Armed conflict in Chiapas spills over the Guatemalan border, damages Mexico’s tourism industry

Armed conflict in Chiapas spills over the Guatemalan border, damages Mexico’s tourism industry

The armed conflict in Chiapas is spreading beyond the state’s borders. While federal and local governments continue to talk about peace, evidence that large sections of Mexico’s poorest state are under the control of drug traffickers is mounting daily, contradicting this official narrative. The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG, in its Spanish acronym), the two most powerful criminal groups in Mexico, are fighting a turf war for control over this southern region in a conflict that has taken an especially heavy toll on the civilian, peasant and indigenous population. The consequences of the violence are also beginning to spread to the international sphere: tourist agencies in France, the United Kingdom and Belgium have decided to stop taking clients to the Lacandon Jungle, while across the border in neighboring Guatemala, authorities have reported incursions and gun battles between members of the CJNG and government forces.

This week, ATC Touroperadores, which describes itself as “the first tourist agency operating in Chiapas since 1984,” announced that the “French, British and Belgian agencies that we represent have decided to stop taking tourists anywhere in the Lacandon area,” one of the state’s main attractions. In justifying its decision, the company said that “for more than three months, the tourism environment has been drastically disrupted in certain regions of Chiapas” as a result of “situations that took place in the past two weeks involving three groups of French tourists,” though the agency did not providing any further details about these “situations.”

However, in the same statement, which was shared on the company’s social media, ATC mentions incidents involving foreign tourists in which company vehicles were forced to advance through “rock-throwing and gunfire. In the statement, the company also refers to threats and extortion by organized crime: “Armed men, armed to the teeth, will say: ‘You can pass through here with tourists, but you have to pay,’ and then they tell you what time you can enter Bonampak [an archaeological site] — in their cars, of course, which you also pay for — and then tell you that you also have to pay a security guard, with the title of tourist guide, who accompanies you the whole time, and then they ask you for a thousand pesos and you can’t negotiate anything, because the person is carrying a pistol on his belt and there’s a guy behind him with a rifle, and so you pay either way, and if there’s an ‘operation,’ then they don’t let you through at all.”

“And then,” the statement continues, “you realize that the Lacandon and Chol natives have an offensive force capable of confronting the Mexican Army and the National Guard, and so you say, loud and in the open: ‘This state is screwed!” The affected area, where ATC says it will no longer operate, is home to the Mayan archaeological sites Yaxchilan and Bonampak, among other attractions. The US State Department advises citizens to “exercise increased caution to due to crime” if traveling to the State of Chiapas.

The violence spreads to Guatemala

More and more, Guatemala views its shared border with Mexico with apprehension. Authorities in the Central American country have alerted Mexico’s Foreign Ministry to the growing presence of CJNG members in their territory. The criminal group has gained strength in the region of Frontera Comalapa and Motozintla, municipalities linked by a highway that the cartel blocks and unblocks at will, using its own checkpoints. The population is fleeing the area, displaced by the violence and a lack of protection in the absence of a significant state presence, and spurred by fears of being killed or forcibly recruited by organized crime.

Specifically, in recent weeks, the CJNG set up a checkpoint on the border between Motozintla, on the Mexican side, and in Cantón Cheguate, on the Guatemalan side. According to the Mexican newspaper Milenio, the criminals were heavily armed and wore bulletproof vests. According to the outlet, those same cartel members were involved in the initial confrontation with Guatemalan armed forces that took place during the second week of January, when an armed unit of the cartel crossed into Guatemala and clashed with a military unit, which returned fire and managed to capture two of the attackers. Both confessed to being from Chiapas and belonging to the CJNG. The police also located two safe houses.

Guatemala has deployed 2,000 military personnel to Cantón Cheguate. The strategy is part of an operation that has been underway for months, aimed at reinforcing the border in the face of disorder and violence in Chiapas. Last September, Guatemalan authorities announced the deployment of more than 300 soldiers to the Department of San Marcos, which shares a border with Motozintla, Amatenango de la Frontera and Mazapa de Madero in Mexico. In December, 10 Guatemalan chicken sellers disappeared in Frontera Comalapa. They were never heard from again.

Chiapas has yet to get a break from the violence as it deals with the daily consequences of the infiltration of organized crime, with no government counterweights others than an increasing militarization that has not managed — or, according to many human rights organizations working on the ground, has not even tried — to tackle the problem. The population displaced by the violence is in the thousands, while massacres have become part of the daily vocabulary and the region suffers a growing sense of abandonment — a sense that the only law governing the territory is the one imposed by drug traffickers.

Even the Church has raised its voice in open protest. This is how the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas summarized the situation in a message published this Thursday: “We unite our voices in protest to testify to the endless abuses and injustices that our towns and communities are experiencing, especially the insecurity, violence and territorial disputes provoked by organized crime, in the face of which all three levels of government are either overwhelmed, permissive, or colluding in the system of control that these groups exercise in Mexico […] This has had very serious consequences for our municipalities and our communities, including: violence and confrontations between armed groups and drug traffickers, which result in kidnappings, disappearances, forced displacements of people and entire families, as well as the loss of assets and savings that these families have earned through so much effort […] On top of this — out of fear of reprisals, impunity and the non-exercise of the rule of law — people do not want to report crimes to the authorities. This has also created power struggles between organizations that have been manipulated by political parties, caciquismo, and corrupt local officials and businessmen.”

How a Family Cares for Llamas in Guatemala — and Teaches Climate Action

How a Family Cares for Llamas in Guatemala — and Teaches Climate Action

The highest mountain range in Guatemala is known for its uniquely cold and humid temperatures. La Sierra de los Cuchumatanes is unlike the rest of the country — a difficult region to farm. But it’s also one of the most biodiverse spots in the country, and where llamas, who thrive in a cold climate, can be found.

More than two decades ago, the residents of Todo Santos, a small town in Chiabal, Huehuetenango, came up with the idea of importing llamas from Chile. The cool temperatures of their village were closer to the Andean Mountain Range in South America rather than the rest of Guatemala. In Latin America, llamas are found in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile — they need low temperatures to survive.

The residents brought 32 llamas from Chile to use as a means of transportation, to produce wool and sell their meat. The animals were distributed among different families of Todo Santos; to use however they saw fit. Marcos Cruz, 46, and his family received four of the llamas. A long-time animal lover, Cruz could not bear the thought of using the animals for any of these purposes — each struck him as exploitation. As a practitioner of the Mayan culture, Mam, “protecting and caring for animals is a priority for me and my family,” he explains in Spanish.

Cruz learned how to care for the llamas instead, and since he had experience with other animals, like sheep and horses, he realized what kind of maintenance they required to survive. “It was a challenge at first because coming from another country, for example, the grass they ate was not the same we have here, and we did not know when they were sick and how to react to their illnesses,” says Cruz.

Along with his family, he came up with an innovative idea: show tourists who visited Huehuetenango that llamas can live safely and unharmed in this area of Guatemala. It took several years for Cruz to transform his ranch into a tourist site where visitors can observe and learn about the animals. “Now, we show both locals and foreigners how we care for them, what they eat, how they are treated daily and most importantly, we let them interact with them. After all, they are animals only found in this part of the country, making their visit unique,” he says.

Cruz and his family currently have 13 adult llamas and three newborns. “We are proud to know how to reproduce and not misuse them. The other families that received the llamas abused and mistreated them, and this was miserable to witness,” Cruz says.

Huehuetenango is a region that, due to its cultural richness and Mayan legacy, is seen as significant by the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism, especially the way residents protect the environment, including the animals who live in its ecosystem. “Within our framework, our number one project is to promote sustainable tourism in Huehuetenango,” and this has everything to do with climate change, says Edy Chicas, Delegate of Huehuetenango for the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism.

Chicas works with the villagers, a very close-knit community, on a wide range of environmental issues, including dealing with waste, climate change and sustainable tourism. So far this year, the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism has given around fifteen talks to each village. “Our goal is to make sure that this tourist culture, composed of both the visitor and the person who receives the tourist, interacts with one another in the best possible way. By this, I mean that both parties are aware of the importance of keeping the tourist sites impeccable, so that their beauty is shown and its environment is maintained in excellent condition,” says Chicas.

There are programs aimed at forest governance, for instance. Some villagers have been reportedly cutting off the tree bark, which can be damaging not only to the tree, but the entire ecosystem. Through the training, villagers learn how essential it is to prevent this kind of damage, as well as other types of illegal logging, with sustainable forest management strategies. “This is a way to reduce climate change through the preservation of forests,” says Chicas.

Another example is a project used by the Cruz family to keep the village free from garbage. The characteristics that make plastic a durable material for humans also make it a danger to animals when left uncollected. “In some cases, we see farm animals try to eat the plastic,” says Cruz. “We visit the sites and do cleanup days where we bring rakes, brooms and garbage bags to clean the areas and teach villagers the importance of keeping these places intact,” says Chicas.

The villagers in turn teach tourists how to do their part to minimize their environmental impact. Community members make signs that say, “No littering, please. Leave it with your belongings.” During these campaigns, villagers collect large amounts of solid waste, separate and transport the waste to a treatment plant for final disposal. According to residents, the quantity of abandoned garbage has since decreased.

Maintaining the farm is of paramount importance to Cruz and his family, and Chicas sees this as a powerful form of . “Because tourists find it wonderful and desire to come back, we want to replicate this in all the tourist communities of Huehuetenango.” Chicas adds that for him, sustainable tourism creates what he refers to as responsible tourism, where a link is established between the visitor and the receiver, and where both are conscious of protecting the environment.

Cruz and his son have also learned to use different social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok to launch the Llamas de los Cuchumatanes Project, which shows how they give care to the llamas, and how they work to protect their surrounding environment.

“We like to show how this is a community initiative and a family project. We also want our audience to know that the llamas are well-maintained and that we keep the farm clean,” Cruz says. He explains that he wishes to encourage other families in his community who own llamas to care for them similarly, and avoid misusing them.

“The llamas are one of the main attractions of the La Sierra de los Cuchumatanes,” says Chicas. The Cruz family has been able to make the most of hosting the animals while treating them well. “The goal is to replicate their tourism strategy with other families from the village.”

“We are humble people with scarce resources who come from a tough socio-economic background. However, this does not stop us from protecting our land, animals and culture,” says Cruz. “We are family people and we like to interact as a community. For us it’s like having a child, a family member.”

This piece has been updated.