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US Rights Observers Beaten & Expelled from Mexico

Michael Steinberg debriefs Michael Sabato


NAFTA's nightmare, the 1994 New Year's Day Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, turned into US-sponsored low intensity war in early 1995. The military occupation of Chiapas began weeks after a Chase Manhattan Bank memo declared, "The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy." Since then levels of US military aid to Mexico in the form of weapons, equipment and training have risen astronomically, and sales of US war materiel have jumped at even higher rates.

Last December's slaughter of 45 indigenous people in Acteal signalled an intensification of that war. The military used the massacre as a pretext to invade Zapatista communities, while state sponsored paramilitaries continued their campaigns of destruction, death and displacement. Their objective has been to create an atmosphere of psychological terror among indigenous communities seeking autonomy from the government's domination. But this repression has also brought about stronger resistance. In early April the community of Taniperlas, deep within the Lacandon jungle, declared itself to be the autonomous municipality of Ricardo Flores Magon.

Within days a massive police and military force invaded the town. Twelve foreign human rights observers there were seized and subsequently deported, joining over 200 such other foreigners likewise booted out of the country over the past two years.

Michael Sabato, AKA Michael Zap, was one of three US citizens among these twelve. Zap's an old friend and former co-worker from San Francisco. I met him at a Washington DC Emergency Meeting on Chiapas in April. This is his story:

Under Cover of Darkness

In the early hours of April 11 I was waiting with my friends Travis and Jeff [The two other US citizens] for a ride on a truck going to San Cristóbal. We'd been waiting all night, but the truck never showed.

At 5:30 AM people were running through the community yelling, "The soldiers are coming!" In the dark and confusion we were separated. Travis ran along the main road while Jeff and I legged it down another.

Many men armed with M-16s and other high caliber weapons were arriving, followed by a very large caravan of military vehicles.

Jeff and I ran into a group of commandos-special forces-dressed in camouflage with their faces painted and bandannas covering their faces from the nose down. They carried machetes and M-16s-some with grenade launchers-with which they hit and pushed us repeatedly saying, "You're not from here!"

[Mexican special forces are being trained at Fort Bragg, NC, by the US Army's 7th Special Forces Group. The US government says this training is for the war on drugs in Mexico, but Zap's testimony makes clear that what they're learning at Bragg is being used for counterinsurgency in Chiapas-in this case against US citizens.]

The special forces used excessive force to push Jeff and I towards the main road. They handed us over to police, who also pushed and hit us with their weapons. On the road we passed many police with helmets, riot shields and batons forming a line along the street.

When we arrived at the main road, after being pushed and marched forcibly by soldiers, we saw the military caravan still passing. At least 100 vehicles must have passed, troop transports full of heavily armed federal soldiers, [US-made and -supplied] Humvees and various other vehicles, including pickup trucks without license plates or identification of any kind.

We saw at least 1000 heavily armed troops. It's worth noting that the special forces who had first detained us went up a hill towards unknown destinations.

We were handed over to Judicial Police and other officials without ID who filmed us and took dozens of photos. They put us against a wall and searched our bodies and all our belongings, including our notebooks. They found nothing, then passed us on to Immigration Agents. By this time it was 7AM.

Free To Go

The immigration officials had arrived with the police. They took our tourist visas-all of which were in order, as were all our papers. They interrogated us, made us sign a paper declaring the facts of our detention, and gave us a citation to appear at the immigration office in San Cristóbal within 48 hours.

They said after this that we were "free to go" and could "go without any problem." But they refused to release us. We remained under armed guard for several hours.

While we waited, many uniformed men passed. The majority appeared to be indigenous, but some appeared to be soldiers in disguise. Many had sledgehammers and axes.

They were allowed to pass without question, though it was obvious they were entering the center of the autonomous municipality and destroying everything there.

We heard the noise of destruction and saw smoke rising from the site in plain view of ourselves and the police there. We also saw these uniformed people entering houses with the police. Many of the police wore trophies: red bandannas tied around their necks or hanging out of their pockets.

A vehicle with a loudspeaker began to circulate throughout the village announcing that the community should desist in its illegal attitude and those who refused to conform would be subject to the entire weight of constitutional law.

Some time later we were joined by Travis and other foreign human rights observers, all of whom had been forcibly detained. Travis told us she had run into two heavily armed federal agents. One grabbed her and began to frisk her entire body, claiming her was looking for weapons. Then he told her he'd let her go if she had sex with him.

After calling over their radio, the immigration agents again seized our papers, telling us we were going to be moved to their offices in San Cristóbal. Around 10AM we were forced onto trucks and taken there. As we left the military operation was still underway in Taniperlas.

We arrived around 3PM. They still hadn't told us what were charged with. They kept saying we were neither arrested nor detained, but they refused to let us leave their building. We were locked in, not allowed to speak to anybody on the outside.

They denied us legal representation, medical attention and use of the telephone. Eventually all of us went to sleep on desks or on the concrete floor. We were awakened by police demanding we get on a bus. They grabbed us one by one and forced us onto the bus.


Two police agents armed with batons got on the bus along with three immigration officials. We were accompanied by a pickup truck and a troop carrier filled with Public Security agents.

About 15 minutes outside San Cristóbal-and away from all journalists—the bus stopped and the two police agents got off, replaced by two others armed with AK-47s.

We asked where we were being taken. They told us we were going to Tuxtla (the Chiapas state capital) and that there we could meet with US consular officials.

However, upon arrival at the airport we were carried directly to the airport. We were driven through a gate where two small airplanes awaited us, as well as a special police corps armed with automatic weapons.

Two photographers, Pascual Gorriz and Oriana Elicabe, followed us onto the tarmac, running along side the bus and snapping pictures of us. They were brutally assaulted. The police grabbed Pascual by the hair, threw him up against the bus, and hit him with their rifle butts.

Once they'd dragged the two photographers away, another policeman armed with a tear gas launcher boarded the bus. He shouted several times that if we didn't behave he was going to shoot us, and also threatened to set off the tear gas inside the bus and close the door.

We were physically dragged onto the planes one by one. Jeff was grabbed by his neck and had his arm twisted behind his back. I was hit in the back and shoulders. Travis was forced onto this plane, as well as a Spanish woman.

The pilot and navigator tried to talk to us, asking what we were doing in Chiapas. We asked where we were going and they said they didn't know. It seemed strange to us that the navigator didn't know where we were going, so we asked who they worked for. They said it was a private agency, a secret one. We later heard on the radio that we were flown by the Direccion de Investigaciones Nacionales, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI.

We arrived at the Mexico City airport and were taken to the Attorney General hangar, where the plane was surrounded by armed men. A body of immigration agents was waiting for us and we were put aboard a bus which carried us to the airport's immigration offices. There they hurried us into a closed room without windows where we were left for several hours.

Finally we were allowed to speak with US embassy representatives for 15 minutes. They told us we were being deported. They gave us the time and destination of our flight, but couldn't tell us why we were being detained or what we were accused of.

At around 5pm we were taken one by one to a room where various high officials were awaiting us: Interior Subsecretary Sergio Orozco Aceves, Judicial Affairs Director Miguel Covian, and Nation Immigration Institute Director General Alejandro Carillo Castro. We were made to sit at a large table with a tape recorder in the middle. We were not advised of our rights or allowed to have a witness of our confidence.

Mr. Covian read the accusations against us. We were accused of having organized an autonomous municipality and having incited the indigenous people to resist the legitimate authority of the state. Covian said we had held up posters saying things like "Death to the Evil Government" during a demonstration in Taniperlas the morning of the invasion.This letter was written by the attorney general of Chiapas, dated April 11. Travis asked why no one had told us of the accusations (including our consulates) if they had had this letter since the day before. She was told her complaint would be noted. All of us said the letter was absurd and a complete fabrication.

They told us they were going to listen to everyone's testimony and then inform us of their decision. This happened less than two hours before our flight was due to leave for the US.

About an hour later, someone arrived in our room with the government's so-called resolution about what they were going to do with us. The document explained that for reasons previously explained they had decided to invoke Article 33 of the Constitution to deport us immediately.

They presented the document to us as if it were the result of testimonies we had just given. But Travis had seen them photocopying it several hours before while waiting to speak to a US consular representative. When she explained this to the immigration official, he told her it didn't really matter because we had no legal recourse and were being deported. The three of us are now permanently banned from entering Mexico.


Zap, Travis and Jeff arrived in Los Angeles within hours. Mexican immigration officials who accompanied them refused to return their passports even after they had arrived in the US, until US officials were forced to intervene.

Despite their horrendous treatment, Zap is quick to point out that the residents of Taniperlas have been treated far worse. He reported that numerous local people arrested on April 11 are still jailed on patently false charges under inhumane conditions.

Most of the autonomous community's residents, over 400 indigenous people, were forced to flee for their lives, and are still living in the wild. About 125 women and their children remained behind, and are under virtual house arrest. The community is still occupied by the military and police, who have given imported paramilitaries free run of the place.

On April 26 a Pastors for Peace delegation carrying humanitarian aid to Taniperlas was forced to flee after paramilitaries threw rocks and sticks through their bus windows.

In early May an over 100-strong Italian delegation defied Mexican officials who tried to prevent them from visiting Taniperlas.

Shortly thereafter the Mexican government announced that foreign human rights delegations would be limited to 10 members visiting for 10 days. Furthermore, requests for observer visas must now be made 60 days in advance, accompanied by proof that delegation members have had previous experience as human rights observers.


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