Vigilantes drill in southern Mexico with rifles, machetes

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Another shadowy group of armed residents emerged in Mexico over the weekend, when a hundred or so vigilantes armed with rifles, shotguns and machetes staged a public drill in the southern state of Chiapas.

The group in the township of Pantelho was introduced over a loudspeaker as “The Machete,” and it claims to be fighting the incursion of drug cartels in the largely Indigenous mountain communities of Chiapas. Some of the drill was conducted in a Maya-family language.

There have been a number of confrontations since mid-June in the region and local human rights groups say around 2,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in recent years because of the fighting.

The vigilantes, who appear to include members of the Tzotzil Indigenous group, are calling themselves “self defense” forces, just as other groups did in western Mexico in 2013 and 2014.

But the so-called “self defense” groups in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero were often infiltrated by drug gangs. In Michoacan, the groups formed to expel the Knights Templar drug cartel, but eight years later, the state remains a battleground where rival cartels jockey for dominance.

It was unclear who organized or armed the Machete vigilantes in Chiapas; the men appeared mainly masked, with black T-shirts bearing the group’s logo, a pair of crossed machetes, and carrying a motley array of weapons.

In a statement posted earlier on social media, a masked spokesman for the group claimed around 200 residents of Pantelho had been killed in recent years by “drug traffickers.” The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels appear to be fighting for control of the area, which is used to traffic both drugs and migrants from neighboring Guatemala.

“We must defend the lives of our community,” the unnamed spokesman said. The group took responsibility for a shootout in Pantelho in June in which several people died.

“We entered (the town) not to attack the people, but to expel the professional killers and drug traffickers,” according to the statement. “Once we have freed it from the professional killers and drug traffickers, we as self-defense forces will withdraw, because we do not seek money or power for ourselves.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dispatched soldiers and National Guard officers to the area, but has downplayed the significance of the recent events, saying “they do not represent any risk to the rule of law or stability.”

The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center said the military presence around Pantelho and the nearby town of Chenalho “serves to deepen the fear and terror of people who have forcibly displaced by the generalized violence caused by organized crime” in the area.

The center estimates that a dozen people have been killed in the area since March. While the center did not comment directly on the nature of the “Machete” group, it cited conditions that would lead to the development of that kind of movement.

“In recent years, the presence of criminal groups seeking to control the territory have prevented keeping peace in these communities,” the group said. “It has become a spiral of violence seen in forced displacement, the killing of families, confrontations between armed groups (of dubious origin) and narco-blockades.”

“The structural violence in Chiapas state has led townspeople to create organizations with the aim of confronting the historical injustice,” the center wrote.

Local politics also appears to play a role; the vigilante group accused the mayor-elect of Pantelho who won recent elections of being allied with drug traffickers.

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