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Chiapas: Welcome to the War Zone
Mexico Business / June 1995

By Larry Luxner

Violence-plagued Chiapas isn't the sort of place most Americans yearn to visit these days. The Mexican government -- embarrassed at its inability to control the Zapatista peasant uprising -- certainly doesn't want Americans going there either.

Nevertheless, for one U.S. travel agency, Chiapas has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Global Exchange Inc., a feisty little non-profit organization based in San Francisco, offers what it calls "reality tours" to Mexico's poorest state. For only $1,000, participants can spend seven days traveling around Tuxtla Gutierrez, Las Margaritas and San Cristóbal de las Casas. But they also visit rural clinics, human-rights workers, campesinos, church leaders and local journalists.

According to Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, the purpose of these socially conscious sojourns is to gain insights into the conditions that created the crisis, and to learn how it has affected local communities.

"Soldiers, media and human-rights workers have replaced tourists," she explained in a recent statement. "But despite the tension caused by the uprising, San Cristobal is safe. The fighting has stopped, and both sides are talking peace."

The $1,000 price tag includes round-trip airfare from most major U.S. cities, internal flights within Mexico, daily breakfast, English/Spanish translation and a selection of reading materials. Global Exchange also awards partial scholarships to qualified students who would like to go but can't afford the full fare.

"We believe that educating people is the key thing," said Loreto Curti, logistics coordinator for Global Exchange. "We want people who have no knowledge of Mexico to go and see things for themselves."

Curti, herself a Mexican-American, says the agency began sending groups of U.S. tourists to Chiapas immediately after the 1994 New Year's Day uprising. As of April, 12 groups had been to Chiapas with Global Exchange; additional tours are scheduled for May 28-June 4, July 2-9, August 13-20 and Sept. 10-17.

Groups range from seven to 20 participants, though last August Global Exchange brought 110 people down to observe the Mexican elections. In addition to the Chiapas trips, Global Exchange runs Mar de Jade, an oceanfront retreat located in a fishing village about 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico's Pacific coast.

"I tell everyone that when you join our trips, you're going to a messy area, and that the military is tense," Curti warns. "We can only provide a certain amount of protection, but we have really good contacts, we travel in a group, and nothing has ever happened to any of our participants."

In Chiapas, Global Exchange tour members stay in family-run hotels or at the group's month-old International Peace Center in San Cristóbal.

Not surprisingly, participants in Global Exchange tours to Mexico aren't ordinary tourists who soak up the sun, explore jungle ruins and buy trinkets from local indigenous tribes. They're expected to take careful notes -- and upon their return to the United States -- write articles and make speeches about what they've seen.

"Our people are documenting what's going on there, reporting [human-rights violations] to officials," said Curto. "One of our most recent groups encountered 150 people expelled from a village. A few of our participants made the officials go out to the community and document what had happened. Mexican lawyers were amazed that they had responded at all."

Marty Stevens-Heebner, a Los Angeles filmwriter who taken four Global Exchange trips to Chiapas since November, says her adventure was a life-transforming experience.

"You're down there literally dealing with life-and-death issues," she says. "In Chiapas, I never thought of myself as a tourist. You're there to learn, not to ogle."

Stevens-Heebner -- who got interested in Chiapas after reading articles in Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair, said the presence of Americans like herself in Chiapas is crucial. "We are able to pressure the government to see political prisoners, and to conduct investigations that they otherwise wouldn't have done," she says.

Another tour participant, 29-year-old Debbie Billings of Ann Arbor, Mich., spent a week in Chiapas last February and had a few close calls of her own.

"At one point 20 minutes outside San Cristóbal, where a group of PRI supporters had expelled 600 people, we were accompanying two representatives back to the community," she recalled. "When we drove up, there were 11 of us in the van, and about 300 men waiting for us. They surrounded our van, squeezed in really tight and began rocking the van. They wanted to intimidate us. We were scared to death."

Not exactly a selling point for attracting American tourists to Chiapas -- but then again, Global Exchange doesn't want typical tourists. In fact, it carefully screens tour participants and prefers, as Billings said, "people who are concerned with issues of social justice."

That hasn't made Global Exchange popular with either the Mexican government or the U.S. Treasury Department, which froze the agency's San Francisco bank account last year after it organized "reality tours" to Cuba to protest the U.S. travel ban against that country. It was the Cuba trips, in fact, that propelled Global Exchange into the national spotlight and drew the wrath of such right-wing groups as the Cuban American National Foundation and Alpha 66.

"Since August, the Clinton administration has tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba," said Curti. "Now our trips are very specific, focusing on subjects such as public health, sustainable agriculture and film festivals."

Besides Chiapas and Cuba, Global Exchange offers study trips to other controversial hot spots. Its 1995 calendar includes such adventures as "Haiti at a Crossroads," "Ireland: Economic Roots of Conflict" and "Vietnam Peace and Friendship Tour." Later this year, it's also organizing an unprecedented trip to the most isolated nation of all, North Korea.

The one theme that unites these trips is a concern for social justice, says Curti.

"The countries we visit don't have to be in political strife, but we do want people to bring material aid and come back with a better understanding," she explained. "So many people on the street have no clue what is going on in the world. What we get in the media is either slanted or just not there."

For Stevens-Heebner, the connection with Chiapas is far more personal.

"Before it was a situation," said the activist. "Now these people are my friends, and what happens to them truly matters to me."

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