San Cristóbal de Las Casas: From a magical town to a recruitment center for indigenous children


8.1 % of children and adolescents in Chiapas are at risk of being recruited by organized crime . This diagnosis materializes in the main tourist city of the state, where groups of young people ride in motorized gangs, sell drugs, steal vehicles, attack, and challenge the authority. What made them vulnerable? Poverty, racism, despair, impunity, drug culture, or the advance of organized crime? Or the sum of everything?

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS.- Martín and his brother were good students, they were honor roll, good jobbers, they helped their father in carpentry; but they got into drugs and gangs. After a while, Martin was walking with a gun in his waist and a kilo of marijuana. He hanged himself when he was 17, he was already a gang leader, I don’t know if he looked for a way out or just couldn’t find it. His brother Agustín was detained by the police and beaten to death, he was about 18 years old. His parents are from Chanal, a municipality located in Los Altos de Chiapas; They migrated to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, studied at the José María Morelos y Pavón, the most “bastard” school in the north of that city.

San Cristóbal de Las Casas was founded in 1528, during the colonial era, by Diego de Mazariegos, the conqueror of indigenous people. That city became the center of oppression and racism towards indigenous peoples, who have been considered outsiders in their own lands.

“My six brothers, my mother and I had to go to San Cristóbal as a servant (domestic service), it is the worst memory of my life, when we left Zinacantán -a neighboring municipality of San Cristóbal de Las Casas-. We arrived at the house of a man with the surname Lescieur, his house occupied an entire block. The owner’s son kicked me, I was 6 years old, once I couldn’t stand him and I hit him, his father beat me up. I thought: I’m going to grow up and I’m going to kill him,” recalls Jesús, a schoolmate of Martín and Agustín.

We lived in the galley in the backyard of the house, the floor was made of dirt, my mother cooked on the stove and when it rained, more water entered inside than outside. I had to go to school at night… I felt a very bad class division, it was them against us”.

Like Jesús, Martín, and Agustín, they lived on the outskirts of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, particularly the northern area, a place that was populated with indigenous people from nearby municipalities, who were looking for better living conditions in that city. 

The 2020 population and housing census indicates that in that colonial city, 32.7 percent of the quarter of a million people who inhabit it are indigenous Tzotzil and Tzeltal; 6 out of 10 live in poverty.

“Look at that chamula”

Juan Gómez also arrived in San Cristóbal de Las Casas as a child, expelled, along with his family, from the municipality of San Juan Chamula.

I went to work as a servant, to clean up, they also hired me to sell some products on the street, something I didn’t like. I was ashamed, they discriminated against me, they pointed out ‘look at that chamula’, they said. It made me sad, I denied my roots, my people, I said I was from San Cristóbal.”  

Upon entering high school, he recalls, “something happened, there were other classmates from different communities, from Chanal, from Oxchuc, Ocosingo, I no longer felt alone, I felt like a herd of classmates, but the vision of mestizo people is bastard. , because the jokes are directed towards the Chamulas, about the Indians. That’s how we spent the semesters, we started to get together, to drink, have a drink, smoke and consume other things. 

“At that time I thought I had two paths: join my uncles to be a smuggler or trafficker, or go north, to the United States,” recalls Juan. He decided on the former. Juan was employed by a drug dealer, an assistant in migrant smuggling, and from there he went on to recruit other young people.

In the report Recruitment and use of children and adolescents by criminal groups in Mexico, published in September 2021, by the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico (REDIM), it states that at the national level, in Mexico by 2018 there were more than 460 thousand, “and behind each of them, there is a series of structural and social conditions neglected by the Mexican State, which are used by family groups, gangs and criminal organizations for their benefit.”

Juanita Zebadúa has been a teacher in indigenous communities for 30 years.

Young people who don’t even have enough to eat arrive at the schools where we teach, some spend the whole day with a bag of bread and a coke; We began to set up dining rooms, but we saw that they began to consume large amounts of alcohol, then drug use began, suicides (…) little by little it has reached levels that we did not imagine, ”he refers.

In Chiapas, the indigenous population is very vulnerable, 84% of children live in poverty, says Jennifer Haza Gutiérrez, director of the Melel Xojobal organization, an association that has been working for the rights of children for 25 years. and adolescents in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

“Not being able to develop their own life projects and face structural and social violence, children and families have to look for other options, some of these are migrating or being linked to illicit activities (…) the emergence of armed groups in San Cristóbal de Las Casas and the arrival of criminal groups in the entity becomes an alternative for this population that seeks to resolve some immediate situations immediately,” he explains.

The result of these conditions, highlights “Chiapas Counts Chiapas 2021”, is that in the state 8.1% of children and adolescents are in a situation of vulnerability to be recruited by organized crime, because of their family environment, because of poverty, abandonment, lack of opportunities, exclusion, social discrimination and proximity to areas with the presence of criminal groups.

 “We know that for shooting they can be paid 200, 300 pesos, shots into the air. All these armed groups that are in vehicles, on motorcycles (…) Another factor is the development of groups and senses of belonging, with the cultural changes that are taking place at a local and international level where the figure of success is based on men driving weapons, with the idea that with that you are someone in life, for the young people who are in this vulnerability it can be an alternative that is at hand, which you don’t even have to look for, the groups are looking for someone to recruit ”, points out the director of Melel Xojobal.

From 2019 to date, Melel Xojobal has registered the disappearance of 574 children and adolescents in Chiapas, there is no certainty of what happened to them, but one hypothesis is that they could be victims of forced recruitment

Another fact that reveals this problem is that according to reports from the Chiapas Justice Prosecutor’s Office, from January to August 2021, 27,861 children and adolescents were arrested, accused of various crimes; this represents a historical figure for the underage population deprived of their liberty.


“Fucking policemen, he’s going to kill you, we’re going to kill you, we’re in charge here, they have no right to anything here,” they shouted loudly as they threw stones and sticks towards the base of the Municipal Police of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the Last December 25, 2021. The group of young people sought to rescue three of their companions who were involved in an armed confrontation in the northern area of ​​San Cristóbal.  

Manuel has been a municipal police officer in San Cristóbal de Las Casas for 10 years. For him, in 2020 the recruitment of young people, especially indigenous people from the northern part of that city, was detonated. It was when young people on scooters began to be visible, armed, shooting, stealing, challenging authority, they call them Motonetos

The nickname of Motonetos derives from the fact that they all move in these vehicles in pairs or travel up to three on the same scooter, they are young people between 13 and 17 years old, who have become national news by being protagonists of aggressions with firearms. The Motonetos began with robberies, assaults, attacks on passers-by, distributing drugs in the city, gaining power, feeling untouchable,” explains the uniformed man.

Juan Gómez knows the environment inside out, “a cousin (of his) first began to hire other cousins, young minors, bought motorcycles from them and began to open a drug delivery route, that was like the beginning, and several imitated the delivery model with young people; they began to grow due to the increase in drug demand in the city, so more distributors were needed, they bought backpacks, more motorcycles; deliveries are made easier on motorcycles, they pass the checkpoints easier, and they don’t have to go through the checkpoints, ”he explains.

According to the National Citizen Observatory, in the state of Chiapas in 2021, there was an increase of 187% in the number of investigation files for the crime of drug dealing compared to last year. 

For January 2022 there is a variation of more than 109.50% in the research folders compared to the previous period. 

For Juan, “the Motonetos are the product of everything bad about San Cristóbal (…) of that resentment, that hatred when they call you a fucking Indian, now there you have it, it turns out that those Indians have changed things, the youth, choose that path” .

He recognizes other factors, “it’s the fucking television, those programs, drug-trafficking series, music, so what young person doesn’t want or desire that, now 10-year-olds are selling drugs in San Cristóbal. What can I tell you, I have cousins ​​who are doing very well, others super well, they have homes, their children are also in this business, they don’t do anything to them”. 

From 2020 to date, these young people have attacked the Municipal Police base, located in the San Antonio neighborhood, on ten occasions, they have kidnapped officials to exchange them for their colleagues who are taken to this preventive prison. “When they are apprehended, they threaten, ‘you don’t know who you’re messing with, my people are coming and they’re going to kill you,’ they sentence.”

We have seen how, after being arrested, the leader arrived and went into the office of the former police chief and they did not set foot in the cell, they left as if nothing had happened. It has reached an extreme in which they have chased the patrols and fired at the units, they have attacked the base, they have fired outside, the most remembered was that of December 25, 2021, ”he recalls.

The REDIM recruitment report highlights that for organized crime groups “the use of children and adolescents is particularly beneficial and profitable because, if they are arrested a) they are provided with free specialized legal advice, b ) crimes prescribe quickly, c) sentences have a maximum duration of five years and, as a derived benefit, d) there is no link between the Justice System for Adolescents and the Justice System for Adults. Due to this, those between the ages of 12 and 18 who commit an offense are sentenced for a minimum of time.”

Do not criminalize children and youth

The image of the young Motonetos of San Cristóbal de Las Casas has permeated public opinion, and the national media have reported on events in which they have participated.

The photograph of one of them with a gun in his hands pointing and looking directly at the camera of Ana Paula Ruiz de los Santos seconds before she was shot and died on February 20, outraged and shook society.

In a statement, Melel Xojobal called for deep reflection. “We call on society in general not to normalize the violence that we are often experiencing in the city, and not to criminalize children, adolescents and youth, who are the main victims of these situations and have suffered the greatest consequences of the marked inequality gaps”, they refer.   

Jennifer Haza points out: “In particular, we need to know in the state of Chiapas what is happening, how it is happening; the example of the disappearances of children and adolescents is clear, the government does not want to recognize them, and it is important to have adequate information, which allows us to be able to generate explanations about the causes of forced recruitment, disappearance, and that allows design and improve care and prevention strategies.

This sector, he reiterates, has been the victim of accumulated vulnerabilities, and prevention strategies must go through public policies with a focus on rights and justice. 

The REDIM report on recruitment also raises the need to include in Mexican legislation the crime of recruitment and use of children and adolescents by armed groups and organized crime groups.

“As long as the necessary legislative changes are not developed, the recruitment and use of children and adolescents in the context of organized crime are carried out freely and without any sanction by the authorities. That means leaving children and adolescents completely defenseless and with no chance of accessing justice in Mexico.”

In this scenario, there is a great debt of the Mexican State towards the thousands of children and adolescents at risk of being recruited and used by criminal groups, an activity that grows day by day without there being a genuine interest in carrying out the promises For this, social justice initiatives are required. 

This report is part of the Southern Border Investigative Journalism Hub, a project of the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers.

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