The Narco-State of Chiapas Part V in a series

The Narco News Bulletin

The Rebels, not the Government, Slowed the Drug Trade

And then the government re-established it

Part V

click to read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

PANAMERICAN HIGHWAY; CIUDAD CUAUHTÉMOC TO SAN CRISTÓBAL, CHIAPAS: About 25 miles past Tapachula, near the next city of Huixtla, a right turn brings the traveller up into the woods, through the coffee plantations.

This is one of two possible northbound routes from Tapachula.

The coastal route, straddles the Pacific Ocean beyond Huixtla. Most of the drugs now head up the coast. This series will review that route later. But the military and police presence is nonetheless concentrated inland; a "low intensity war zone" as the Pentagon manuals describe the theater of this kind of conflict.

The road winds past Frontera Comalapa and soon the Panamerican Highway begins in Cuidad Cuauhtémoc; the third of the entry points from Guatemala into this region. The traveller approaches one of the many military checkpoints in this zone. Not a "highway" in the sense that most gringos understand one, the Panamerican -- Route 190 -- is a narrow, at times poorly paved, road that winds around mountains, past Comitán toward San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Two soldiers in olive-drab uniforms and helmets board the bus. "We're applying the federal law of arms and explosives," announced the first. He looks to be about 20 years old. While searching the overhead bags for weapons, the soldiers sometimes find drugs and make an arrest. The second soldier stands guard at the front of the bus, apparently oblivious that his loaded semi-automatic rifle is waving at the feet of some passengers. The first soldier traverses the aisles, inspecting the overhead rack, looking below the seats, feeling pieces of luggage, sometimes opening them while demanding to see the passenger's identification.

The mountain path was, years ago, a preferred route for drug smuggling.

That all changed, overnight, on January 1, 1994, when the indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation seized four Chiapas cities -- San Cristóbal, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas and Altamirano -- calling for a revolution against what they called "the neoliberal economic system."

The antithesis of the "narco-guerrilla" movements in other parts of the world, the Zapatistas have explicit revolutionary laws against drug use or trafficking. They have, in fact, driven the drug cartels off their jungle and mountain lands -- where governments had previously failed to do so. Alcohol, too, is banned in their villages.

Any government serious about fighting drugs would study the success of the Zapatista drug policies -- instead of persecuting their indigenous supporters -- in the hope of learning to achieve the same sober results. But in the first years of the conflict, the Mexican and Chiapas state governments tried desperately to link the Zapatistas with drug trafficking in order to discredit them. That effort failed so miserably that by 1998, the Mexican federal drug czar, Mariano Herrán Salvatti, had to admit that there were no "narco-guerrillas" in Mexico: insurgent armies like the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, the Afghani and Lebanese rebel armies, or the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, who enjoy the financial backing of narco-traffickers. "This circumstance," Salvatti declared during a press conference on April 9, 1998, "does not exist in Mexico."

And from the Zapatista's point of view it's a good thing they are not drunk or stoned: they are surrounded by 70,000 Mexican army troops (a quarter of the nation's Armed Forces). From 85 jungle and mountain bases, the Army has encircled the insurgent villages of Chiapas' indigenous populations.

La Realidad, Chiapas

Photo D.R. 1999 Al Giordano

Frequently, these same soldiers raid and ransack the villages, stealing livestock, tools, food, what few possessions that the peasants who identify with the Zapatista movement have. These regular incidents are painstakingly documented by the local Catholic diocese and other human rights organizations.

More often, the soldiers, together with the state police, protect paramilitary groups, formed by the large landowners and ranchers, while these armed organizations -- most of them members of the ruling PRI party -- do the pillaging.

At least two dozen roadblocks have been set up by military and immigration officials in these mountain roads. The officials at these checkpoints are looking for foreigners -- journalists, human rights observers -- to deport from Mexico for the crime of being where their presence is inconvenient to the carrying out of dark tasks that are better accomplished without international attention.

This series has explored how the Migra, in particular, is involved in drug smuggling and corruption. Thus, the federally orchestrated campaign against foreign presence in Chiapas has an added advantage to the authorities that is scarcely mentioned in the media: It draws a curtain around the rampant drug corruption in Mexico's southern border state.

The bastion of the narco-traffickers nearest to Zapatista terrain festers in Benemérito de Las Americas, deep in the Lacandon Jungle, along the Usamacinta River. This deserted outpost was settled in the 1970s by Northern Mexicans from the state of Sinaloa (from where PRI Presidential Candidate Francisco Labastida emerged), at a time when Sinaloa was the seat of the first emergent drug cartels of Mexico.

There are lakes in this region where traffickers drop, from small airplanes, by dark of night, packages of cocaine, to be collected in smaller boats and re-packaged to be sent North.

Investigative journalist and columnist Jaime Avilés of La Jornada, the Mexico City daily, says that the Mexican government's actions in this region -- especially its construction of a new highway -- have virtually handed control of the region to the narco-traffickers. And that this is an intentional strategy aimed at eliminating the Zapatistas.

Aviles wrote on April 18, 1998, about "the city of Benemérito de Las Americas, certainly terrible, refuge of bullies and sanctuary of narco-traffickers, which the common people are in the habit of calling 'Matamérito de Las Americas'...."

(Benemérito means "worthy." Mata, means "kill." Thus, a rough translation would be "Kill-worthy of the Americas.")

Avilés wrote about the new government-constructed highway to Benemérito:

"In this zone of extreme poverty, barely frequented by tourists, the federal Secretary of Communications and Transportation has constructed, inexplicably, a 40-kilometer highway from Palenque to Chancala that is a pride of national engineering because it is a huge work. It has a splendid and well-planed pavement, and its phosphorescent signals convert at night into a magnificent landing strip... for airplanes.

"The political and social forces that surround the Zapatistas in the Canyons region are settling for the domination of narco-trafficking... to make the Indian people submit and to extend the domain of the drug traffickers."

This is all very far -- everything in the jungle and its mountain canyons is hours from anywhere -- from the Panamerican highway, which winds up past Comitán (the city from which sprang Chiapas Governor Roberto Albores Guillen). There, another Migra checkpoint. Have your passport and visa ready. Less than an hour later, between Amatenango de La Valle and before Teopisca, the Federal Judicial Police often have a roadblock. An hour later, entering San Cristobal, one passes the massive military base at Rancho Nuevo, and a state police checkpoint. On the other side of the city, heading North, is another inspection point by military soldiers.

None of this keeps cocaine out of San Cristóbal, a world-famous tourist Mecca. There are four late night dance clubs and a red-light district where the white powder flows freely. One might even procure it from an undercover agent or government informant -- typically appearing very much like a hippie with an indigenous fashion fetish -- who is allowed to deal marijuana and other drugs in exchange for collecting information on human rights observers from foreigners.

Some tourists end up entrapped and are arrested for drug possession. They don't generally end up in the State Penitentiary at Cerro Hueco. They simply must pay a bribe of between $500 and $5,000 dollars to regain their freedom.

One night in early May 1998, at a time when 140 Italian human rights observers were in Chiapas much to the bother of authorities, police and immigration authorities conducted a combined operation in four nightclubs in San Cristóbal. They were looking for foreigners -- especially anyone who looked Italian -- in order to search and arrest them for drugs.

They found neither peace observers nor Italians. The international observers all receive training and advice to avoid these bars precisely because of the rampant presence of informants and police. They did find one North American anthropologist with two grams of cocaine. He was with a North America freelance reporter who herself was in a state, according to people who saw her that night, of extreme enebriation. Perhaps because her "reporting" is always pro-government, she was not searched or arrested, although she was with the man who was. The man was not associated with the Zapatista cause. La Jornada, in fact, reported that he "is known to have very close relations with the intelligence agencies of his country's embassy." He was out of jail within 24 hours.

The reality, though, for most Chiapas residents, especially the impoverished rural Indians, is that there is no money to pay the police, nor to hire a lawyer. The average family income in Chiapas is $20 US dollars a month; less than a dollar a day.

Polho, Chiapas

Photo D.R. 1998 Al Giordano

While police and soldiers at every level are helping major drug shipments pass in exchange for cash, these same authorities use the anti-drug laws as a weapon against the most drug-free people in the hemisphere: the downtrodden descendents of the ancient Mayan civilization.

To Be Published Tomorrow:

Part VI

Chabal Tak'in: "There is No Money"

Preview from Part VI:

"Here, we don't permit the growing of marijuana, nor its consumption. If a young man grows marijuana, he goes before a municipal judge to be disciplined and oriented so that he won't ever do it again. If the youth does it again, there is no response whatsoever: he already cannot be pardoned a second time. He would then be expelled from the community."

-- Luciano, spokesman for the autonomous town of Polho

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