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Mexico Deports San Diego Teacher

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego teacher Peter Brown, who organized “tourists of conscience” to build a middle school in a pro-Zapatista village in Chiapas state, was deported from Mexico on Saturday for allegedly interfering in the nation’s internal affairs.

Brown’s son, Erin Eldred-Brown, said by telephone from San Diego that his father was flown from Mexico City to Houston on Saturday afternoon and was expected home late Saturday night. He had been arrested late Friday.

Brown, 48, was the latest in a string of more than 150 foreigners expelled from Mexico this year for purported political activity. He was deported under Article 33 of the Mexican Constitution, a particularly harsh form of expulsion that could prohibit him from returning to Mexico for several years or even permanently bar him.

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The San Diegan teacher was working in the village of Oventic, seat of the self-proclaimed autonomous municipality of Sakam’chen de los Pobres, one of 32 communities in the southern state that have set up administrations to rival the official municipal governments.

Brown, called Pedro Cafe by the villagers he was helping, was hardly one of the romantic young leftists who come to Chiapas looking for Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatista leader. Yet Brown’s newsletters and Web site writings make clear his sympathy for the Zapatistas’ goals of better treatment of indigenous people in Chiapas.

The bearded, jovial teacher said in an interview with The Times at the school site Wednesday that he had been visiting Mexico as a tourist for 20 years. In 1996, he and other educators took part in a Zapatista-sponsored gathering of foreigners to develop projects supporting indigenous culture in Chiapas. His group offered to build a school.

He recalled a follow-up meeting in January 1997, at which Zapatista community leaders replied: “Your proposal has been translated into all the languages of Chiapas and given to all the support bases of the Maya insurrection, and we accept your project. It will be a 400-student secondary school, here in Oventic. That is all.”

Brown said he brought groups of San Diego residents to Oventic last summer to begin work on the school, and this year he again organized volunteers to help complete the project. He arrived July 12, and was assisted by about 20 foreigners and more than 50 Mexicans from outside Chiapas who support the Zapatistas, as well as by hundreds of local villagers.

Brown’s expulsion underscored the Mexican government’s determination to clamp down on--and to highlight--the activities of foreigners in the southern Mexican state, where Maya rebels staged an uprising in January 1994, demanding greater indigenous rights. A cease-fire was negotiated after 10 days of fighting, but talks have deadlocked and tensions have risen in the region in recent months as several bloody clashes have occurred, some of them in areas close to Oventic, about 15 miles north of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that Brown had become involved in politics illegally while on a tourist visa and had been building the school--named The First of January Zapatista Rebel Secondary School--without the authorization of the National Educational System, which must approve all school construction.

U.S. Embassy duty officer Dennis Offutt told Associated Press: “Building a school is the type of thing that Mexican officials would consider outside the activities authorized by a tourist visa.”

Brown had said Wednesday that he felt a tourist visa, which allows only recreation, sports, health and cultural activities, embraced what he called the cultural activity of providing better education for the indigenous Maya people. He said he avoided involvement in Mexican politics.

“I feel real comfortable saying that kids should be able to go to school,” he said. “When we started, we were very much focused on peace in Chiapas. Now we’ve become more and more focused on the education project. I keep focused on the school.”

He said San Diegans for Peace in Mexico and other groups had raised about $30,000 for the school project, and that about $10,000 more was needed to finish the job.

By last week, a complex of four classrooms had been completed in a single-story cinder-block building adorned with brightly painted village scenes. Dormitories, a computer room and library were being built.

The first 200 students are scheduled to begin classes this fall, and the school’s target is to grow to 600 students, Brown said. The nearest middle school is several miles away, across valleys and steep ridges, in the official municipal capital of San Andres Larrainzar.


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