June 21, 1994

Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The government has expelled an Ecuadoran priest on suspicion of arming hundreds of peasants in central Mexico, where a blockade by demonstrators has raised tensions already high over an Indian revolt in the south.

The Interior Ministry, in a statement published Tuesday, said Roman Catholic clergyman Marcos Gonzalo Hallo del Salto was deported on a flight a day earlier from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador.

The 58-year-old priest was "the leader of an armed civil organization and ... helped hundreds of people arm themselves with shotguns, .22-caliber rifles and pistols" in Puebla state, the Interior Ministry alleged.

The Roman Catholic Church headquarters in Mexico City said Tuesday it had no comment.

Hundreds of peasants, some armed with machetes, rocks and clubs, blockaded a major highway in Puebla for a second day Tuesday to protest the priest's deportation.

Church-state relations have been their best in decades. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari restored diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1992 and oversaw reforms that ended many restrictions on the church.

That rapprochement healed a rupture dating to the 1920s when tens of thousands of people died in fighting between Catholic militants and government troops enforcing anti-clerical laws passed during the 1910-1920 revolution.

The Interior Ministry statement did not give more specifics of the accusations against the priest or cite a possible motive for arming peasant groups in the state just east of Mexico City.

Rural parts of the state have seen frequent clashes involving radical peasant groups seeking land or power. Some are allied with the government and some opposed.

The government also reported no link between the expulsion and the revolt in the southern state of Chiapas, where 10 days of fighting with the army claimed at least 145 lives before a government cease-fire Jan. 12.

But the Interior Ministry said the priest was in the country illegally, having arrived on a 30-day tourist visa in 1961 using his Ecuadoran passport.

Rumors of isolated groups arming in remote areas have stoked unease ahead of the Aug. 21 presidential election, in which ruling party candidate Ernesto Zedillo is the favorite.

Despite frequent cries of fraud, Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party has not lost a presidential ballot since its 1929 founding.

The newspaper Reforma said the priest had been accused of organizing opposition to the ruling party, which faces two top challengers in the election.

Protesting the expulsion, more than 2,000 peasants have been blocking a key highway linking the Puebla state capital with the city of Tehuacan in the eastern Sierra Madre since Monday.

"Prove the charges!" demanded one of the bedsheet banners tied to trucks that blocked a highway about 125 miles southeast of Mexico City.

The demonstration took place near the four towns where the priest was accused of arming civilians: Azumbilla, San Pedro Chapulco, Francisco I. Madero and Nicolas Bravo.

Gelacio Martinez, a town hall secretary in San Pedro Chapulco, said the blockade continued Tuesday and an unspecified number of people were beaten for trying to cross it.

"There were some people who were hit," said Martinez by telephone, adding that no one was seriously injured.

He said police had not intervened and that local peasant leaders had gone to Mexico City for talks with government officals on ending the protest.

One peasant group that backs the governing party called for an investigation into the case, saying it was fearful peasant rivals could use weapons to settle old scores.