Month: February 2014




Mexico City. [RF]


un hombre


Mexico City [RF]


Autodefensas members in Guerrero, Mexico


Originally posted at

Mexico’s Guerrero state teeters on the edge of chaos

Guerrero, like Michoacan, has seen vigilante autodefensas take up arms against a drug cartel, and some worry that local leaders are complicit.

By Richard Fausset
February 16, 2014, 9:05 a.m.

CHILPANCINGO, Mexico — On a cool evening in February, Pioquinto Damian, the head of the Chamber of Commerce here in Guerrero’s capital city, was locked away in his downtown apartment, afraid to step outside.

He was convinced that the mayor had tried to kill him in an ambush just a few days before. In response, the governor had assigned him 18 heavily armed police officers as bodyguards.

A few miles outside town, hundreds of members of autodefensas — vigilante “self-defense” militias composed largely of fed-up farmworkers — were patrolling the streets of semirural suburbs with ancient rifles and shotguns, hoping to rid them of the drug cartel thugs who had terrorized them for years.

Such is the latest trouble in the heart of Guerrero, a historically unruly southwestern state that last year suffered the highest number of homicides in Mexico, and the second-highest number of kidnappings. It could also become the next state to slide deep into chaos and create major problems for President Enrique Peña Nieto as he strives to project the image of a nation returning to peace after years of cartel violence.

That image has already been tarnished by the crisis in Michoacan, Guerrero’s neighbor to the north: Last month, Peña Nieto was forced to send thousands of federal troops and police into Michoacan to avert clashes between vigilante groups and the Knights Templar drug cartel. Federal authorities, working alongside the vigilantes, are now presiding over a tenuous detente, peppered with bursts of bloody retaliation from the drug gang.

Similar autodefensa groups are now active in more than half of the 81 municipalities in Guerrero, a state of 3.5 million people, according to Mexico’s human rights commission. Guerrero is perhaps best known outside the country as home to the now-faded beach resort city of Acapulco, but it has suffered as much as Michoacan, if not more, from enduring poverty, weak or corrupt local governments and the deeply embedded presence of feuding cartels.

In the last few weeks, concern over the state’s stability has increased with the arrival of the armed vigilantes on the outskirts of the troubled capital, and their open deliberations over whether to proceed to the center of government power.

Equally troubling is the related case of Damian, a prominent ex-politician, civic leader and vigilante ally whose SUV was attacked Jan. 28 by gunmen as he returned from a town meeting in a suburb the autodefensas had recently taken over. At the gathering, Damian openly accused the mayor of Chilpancingo, Mario Moreno Arcos, who was also in attendance, of colluding with organized criminals.

Damian’s son was injured in the attack, and his 38-year-old daughter-in-law, Laura Rosas Brito, was killed.

“It hasn’t had the same attention as Michoacan, but Guerrero is in a very grave situation,” said Jorge Chabat, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching. If the situation worsens, Chabat said, “it could create a sense that Peña Nieto doesn’t control anything.”

As in Michoacan, the autodefensas sprang up here last year in an effort to beat back the drug cartels. A scathing report released by the national human rights commission in December noted that the groups were filling a power vacuum created by state and local authorities. Many residents gave testimony to the commission claiming they had been “victims of cases of collusion between authorities and criminals.” In a number of cases, residents alleged that it was government authorities who were responsible for kidnappings and other serious crimes.

The vigilante movement here has largely been a rural one. At the same time, Chilpancingo — the capital city of 187,000, on the highway between Mexico City and Acapulco — had fallen under the sway of a criminal group called Los Rojos, a spinoff of the once-powerful Beltran Leyva cartel. Throughout 2013, members of Los Rojos were leaning hard on Chilpancingo businesses, perhaps imitating the methods of Michoacan’s Knights Templar, which had moved beyond drug smuggling to other low-overhead opportunities in extortion and kidnapping.

In June, one Chilpancingo business leader said that closures and lack of investment were causing the economy to shed 800 jobs per month. In August, another leader said the local economy might collapse.

Damian, 61, a former federal congressman with the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, said that he and other business leaders took their concerns to the mayor, Moreno, a member of the president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, but that he did little to help them. Damian then began openly accusing Moreno of being a narco-alcalde, a narco-mayor.

The small communities around Chilpancingo had been suffering as well, and on Jan. 23, the autodefensas took over the security functions of a number of them, accusing local police of being either ineffective or corrupt. Damian told reporters that the business community was considering asking the vigilantes to come to the heart of the capital to “bring order to Chilpancingo.” Bruno Placido, a vigilante leader, said the militias would enter the city if the residents asked them to.

The Jan. 28 public security meeting took place in El Ocotito, one of the suburbs taken over by the vigilantes. The crowd exhorted Damian to speak. Standing next to Moreno, he lambasted the mayor for failing to act.

“Do not believe what this scoundrel says!” Damian said, referring to the politician at his side. “He wanted to be on the side of the criminals, and he did it, companeros!”

The ensuing attack on Damian and his family made national headlines. Two days later, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of Chilpancingo, demanding peace in the capital, and justice for Damian.

Government leaders responded with promises of new security measures. Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre promised to add 500 state police to patrols in and around Chilpancingo. The federal public security commissioner, Manuel Mondragon y Kalb, came to Guerrero and promised a more vigorous federal response, though he did not say what it would consist of. Mondragon’s office did not respond to inquiries from The Times last week.

Those promises, for now, have been enough to placate the Chilpancingo business community, which has decided not to ask for the vigilantes’ help. Damian said he was worried not only about crime, but about the fallout from creating armed militias, or inviting them in.

“If a social movement arms itself, we know when they take up arms,” he said, “but we don’t know when they’ll put them down, nor at what cost.”

If Peña Nieto eventually wishes to respond vigorously in Guerrero, as he did in Michoacan, his efforts could be complicated by political realities. The governor is a member of the PRD, the opposition party, and opposes suggestions from Damian and others that the federal government create a special commissioner to address the crisis in Guerrero, similar to the one Peña Nieto created recently for Michoacan.

There is also the matter of trust. Though federal forces have begun working alongside the vigilantes of Michoacan — even bringing them under the umbrella of an official Rural Defense Corps — the autodefensas of Guerrero have complained of harassment at the hands of federal authorities.


In the dusty community of Tierra Colorada, just outside the capital, autodefensa member Neftali Villagomez Hernandez, 66, told The Times that vigilantes would reject coming under federal control because they don’t think the government really wants to take the fight to the narcos.


“Here, we’re going to continue on the way we are,” he said. “A self-defense, citizens’ system of security.”


Mistrust continues to reign in Chilpancingo, as well. The state prosecutor last week announced that 12 people — none of them the mayor — had been arrested in connection with the attack on Damian.


Damian, meanwhile, accuses Moreno of being the “intellectual author” of the attack, and remains reluctant to leave his apartment.


Moreno greeted a reporter in his office, one block away. He is a smiling man in a guayabera, whose office is adorned with a large photo of him and Peña Nieto embracing and giving thumbs-up signs.


Moreno said he had nothing to do with the attack. He suspected that Damian was trying to damage him politically, particularly since he probably would be running for governor next year.


“I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said.


Damian said that he might seek asylum abroad. But he isn’t really sure what the future holds for him.


The same could be said of Guerrero.


Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Photo: Members of vigilante groups known as autodefensas, armed with rifles, pistols and machetes, patrol a community in the Mexican state of Guerrero in January. (Jesus Eduardo Guerrero / AFP/Getty Images / January 28, 2014, via LA Times)


Originally posted at

Cooling down Mexico’s troubled Hot Land

Police bring some order to Michoacan state, where vigilantes faced off against a drug cartel. Now Mexico must find a long-term solution to the troubled area known as Tierra Caliente.

January 25, 2014
By Richard Fausset

MEXICO CITY — Boots on the ground was the easy part.

Last week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto sent a massive surge of military and federal police to embattled Michoacan state. The federal forces currently patrolling its cities, highways and backroads have brought a tenuous peace to a region that had faced a potential showdown between the dominant Knights Templar drug cartel and armed vigilante militias that emerged to drive the cartel off.

Now Peña Nieto must find a long-term solution for the troubled area known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, where years of corruption and neglect — and the subsequent tyranny imposed by criminals — have eroded faith in government authority at all levels, allowing civil society to all but unravel.

For Peña Nieto, who took office 13 months ago, the search for an enduring solution is likely to be one of the most complex challenges of his six-year term. The Knights Templar, a group deeply embedded in the commerce and culture of this swath of southwestern Mexico, will have to be rooted out. The citizen militias will need to be convinced to lay down their own arms. Municipal governments and police forces corrupted by the cartel must be reconstructed from scratch. And that crucial, if impalpable, ingredient that Mexicans call the tejido social — the social fabric — must be repaired.

Any success must take place in a state flooded with assault rifles, ancient clannishness and deep resentments. “It’s going to be a very complicated process,” said Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The federal forces have taken over the security functions in 27 of Michoacan’s 113 municipalities, administrative divisions roughly equivalent to U.S. counties. Though a civil-war-style showdown has been averted for now, sporadic gun battles have taken place in the last week between vigilante “self-defense” groups and presumed cartel members.

In some parts of Tierra Caliente, vigilantes are cooperating with federal forces, fingering suspected cartel members. For Benitez, this relationship is the key to dismantling the cartel’s power. Such citizen participation, he said, was sorely lacking in the strategy of former President Felipe Calderon, who tried without success to pacify Michoacan, his home state, during his six-year term that began in 2006.

“The government needs to get information from an organized populace … to be able to prosecute the Templarios successfully,” Benitez said. “Calderon lacked intelligence from the people who were being exploited by the criminals.”

Vigilantes have said they will not disarm until the government arrests the cartel’s top leaders. The government, meanwhile, does not appear willing to risk the public relations fallout that could ensue if it moved to forcibly disarm the vigilantes: Many Mexicans would see that as a way of helping the Knights Templar.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Peña Nieto said that vigilantes who were genuinely interested in securing the region could be converted into police. A day later, vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran told reporters that his forces “aren’t asking to be police,” but rather for the government to bring peace to the region.

New police will need to come from somewhere: More than 1,200 municipal officers in the region have been disarmed by federal authorities and asked to submit to federally administered “confidence” tests, which include polygraphs and background checks. Those who refuse to take the tests or fail them will not be asked to return to duty.

Some observers, however, question the wisdom of any formal or informal cooperation with the self-defense groups. They say it’s risky to cede police power to irregular militia answerable to no one. And though some of the vigilantes appear to have genuinely good intentions, many people — including Peña Nieto’s national security commissioner, Manuel Mondragon y Kalb — have raised the possibility that other vigilantes are backed by drug world rivals of the Knights Templar.

The region needs more than just clean police. In the newspaper Milenio this week, columnist Guillermo Valdes Castellanos said that a real fix would involve “investigating and eventually bringing to justice mayors, local deputies, state and local government officials and probably members of all of the political parties who have used their positions to put themselves at the service of organized crime.”

Benitez said Peña Nieto could start by supporting strong, clean candidates in local and state elections scheduled for July 2015. But how to determine who is clean? And how far does the rot actually spread? Unlike some drug cartels, Knights Templar branched out far beyond the drug trade, running a vast extortion racket, controlling much of the commerce at the state’s main port and dominating a good deal of Michoacan’s important agricultural sector. The cartel is presumed to have picked up some heavy allies in government along the way.

There is fodder for those Mexicans who prefer to assume the worst. National media outlets recently discovered that a minor pop star who goes by the name Melissa is the daughter of Enrique Plancarte, a top Knights Templar leader. This week, a music video has emerged of Melissa frolicking around Michoacan’s main judicial building, in the state capital, Morelia.

Peña Nieto took office in December 2012 vowing to change the narrative about modern Mexico, emphasizing the country’s economic potential more than its war on drugs. But he seems aware that he will have to fix Michoacan if he wants the world to sing a different tune. This week, his social development secretary announced a new investment of about $223 million in social programs in the state.

The federal police and military presence may prove costly in more ways than one. Some argue that the 9,300 troops and police now in the region create a disincentive for local leaders, allowing them to put off much-needed judicial reforms. Others fear that the Michoacan operation will suck federal funding and attention away from other cartel-plagued parts of the country.

Who would fill that void? The neighboring state of Guerrero already has a vibrant self-defense movement, and a few other states have seen the emergence of similar, smaller-scale groups inspired by the insurgent Michoacanos.

Given all that Peña Nieto has on his plate, the last thing he needs is more vigilantes.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.





Originally posted at

Vigilantes hold Mexico town, tenuously, after driving out cartel

Days after ragtag ‘self-defense’ fighters chased the Knights Templar drug gang from Nueva Italia in Michoacan state, many residents are grateful, hopeful and worried about what might happen next.

January 19, 2014
By Richard Fausset

NUEVA ITALIA, Mexico — Father Patricio Madrigal Diaz was sitting in a big, empty church describing the moment the ragtag “self-defense” forces came barreling into town bearing AK-47s — and a promise to free this farming community from the suffocating grip of the drug cartel.

The cleric was finishing Sunday Mass in a tiny stucco chapel north of town last week when his flock was alarmed by a rumble of tires. Some ran home. Others shut the church windows tight.

Se va a poner feo,” they told Father Patricio. It’s going to get ugly.

Moments later, he said, dozens of vigilante pickup trucks were in the town center. A number of cartel supporters engaged the invaders in a shootout, but soon fled. Next, the vigilantes moved to disarm the municipal police force, which was widely assumed to be crooked. And then …

Abruptly, Father Patricio paused his story and gestured toward an older man praying quietly a few pews over. Perhaps, the priest said, it would be better to finish this conversation in the church basement.

“That man,” he explained, “is not to be trusted.”

Today, this city of 32,000 residents is occupied by the self-defense groups, as well as a swarm of federal police who came in their wake to show that the Mexican government still holds some authority in the volatile region of Michoacan state known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land. The situation is similar in a number of nearby communities that homegrown vigilantes have seized in recent days in an effort to drive out the organized crime gang known as the Knights Templar.

It would be wrong, however, to consider Nueva Italia truly liberated. People remain aware that any neighbor may be a spy for the drug lords who wormed their way deep into the sinews of this rural society over the years. There are new rumors that the Knights Templar will return soon to rain vengeance on the civilians who have sided with the vigilantes.

Some here are also worried that the vigilantes may not be heroes so much as useful stooges, fighting off the Knights Templar for the benefit of a rival drug gang known as the Jalisco New Generation cartel, from the state bordering Michoacan to the north and west. The whispers of concern come from residents who decline to give their full names, for fear of reprisal from forces they cannot presume to understand.

“The people are giving them their confidence,” said Miguel, 65, an army veteran who was studying the Bible on Thursday in a dim grocery store near one of the new vigilante roadblocks. “But we don’t know who they are.”


By midweek, the vigilantes were concentrated at sandbagged roadblocks at the town’s main entrances. They were young and middle-aged men from Nueva Italia and nearby towns. Some had once lived in Southern California. Their dress was irregular, a jumble of T-shirts, ski masks, camouflage and baseball caps. They openly displayed their assault rifles but said they always put them away when the federal police patrols came around, out of “respect,” they said, for the government.

The municipal police here had been disbanded. Security duties in the center of town had fallen to the federal officers, who stood sternly on street corners in helmets and body armor, rifles at the ready.

All around them, life went on as it had to in a scruffy city of lime pickers and papaya growers. Trucks were repaired at mechanic shops, tacos consumed at taquerias. Men and women returned home from the fields, packed, like so much cargo, into truck beds.

On Wednesday evening, hundreds of residents gathered on the broad concrete square. These were the people fed up with the Knights Templar, tired of the protection payments small businesses were forced to make, or the tribute demanded of the lowliest field hands. They were tired of the killing and mayhem and terror.

Before the vigilantes’ arrival, said Marta, a 62-year-old agricultural worker, “you weren’t free here.” She said she had paid dearly for the return of two children the cartel had kidnapped.

The residents had convened under a full moon to elect a committee to feed and otherwise support the self-defense groups. Nominees were pushed out of the crowd and onto a stage by friends, remaining there if the crowd cheered them, and stepping down if booed. Eventually five men and a woman were selected, among them a mechanic, a doctor and a teacher.

Municipal president Casimiro Quezada Casillas uttered a few stirring words about how challenges can unite a community. He was met with catcalls. Father Patricio said that the entire local government was widely known to be “at the mercy” of the cartel.

But there was also a feeling that people of goodwill were gaining the upper hand. A man named Rafael Sandoval took the stage and grabbed a microphone. “Señores,” he said, gesturing to the committee members, “I hope that those who are here have these.”

He grabbed his crotch, unleashing an explosion of applause.


The next morning, at the roadblock on the north side of town, the vigilantes ladled plates of fragrant goat stew from a large pot, the latest gift from their local admirers. Though some Nueva Italia men had joined the vigilantes, this particular group of perhaps a dozen fighters were from the nearby town of Santa Ana. A number of them had been raised in the U.S., and spoke in the cool, ambling English of the Southern California streets.

A 22-year-old named Jorge, who learned his English in Tucson, said that locals had been stopping all week to tip them off to halcones, or spies, for the cartel. His comrades said they had already detained 20 of them, and were pumping them for more information.

“The people come to us and say, ‘That fool is a Templario,'” said Jorge, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution. “We are nothing without them.”

Another vigilante, Adolfo Silva, 20, sported an ancient assault rifle, army boots and a necklace with a dangling cross. Before moving to Mexico, he said, he was enrolled at Century High School in Santa Ana, Orange County. He joined the self-defense group, he added, when the Templarios kidnapped his cousin.

He nodded in the direction of his brother, who, he said, had once been a member of an Orange County street gang. The name Lopers was tattooed up the side of his brother’s arm.

Silva said he never ran with a gang himself. And he bristled when asked whether a rival cartel was paying the vigilantes or supplying them with arms. “The Templarios just started saying all that” to discredit the vigilantes’ cause, he said.

Silva had heard a rumor that the Templarios were on the big hill above town, receiving food from their own supporters, waiting for the right moment to counterattack. “We know any time they could come,” he said. “We’re not gonna say we’re not scared, ’cause we are.”

It seemed that the fear had also infected the new committee members almost immediately after their election on the town square. One quit the next morning, concerned for his life. The others ducked interview requests.

Father Patricio said that some locals were already telling him that they doubted whether they could trust committee members they didn’t know personally. What was to stop them from falling under the sway of the Knights Templar, as so many others had?

Still, some were daring to hope for the best. By the end of the week, federal officials said they had taken control of 27 municipalities in the most combustible parts of Michoacan, including Nueva Italia.

On Thursday afternoon, taxi driver Miguel Angel Gonzalez was happily downing beers at a carnitas stand, watched over by a deployment of federal police. He said he was betting that the federal forces, in conjunction with the vigilantes, would identify and arrest remaining cartel members.

Others were not so sure. This swath of southwest Mexico is blessed and cursed by geography. Its busy Pacific ports serve as transshipment points for South American cocaine and Chinese chemicals to cook methamphetamine. The fertile lands are a fine place to grow fruit — and also marijuana and poppies.

Would organized crime remain here forever? On the south side of town, Fernando, a 34-year-old gas station attendant, said he wasn’t certain. But he figured that the federal police would have to go home eventually.

When they did, he said grimly, the remnants of the Knights Templar would take their revenge against whoever had dared to cross them. “I can guarantee that,” he said.

Photos: Top: Autodefensas on the outskirts of town. Bottom: The ad hoc committee at Nueva Italia. [RF]



Mexican rock bands highlight indigenous languages


Originally posted at

A Mexican Coachella gives new meaning to ‘roots rock’
Mexican rock bands sing in Tzotzil, Zoque and other disappearing languages of native pueblos, part of an effort to save the ancient tongues.

Story and Photos by Richard Fausset

Reporting from Zinacantan, Mexico

January 1, 2014

Valeriano Gomez was standing on a festival stage cradling his black guitar as fans spread out before him, waiting for the count-off, the downstroke, the next electric blast.

Gomez and his group wore matching woolen ponchos, dyed jet black, that made them look like some far-out garage band from the late LBJ era, the flavor of a long-gone week at the Whisky a Go Go.

But the scene took on a different tone when Gomez, 28, began to sing:

Mi xa na’, bu likemtal la tsunubale

Albun mi x-vul ta ajol …

Gomez’s group, Yibel Jme’tik Banamil, was among the featured performers at Mexico’s polyglot version of Coachella, a festival of rock not en español. The language was Tzotzil, a tongue spoken by Gomez and about 300,000 other indigenous Maya in the central highlands of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states.

“Do you remember?” the song went. “Where your roots are from?… Tell me if you still know the language of your ancestors.”

Gomez’s poncho wasn’t some groovy fashion throwback, but a chuj, the traditional daily costume worn by the men in his Maya hometown, San Juan Chamula. It is a place where the church floor is strewn with pine needles, chickens are sacrificed in religious ritual, and medicine men deliver remedies that predate the arrival of the Spanish.

But television had arrived by the time Gomez was growing up, and it was there that he heard the ’80s band Survivor pound out its thumping hit “Eye of the Tiger” in the movie “Rocky III,” and there that he heard Los Lobos cover “La Bamba” as Lou Diamond Phillips played Ritchie Valens in the 1987 biopic. Thus began an unorthodox rock ‘n’ roll conversion.

“I identified a lot with Ritchie Valens,” Gomez said. “He was like us — young people trying to realize a dream. In our case, it’s a cultural dream, a dream of dignifying the original pueblos of Mexico.”


On that chilly Saturday night in November, Gomez’s group and 14 others rocked, rapped, skanked and swung in nine of Mexico’s 68 indigenous languages.

This third annual “National Meeting of Tradition and New Songs” was part of a curious attempt on the part of the Mexican government to help save local languages by encouraging their integration with the pop genres that are globalization’s de facto soundtrack.

The concerts are the brainchild of Juan Gregorio Regino, intercultural development director for Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts, a noted poet who grew up speaking the Mazatec language in his native Oaxaca.

The government, Gregorio said, is seeking to strengthen a movement that had been bubbling up naturally in Mexico’s far-flung native pueblos.

Gregorio, 57, has no interest in returning to some imagined, more “authentic” past. Rather, he said, he wants the concerts to show how that culture is “amalgamated with all of these other influences — the result of an intercultural process, which is the reality that we indigenous are living.”

More than a century ago, federal officials seeking to unify a vast, diverse nation prohibited indigenous languages in school. But over the ensuing decades, the concept of cultural plurality was slowly recognized as an asset. The sentiment got a boost from indigenous activists, including the Zapatista rebels who took up arms here in Chiapas in 1994 to protest their repression.

Experts say Mexico’s non-Spanish languages continue to be threatened by urbanization, the homogenizing power of global mass media, and a government that still struggles to live up to its promise to provide bilingual education.

More pernicious is the lingering perception in some quarters that indigenous culture is something less than civilized. The day before the bands arrived in Chiapas, a K’iche Maya doctoral candidate from Guatemala said she had been kicked out of a French bakery in the Chiapas city of San Cristobal de las Casas because she was wearing traditional clothing. She complained to Mexico’s human rights commission. The incident made national headlines.

Government statistics show that 6% of Mexicans speak an indigenous language, a proportion that has held steady since the mid-1990s. Scores of languages, however, have vanished.

The members of Yibel Jme’tik Banamil, all in their 20s, grew up in villages where Tzotzil is still the language of the street and the dinner table. But they have seen the kids who go off to the big cities and come back changed.

“You don’t see them in their traditional clothes, or they don’t want to speak the language anymore,” drummer Juan Javier Perez Perez said.

The band’s decision to sing in Tzotzil was an “existential” one, he said. “We want to live in this world. And we want to share this world with other people.”


The 15 bands arrived in this fog-shrouded Maya village from 11 states. For three days, the musicians attended “creative clinics” in a civic building, overseen by seasoned Mexican pop and rock musicians who coached them on the finer points of voice, instrumentation and stagecraft.


Yibel Jme’tik Banamil performed its song about language and roots for the pros. It was a moody, minor-key, mid-tempo number, and the band delivered it with both polish and restraint. The experts, led by a silver-haired piano player named Guillermo Briseño, praised the group, then got down to a tough-love critique, much like judges on an “Idol”-esque show: The two guitars were playing the same rhythm. The second guitarist needed more nuance. The singing lacked passion.


“Convince us of what you’re saying,” one said. “To sing and speak aren’t the same thing.”


It was a few hours before the show now. Zinacantan was bathed in the quiet of a small-town Saturday afternoon. Except for the rappers in a group called Mayan Poetry, who were rehearsing on the town’s open-air basketball court. They were flawlessly running through their song “I Am Not Afraid” to a bright and poppy backing track, their voices rolling out verses in Yucatec Mayan, full of thick, percussive glottal consonants:


Ma ch’a’ik saajkili


Wu loj ik laak’ilo’or, tsu’uyta lik beetik …


Roughly: “Don’t be afraid, we are all brothers, we make ourselves stronger.”


They were Carlos Javier Caamal Tun, 23, and Joel Tuz Kauil, 26, both from Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in the state of Quintana Roo. In their ball caps and baggy hip-hop gear, they could have been space aliens among the Chiapan highlanders.

The pair grew up listening to Tupac Shakur, Eminem and Control Machete, Spanish-language rappers from northern Mexico. But they dream in the language they learned from their parents.

Tuz said the vast majority of people in his city still speak the indigenous language. But he wonders how long it will last.

“The Maya go to work in the hotels, and they begin to lose the Mayan language,” he said. “They lose their connection to the earth, the culture, the mystic element.”

Caamal said that for the indigenous, there is often self-censoring rooted in self-preservation. “They think, ‘Maybe if I speak my native language, they’re going to discriminate against me, and I don’t want that to happen.’ So there’s a fear of even wanting to speak.”

Now this cultural import — this music born in the South Bronx — was their tool to save a culture from being cast adrift in a globalizing tide. They found it neither strange nor ironic. Hip-hop, they said, was now theirs as much as it was anyone’s.

This, Tuz said, “is the living Maya culture. It’s what the Maya people are doing now.”


The sun went down and the concert began. The streets in the center of town were abandoned to stray dogs as the venue filled with hundreds of locals and curious music fans from San Cristobal.

El Rapero de Tlapa, from Guerrero state, delivered his verses in a language called Tu’un Savi. La Sexta Vocal played ska and reggae in a southern Mexican language called Zoque.

Yibel Jme’tik Banamil opened its set flanked by traditional masked dancers in conical hats who leaped around to the loud guitars like surrealist jesters, trailing colorful ribbons, delighting the crowd. The group’s number, so restrained in the morning, roared now with raw power.

The rappers in Mayan Poetry were just as confident as they had been on the basketball court a few hours earlier. They leaped and rhymed in a language that no one really understands on this side of Mexico — though for a few moments, it was hard to tell.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times 


 Photo: The members of Yibel Jme’tik Banamil, from left: Delfino Diaz Lopez, Valeriano Gomez, Juan Javier Perez Perez, Mateo Heredia and Pascual Patishtan. They perform in Tzotzil, a language spoken by about 300,000 indigenous Maya in the central highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas state. [RF]




It’s been a wild time since Christmas, full of tragedy, loss, war, wonder and a ton of work. Today I’ll post some LA Times backlog, & resolve to keep things fresh on the blog in the days to come. –RF