Kidnapped in Chiapas
Joe Courter

What burst into peoples awareness on January 1, 1994 here in the US and in Mexico was the realization that Mexico is still a country of dynamic turmoil between rich and poor and that the contrasts and contradictions are growing larger. One of the places of largest turmoil was and is Mexico's southernmost state, Chiapas. Gainesville has had a close rapport with Chiapas due to both the University of Florida's Center for Latin American studies and the St. Augustine Catholic Church.

With Mexico's kidnapping and deportation of Father Loren Reibe Estrella on June 22, 1995, both connections came into play as Fr. Loren ended up in Gainesville to regroup and consider his future options. On Wednesday, Sept. 13, he spoke at UF's Grinter Hall to a roomful of interested students, faculty and community people.

Fr. Loren has lived for over 20 years in Chiapas, though he is a U.S. citizen. There, liberation theology, the empowerment of the poor to work to better themselves and their society, has really caught on. The indigenous people have embraced the idea of education and have been contributing to this through helping run their own youth ranch and school. Especially dramatic is the acceptance of and support for girls to attend school and go on to college (some of whom are being sponsored through St. Augustine Church).

This represents huge change over a very short period of time. Since the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the disapproval of the wealthy landowning families has multiplied to outright racism and calls to violence. This view, according to Fr. Loren, is directed not only at the indigenous people (viewed as "lazy" as "drunkards," as "ignorant" and as "good for only plantation work and not all that good at that," on whom education is a waste), but also at the Bishop and clergy who work with the poor, who are viewed as troublemakers who have caused all the 'problems.'

Since the uprising, the Catholic Church has tried to be a diplomatic mediator, especially at the behest of the Zapatistas, who trust them to negotiate with the government, and that has indeed been their role, but the threats and accusations continue, as the wealthy families wish to have time rolled back and the happy feudal order be reestablished. One landowner of German ancestry came to Fr. Loren just days after the landowners had a march calling for "death to the Bishop' and "death to the Zapatistas" (done while carrying white balloons and carnations) and asked for a baptism ceremony where he'd become a godfather, and Fr. Loren thought there "ought to be at least a little time for reflection" between the events. This really annoyed the rancher and he said "You guys are gonna get yours in the not too distant future...the problem of Chiapas is a simple thing--when a dog has rabies and is foaming at the mouth, you don't give it medicine you shoot it." He was referring, of course, to the Indians. These attitudes, and the regular threats on the priest, were a usual thing for Fr. Loren. "You don't learn to live with it, you live around it," Fr. Loren said. The foreign priests especially knew something was coming, as the resentment seems strongest against them as outsiders. On June 22 a Spanish priest was visiting Fr. Loren and at 2 pm left by truck. Shortly later some kids from the village came back to Fr. Loren, telling him that the other priest was pulled off the truck and captured. Minutes later word come that five kids were being held at gunpoint and the truck was being confiscated. So Fr. Loren realized he needed to go and try to sort things out.

Here's his story:

"They had the five kids leaning up against the truck with machine guns in their back. These kids were really terrified and crying. As soon as they saw me they let the kids [and the truck] go--thank God--and they took me. One on each arm--ununiformed men with machines guns--and I resisted a little bit. [I] asked them who they were, where they were taking me and why I was being arrested since this was three o'clock in the afternoon with what seemed like half of the world watching. And in resisting they called over another policeman who had a black t-shirt on with the letters PJE. Which for us are the terrifying letters. Those are the State Judicial Police. If you ever hear those words, "judicial police", these folks are thugs. They're all over Mexico. They carry a badge, who knows where that badge came from and they carry guns and most of them are are ex-prisoners. In Mexico, they get money, there's a lot of corruption when a fellow's going to be thrown into jail...

"They got me in the back of a small car and we went 10 km driving as fast as they could out of town. ... We overtook another state police truck, about a 3-ton state truck, I noticed that Fr. Rodolfo, the Spaniard, was in the cab of that truck. They put me up on the back with six of these judicial policemen and we drove four and a half hours down the mountain to the state capital. And a lot of things go through your mind when you're in that kind of situation. I had no identification, just the clothes I was wearing ...and my first reaction was one of anger and indignation. I kept saying to myself, 'You know I'm a Catholic priest, you don't do these things to [us], I'm an American citizen legally in Mexico with all the proper papers. You know if they can do this to me, they can pull anyone out of any hotel room. They can take a professor that's going down to do her investigation. Where's the law?' And then a time was pretty frightening when I began to think to myself, 'are they going to let me talk about this disaster. Every time we passed a turn off, I was anxious to see whether they would take that turnoff where so many "accidents" happen in Chiapas. And your mind starts to do all kinds of strange things with you when your in that situation. Then came a time of peace; There was nothing I could do about it anyway, except pray.

"They got us down to the police station and the first thing they did was take us inside and gave us a physical examination with two doctors. That's when things got scary again, because they certified that we had not been tortured or beaten, and we had not been. But the Indians who are frequently tortured and beaten in Chiapas, that's when you worry. It's when the doctors give you the physical examination certifying that you have not been beaten, right after that is when they take you down into the cell block and torture you. So they've got it both ways. They took us down to the cell blocks but they did not touch us at all. That's when we found the other priest, the Argentine, [Fr. Jorge Baron] he had it worse than we did. He was dragged out from his parish and what these judicial police do all the time in Mexico, and certainly all the time in Chiapas, it's their pastime. They follow you along the road and they go on past you in the police truck, an unmarked truck and they're ununiformed policemen, and then one leans out the window with a machine gun and cuts you off the road. They do that all the time.... [well] they threw Fr. Jorge out of his car, blindfolded him and took 3 hours down the mountain, literally on the floorboards of the police truck. When we saw him in Tuxtla, the state capital, he didn't even know where he was.

"They took us down to the cell blocks, opened another door, we went outside into a red waiting van. Everything seemed to be brand new for this. It was a brand new Suburban. They put the three priests in the back, with three guards in front. These were lighter skinned people. They were evidently from Mexico City. They had machine guns. Took us to the military airport. A six passenger jet was revved up, ready to take the three of us to Mexico City--they spent a bundle on us. An hour and ten minutes later we were in Mexico City and when they got us out of this leather interiored jet, they tried to get us into an immigration van. That was the first indication we had that no matter how many people we asked what was going on they would not tell us either where they were taking us or why we were being held.

"Then we saw the immigration van and they couldn't get the back gate down on it, it was busted. And five of them trying to get me back over the gate into the van was a real circus [Fr. Loren is a large man]. It was at that time that one of the policemen commented and said 'how come there's only three of you? We were expecting seven.' Corresponding to the seven international priests that were in the diocese, we supposed at that time. Anyway, they took us into this part of the Mexico City airport. There were over 60 immigration officials waiting for us. Also representatives from our embassies. They kept us up all night...asking political questions. For me the answers were very easy. They asked how many land takeovers there were in my parish. There aren't any. What kind of indian political groups are there. I said 'the only political group I know is the PRI Party [the Institutional Revolutionary Party which controls the government] and I don't support it. I wish life were more interesting sometimes, I have to get out of my particular parish to find out what's going on in the state of Chiapas.' And on and on like that. At eight o'clock in the morning they took us in one by one in front of the immigration officials to tell us that having listened to the accusations made against us--'what accusations? By whom?'--and having heard our own personal declarations, they had decided to expel us immediately from Mexico for having participated in activities not covered by our Mexican immigration visa.

"And they had us on an 8:30 American Airlines flight from Mexico City to Miami, accompanied by six Mexican immigration officials. ... Two immigration officials took Fr. Jorge, the Argentinian, to Buenos Aires and two more flew with Fr. Rodolfo to Madrid. They wanted us out of the country as fast as they could. They never gave us anything, we asked for papers, our own declarations, their statements, nothing was given to us. The next day they issued a press statement, the Mexican interior, saying that we had been expelled from the country to create a climate of peace in Chiapas that would favor the negotiations between the government and the Zapatista Indians, because we were ones that were causing the divisions among Chiapan groups, number one. We were inciting the Indians to take over ranches illegally, we involved in national political affairs and we were causing divisions among indigenous groups in Chiapas. False accusations, but that is what we were being accused of. And that is kind of the way things stand up until this point."

Fr. Loren is now trying to get his story heard, and to try to get back home to Chiapas. ...The judicial police have been harassing residents with the threat that what they'd done to the priests exemplifies what they can do to peasants, but the people have been continuing to carry on despite the threats. Asked about support from the Vatican, Loren chuckled and said "they've been picking on us for a long time" and expressed how disappointing it was to be thrown out of the country and not have the church stand up for him "not even a letter or phone call to say they were praying for you or something."

For more information on Fr. Loren, contact Fr. John Gillespie at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Gainesville.

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