The Narco-State of Chiapas Part VII in a series

The Narco News Bulletin

The Colonel and his Troops

Part VII

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

OVENTIC SAKAMCH'EN DE LOS POBRES, SAN ANDRÉS LARRAINZAR, CHIAPAS, MEXICO: The Colonel and his troops were not smiling when the cameras surprised them. Not at all.

They were caught chest high in marijuana plants on this May 9, 1996.

A federal soldier approached the videographer who had arrived with nearby townspeople, placing his hand over the camera's lens. All of this was preserved on video.

A public relations disaster was underway.

Colonel Ernesto Lerín told his troops to back off the group of reporters. He suddenly offered a big smile and announced: "This is exclusively a campaign by the Seventh Military Command against narco-trafficking," were his first words. "Exclusively!"

Well then why was the soldier trying to block the photographer from documenting this supposed public service?

Colonel Lerín showed great imagination under fire: "How good that you are here!" he beamed, smiling like a politician. "Comrades of the press: tell all the news," he says, touching the leaves of a meter-high marijuana plant. "This is the reality. Truly, in the state of Chiapas, and above all in this area, and in the Canyons region, yes, there exists marijuana!"

The Colonel and his troops ought to know. They had controlled these hills since January. When they arrived they said they were looking for marijuana, accusing the Zapatistas, who have many bases of support in this highlands region, of planting and harvesting the drug. But they had no success: four months of searches by thousands of soldiers, and this was only the second garden "discovered" in the region.

The Colonel continued his impromptu press conference, explaining that the plants are a month, maybe a month-and-a-half old: "The area here is very fertile, so they can grow rapidly." He estimates the size of the crop at about 2,000 plants. "There are four-hundred square meters and five plants per meter," he explained.

Three weeks prior the military had announced the find of the first pot field. The Zapatistas accused the soldiers of planting the marijuana.

"How is it possible that in four months of searching they have never found marijuana here? Yet in these days they found it?" asks Insurgent Capitán Noe of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. On April 15, 1996 Noe looked directly toward a video camera through his black ski-mask, reacting to the first announcement by the military -- after 100 days of trampsing through the hills with the pretext of looking for marijuana -- that marijuana had been found near Zapatista terrain. In fact, it was closer to the military base.

"They want a justification to persecute us," said Noe. "But we can say, without a doubt, that it is the same Army, the same Public Security and Judicial police, who planted the marijuana. We deny that we are the ones who plant, traffic and consume this type of drug. We don't do it. We completely prohibit it. We have a law. A person is sanctioned and punished for doing these things."

"With the excuse of looking for marijuana the federales surrounded the hill," explained Insurgent Capitán Guillermo of the the Zapatistas. He appears in a documentary made by the local Catholic diocese's human rights organization in Chiapas, titled "Contra-Insurgencía" or Counter-Insurgency.

"Normally, 500 or 600 soldiers are passing by here each day. It's worrisome. We can't work in the fields. The men of the community almost aren't working. The Army is operating there. If we enter the territory of the Mexican Army it is considered a provocation on our part. They have tanks and armored cars. They're everywhere," explained Guillermo.

"I want to make it clear that this is the same Mexican Army that plants and consumes the marijuana," he said. "At times they pay peasant farmers who don't have any money to go and plant it on Zapatista land. They've already put it there so they can have an excuse to be here."

As the war of words over these two marijuana fields -- and the public debate over which side of the conflict planted them -- escalated, events took a surprising turn. A week later, in nearby San Pedro Nichatalucum, the government was caught red-handed with an illicit green thumb...

To Be Published Tomorrow:


The State Police Station

Preview from Part VIII:

Upon the arrival of the 4,000 indigenous marchers, "the security forces left their posts.... During these events and to everyone's surprise, a small marijuana plantation was found on the roof of one of the houses occuped by the security agents. This discovery was witnessed by representatives of the Government director's office, the press, and members of various non-governmental organizations."

-- report by the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center, November 1997

Read about why Mexico City's Police Chief has called for a Holland-style Drug Policy