A recently-formed self-defense group forced state police, soldiers and members of the National Guard to withdraw from a highlands municipality of Chiapas on Monday after the official security forces refused to raid the homes of suspected criminals.
Members of the “El Machete” self-defense force, which formed in Pantelhó earlier this month, demanded that the state and federal security forces raid the homes of people who allegedly belong to a criminal group called Los Herrera, which has been blamed for a recent wave of homicides and is accused of having links to the municipal government.
Citing the absence of warrants, the security forces refused and were consequently run out of town by the self-defense force members.
El Machete proceeded to carry out the raids themselves. Armed with guns as well as other weapons including crowbars and sledgehammers, the self-defense force went house to house searching for Los Herrera hitmen, the newspaper El Universal reported.
They set at least 12 homes as well as cars, motorcycles, a police vehicle and an ambulance on fire and managed to detain 21 suspected members of Los Herrera.
Among the homes targeted was that of Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) Mayor Delia Janeth Velasco Flores and her husband and mayor-elect Raquel Trujillo Morales. However, they were not among those detained. Dozens of Pantelhó residents fled their homes during the rampage and sought refuge in neighboring municipalities.
The autodefensas also took control of the municipal government building, and issued a statement directed to President López Obrador from its balcony.
“We know that you already have knowledge of all of this,” one self-defense force member read from a statement.
“If you still want to support us, the indigenous people, … that will be up to you. If you don’t, it’s better that you don’t keep intervening [in Pantelhó],” he said.
Residents who don’t support El Machete called for official security forces to return to the municipality, located about 60 kilometers northeast of San Cristóbal de las Casas.
The 21 men detained by the self-defense group appeared in photographs with their hands and feet tied. The newspaper Reforma reported that they were transported on Tuesday to the community of San José Buenavista Tercero, where many El Machete members are based.
The autodefensas said earlier this month that their aim was to expel gunmen, drug traffickers and other members of organized crime from Pantelhó in order to avoid more deaths of indigenous residents.
Thousands of residents from 86 communities in Pantelhó gathered on July 18 to show their support for the group. The Tzotzil Mayan citizens also declared that they didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the current and incoming municipal governments and would choose new authorities.
El Machete’s seizure of the municipality comes just two weeks after Los Ciriles, a criminal group allegedly linked to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, took control of Pantelhó.
Federal and state security forces had regained control but official authorities now find themselves deposed once again.
The PRD has been in power in Pantelhó during the past 20 years, a period during which residents say almost 200 indigenous people have been killed and countless people have been displaced.
A spokesperson for Pantelhó residents said recently that the “narco-council” has been murdering Tzotzil people for the past two decades, forcing locals to take up arms.