Drug Gangs Could Make Old Land Conflict Boil Over in South Mexico

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A long-running land conflict in southern Mexico is causing new problems, and the situation is made more dangerous by the prospect of intervention from drug trafficking groups and illegal logging interests.

The Chimalapas rainforest, located on the border between the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, is the largest tract of tropical rainforest in Mexico. Its 2,300 square miles are home to a wealth of natural resources, as well as a large percentage of the country’s biodiversity. However, it is also home to a decades-old land conflict, one that could get worse as criminal activity increases in the region.

Because the boundary separating the two states lies in remote forest, the precise location of the border is poorly defined. As such, when the Chiapas government decided to create four new municipalities in the Chimalapas region earlier this month, it angered Oaxacan farmers in the area who have long claimed that the territory is theirs.

In response to the announcement, the Oaxacans have imposed roadblocks around the communities, effectively cutting them off from larger towns nearby and stopping them selling their agricultural goods. The federal government has since sent troops to the area to keep the peace, but residents claim that their movement remains limited.

Complicating this conflict is the fact that the Chimalapas region sees a significant amount of organized criminal activity such as drug trafficking and illegal logging. In a recent interview with Mexico’s Milenio, Chiapas state Interior Minister Noe Castañon Leon told the publication that the presence of criminal groups could complicate the conflict. “[Chimalapas] is a complex area, a difficult area,” Castañon said. “It is one of the most beautiful in Chiapas, there’s the whole pine reserve, and we obviously we have rare wood across the region, rich in vegetation and well … there is a strong incentive for those who seek to illegally harvest  the timber.”

Timber disputes have also been fueled by organized criminal groups in Cheran, Michoacan state, where locals barricaded their town against government forces in protest against the authorities’ failure to stop illegal wood-cutters backed by the dominant Familia Michoacana drug gang.

Drug trafficking groups are also active in the Chimalapas region, and local officials claim that poppy and marijuana cultivation is widespread. This does not bode well for the future of the Chimapalas conflict. While it’s not clear whether they maintain links to criminal activity in the region, the dominant criminal group in Chiapas is the Zetas, who are known as most violent of Mexico’s cartels.

They also enjoy a reputation for infiltrating the military, meaning that the troop presence may not be entirely effective. The cartel was initially composed almost exclusively of former Special Forces soldiers, and actively attempts to recruit members of the military with promises of better pay.

To make matters worse, evidence suggests that the increased troop presence could serve as a irritant for the land conflict, as it could provoke the ire of drug trafficking organizations in the region. As InSight Crime has reported, troop surges have a mixed record in Mexico. In places where the military was deployed to fight drug cartels, homicide rates actually spiked. After the military began patrolling Ciudad Juarez in 2007, for instance, homicide rates in the state of Chihuahua rose from 14.4 murders per 100,000 people to 75.2 in 2008 and 108.5 in 2009.

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