PANTELHO, Mexico - As smoke curled from neighboring buildings that had been ransacked and torched the day before, a couple of thousand Indigenous people armed with makeshift weapons gathered around city hall to hear their leaders speak.
Led by a new self-defense militia called “El Machete,” the people had descended from their mountain villages on the town center the previous day to expel the collaborators of a criminal gang who they say has terrorized their community for years.
As outnumbered state security forces stood by, the attackers raided homes and businesses and tied up 21 suspected gang members.
At least a dozen buildings—their walls spray painted with the rallying cries of “Long live El Machete” and “Narcos out”—were completely razed, scattering debris across town.
“We left the homes of the narcos and assassins the same way they left our family members when they killed them or stole their land,” said a young man masked in a camouflage balaclava speaking from the balcony of city hall.
It was late last month in the town of Pantelho, tucked into the highlands of Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. Three weeks before, a long-standing cold conflict between the area’s majority Indigenous residents and a criminal gang called Los Herrera, who local people say has infiltrated municipal government, suddenly became white hot.
Centuries of neglect and abuse by local power brokers lie at the root of Chiapas' cycles of conflict, but the spasm of violence in Pantelho underscores how organized crime has wrapped itself around those age-old struggles. In response to the newest threat, the Indigenous residents took up arms and formed El Machete militia to exact their own justice.
“In the absence of the state, and with the presence of organized crime, the community was left with no other choice but to form its own self-defense group,” said Father Marcelo Pérez, a local Indigenous priest and human rights activist.
Mexico has a complicated history of civilians arming themselves in the absence of an effective response from state security forces to the violence committed by organized crime. While there have been examples of success, it has often been fleeting, and the self-defense militias have at times been infiltrated by the same kinds of groups they were created to fight.
El Machete were more likely inspired by the local Indigenous people’s own history of resistance than by self-defense militias from other parts of the country. The evidence can be seen along the narrow road that cuts through the mountains to Pantelho.
Amid sky-high stalks of corn and coffee fields, the iconic image of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata wearing a traditional sombrero with a pair of bandoliers crossing his chest is printed on signs and buildings. So too are those of Indigenous men and women with rifles strapped over their shoulders.
Here in Chiapas Indigenous communities began to organize some four decades ago, eventually forming the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. On January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican state and briefly took control of a number of towns and villages until the military launched a counterattack that pushed the rebels back into the mountains.
Over the next few years, paramilitary groups hunted down the Zapatistas, leading to numerous human rights abuses. The worst of those, the massacre of 45 Indigenous people—mostly women and children—on December 22, 1997, took place in the village of Acteal, which borders Pantelho.
Experts say that over time the paramilitaries have turned to other illicit activities, giving birth to the organized crime groups that have menaced the area ever since.
In Pantelho, a group led by the Herrera family emerged from the paramilitaries, and it allegedly has its hands in everything from trafficking drugs and arms to auto theft and land occupation. Residents accuse them of killing at least 200 people in the area over the past two decades.
Although the gang’s patriarch, Austreberto Herrera, was arrested on murder charges in 2019, residents say that his sons picked up where he left off and the violence continued unabated. Meanwhile, Los Herrera appeared to gain a powerful ally in the town’s mayor.
The convergence of organized crime and local government exploded into view in this past June’s elections.
In the lead up to the vote, Los Herrera carried out a campaign of intimidation on behalf of their allies in the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD as it's known for its Spanish initials, said Pedro de Jesús Faro, director of the Center for Human Rights Fray Bartolomé de las Casas which is in the area’s main city, San Cristóbal de las Casas. “If [the people] did not vote for the PRD, they would face serious consequences, even death.”
The threats were not empty. In early May, Los Herrera allegedly murdered an Indigenous man in his cornfield in order to make an example of him and spread fear, according to residents. VICE World News is reserving the identity of the residents of Pantelho it interviewed because those who have raised their voices in the past have often been killed.
Within days, armed residents of the village where the man was killed and alleged members of Los Herrera clashed in a shootout. Two of the gang were reportedly killed.
Soon afterward, a video started circulating on social media in which a narrator speaking the dominant Indigenous language Tzotzil says that community members are mobilizing “in defense of the people of Pantelho” against the drug traffickers.
The shootout marked a turning point, and the formal beginning of El Machete.
A month later, the husband of the current mayor was declared the election winner and the persecution of the mayoral couple’s opponents continued. Community leaders delivered a formal complaint on June 26 to the state government.
But the brother of a popular priest and a beloved catechist were killed in the first week of July, perhaps in response to the complaint. Indignant, El Machete sprung into action.
Before dawn on July 7, heavily armed members of El Machete set up blockades along the road that leads to the center of Pantelho, leading to sporadic shootouts between them and members of Los Herrera throughout the day.
Frightened, confused and scarred by experiences of the past, as many as six thousand residents hastily fled up and over the mountains to shelter in schools and churches in neighboring towns.
The next morning, state security forces sent to restore order were ambushed by El Machete at one of the blockades. Nine military and police officers were wounded in the confrontation, and El Machete later retreated, allowing security forces to take control of the town.
On July 10, the militia members stepped out of the shadows with a video statement to clarify the motives and objectives of their cause.
“We went in not to attack the people, but to expel the assassins, the drug traffickers and organized crime,” said a masked representative of El Machete in the video. “We went in because we don’t want any more deaths.”
“Once Pantelho is free of organized crime … once it’s free of assassins and drug traffickers, we as the defenders of the people will retire because we are not looking for power or money,” added the man, who was flanked by others holding rifles and wearing black hats and t-shirts stamped with the group’s logo, a pair of crossed machetes.
A week later, El Machete orchestrated a show of strength. About 120 fighters, carrying mostly hunting rifles and a few military-grade weapons, stood in formation on a basketball court in the mountainous outskirts of Pantelho, cheered on by a crowd estimated at over 3,000 people - roughly 15 percent of the town’s population.
It was an impressive demonstration of support given that so many residents had yet to return to their homes after fleeing days earlier or were simply too afraid to come out. “The self-defense militia is from the people, with the people and for the people,” Pérez, the local priest, said.
But not everyone agrees. VICE World News visited Pantelho on July 24 as residents were trickling back home after two weeks without confrontations.
Along the main road into town, thick tree trunks with wilting leaves, splintered sandbags and corroded wire left from burned tires marked the spots where the militia had set up its earlier roadblocks.
Down a side road where a bomb made by Los Herrera had exploded lay the charred remains of a vehicle near several homes with ripped off roof tiles and crumbling walls pockmarked by shrapnel. Nails and pieces of rebar lined the street at least a hundred feet in each direction.
In the town center, storefronts that had been shuttered were reopened and the streets started to show signs of life, but residents appeared to be outnumbered by security forces.
While Indigenous communities live in the surrounding mountains, the majority of residents in the town center are mestizo—people of mixed European and Indigenous descent.
Opinions about the militia seem to divide largely along ethnic lines. “Every citizen has the right to claim their rights,” said a 65-year-old mestizo farmer who asked not to be named. “But [the militia members] are confusing values. They no longer just take things out on the aggressors, but sometimes with the people as well.”
Just about everyone appears to agree, however, that organized crime is rooted in Pantelho and won’t be removed without a fight. Rumors started to spread that members of Los Herrera were returning mixed in with the displaced and plotting to take back the town as soon as the security forces inevitably withdrew.
But El Machete and its thousands of supporters weren’t about to just let that happen. Instead, they decided to expel the gang for good and launched the July 26 raid on their properties.
The following day, the scene was completely different. Strategic points that had been manned by state security forces were now guarded by El Machete. Only about a hundred police and military remained inside the city center, all of them holed up on the grounds of a school.
The crowd of Indigenous men, women and even children at city hall were determined not to return to their villages until they could be certain that Los Herrera would not come back.
“Here there is no security, no peace, no tranquility, only fear, cries, terror, extortions and intimidations, not to mention corruption,” said the El Machete spokesman who addressed the crowd. “For that reason, on July 26 we entered the town center to take justice into our own hands, to raid the homes of the assassins and narcos.”
The Indigenous people of Pantelho have demanded that authorities annul the local election and recently held an election of their own to choose their own non-partisan leaders.
But Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, appears unlikely to be willing to recognize the new authorities, because he has expressed skepticism about the Indigenous people’s motivations. “Either it’s a question of political maneuvering in the region, control by bosses, or it’s criminals,” he said shortly after El Machete went public.
But addressing the crowd on July 27, the El Machete spokesman challenged López Obrador. To the cheers of the crowd, he posed a question.
“Do the lives of Indigenous people not matter?”