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Salida Dificil/No Easy Exit
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Salida Dificil/No Easy Exit

Yuki Sato is an ARC member who until recently worked in Mexico City for an agency sponsored by the Japanese government. She recently traveled to Chiapas as a volunteer with a local non-governmental organization (NGO).

Our trip to Chiapas, Mexico – dubbed the "Reality Tour" – was organized by an American non-profit organization called Global Exchange. Since it was founded in 1988, Global Exchange has worked for political, economic, and social justice on a global scale, mainly through programs such as reality tours to Third World countries, public education, fair trade, and other human rights work.

Since I started to live in Mexico City three years ago, I have been interested in getting involved in some activities to support the indigenous people in Mexico. Everyday and everywhere in Mexico, you can find them suffering and struggling. I have tried to find ways in which I could do something with them. On this trip, therefore, I wanted to get more information on the indigenous people in Chiapas in order to understand their real life, as well as to meet those who are supporting them through grassroots activities.

Most of the participants in this tour – 14 in all – arrived at San Cristobal de Las Casas on December 28, 1998. Our plan for the next 8 days was to meet with members of some local grassroots organizations, as well as to visit indigenous communities and women's cooperatives.

Soon after our trip began, the Mexican National Immigration Institute (INM) and the Interior Ministry started to accuse Global Exchange of organizing "revolutionary tourism" and of breaking Mexican laws because we were intending to pursue political activities which were not authorized by our visas. They even went so far as to publish all of our names in a local newspaper, Cuarto Poder.

One of visits we planned was to Oventic, which is regarded as a Zapatista support base community. In order to visit one of these communities, it is necessary to pass a military checkpoint. Global Exchange explained to us that when the military stopped us, they would likely give us citation, the result of which was usually expulsion from the country. As a group, we discussed whether we should continue our trip or not. In the end, 11 of us decided to continue on.

On the morning of January 1st, we left San Cristobal de Las Casas, and arrived at the military checkpoint at around noon. The military stopped our bus, and our coordinator got off to talk with them. He was asked to show official documentation for each of us. While our documentation was checked, two soldiers boarded the bus. One of the soldiers searched the bus and inspected each of our bags, while the other filmed us with a video camera. Another soldier attempted to engage us in conversation, claiming that he wanted to ‘practice English,’ but none of us spoke to him, and we remained on the bus. Outside, even local buses were being stopped, with all passengers being forced off.

After about an hour, we were allowed to pass the checkpoint and we continued to Oventic. We stayed until 4:00 p.m. and then headed back to San Cristobal de Las Casas. When we returned to the checkpoint, we were detained once again, and this time they were waiting to give us the citation papers. At first, our coordinator was told to choose three of us, but he refused. The military therefore chose who would receive the citations, one of whom was me. They then attempted to interrogate us, but our coordinator protested that, without our lawyers present, such an interrogation would be illegal, and the soldiers relented.

The citation was scheduled for January 4th, by which time I had already contacted the Japanese embassy in Mexico City. By that time, one of the other volunteers who received a citation had left Mexico, leaving two of us to attend the INM in San Cristobal. When we arrived, we found waiting for us not only the immigration officials, but also some journalists. It appeared that the authorities wanted to make this event a warning to all foreigners and NGOs working in Chiapas.

My interrogation started at 3 p.m. and took more than two hours. A lawyer came with me, and the INM called a Japanese woman as an interpreter. At first I had thought I should refuse to answer any questions. However when the interrogation started, I decided to declare because there was no reason not to answer. We hadn’t done anything illegal. I carefully chose words to prevent misunderstandings. Later, I learned that my fellow volunteer had refused to answer questions. That night, both of us received new citations ordering us to appear on January 6 in Mexico City.

The next day, January 5, was the last day of our trip. We left San Cristobal de Las Casas very early in the morning and arrived at Mexico City at noon. On the same day, all of the participants – except for me – headed for the U.S.

Before the second citation, the Japanese Embassy grappled with how to resolve this problem. Thanks to their efforts, when I went to the INM for my second interrogation, I was not asked many questions, but only formal ones regarding my job and the reasons why I participated in this trip. They photocopied all my official documentation. Three hours later, everything became clear: it was shown that I had a legal visa to stay and work in Mexico.

(Later I heard a rumour that the other volunteers who had received citations were expelled and are not allowed to return to Mexico for 2 years.)

Although I was safe to continue working in Mexico, the indigenous people of Chiapas are still under the same situation, suffering violations of their human rights. Their activities are always checked, especially when they are suspected of being Zapatista sympathizers. Their lives are threatened in many ways. The difference, however, is that the indigenous people are never deported from Mexico. In other words, they don't have an easy exit to get out of the present situation. On the other hand, we foreigners are able to escape anytime whether or not the Mexican authorities issue us an expulsion order.

In the end, the image that remains with me is that of the indigenous villagers that I saw from our bus while we were stopped by military. They just bent their heads over, passing through as fast as they could in front of the soldiers, as if they were trying to escape from something. I cannot stop thinking of them, and wondering what each of us can do to support them. There is still a long way until we reach their tierra.

For more information on Global Exchange, see their web page at www.globalexchange.org