city of more than 130,000. And most of them settled in the northern part. From the beginning, the rest of traditional, old, white San Cristóbal has had all kinds of prejudices toward that area. But the working base of all their hotels, restaurants, and tour services comes from there. Then came the pandemic, and the quarantine, and they said, “All of you have to leave.” Nobody was given any severance or even a promise that their job would be there when it was over. So 2020 was very tough because, remember, many of them weren’t on the benefits census neighborhoods and couldn’t access federal programs.

Then came the pandemic, and the quarantine, and they said, ‘All of you have to leave.’ Nobody was given any severance or even a promise that their job would be there when it was over.

Some tried going back to their pueblos, but there was a lot of resistance to outsiders who were seen as spreading contagion. Others tried to look for different ways to make money, and sometimes, that meant going outside the law. Again, not in all cases; there were thousands who made incredible efforts to survive, selling or working at whatever they could. But it affected a lot. These gangs appeared, which the press call the motonetos, but they are really like twenty-two different gangs. And what they had as a source of income, as happened all over the world, was home deliveries on motorcycles.

These young, discarded, stigmatized people became the ones who brought the bacon home. Parents and grandparents ceased to be the heads of the family, or at least they had to treat their children in equal conditions. It completely upended family dynamics.

Kurt Hackbarth

Another key to all of this is the migrant issue. Along with their traditional activities, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels are currently fighting over the lucrative market of migrant trafficking. Given the massive influx of migrants coming up from the south, this would seem to be a problem that is not fully in Mexico’s control.

Leonardo Toledo

Absolutely. And those flows will continue until the world economic system changes. Those who are familiar with the matter say that Chiapas was always controlled by the Sinaloa cartel, and that it was a free zone where everyone’s merchandise passed through without conflict. Now the Jalisco Cartel has entered into the fray for control of the border area. And that means fighting it out for control of each one of those small pueblos, because that allows them to control routes, see who is passing through, confiscate whatever they have, and kill or disappear them.

They also do this with people who have nothing to do with either group, to sow terror and ensure that the pueblos decide to be with one side or the other. And besides the human trafficking, a lot of different illicit products are coming through, from cars to cows. It can’t simply be reduced to a question of drugs.

Kurt Hackbarth

Nearly on the thirtieth anniversary of their uprising, the Zapatistas have announced the disappearance of their civilian structure, which includes the autonomous municipalities and the Councils of Good Government. Why now?

Leonardo Toledo

In response to the failure of the legislative process in 2001, the EZLN bid for the de facto construction of autonomous governance — “If they won’t pass legislation granting us autonomy, we’ll do it ourselves,” which is where the Councils of Good Government grew out of. But they eventually broke down for a number of reasons. In 2012 the state of Chiapas decided to allow them to participate in local government without having to surrender or give up their autonomy. But that meant immediate expulsion from Zapatismo. Then when the pandemic hit, many Zapatista territories saw no way out of their economic straits. These two processes, of 2012 and 2020, made a dent in the structure of the Councils of Good Government. They were being forced to expel many of their own who were only trying to survive. So they’ve decided to take a new approach to the local autonomous governments (GAL in Spanish), which can decide to collaborate with municipalities, parties, or organizations.

This will undoubtedly entail a modification of the entire Zapatista structure. But as things were, the numbers were dwindling. The largest Zapatista municipality, Polhó in Chenalhó, ceased to be Zapatista several years ago. Then there are those near the border, who have to confront the narcos every day. Although the Zapatistas haven’t used their weapons since 1994, they remain armed, and that’s how they defend their communities.

As things were, the numbers were dwindling. The largest Zapatista municipality, Polhó in Chenalhó, ceased to be Zapatista several years ago.

But when organized crime arrived, it did so with more weaponry and an element of cruelty never seen before. The difference in firepower is very large, and the Zapatistas are not going to start shooting at cartels, because they will lose. All of this has forced them to say, “No, we can’t go on like this.” And this has led to another transformation within the Zapatista movement, which has had to adapt as always. Something that has been characteristic of them throughout their history is this ability to adapt, to go from an armed movement to peacemakers to an autonomous movement. And this new form is going to allow interactions with the rest of the communities they live with and around. This was a major problem with the autonomous structure as originally conceived: it forced them not to participate in any form of official governance whatsoever and isolated them from their communities. So now they are going to see how to rebuild those dynamics.

Kurt Hackbarth

Where is Morena in all of this? It controls the governorship, and together, with its allies, the state legislature and most of the municipalities. Where are the political parties?

Leonardo Toledo

In Chiapas there really isn’t an electoral left as such. The presence of Zapatismo meant that for a long time, people on the left, especially young people, didn’t participate in the electoral struggle. Later, when Morena was formed in Chiapas, many young people did participate. But when the time came to select the candidates for 2018, the old cadres from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and “Green” Party showed up and made off with everything, displacing them. Then, the younger crowd became isolated, disappointed in party life, and many left, leaving Morena in the hands of the chapulines [people who jump from one party to another]. These people go way back: during the revolution they were archconservatives, but once the revolutionary groups began winning, they said, “Ah, yes, we’re revolutionaries and always have been.” This change of mask is very easy for them. When the PRI was in power, everyone was in the PRI, regardless of their ideology. And when it switched to the PRD, they all went to the PRD. Likewise with the so-called Greens. Now they’re all in Morena; they’re the same people, and there really isn’t that youth pressure demanding a transformation.

In Chiapas there really isn’t an electoral left as such.

Here it’s just a matter of adapting to the times. So it’s very difficult to think of Morena Chiapas in terms of how Morena has developed in certain other parts of the country. For example, the Morena candidate for governor this year [Eduardo Ramírez Aguilar] was the governance secretary for Green Party governor Manuel Velasco, who’s the grandson of a former PRI governor. It’s the same line, the same families that have been governing Chiapas since the last century or before.

Kurt Hackbarth

AMLO has attempted to minimize what’s going on in Chiapas, pointing out, for example, that it ranks twenty-sixth out of thirty-two states in terms of homicides per one hundred thousand inhabitants. Is this damage control, a denial of the prevailing dynamics, or rather a way to buy time in order to implement his pacification strategy?

Leonardo Toledo

If we go by the numbers, he’s right. But they don’t always tell the whole story. When there have been confrontations in San Cristóbal, the bodies tend to disappear. People arrive, pick up their dead, and spirit them away. It’s also true that what we might term common crime — muggings and carjacking and break-ins — is still, fortunately, not very widespread in the state. And so there aren’t a lot of deaths. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of gun presence, a lot of shootings, but that doesn’t register in the number of homicides.

And the other aspect is the damage control that you mention. To say, “We have everything under control, it’s only isolated in certain regions.” But it’s not only a perception but a matter of record documented by a number of organizations in Chiapas that armed groups are shooting at people in at least half of the state, which is brutal. So I think there is an element of a denial, and it’s very strange to me, especially in light of the fact that the president is planning on coming to live here once he leaves office.

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