Mexico to Rest of the World: "Stay Out of Our Business"

When Mexican authorities rousted expatriates who had been running businesses in Puerto Vallarta for years, my friends and I laughed about it -- Mexico's revenge against the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). After all, North Americans have as much disregard for regulations as anyone scrambling under a border fence, so it's natural that every now and then, Mexican authorities get fed up and flip an irate gesture northward.I worked illegally in Mexico in the 1980s. I could have obtained a work permit, but nobody ever asked me for one, so I never bothered. Even reporters for big U.S. dailies rarely get journalist visas for brief assignments in Mexico.But the recent expulsions of foreign human rights workers and restrictions on journalists are not just gestures and not just against the United States. They are against the world. Mexico is attempting to "cleanse" certain regions of international presence. Those regions happen to be the places the world is most interested in. Places where -- many believe -- Mexican president Zedillo's government is preparing for an all-out siege, if not war. Mexico began ousting human rights workers in earnest after December's massacre of 45 villagers in Acteal in the state of Chiapas. In all, over 200 foreigners have been expelled from Chiapas in the last two years. Mexico says that the outsiders, by participating in observation groups and "peace camps," violate Mexico's constitution, which forbids foreign involvement in the country's politics."In Chiapas, you get a lot of people coming in as tourists. A sort of romantic trip," says Eloy Aguilar, head of the Foreign Correspondents Association in Mexico. He thinks the officials "were within their rights. You can't come here on a tourist visa and then try to be an international observer. What bothers me much more is the visa situation for journalists."This is a reference to the fact that, since February, Mexico has slapped stringent curbs on foreign reporters. Any journalists who wants to enter or stay in Mexico face new, lengthy delays for visas. Aguilar protested, then sent a memo alerting the Foreign Correspondents Association to the new restrictions, "and, oh, everybody got mad," he says. One swift response came from Alejandro Carrillo of Mexico's Interior Ministry who stated, "It is completely incorrect that restrictions or new requirements have been established for visas for foreign correspondents."Mexican officials continue to deny that curbs were placed on foreign reporters. But documents on file at a Mexican Consulate in California confirm that heavy restrictions were in effect until late March when, according to one consular worker, "We received new instructions. It's all because of the Boston Globe story." (On March 24, the Globe ran a story complaining about the new rules.)In fact, it was very hard to get a visa in March. I know: I tried. Although my Northern California paper has been reporting on Mexico for over seven years, I was told that I would have to submit a list of each city I planned to visit, every person I planned to interview, get a letter of support from a major Mexican publication and write a narrative describing exactly what I planned to cover. In addition, I was to pay $72 and wait four to five weeks for approval from Mexico City. Then the Globe story broke, and most of the requirements vanished. When I applied for a visa this month, I was cheerily told there would "be no problem." Then I received a call telling me, sorry, but I must submit a list of all cities I'll be working in -- one of the restrictions that Carrillo denied exists.While no explanation has surfaced for restricting journalistsâ plenty of justification has been offered for the surge in expulsions. Foreign Minister Rosario Green puts it in no-nonsense terms, saying the expulsions were "acts in defense of national sovereignty." Mexico, perhaps too late, would like to conceal its problems from a prying world. Rosario Green uses the term "intervention" to characterize the foreigners' activities because it is a powerful word, the word used by Lazaro Cardenas, the national hero who expelled U.S. oil companies. There is some irony in the fact the Zedillo government is using this language to expel human rights workers while welcoming international investment.In Mexico, many journalists defend the foreign observers and press -- sensing that an even more painful era looms if the world ceases to take an interest in the affairs of a troubled corner of their nation. "Yes, Mexico can assert itself," says Eloy Aguilar. "The country has every right to expel foreigners and say they can't be there. I think the question is whether this is worth it. We have to ask: what is the cost?" PNS Correspondent Julie Reynolds has written from Mexico for nearly a decade.

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