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Mexico on the brink of civil war

Ethnic conflicts threaten the national unity of Mexican territory.

Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

A new conflict is starting in Mexico. A series of armed attacks that took place on August 14, 15 and 16 in a border area between two municipalities in Los Altos de Chiapas, caused the forced displacement of more than 1,600 people, according to data from the Human Rights Center Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Frayba). A delegation from the Federal Government has already traveled to the capital of Chiapas with the aim of promoting a peaceful solution to this territorial conflict.

Pedro Faro, director of Frayba, informed various media outlets that 56 episodes of armed attacks against the indigenous civilian population were reported only between 14 and 16 August. In fact, violence has grown steadily. Although the origin of the problem in Los Alos is a territorial dispute between two municipalities that have suffered an administrative division recently, the presence of well-equipped armed groups has started to increase in the last four years, mainly from 2018, which has been worrying more and more humanitarian organizations concerned with the security of the Mexican people. In the past two years, more than 500 violent armed attacks have been reported in the region against at least 13 traditional Mexican indigenous communities, averaging about three attacks a week.

Despite many suspicions raised recently, there are no major economic interests in the region. The main income-generating activities in the Los Altos are handicrafts and agriculture, which come exclusively from the rural zone. Currently, the conflict has led to a major economic crisis, as families affected by the disputes can no longer plant and harvest products for their own consumption.

In fact, the conflict in Chiapas did not start now, but decades ago. For at least thirty years, the region has suffered with the strong growth of paramilitary militias, which have almost taken control of Chiapas. As a result of paramilitarism, the presence of regular forces from the Mexican state has also grown, with Chiapas being one of the most militarized places in Mexico. This has led to a series of serious human rights violations, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and forced displacements that have remained in complete impunity so far, as the State has not dismantled armed groups in the region or investigated its own institutions for possible crimes.

In response to the constant attacks by armed paramilitary groups, the indigenous people began to form their own self-defense forces. The performance of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) has also increased, which in recent months has advanced throughout the region. The EZLN has increased its activities mainly in reaction to several economic projects in southern Mexico, where multinational companies and the federal government work together disrespecting the choices of local indigenous communities – which is not the case of Chiapas, where the conflict is due to territorial disputes between indigenous people and residents of Santa Maria, in Chenalló, who claim land in areas inhabited by indigenous communities.

The main problem, however, is that the inefficiency of the state security forces to contain the problem generate an increase in violence, with the emergence of new paramilitary militias with parallel interests and the creation of a scenario of cyclical violence that weakens the national security, resulting in negative effects on the Mexican image abroad.

Mexico currently has about 500 internal territorial conflicts, almost all of which are involved in ethnic rivalries and extremely politicized, involving Marxist militias, anarchists, nationalists, among others. In short, the country is in a constant state of pre-civil war and no government has been strong enough to pacify the entire national territory. Currently, local militias have taken a leading role in the political life of Mexican communities in relation to the federal government, resulting in several parallel governments. Abroad, the Mexican image is extremely damaged because of this: economic projects fail, investments decrease, and the Mexican political-economic crisis is perpetuated.

What is being threatened by the growth of ethnic and territorial conflicts in Mexico is not only the lives of thousands of Mexican citizens, but also the very existence of Mexico as a National State. With such internal conflicts, the State is weakened, and its structures are deeply shaken. Mexico may even be able to undertake successful economic projects, despite adverse conditions, but it will not, for example, be able to have a significant international military projection since its forces are constantly attentive to so many internal conflicts – and are absolutely unable to contain such conflicts.

There are several other risks to be considered. Mexico, like any national state, has international rivalries and conflicting interests with other countries. The historically unstable relations between Mexico and the US, for example, show this perfectly. With the existence of such internal conflicts, it is possible to imagine a scenario where a foreign power starts to foment such rivalries in order to further harm the Mexican territorial unity, even reaching the fragmentation of the country in different micro-states. Security forces appear to be neglecting such hypothetical scenarios and are not taking the necessary precautions to contain such risks.

In fact, the priority of the Mexican State now must be to halt the progress of illegal militias quickly and prevent the formation of local parallel governments, reaffirming national unity.

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