Bearing Witness: A Return to Mexico

By jc

In celebration of the new IMC Chiapas site, coinciding with the Zapatista caravan to Mexico City, I plan to post a column twice a week documenting events in and around the caravan, with a special emphasis on my own view as an international human rights worker expelled from Mexico in 1998. With the change of government, over 400 international witnesses who were expelled from Mexico during the past six years have been formally allowed to reenter the country. It remains to be seen if this pledge of amnesty will be honored. I expect to enter Mexico within the next few weeks as a tourist, to witness the social changes occurring at an unbelievably rapid pace. My treatment -- as well as the treatment of other returning expulsados -- will be a true indicator of the changing attitude of Mexican authorities and civil society to the challenges of democracy.

My own expulsion was a dramatic, painful and challenging event and my pending return to Mexico will be, in some ways, equally dramatic. Without interfering in Mexican political process -- but taking a stand as a citizen of an increasingly globalized world -- I hope to document both personal and political reactions to this game of shifting borders and changing rules. I hope to take advantage of the public space offered by the IMC to document, step by step, my own vision of what this return to Mexico may mean.

Part One: Expulsion and Return

In April 1998, when a mixed force of military, police and federal intelligence and immigration agents occupied the village of Taniperla in the newly declared Zapatista autonomous municipality of Ricardo Flores Magon, this signaled a renewal of hostilities against the indigenous movement in Chiapas. Mexico was in the throes of a low-intensity war on indigenous autonomy and a campaign of rampant xenophobia. Caught up in that village occupation, I was detained by federal agents and expelled from Mexico "for life."

As part of a wave of harassment against foreigners, my expulsion and those of my many colleagues and comrades had a variety of effects. One thing that happened was that, as we landed in our respective countries and our respective solidarity communities, news of the Zapatista struggle and the Mexican government's illegitimate handling of it hit the news stands for the first time in months. Only this time, the news stayed news for a long time, galvanizing a wave of concern by international solidarity groups as well as human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

In the case of Taniperla, we weretwelve foreigners from six nations, and when we hit the tarmac back at home, we ensured that the news spread. As the government's war of attrition heated up, so did the international response, partly in reaction to the expulsion of foreigners and our arrival at home as witnesses to the atrocities in Chiapas. In its attempt to squelch the internationalization of the conflict, the Mexican government managed instead to promote it. Repression brings resistance, and in the new global information society, forcing witnesses to abandon the site of criminal activity simply does not work.

The communications media varied in their responsiveness and in their capacity to give just coverage to the expulsions. On a Washington, D.C. radio talk show, for example, when I spoke of the invasion of Taniperla, the host questioned my terminology: "What do you mean 'invasion?' Invasion makes it sound like tanks, gunships, huge numbers of troops.' I replied that the number of heavily-armed troops in the invading force nearly equaled the number of villagers in Taniperla, and that, yes there were helicopters and humvees. The reporter baited me, saying, "Humvess, you mean like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger owns?", to which I replied, "Similar, maybe, but I suppose Schwarezenegger's humvee doesn't have a front-mounted M-60 machine gun to spray armor-piercing bullets at passers-by in Beverly Hills."

Most of the media ignored the events, some gave cynical coverage, and a very few newspapers and radio shows -- the SFBay Guardian, La Jornada in Mexico, Democracy Now, Making Contact -- actually aired our testimonies. I managed to speak for 30 minutes on CBS International, and eventually gave an extensive interview to a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, for an article which never appeared in print. The media which made the most of the issue was independent media, meaning, at that time, privately produced pamphlets, murals painted in solidarity from Coyoacan to California to the Costa Brava, and puppet shows put on in front of Mexican consulates throughout the world.

That was 1998. Now, three years later, after Seattle, Washington DC, Prague, Porto Alegre and many other mass mobilizations, independent media is a movement encompassing film, video, print, net as well as the pamphlets and wall paintings that are its most primitive expressions. And, three years later everything is different in Mexico, changing more rapidly than anyone can keep track of.

Expelled from Mexico "for life" in 1998, I, along with 400 other expulsados, am allowed to go back in 2001. This change is due to the changeover in government, from Ernesto Zedillo's cynical and schizophrenic rule, to the new, more user-friendly government of Vicente Fox. This transition, of course, has its roots in the mass mobilization for democracy and justice sparked by the Zapatistas seven years ago, and which is now beginning to see its greatest effects as the entire country undergoes a sea-change.

President Fox is making great strides to complete Mexico's painful transition to free-market neoliberal democracy begun by his predecessors. Where this will leave the movement for indigenous autonomy remains to be seen. Fox promises to bring development to the Mexican Southeast, with all of the contradictions and threats to traditional values that accompany such "development." The question to be asked is "development on whose terms, and with what benefits?" While it is true that the indigenous communities, exhausted and impoverished from years of low-intensity war, stand to see short-term benefits from money for schools, medicine, infrastructure, and so on, unchecked economic growth is more of a threat than ever to indigenous lifeways and ecological health.

The previous administration failed to understand that the demilitarization of civilian zones, the freedom of movement of Mexican citizens, and the work of international human rights observers, all serve to support the creation of a democracy-friendly environment. The expulsion of human rights workers was an attempt to cover up non-democratic tendencies such as militarization, electoral fraud, and inequity. It was also a part of a strategy which declared "Mexico for the Mexicans," but refused to acknowledge the first Mexicans, the indigenous and the peasant class, while at the same time pretending to ignore the fact that this new Mexico was underwritten by such non-Mexican institutions as the Clinton Administration, the IMF and Chase Manhattan Bank. It remains to be seen whether the renewed presence of international observers, as an aid to Mexico's transition to democracy, will be welcomed by the Fox administration, and how the contradictions of the previous regime will play themselves out on the ground.

In the age of electronic communication, as national boundaries disappear, witnesses proliferate. The Zapatista caravan from Chiapas to Mexico City, with its call for witnesses, is a historic moment that will reveal the depth of Mexico's sea-change. The new independent media will report from the front lines, and reveal, yet again, that this is what democracy looks like.

Conflict in Chiapas: Understanding the Modern Mayan World
by Worth H. Weller, Ben Weller (Photographer), Julia Weller (Photographer)
$16.95, Paperback, March 1, 2000
Rebellion in Chiapas : An Historical Reader
by John Womack (Editor)
$14.36, Paperback , March 1999
Voices from Exile : Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History
by Victor Montejo
$18.17, Hardcover, October 1999
©Copyright 1997-2000 Jeeni Criscenzo