A Youth Media Project
for Chiapas

— Phyllis Ponvert

ON A RECENT trip to Chiapas, Mexico, I had the opportunity to witness events that are very different than what I see when I turn on the evening news. On February 16 I traveled with the Chiapas Youth Media Project to Chiapas on a one-week trip to deliver video cameras and conduct training workshops in two indigenous communities. Despite the illegal abduction, jailing and expulsion from Mexico of one of the project’s founders, Tom Hansen, we successfully completed the work.

Our trip took place in an atmosphere of tension brought about by the December 22 massacre of forty-five Indians in the community of Acteal by the paramilitary group Mascara Roja (Red Mask). Since the massacre, human rights organizations have reported an increase in repression by government military and security forces and private paramilitary groups.

Military roadblocks and immigration checkpoints are now common in the conflict zones as part of the government’s efforts to harass and expel foreigners. The recent upheavals in Chiapas and the government’s bias in most news sources make indigenous control of their own stories essential.

Our group of seventeen people from the United States and Mexico delivered eleven donated video cameras and a complete video editing suite, and set up training workshops for two dozen young people in the indigenous communities of Morelia and Oventic. The goal of the project is to provide the Indians of Chiapas with the tools and training to document their culture and history as well as human rights abuses they are suffering at the hands of the military and right-wing paramilitary groups.

The power of video was demonstrated last January when state police killed an Indian woman and wounded her two-year-old child in Ocosingo. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon, and the perpetrators usually go unpunished. However, in this case a television crew captured the murder on video. Within twenty-four hours all twenty-seven members of the police team were arrested.

Arrested, Expelled

Tom Hansen, the ex-director of Pastors for Peace, has organized about twenty humanitarian aid and technical assistance programs to indigenous communities since 1995, and is the fifth foreigner to be expelled in the last several weeks.

The morning after we arrived in Chiapas, a press conference was scheduled to publicize the project. However, we learned that the government had forbidden foreigners from participating in press conferences, so we sat silently while a Mexican member of the group explained the intercultural project, which is funded by Mexican and U.S. organizations, among them the Trusteeship for Mexican-U.S. Culture, the Peace Development Fund, and the Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund.

Near the community of Morelia, we were stopped at an immigration checkpoint and Tom Hansen was questioned at length. The following morning, Tom was approached by two immigration authorities while we were buying food in the nearby town of Altamirano. The men told him they wanted to talk to him for a few minutes about—a problem with his papers—back at the checkpoint.

Tom told us that he was going with the men and that if he was not back in twenty minutes for us to go to the checkpoint. After twenty minutes, the three of us drove to the building to find it locked. We immediately returned to Morelia and told the rest of the group what had happened and notified the U.S. Embassy that Tom was missing.

We found out later that for twenty-four hours he was surrounded by armed guards, interrogated and threatened by both immigration officials and State Security Police. He was given no explanation as to why he was being held, and was not allowed to call the U.S. Embassy. After spending the night in jail in Mexico City, he was put on a plane for Miami.

Continuing and Observing

We decided to continue with our work but to take certain precautions. We left Morelia in the middle of the night so as to avoid being stopped at immigration checkpoints. We changed hotels in San Cristobal in case we were being followed. We made no phone calls home and never went anywhere alone.

Two other members of the group were questioned about whether we had given money or medicine to the San Carlos hospital in Altamirano, the place we visited the day before. When we traveled to Oventic for the second workshop, we were accompanied by someone from the Fray Bartolome de Las Casas Human Rights Center in San Cristobal.

An International Commission of Human Rights (ICHR) observer from Europe was also in Chiapas gathering testimony from indigenous communities about human rights abuses. I heard people tell about the disappearances, tortures and murders of family members, describing how the military forcibly entered their communities, killing and stealing livestock and burning houses.

People have little to eat because they are afraid to plant or to harvest, and are afraid to leave their villages because the military use low-flying planes and helicopters (provided by Washington for anti-drug use) that terrify both children and adults. One leader praised the women in his community for their courage when the military came into their village. The unarmed women threw buckets of water and hurled rocks at the soldiers, shouting at them until they finally left.

Despite harassment from the government, we were able to complete important work on this first trip. In Morelia, more than a dozen young participants from several indigenous communities attended three days of morning and afternoon workshops, combining classroom learning with hands-on camera work.

The student’s final assignment was to make a short narrative video. On our last night in Morelia, these videos were shown to a large and enthusiastic audience of people from the surrounding communities as well as ICHR observers.

When the lights went out and the first film began, U.S. and Mexican members of the Chiapas Media Youth Project were moved and thrilled to watch videos made by young people who had never before seen a video camera.

The newspapers were filled with articles about Tom Hansen’s expulsion, and about the expulsions of other foreigners. Many of the articles said that foreigners who come to Chiapas are troublemakers and should either leave or be removed. Expelling Hansen and others is part of a government campaign to frighten and discourage humanitarian aid and human rights workers.

The presence of our group and other foreigners seems to be a threat to the government. We are not wanted in Chiapas, not because we don’t have the right visas, but because of what we might see and report.

Phyllis Ponvert is a photographer and writer who has lived in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Her article on a Pastors for Peace delegation to Cuba, where they delivered 400 medical computers in defiance of the U.S. embrago, appeared in ATC 67.

ATC 74, May–June 1998