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Booted Across the Border

Mexico Deports Three Americans for Alleged Subversion

by Michael Simmons
Los Angeles, California

Three American citizens, along with nine other foreigners, were deported from Mexico on April 12, 1998 for alleged collusion with the Zapatista rebels (EZLN). The woman, Travis Loller, 26, and two men, Michael Sabato, 30, and Jeffrey Conant, 30, are part of an American relief group called Intercambio de Tecnologia Apropiada (ITA) or, in English, Appropriate Technology Exchange. The Mexican government accused the three of agitating for the rebel army that's been struggling in the southeastern state of Chiapas for over four years in an effort to win basic civil rights and gain land reform for the indigenous Indians in the region.

The incident, which comes on the heels of the December 2, 1997 massacre of 46 Tzotzil Indians in the village of Acteal by government paramilitaries and the continual ejection of foreigners, has infuriated Zapatista supporters. On April 22, a press conference was held at the Peace Center in L.A. to announce plans to fight the deportations. An array of activists were present: Lydia Brazon, director of the Humanitarian Law Project, Sherry Kline of the Chiapas Coalition '98, Susan Alva, attorney with the coalition for Human Immigrants Rights in L.A. (CHIRLA), prior American-deportee Maria Darlington, and Loller and Sabato. "We're going to bring this pattern of the Mexican government to expel witnesses, tourists and human rights workers to the United Nations" said Brazon, whose group has consultative status at the U.N. Brazon will also be taking the case to the Organization of American States and will institute legal action against the Zedillo government.

The three Americans have extensive activist histories, having worked for reproductive rights, the homeless and protests against the Gulf War, the Rodney King verdict and Propositions 187 and 209. Ironically, their time in Mexico was spent not on direct politic organizing but on community improvement projects in the poverty stricken villages of Chiapas, including building potable water systems, latrines, composting, and soil improvement. They even had plans to help construct micro-hydroelectric plants. Sabato and Conant have been working on and off in Chiapas since August of '95, Loller since January of '98. They are among the thousands of non-Mexicans to visit Chiapas who've found the Zapatistas' non-hierarchical, consensus-based, experience-driven revolution to be a refreshing, inspiring change from the traditional Marxist-Leninist rebel movements. Loller tells an amusing story about a group of Spanish anarchists who came to Chiapas bearing books by Kropotkin, Bakunin, Marx, Lenin and other lefty theoreticians in order to indoctrinate the locals. When the Indians expressed profound disinterest in how some dead Europeans thought a revolutionary society ought to be created, the academes left in a huff, proclaiming that the Zapatistas "weren't true revolutionaries".

According to Sabato, half of the people in Chiapas have no potable -- or drinkable -- water systems, partially due to the overwhelming Mexican Army presence in the state and their resultant polluting of natural resources. Rectifying this by working with the locals became ITA's primary mission. "The first community we worked in had been asking the government for almost forty years for a water system and the government had never provided them with anything, " says Sabato. "Within six weeks and for $1,200 they had the first phase of the system done. They had potable water." ITA assisted in setting up three such projects and were planning others when their stay was abruptly ended on Friday, April 10.

Loller, Sabato and Conant arrived in the village of Taniperla around 5 p.m. that day to catch a truck that would take them to their home base of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the ancient former capitol of Chiapas. Taniperla is the county seat of the thirty-second -- and latest -- autonomous municipality that has been created by the indigenous people since the Zapatista revolution began on January l, 1994. Although they've tacitly agreed to allow autonomy, the powers-that-be in Mexico City aren't thrilled with the Indians actually having any. When the three Americans showed up, the town was in the midst of the second of a two-day celebration of the creation of Municipio Autonoma Ricardo Flores Magon. There were speeches, singing, and dancing but the Americans were tired and didn't participate in the festivities. At 10 p.m., while waiting on the only road out for their ride, a stream of celebrants began exiting the village, frantically telling them that at least thirty vehicles containing Mexican soldiers and federal and state police had arrived nearby. This is the standard m.o. for military operations against the locals, so everyone knew that invasion was imminent. "We were worried that we'd get swept up in an attack," says Sabato. The Americans took flight in the night and in the panic that ensued Loller was separated from Sabato and Conant. The two men ran into a group of camouflaged commandos, part of a larger caravan of at least a hundred military vehicles and 1,500 troops carrying machetes, M-16's and grenade launchers. The soldiers surrounded the men and began hitting them with their gun butts before handing them over to the PGR, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI. Sabato got knocked hard in the head and kidneys. He and Conant were detained, searched, and, by 7 a.m., released into the custody of immigration officials who confiscated their tourist visas. After being interrogated, they were told they were free to go and yet were kept under armed guard.

Sabato says that the invasion was a violation of the government's vowed detente with the EZLN. The military eventually destroyed Taniperla's new municipal center and took sledgehammers and axes to select houses. A vehicle with a loudspeaker circulated, warning the locals that the attempt to establish the autonomous municipality would bring the "weight of constitutional law" upon them. Sabato and Conant could see uniformed men entering residences accompanied by local police allegedly looking for community leaders.

Meanwhile, Loller was seized on a side street by two armed federales. After being "aggressively frisked" -- and having her crotch grabbed -- one "aggressively" offered her freedom in exchange for sex. She "aggressively" declined. Finally, she was reunited with her fellow Americans and other detained foreigners. Around 10 a.m., they were transported to the immigration office in San Cristobal. The immigration officials never informed them why they were being held and denied that they were under arrest. The detainees passed the time by forming an impromptu band consisting of guitar, Jew's harp and harmonica. Supporters held a demonstration outside.

Finally, the foreigners were bussed to Tuxtla, the state capital of Chiapas, and driven to the airport. They were forcibly dragged onto two awaiting small planes. Conant's arm was twisted behind his back and Sabato was assaulted while they were loaded onto the aircraft. Loller sat on the tarmac, refusing to move and was physically forced onto a plane. They later heard on the radio that they were being transported under the aegis of Direccion de Investigaciones Nacionales, the Mexican equivalent of the C.I.A.

After arriving in Mexico City, they met with junior American consulate officials. They were pleasant but claimed to be equally as clueless for the reasons for the deportation. While Loller was sitting to see the consulate rep, she sneaked a peak at a xeroxed document which claimed to present their testimonies, even though they'd yet to be given. The foreigners were accused of helping to form the autonomous municipality. "That's absurd," says Loller laughingly. "We couldn't possibly have done that. We were only there for twelve hours. It's composed of 110 different communities throughout the jungle. We would've had to have used a mind-ray to have done it." The foreigners we're accused of violating Article 33 of the Mexican Constitution, which allows the government to selectively eject non-Mexicans if the President deems them "inconvenient." There's been no confirmation as to whether President Zedillo had any knowledge of the deportation.

They arrived at L.A.X. (Los Angeles airport) at 9 p.m. on April 12.

Also arrested in Taniperla, and facing up to nine years in prison are eighteen Mexicans.

Sabato, Loller and Conant all vow to fight their deportation and return to Chiapas. They have a deep affection for the people of Chiapas who, for the most part, welcomed them into their homes.

Sabato and Conant have met with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and other legislators. "I'd just like to remind people that the M-16's that were pointed at us for two days were supplied by the American government," says Loller.

Published in In Motion Magazine, May 17, 1998