A War on Two Fronts: The Indigenous Fight against Paramilitarism and Cartels

Mexico has one of the largest indigenous populations in the Americans, with one in ten Mexicans speaking one of 56 federally recognized languages.[1] Geographically, most of Mexico’s indigenous population is located in about one-third of Mexico’s states and more than half live in four states: Oaxaca, Veracruz, Chiapas, and Puebla.[2] Out of the estimated 15 million indigenous Mexicans, around 72% are considered impoverished and despite the 2003 passage of the Ley Federal Para Prevenir y Eliminar La Discriminación, indigenous Mexicans continue to experience a large amount of marginalization.[3] Much of the direct and indirect discrimination and violence faced by indigenous Mexicans comes not only from the lack of legislative harmony, but also from government-supported paramilitary groups and cartels. In this sense, indigenous Mexicans face a complex and difficult situation in which they are terrorized by cartels and gangs yet cannot turn to the government that is also threatening them.

Paramilitary groups have a long history of operation in Mexico, with the government delegating funds, equipment, and training for the enactment of missions and tasks that regular armed forces are unable to openly implement. Through this technique, the Mexican government has supported and implemented forms of state violence that are not legally recognized as such. Because the state-sanctioned actions of paramilitary groups are disguised, these indirect state actors often go unpunished.[4] One of the most notable paramilitary groups is that of the Brigada Blanca, which was established in June 1976 to investigate La Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre.[5] The Brigada Blanca consisted of 240 police, Dirección Federal de Seguridad personnel, and members of the Policía Judicial Federal who regardless of military status, were given a monthly compensation of three thousand pesos by the Mexican government. In addition, the Brigada Blanca maintained office space and trained at a military field, and received 55 vehicles, 253 guns, and several helicopters as needed.[6] With such strong ties between the Brigada Blanca and the Mexican government, it is evident that the lines between legitimate policing and paramilitarism can often be extremely tenuous.

Many of the targets of paramilitary violence have been Zapatistas, indigenous Mexicans who through the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) fight for “work, land, housing, food, health, education, independent, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace”.[7] Between 1995 and 2000, the Paz y Justicia paramilitary group has been responsible for the death or forcible disappearance of 122 indigenous people, as well as for the displacement of 4,000 Ch’ol and Tzeltal residents in Chiapas.[8] Paz y Justicia reappeared in 2015, and indigenous activists accused Edgar Gomez, the president of the Tila municipality, as well as other Tila municipal officers, of supporting the paramilitary group as a means to control indigenous residents.[9] Such claims are extremely plausible not only because of historical precedent, but also because of the valuable natural resources the Mexican government has been stealing from indigenous Mexicans for years.[10]

In addition to paramilitary groups, indigenous Mexicans are also threatened by drug cartels, such as Los Zetas in Michoacan. The presence of cartels has led to an increase in indigenous youth consuming drugs, and individuals from indigenous communities being used and exploited as drug smugglers.[11] Additionally, cartels have taken over farmland traditionally used by indigenous peoples to grow poppies, and hitmen are a common occurrence. This past May, Miguel Vásquez and his brother Agustín, two prominent activists, were killed by gunmen believed to be part of the Jalisco New Generation cartel.[12] Rather than risking death, many indigenous Mexicans have moved and become displaced by the spread of organized crime; entire towns have even moved to escape the violence.[13] All too often, though, cartels and the local police collude. In the case of the Vásquez brothers, municipal police had arrested the suspected murders that day yet released them right before the shootings took place.[14] Additionally, the current fight against drug cartels has given paramilitary groups a seemingly legitimate excuse to continue terrorizing and violating the human rights of indigenous Mexicans.[15]

The dual pressures of paramilitary groups and drug cartels have put indigenous Mexicans in a unique situation, in which they are being terrorized by external groups but are also unable to receive assistance from a government that is funding some of the very groups that are enacting violence. Although resources such as the Indigenous Council of Government (CIG) exist, they are often only a pretense that cover the continuation of state violence against indigenous communities. Recently, after the appointment of a new CIG spokesperson, indigenous communities across the country experienced increased repression.[16] Rather than segregating and marginalizing indigenous peoples, the Mexican government should work with communities to recognize their sovereignty, address their needs, and protect their fundamental rights as laid out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Mexico is a signatory. Integral to this process would be ending the use of paramilitary groups to enact state violence and rectifying the vulnerability of indigenous populations to drug cartels. Until such actions occur, indigenous peoples will continue to be viewed and treated as second-class citizens by their own government.


[1] Fox, Jonathan. “Mexico’s Indigenous Population.” Cultural Survival. March 1999.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “72% of the Indigenous Population in Mexico live in Extreme Poverty Conditions.” The Yucatan Times. August 16, 2014.

[4] López y Rivas, Gilberto. “Paramilitarismo y contrainsurgencia en México, una historia necesaria.” TeleSUR. August 25, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Castillo García, Gustavo. “El gobierno creó en 1976 brigada especial para “aplastar” a guerrilleros en el valle de México.” La Jornada.

[7] International Service for Peace [SIPAZ] ( January 2002) Chiapas Peace Process, War Process.

[8] “Mexican Paramilitary Group that Killed 120 Indigenous Reappears.” TeleSUR. December 28, 2015.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alvarado Álvarez, Ignacio. “Bishop: Natural resources are being snatched from indigenous Mexicans.” Aljazeera America, April 4, 2015.

Tresierra, Julio. “Rights of Indigenous Groups Over Natural Resources in Tropical Forests.” Inter-American Development Bank, May 1999.

[11] Sokan, Kenny. “Mexico’s indigenous Raramuri have been suffering at the hands of narcos for decades.” Public Radio International. June 30, 2016.

[12] Tucker, Duncan. “An indigenous Mexican people are battling cartels and peyote tourism.” VICE News. June 16, 2017.

[13] Balderas, Oscar. “Some Mexicans Have Been Living in Limbo for Years After Fleeing Cartel Violence.” VICE News. March 15, 2016.

[14] Tucker, Duncan. “An indigenous Mexican people are battling cartels and peyote tourism.” VICE News. June 16, 2017.

[15] Rushing, John. “Mexico Drug War Violence Used As Pretext For Indigenous Community Repression.” The Huffington Post. June 23, 2011.

[16] Gutiérrez, Oscar. “Congreso Nacional Indígena denuncia represiones.” El Universal. November 6, 2017.