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MORELIA, Michoacán — At least five groups of armed civilians from different indigenous communities in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas have come into being in a period of less than three months, according to state officials.

These ragtag, self-proclaimed auto-defense forces in the state have claimed that their main objective is to protect their communities from organized crime.

However, among the most common conflicts that have led to the emergence of such rebel groups in the region are land disputes, as is the case with the Santa Martha community, located in the mountains of the Chenalhó municipality.

For more than 40 years, this Tzotzil indigenous community has had an ongoing dispute with a neighboring community of Aldama, since the latter allegedly occupied 60 hectares of Tzotzil territories. Several years ago, the Tzotzil community filed suit against the Aldama to recover the land, but, typical of Mexico’s slow-moving justice system, that case has not proceeded. 

Since the beginning of the legal process, violent confrontations and armed attacks between the inhabitants of these two communities have exploded, creating a climate of constant hostility and violence in this region. Consequently, in July of this year, a group of armed civilians emerged in the town of Santa Martha to protect its people from the rampant violence generated by the growing tensions.

Later in the month, the emergence of another group known as El Machete was announced. This group was made up of indigenous people, also of Tzotzil origin, from the mountainous regions of the municipality of Pantelhó.

The El Machete gang announced itself to the public by setting cars on fire and forming armed brigades. The group pledged to fight the incursion of the drug cartels in the communities of the Chiapas Sierra.

The El Machete members have said that they are part of a self-defense group, the same term that was previously used by residents of Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente region back in 2013 to refer to a union of local residents who banded together in an independent armed force against organized crime.

At least 86 indigenous communities of Tzeltal and Tzotzil origin in the Chiapas Highlands region demonstrated their support and loyalty to the El Machete paramilitary group in an unprecedented event held in San José Buenavista Tercera, claiming to have been directly affected by organized crime in the area, where at least 200 people have died or disappeared in recent years.

In support of the El Machete group, another paramilitary band of armed civilians emerged almost immediately. Its members claimed to be supporters of El Machete in the same municipality of Pantelhó, adding that “they have their (El Machete) backs.” That group named itself the People of the Jungle.

In early October, a fourth armed group emerged in the southern municipality of Simojovel in Chiapas. The group introduced itself as the Simojovel Armed Forces in a homemade video posted on social media and warned that it will not allow the municipal mayor to misuse resources.

It also demanded respect for the human rights of the inhabitants of the community, as well as an end to generalized violence, prostitution and the sale of drugs in the region. The group released a list of seven demands and threatened that if those demands were not met, its members would act to stop crime on their own.

Finally, the most recent group of armed civilians to emerge is the Altamirano paramilitaries, belonging to the municipality with the same name and located in southern Chiapas. This group, made up of Tzeltal and Tojolabal indigenous people, has expressed its great discontent toward newly elected Municipal Mayor Gabriela Roque Tipacamú, who also happens to be the wife of former Mayor Roberto Pinto Kanter. The Altamirano group has accused Roque Tipacamú of turning a blind eye to the community’s problems and of misusing public funds, alleged crimes for which it is demanding her resignation.

It also exposed a communal conflict between the residents and a motorcycle taxi group. Meanwhile, the group maintains blockades at the entrances to the Altamirano municipality, demanding the immediate resignation and departure of the Pinto Kánter family, who have maintained a hegemony in the municipality’s politics for at least nine years.

All these conflicts have generated a prevailing climate of insecurity and social chaos in Chiapas.

Just last weekend, an armed confrontation between two communities in northern Chiapas of indigenous Tzeltal communities in the municipalities in Salto de Agua and Tumbalá and a group of unknown men took place. This altercation left four dead, including three indigenous people from the local community.

Back in July, when these paramilitary groups were just beginning to emerge in the state, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) downplayed the threat they pose, calling them a product of a local political discord. AMLO said that his government does not agree with the formation of self-defense forces, noting that it is the government’s responsibility to guarantee peace.

However, insecurity prevails in Chiapas, and new self-defense groups continue to emerge to fill the void that federal and local government have created through their indifference.

Like the federal government, the state authorities in Chiapas have downplayed the situation and blame the unrest on a post-electoral conflict, since in several municipalities there have been reports of disagreements and allegations of fraud regarding the results of recent municipal mayor elections.

But unless the government steps in soon to reinstate law and order, it may find that it is too late to regain control from these paramilitary groups. 

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