To the Editor:
The author of your August 1996 article about Mexico's Usumacinta River, while well intentioned, seems to have been deliberately manipulated by the Mexican government into penning an unabashed p.r. piece for the Mexican military.
The Usumacinta River transverses Maya land, serving as the border between Mexico and Guatemala, in what is one of the poorest regions in the Americas. And, yes, there is Mayan "guerilla" activity on both sides of the border, with the URNG operating on the Guatemalan side, and the EZLN (Zapitistas) operating on the Guatemalan side.
There is no evidence, however, that either the EZLN or the URNG has ever attacked tourists. To the contrary, river guides in the area have a long history, dating back to the early 1980s, of pleasant and cordial relations with the URNG, as rafters stopped to chat and eat with the guerrillas. Mayan forces on both sides of the border desperately rely on an international presence to serve as witnesses to government sponsored atrocities. Without the presence of international witnesses, both the Mexican and Guatemalan governments would have a free hand to continue their war against area Maya without the embarrassment of international outcry. In short, the URNG and the EZLN want and need tourism to continue unabated.
This all brings us to the question, if it wasn't the guerrillas, than WHO shot the three rafters floating down the river ahead of the Paddler exposition? It is highly unlikely that bandits would be operating in a sparsely populated war zone.
Let's revisit the original Paddler article. The author writes, "The holdup was interrupted by an army helicopter patrol on routine surveillance." Convenient coincidence, eh? Either the Mexican military, not renowned for their competence, was amazingly at the right place at the right time (however, still letting the bandits escape), or they were working with the supposed bandits, in staging a media event to be reported by the Paddler exposition upriver.
As your author writes, "The soldiers boarded our bus at each road block... and talked with Laurie, the chief guide, about our plans." By the time the Paddler exposition reached the river, half the military in Chiapas knew journalists were coming. It is most likely impending presence, that caused the ambush on the innocent paddlers downriver.
By the time the Paddler exposition reached the area of the ambush, a paternalistic military escort was firmly in place. The Paddler story was accompanied by a full page photo of a Mexican military helicopter escorting the exposition. The text read, "The army was here to protect us... because a day earlier a private rafting party, the only other rafters on the river, had been attacked by bandits, or guerrillas, it wasn't clear which."
According to the author, the normally camera shy Mexican military honchos were hamming it up for their lens, to the point that the author writes, "I obliged the pilots by at least pretending to capture the moment on film." Still clueless, however, the author quotes a member of the Paddler exposition, thanking the soldiers, "You put your life in danger to help us. We are grateful." A Captain replies, "We want you to tell your friends about this beautiful country, and the good people of Mexico."
And that's just what the author did. In all likelihood, he, and in turn, Paddler magazine, were used in a three pronged p.r. attack. First, the Mayan forces ("guerrillas") were cast as possible villains; Second, the Mexican military was cast as the paternalistic saviors, all warm and fuzzy; and Third, tourists who provide an international presence desperately needed by the Mayan people in the area, are being scared away. And, let's not forget, three innocent rafters were shot.
Michael I. Niman, Ph.D.