Warring militias fight for control of Pantelhó, Chiapas in Southern Mexico

By July 13, 2023

Mexico City, Mexico — Two years after a civilian militia known as “El Machete” took control of the small city of Pantelhó, Chiapas, in southeastern Mexico, a separate armed group marched into the city’s Governmental Palace on July 4 and usurped control from the militia.

Claiming to be a self-defense force, the hundreds of armed men that removed El Machete from power claim that the militia disappeared 31 people in the municipality.   

According to local reports, the so-called self defense force undertook the town’s main square, disbanding the governing assembly allegedly overseen by El Machete since 2021. Reportedly, during the taking of the palace, a hooded spokesman for the self-defense group announced the end of El Machete’s reign. 

“We do not want there to be violence against any citizen on the orders of Los Machetes. Enough is enough. We want social peace to remain in our town. We want respect for human rights, respect for political rights, respect for social rights,” the man said. 

El Machete 

Called a self-defense militia, El Machete reportedly formed to combat the drug trafficking and organized crime that had been plaguing the highlands of Chiapas, according to Insight Crime, an organized crime watchdog. 

According to local news outlet Chiapas Paralelo, El Machete was formed after the May 2021 murders of activist and human rights defender Simón Pedro Pérez López, his son, and one of Pérez López’s colleagues, Enrique Pérez Pérez, while they were working on their plot of land. 

The group blamed the murders on the Herrera family, an alleged criminal syndicate that governed Pantelhó through fear and violence. Its patriarch, the former town judge, Austreberto Herrera Abarca, controlled Pantelhó and its community until his arrest in 2019 for murder.

His sons, Dayli de los Santos Herrera and Rubén Estanislao Herrera, took over their father’s control of Pantelhó until El Machete forced them out on July 7, 2021. 

Dayli was arrested in October of that year for the murder of Gregorio Peréz Gómez, a prosecutor in charge of Indigenous justice. 

The newly in charge militia, however, soon started to go after their enemies. According to local NGO Frayban Bartolomé de las Casas, the militia began looting and destroying homes in Pantelhó, and on July 21, 19 people allegedly linked to organized crime in the area disappeared. El Machete has denied any connection to their disappearances. 

Following the wave of violence dragged by El Machete, community leaders, human rights defenders, state authorities, and members from El Machete formed the municipal council that governed over Pantelhó before it was dismissed by the new self-defense group. 

Some local media have reported that the self-defense force that removed El Machete from power last week is led by José Herrera the brother of Austreberto Herrera and uncle of Dayli and Rubén. 

Self-defense groups have sprung up across the country as a direct opposition to organized crime. However, there is a high risk that they could be co-opted by other criminal groups, becoming a front for them or a new political power that uses armed violence to impose itself on civilians.