TAPACHULA, Mexico (AP) — Drug cartel turf battles cut off a series of towns in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, near the Guatemala border, Mexico’s president acknowledged Monday.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that the cartels have cut off electrical power in some towns, and forbidden government workers from coming in to the largely rural area to fix power lines.
He said the cartels were 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 immigrants, thousands of whom have clambered aboard trains to reach the U.S. border.
The Sinaloa cartel is fighting the Jalisco New Generation cartel for control of the area, located in a rural, mountainous area north of the border city of Tapachula.
Four men, apparently members of the Jalisco cartel, were found dead over the weekend in a nearby town, according to an employee of the Chiapas state prosecutor’s office who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The local Roman Catholic Diocese said in a statement over the weekend that cartels were practicing forced recruitment among local residents, and had “taken over our territory,” blocking roads and causing shortages of basic goods.
López Obrador also appeared to lend credence to videos posted over the weekend, showing residents applauding about 20 pickup trucks full of armed Sinaloa cartel gunmen as they entered one Chiapas town. The president said the cartels might be forcing or bribing residents into acting as civilian supports, known in Mexico as “social bases.”
“On the side of the highway there are people apparently welcoming them,” López Obrador said of the video, which shows uniformed men aboard the trucks brandishing rifles and machine guns mounted on turrets. Voices in the video can be heard shouting phrases like “Pure Sinaloa people!”
“These may be support bases, like those in some parts of the country, because they give them food packages, or out of fear, because they have threatened them,” the president said.
But López Obrador said the problem was a local, isolated issue that had been magnified and exploited by his political foes. “They may make a campaign out of Frontera Comalapa, but it won’t go far,” he said. “They are going to magnify everything they can.”
The Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas said in a statement Saturday that there had been forced recruitment, along with extorsion, road blockades, kidnappings and killings.
“The drug cartels have taken over our territory, and we are under a state of siege, suffering widespread psychosis from narco blockades” that have prevented food and medical care from reaching the isolated towns.
López Obrador acknowledged that the gangs “cut off the electricity in some towns and have not allowed workers from the (state-owned) Federal Electricity Commission in to restore service.”
The Diocese of Tapachula issued a statement saying local residents were suffering as a result of the conflict.
“In these times of suffering and shortages, we must use our intelligence, calmly, to survive day to day with what we have at hand,” according to the statement.
In neighboring Guatemala, the army deployed troops along its side of the border.
The Chiapas state government, which had not spoken much about the conflict, issued a statement Monday saying 800 soldiers, police and National Guard members were being dispatched to Frontera Comalapa after reports of “several” gang roadblocks in the area.
The area has long been the scene of a various shootouts, kidnappings and reports of widespread extortion by drug gangs in recent months.
In August, prosecutors said a half dozen men were killed in an apparent ambush in a township near Frontera Comalapa along a known migrant smuggling route.
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