Trip Turns into Nightmare for Journalist
By Richard Aguirre
Kevin Barry McKiernan journeyed to southern Mexico
three weeks ago he planned to photograph Central American
refugees for a few days before tackling assignments
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."
he was arrested, detained at gunpoint and then deported
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
said the influx of Guatemalans into Mexico has become
an "Internal bombshell" with serious political and
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
said, 'What's the charge?' and they said, 'We'll determine
that when we get to Mexico City.'"
I started to get really defensive," he said. "I
had visions of car batteries being brought in (for
electroshock torture) and being roughed up."
McKiernan said he was told that he and his armed guard
would immediately leave by bus for immigration headquarters
in Mexico City.
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.
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.'"
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.
said the high-level commission has assumed "absolute" control
over all refugee assistance programs.
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."