The Santa Barbara News-Press

July 18, 1984

Mexico Trip Turns into Nightmare for Journalist
By Richard Aguirre

When Kevin Barry McKiernan journeyed to southern Mexico three weeks ago he planned to photograph Central American refugees for a few days before tackling assignments in Guatemala.

"I've been to Nicaragua and been in combat situations there," the Santa Barbara journalist said.  "I've been under fire in El Salvador and I was looking forward to a week of relaxing Mexico before going on in Guatemala."

Instead, he was arrested, detained at gunpoint and then deported to Guatemala.

McKiernan says he was arrested by Mexican immigration officials June 26 └ and then held for 36 hours └ because he photographed the controversial relocation of Guatemalan refugees from makeshift camps adjacent to the Mexican-Guatemalan border.

"I thought it (trip) was going to be something like going to Chula Vista (California) and speaking to U.S. Immigration agents and taking pictures of people coming across the border" from Mexico, he said.

"But, here I was in colorful Mexico, the land of American holidays," he said, "and suddenly, I felt like I had walked into something that I didn't understand.  I didn't know what crime I had committed, so I didn't know what the penalty was going to be."

McKiernan, 40, whose stories and photos of Central America have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and the New York Times, went to Chiapas, Mexico, to "document" the Mexican government's controversial program of forcing Guatemalan refugees to relocate away from the dangerous border area.  He said he also hoped to find out why private groups, such as Santa Barbara's Direct Relief International, were being barred from directly aiding the exiled Guatemalans.

International human rights groups have reported that more than 6,000 Guatemalans have been killed └ and between 40,000 and 150,000 have fled to Mexico └ since the Guatemalan government stepped up its military offensive against home-grown guerrillas two years ago.

McKiernan said the influx of Guatemalans into Mexico has become an "Internal bombshell" with serious political and economic consequences.

The Mexican government has encountered resistance from refugees who do not want to leave the border areas, while impoverished Mexicans have complained that the southern immigrants are receiving preferential treatment, he said.  The refugee dilemma also has been complicated by territorial tensions between the two neighbors └ Guatemalan army troops have reportedly killed and wounded refugees while on Mexican soil, McKiernan said.

"It's a highly political situation in Mexico right now because the eyes of the world are on Mexico and on how they treat these unfortunate people who are mostly Indians and whose only crime is that they were trying to preserve their families and escape Guatemala."

McKiernan said that on the morning of June 26, he was taking pictures of refugees as they were being taken away from a camp in buses and "cattle trucks" when he was suddenly confronted by an armed Mexican immigration agent.

"I said to myself, 'This doesn't look good' and so I started getting my film out of my camera," McKiernan said.  "When he (agent) got to me■I said 'Press.'  It seemed perfectly natural to me to say that, but that was going to be my mistake."

The agent took away McKiernan's passport, visa, press credentials and cameras.  Later, he was advised that journalists were not allowed to photograph refugee camps without permission from the government and that he was "officially incommunicado" until he cleared up the matter in Mexico City └ nearly 800 miles away.

"I said, 'What's the charge?' and they said, 'We'll determine that when we get to Mexico City.'"

"Then I started to get really defensive," he said.  "I had visions of car batteries being brought in (for electroshock torture) and being roughed up."

Fortunately, McKiernan said he was told that he and his armed guard would immediately leave by bus for immigration headquarters in Mexico City.

Because he complained about the planned 25-hour ride on a second-class Mexican bus, McKiernan said, he was given another option by the Mexican officials, which he reluctantly accepted.

"They said, 'We could fly you up there■but you'll have to pay for you and your guard.'  I said, 'You mean I'm a prisoner and I have to pay transportation for my guard?'  They said, 'Yeah.'"

Although he describes his release as "anticlimactic," McKiernan said he later learned that he had been ordered detained by officials from COMAR, the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees.

McKiernan said the high-level commission has assumed "absolute" control over all refugee assistance programs.

"I thought they had wa overreacted to what I had done.  Now, I know it was a secret forced relocation that I walked into.  I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."




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