Drug cartel turf battles have cut off a string of towns in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala, Mexico’s president acknowledged Monday.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the cartels have cut off electricity in some cities and barred government workers from coming to the mostly rural area to fix power lines.
He said the cartels are fighting for control of the drug-smuggling routes that lead into southern Mexico from Central America. But the area around the town of Frontera Comalapa is also a valuable route for smuggling migrants, thousands of whom have boarded trains to reach the US border.
The local Roman Catholic Diocese said in a statement over the weekend that cartels had been conducting forced recruitment among local residents and had “taken over our territory”, closing roads and causing shortages of basic goods.
López Obrador also appeared to believe videos released over the weekend showing residents applauding about 20 trucks filled with armed Sinaloa cartel gunmen as they entered a Chiapas town. The president said cartels may coerce or bribe residents to act as citizen advocates, known in Mexico as “social bases.”
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“On the side of the highway there are people obviously welcoming them,” López Obrador said of the video, which shows uniformed men in trucks brandishing rifles and machine guns mounted on turrets. Voices in the video can be heard shouting phrases such as “Pure Sinaloa people!”
The Sinaloa cartel is fighting the Jalisco New Generation cartel for control of the region, located in a rural, mountainous area north of the border town of Tapachula.
“These can be support bases, like those in some areas of the country, because they are given food packages or out of fear, because they have been threatened,” the president said.
But López Obrador said the problem was a local, isolated issue that had been magnified and exploited by his political enemies. “They may make a campaign from Frontera Comalapa, but it won’t go far,” he said. “They will magnify everything they can.”
The Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas said in a statement on Saturday that there were forced recruitments, along with extortion, roadblocks, kidnappings and murders.
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“Drug cartels have taken over our territory and we are under siege, suffering widespread psychosis from drug blockades” that prevented food and medical care from reaching the isolated towns.
López Obrador acknowledged that the gangs “cut off electricity in some cities and did not allow workers from the (state) Federal Electricity Commission to enter to restore service.”
The area has long been the scene of several shootings, kidnappings and reports of widespread extortion by drug gangs in recent months.
In August, prosecutors said half a dozen men were killed in an apparent ambush in a town near Frontera Comalapa along a known migrant smuggling route.