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Mexico Expels Priest Working in Chiapas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mexican government has expelled a French priest who ministered in Chiapas, part of an escalating crackdown on foreigners in the politically explosive state.

The Rev. Michel Henri Jean Chanteau was ordered out of the country on Thursday night, the fourth foreigner thrown out in the past three weeks.

The Roman Catholic priest and three previously expelled Americans were all accused of participating in political activity in Chiapas, where the leftist Zapatista rebels have been observing a tense cease-fire since a 1994 uprising.

President Ernesto Zedillo and other top officials have sternly warned in recent weeks that foreigners must respect a constitutional ban on political activity by non-Mexicans. But critics say the government, and pro-government media, have embarked on a campaign of xenophobia.

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“It’s clear the Mexican government is building a policy to try to neutralize foreign observers in the Chiapas situation,” said Santiago Creel, a congressional deputy for the opposition National Action Party, or PAN.

Thousands of aid workers, human-rights activists and foreign sympathizers have flocked to Chiapas since the Zapatistas, led by the charismatic, pipe-smoking Subcommander Marcos, launched their fight for greater Indian rights in 1994. About 150 people were killed before the rebels and army reached a cease-fire.

But in recent weeks, as its efforts to restart peace talks with the Zapatistas have failed, the government has signaled a change in its previous tolerance for the foreign activists.

The foreigners “are a factor that have been complicating and slowing the solution of the Chiapas problem,” Fernando Solis, a top immigration official, said in an interview with the Mexico City daily Reforma recently.

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The latest debate over Chiapas was kicked off by a Mexican television report showing what appeared to be foreigners in a Zapatista stronghold, La Realidad.

The TV reporter indignantly described how foreigners had photographed her helicopter and demanded to see her crew’s press credentials.

“There are many foreigners in Chiapas, they are the ones who rule there,” said Lolita de la Vega, the reporter. Her network, TV Azteca, has strongly opposed the rebels’ campaign for greater autonomy.

The TV report caused a sensation.

But Hermann Bellinghausen--a Mexican reporter for the pro-Zapatista La Jornada daily who witnessed the chopper’s arrival--said the craft had unnerved the residents in La Realidad. Fearing the copter was part of a government attack, they asked foreign observers to approach the TV crew, he wrote.

Chanteau, 67, the latest foreigner expelled, had worked for three decades in the Chenalho region, where 45 pro-Zapatista peasants were slain last December by gunmen allegedly linked to local authorities.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement late Thursday that Chanteau did not have the proper visa to work as a minister and had violated the constitution by publicly accusing the Mexican government of carrying out the December massacre.

The diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, in which Chanteau worked, protested the expulsion. It said the priest had been trying to obtain his proper migration documents since 1995, but the government had been evasive.

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