There's a Problem With the Mayan Ruins: They’re Becoming Inaccessible Due to Violence

  • Guides are refusing to take groups of tourists to some areas that are controlled by drug traffickers.

  • The Mexican government says that the problems are “social” and that access to the ruins isn't cut off.

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Mexico is a country with an abundance of natural and cultural resources. However, rampant drug trafficking has significantly tainted this wealth. Despite the government’s ongoing efforts to combat drug trafficking for several years, it's still common to hear news about recent cartel activities from time to time. 

A few years ago, the cartels made headlines after taking over the avocado market. Now, however, the focus seems to be on tourism, which is making people cancel their trips to Mayan archaeological zones.

In short: Local guides are reluctant to take groups on expeditions to these storied areas. The government, for its part, claims that there's nothing to worry about.

Mexico’s fifth largest employer. It may seem exaggerated to say that drug cartels are restricting people’s freedom to visit some of the country’s most popular landmarks. In reality, though, these criminals currently hold significant power and influence.

According to a study conducted by Science a few months ago, the exact figures of drug smuggling’s “black box” are hard to estimate. However, research suggests that it employs around 175,000 people, making it the country’s fifth largest employer. These estimates mean cartels employ more people than some of Mexico's most important companies. 

The study notes that the problem is difficult to solve because these groups continue to recruit hundreds of people every week. They often resort to forced recruitment given the high death rate among their members.

Confiscating phones and checking IDs. In January, national media reported that drug traffickers had taken control of tourism in the region of Chiapas, which is located in southern Mexico. Two anonymous tour guides claimed that certain Mayan tourist sites, such as Yaxchilan, Bonampak, and Lagartero, were inaccessible due to the presence of armed cartel members. The guides stated that they didn't take their groups to these sites because of the danger posed by the cartels.

“It’s like visiting the Gaza Strip. They ask you to show your ID to check whether you’re a resident and live in the area. They take your phone from you, use your password, and check your messages to ensure you don’t belong to a rival group,” one of the guides told Mexican outlet El Financiero. “At any moment, an opposing group can come out of nowhere and start shooting,” he added.

Mixed messages. While some guides refuse to go to certain tourist sites due to safety concerns, some of these areas are still open to the public. In light of the situation, some visitors have canceled their bookings, which has led to a decline in over the last few months. Still, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) insists that “it’s false, biased, and irresponsible to state that these archaeological zones are in danger because of drug trafficking.”

In its press release, the INAH denies claims of looting in Bonampak and Lagartero, stating that these sites are open to the public and have not suffered any property damage. While the institute does confirm that some areas have been closed, it points out that this is “not necessarily due to security concerns.”

The Yaxchilán Archaeological Zone, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, remains open. However, trips have been canceled due to “social issues that prevent the community of Frontera Corozal from offering boat transfers to the site.” Although the INAH acknowledges these problems, it claims it's not “equipped to deal with them nor is it the right entity to do so.” Meanwhile, tourist guides claim that the Yaxchilán route was closed because of constant incursions by gunmen.

Cutting off access. Drug trafficking isn't the only problem facing Mexican archaeological sites in the state of Chiapas. There's recently been uproar over the "Toniná" case. Toniná is the name of fascinating tourist site that features impressive structures, texts, and challenges from the Mayan civilization.

The case centers on Alfonso Cruz, the owner of the lands surrounding the archaeological site, who decided to bar access to it back in December. Why? Because he hasn’t received payment for his land from the Mexican government. According to Cruz, he had an agreement with the INAH that stated he would be paid for the use of his land. However, payments stopped in recent months, and his land was reclassified as a space for cattle. As such, his lands became much less valuable overnight.

In its press release, INAH acknowledges the situation, stating that it’s currently revising the case and hopes to grant Cruz the correct compensation and reach an agreement soon.

Tragedy strikes Indigenous peoples in the area. In the middle of all this are the Choles or Lacadones, descendants of the Maya who are living in the area. The cartels are forcing the Indigenous peoples to join their ranks, which is leading to decimation of their population. In addition, the lack of tourism is affecting the economy of these Indigenous communities, who used to sell handicrafts and offer boat tours and lodging to visiting tourists.

Only time will tell how this situation will end. It’s important to note, however, that jungle areas like this one are strategic points for drug traffickers. They’ve even opened clandestine airstrips to facilitate their trade. Therefore, it seems unrealistic to think that the situation will improve in the short-term.

Image | PashiX

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