The reason booms from every newsstand in Chiapas: the Mexican government's crackdown on what Interior Secretary Francisco Labastida Ochoa insists is "an international movement to intervene in the internal affairs of our country." Among his other duties, Labastida is in charge of the federal National Immigration Institute, which has deported more than 200 foreigners in the past two years and keeps close tabs on the movement of foreigners in Chiapas.
Although the myriad private aid groups and peace activists working in Chiapas are hardly the only foreign entities that have inserted themselves into Mexican political and economic life - the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration are others that immediately come to mind - the non-governmental organizations have become the target of a high-decibel campaign, directed by top government officials, that has produced a series of summary expulsions from the country. The orders routinely cite Article 33 of the Constitution, which forbids non-Mexicans from mixing in Mexican politics.
Since a January 30 speech in which President Ernesto Zedillo urged all foreigners in Chiapas to head back to their home countries and battle the vestiges of "authoritarianism" and "exclusion" on their own turf, at least three U.S. citizens have been snapped up by Chiapas immigration authorities and very publicly tossed out of Mexico. After Maria Bullit Darlington, 65, was accused of participating in a march with members of a Zapatista base community in the conflictive north of the state last April, authorities put her on a plane to Texas on February 8. Robert Schweitzer, an art curator, was deported for having photographed the long-suspended peace talks between the EZLN and the government two years ago as an independent journalist, a technical violation of his tourist visa. And Tom Hansen, the former director of the U.S. activist clergy group Pastors for Peace, was expelled February 19 after distributing video cameras to Indians in Zapatista base communities. The cameras have been utilized to record transgressions by the military and paramilitary groups. The U.S. State Department requested an explanation from Mexican authorities.
In addition, the Immigration Institute is holding 12 warrants for expulsion of other foreigners who have yet to be located, while hundreds of visitors have been brought in for interrogation by agency officials in San Cristobal. Most of those charged are accused of visiting the conflict zone on a tourist visa - Immigration considers the region off-limits to tourism. According to the Immigration Institute's count, 4,435 foreigners have entered the conflict zone since 1996.
Renewed international attention was focused on Chiapas following the December 22 massacre of 46 Tzotzil Zapatista supporters. The arrival of several foreign human-rights delegations since then has triggered resentment on the part of government officials in both Mexico City and Chiapas. Interim Governor Roberto Albores is both charging foreigners with manipulating the Indians and warning them to get out of the state. The most serious instance of this xenophobic wave occurred in mid-February when TV anchorwoman Lolita De la Vega, the wife of an influential member of the long-ruling (69 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), borrowed a helicopter from Albores and landed in La Realidad, the EZLN's most public outpost in the deep Lacandon jungle. Putting down smack in the middle of a local peace camp staffed by Mexican, Spanish and presumed German volunteers, De la Vega filmed what she later described as "the foreign wing of the EZLN - the foreigners are in command of our Indians" (sic).
Television Azteca aired the tape repeatedly, ratcheting up anti-foreign resentment all over the country. Subsequent TV appearances by the secretary of the interior, his coordinator for reviving the stalemated peace talks and hard-nosed immigration officials have intensified the lynch-mob atmosphere.
The clampdown came just as 200 members of a mostly European observer group arrived in Mexico. As the visitors spread throughout Chiapas, Migration Institute authorities, who had previously okayed the group's mission, sought to monkey-wrench their passage through the region. Observers were subject to constant revision of special travel documents issued by the Mexican government, a process that slowed to a crawl visits to Zapatista base communities - one Italian observer was threatened with deportation, and Mexican lawyers traveling with the group were reportedly called "traitors" by an immigration functionary.
The Mexican Migra's current campaign to force foreigners to flee Chiapas is not the first time the government has stepped up the pressure on human-rights observers. Twenty-one international observers were tossed out of Mexico last April in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero for such high crimes as trying to visit political prisoners on a tourist visa. Indeed, the Mexican government has a long tradition of expelling any foreigner it might find troublesome. In 1997, Canadian Ambassador Marc Perren was declared persona non grata for calling government officials "corrupt," and in 1990 the illustrious Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa had to leave town quickly after he described Mexico as "the perfect dictatorship." Back in the 1920s, the celebrated photographer Tina Modotti was tossed out of Mexico for being a communist.
The expulsions of foreigners is not a very effective method of silencing international criticism. The deportees, usually articulate activists in the first place, are sent back to their home countries where they make frequent public appearances and stir up anti-Mexican government dissent. The Rev. Loren Riebe, a U.S.-born Chiapas parish priest, who was deported along with two other foreign clergy in 1995, has made nonstop public appearances criticizing Mexican government policies in that state ever since he touched United States soil three years ago. Riebe's illegal deportation complaint against the Mexican government will be heard by the Organization of American States' Inter-American Human Rights Commission late this week.
As might be expected, the immigration dragnet in San Cristobal is taking a toll on the tourist trade, the city's main economic activity. Agents now stop tourists in the public plazas and restaurants and visit hotels and private homes to inspect their papers. Visitors who carry only photocopies of their travel documents are cited and interrogated. Rather than subject themselves to such constant harassment, many tourists have abandoned the city, an exodus which recently caused San Cristobal's restaurant and hotel owners to demand that the Interior Ministry halt the raids.