Siege of daily life, terror for territorial control and serious human rights violations

Siege on everyday life, terror for territorial control and serious human rights violations. Report from civil society organizations in Chiapas on violence in the border region. 

The Chiapas-Guatemala border has been affected since around 2021 by an unrecognized armed conflict based on the territorial dispute of organized crime structures fighting for control over goods, services, individuals, legal and illegal products, as well as the lives of the local population. This zone, known as the Frontera region, includes the municipalities of La Trinitaria, Frontera Comalapa, Chicomuselo, Siltepec, Escuintla, Motozintla, Mazapa de Madero, El Porvenir, La Grandeza, Bejucal de Ocampo, Amatenango de la Frontera and Bella Vista.

The turning point that reveals the dispute between criminal groups in the state is the events that occurred on July 7, 2021. On that day, Gilberto Rivera, “El Junior,” son of the operator of one of the organized crime groups that maintained control in the state, was assassinated. His murder was claimed by the antagonistic criminal group.

Due to its geographical location and strategic natural resources, Chiapas is a key territory for the control and promotion of both legal and illegal economies. It is important to note that the region, with a predominantly Indigenous population, has been historically abandoned by the Mexican State. The border zone, at the epicenter of the current violence crisis, is home to an Indigenous population from the Mam community, a mixed-race population, as well as Jacalteco, Q’anjob’al, Akateko, and Quichéccommunities, some of which are descendants of the Guatemalan exile of the 1980s.

The year 2023 has witnessed several significant peaks of violence. Notably, there was the “four-day war” in May, where organized crime groups clashed in the community of Nueva Independencia, also known as Lajerío, affecting neighboring communities, all within the municipality of Frontera Comalapa. The “four-day war” resulted in approximately 3,500 people being forcibly displaced from their communities, jeopardizing their lives, safety, and personal integrity.

Throughout the last year and up to the present date, the civilian population has been taken hostage, used as a shield, and forced to participate in mobilizations, blockades, and confrontations in support of one of the disputing factions. Basic supplies such as food, gasoline, gas, electricity, or telephone services have been cut off, keeping the population in suspense and distress, isolated, facing food shortages, and unable to move. Additionally, the phenomenon of disappearances is a matter of great concern. It is challenging to document in the border zone due to the scarcity of reports stemming from the lack of trust in authorities and the fear to which the population is subjected. However, even official figures reveal an increase.

According to the documentation that serves as the basis for this report, criminal groups employ various strategies to gain control of the territory. Documented tactics include widespread and recurring confrontations, continuous surveillance, and physical occupation of private plots that even displace individuals from their lands, among others. Similarly, these groups focus on controlling the population through actions aimed at fostering social acceptance, using persuasive strategies, but also resorting to violence, such as forced recruitment.

The “economía de conflicto” established in the area includes the dispossession of the population, an increase in extortion, the closure of businesses, and the sexual exploitation of girls and women, with significant economic, social, and psychological impacts. In general, people living in the area see almost every aspect of their daily lives affected, and it is not always easy to identify the motives of the present groups.

At the institutional level, it is evident that organized crime has infiltrated health services, garbage collection, government administrative units, food supply, and education at various levels, among others. The control over these institutions is ambivalent, and depending on the group and the state of conflict in the zone, it can shift from cooptation and financing to situations where institutions must remain either closed or open despite ongoing confrontations.

The consequences of terror and the control of individuals and territories are devastating for the populations. Thousands of people have been forced to relocate, making it difficult to document the numbers and destinations precisely. However, we can assert that a combination of physical, economic, psychological, and sexual violence has led to the internal displacement of at least 7,500 individuals in the region between June 2021 and November 2023. In some communities, approximately 15% of the population is reported to have been forcibly displaced. These forms of control and infiltration also weaken and fragment social and peasant organizations, destroying and manipulating decision-making dynamics and internal sanctions, ultimately eroding the profound sense of community life.

The practices of organized crime groups in the border region of Chiapas create a widespread situation of serious human rights violations whose implications undermine the most basic sense of humanitarian protection. Assessing these impacts can be problematic at first glance, as it is not state agents directly violating human rights. Furthermore, there is no official recognition of an internal armed conflict (Non-International Armed Conflict) in the zone. However, there are armed groups with the capacity to generate severe impacts on the lives, dignity, and personal integrity of all residents who are not part of the conflict, whose protection is indeed the responsibility of the Mexican State.

Given this backdrop, state interventions have primarily been characterized by omission, acquiescence, and, in some cases, collaboration. Faced with the widespread vulnerability resulting from the territorial dispute among organized crime groups, the population has repeatedly demanded the urgent intervention of the Ejército Mexicano and the Guardia Nacional. However, in contrast, it has been the inaction and complicity of the state security forces that have led to civilian populations’ demands for their withdrawal from certain zones.

In fact, throughout the conflict-ridden border region, organized crime interacts with government officials, forming criminal structures that intervene and escalate tensions and conflicts over territorial control. The level of infiltration into government structures is such that in some municipal seats, it has been reported that “the entire municipal government is within criminal structures and serves their interests.

Our approach to the current situation in the border region of Chiapas-Guatemala allows us to categorize the conflict as a Non-International Armed Conflict, a perspective supported by the legal framework of International Humanitarian Law.

Here is a link to the full report (Spanish).