Mexico confirms some Mayan ruins sites inaccessible due to gang violence, land disputes

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s government has acknowledged that at least two well-known Mayan ruins sites are inaccessible to visitors because of a toxic mix of cartel violence and land disputes.

But two tour guides in the southern state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala, say two other sites that the government says are still open to visitors can only be reached through drug gang checkpoints.

The explosion of drug cartel violence in Chiapas since last year has left the Yaxchilán ruins site completely isolated, the government acknowledged Friday.

Tour guides – who spoke on condition of anonymity because they still have to work in the area – said armed men and checkpoints are often seen on the road to another site, Bonampak, famous for its paintings murals.

They say that to access another archaeological site, Lagartero, travelers are forced to hand over their IDs and cellphones at cartel checkpoints.

Meanwhile, officials admit that visitors also cannot travel to the towering and imposing Tonina Pyramids because a landowner has closed off his land while demanding payment from the government for granting the right of way.

The dangers linked to cartels are the most problematic. The two cartels warring over the region’s lucrative drug and migrant trafficking routes have set up checkpoints to detect any movement by their rivals.

Although no tourists have been injured so far and the government says the sites are safe, many guides no longer take tour groups there.

“It’s like you’re telling me to go to the Gaza Strip, right? » said one of the guides.

“They require your ID to see if you are a local resident,” he said, describing a near-permanent gang checkpoint on the road to Lagartero, a Mayan pyramid complex surrounded by pristine, turquoise lagoons .

“They take your cell phone and demand your login code, then they go through your conversations to see if you belong to another gang,” he said. “At any moment, a rival group could appear and start a shootout. »

The government doesn’t seem to care, and there is even anger at anyone suggesting there is a problem, in line with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s policy of minimizing gang violence even as cartels take over more and more territory in Mexico.

“Bonampak and Lagartero are open to the public,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement on Friday.

“It is false, biased and irresponsible to say that these archaeological sites are threatened by drug traffickers,” added the agency, known as INAH, which says it “retains control of the sites.”

Both guides emphasized that Chiapas’ best-known Mayan ruin site, the imposing Palenque temple complex, is open and perfectly safe for visitors. But as of December, tourists have canceled about 5% of trips booked to the region, and fears could grow.

Things that some tourists once enjoyed — like the more adventurous journey to ruins buried deep in the jungle, like Yaxchilán, on the banks of the Usumacinta River and accessible only by boat — are either impossible or so risky that several guides have publicly declared this. announced that they would not take tourists there.

Residents of the town of Frontera Comalapa, where boats once picked up tourists to take them to Yaxchilan, closed the road in October due to constant incursions by armed men.

Even the INAH recognizes that there is no access to Yaxchilan, emphasizing that “the institute itself has recommended in certain places that tourists not go to the archaeological site, because their visit could be unsuccessful”. But he said the problems there are “social in nature” and beyond his control.

Fights against cartels started to get very intense in Chiapas in 2023coinciding with the increase in the number of migrants – now around half a million a year – crossing the Darien Gap jungle from South America, through Central America and Mexico to the US border .

Since much of the new wave of migrants comes from Cuba, Asia and Africa, they can pay more than Central Americans, making smuggling routes through Chiapas more valuable. The problem now appears to be spiraling out of control.

The National Guard – the quasi-military force that López Obrador has made the centerpiece of maintaining order in Mexico – has been targeted with stones and sticks by residents of several towns in this region of Chiapas in recent weeks.

The other guide said it was because the two warring drug cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco, often recruit or force the local population to act as foot soldiers and prevent National Guard soldiers from entering their cities.

In Chiapas, residents are often members of indigenous groups like the Choles or the Lacandons, both descendants of the ancient Maya. The potential harm from their use as foot soldiers in anti-cartel struggles is grim, given that some groups have few members left or are already engaged in land disputes.

The guide explained that the ruin sites have the added disadvantage of being located in jungle areas where cartels have set up at least four clandestine airstrips to smuggle drugs from South America.

But the damage is piling up for indigenous residents who now rely on tourism.

“There are communities that sell crafts, that offer accommodation, boat trips, artisans. This affects the economy a lot,” said the first guide. “We must not forget that it is an agricultural state which has neither industry nor factories, so tourism has become an economic lever, one of the rare sources of work.”

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