British Cavers Held by Mexican Authorities

By Milmo, Cahal | The Independent (London, England), March 27, 2004 | Go to article overview
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British Cavers Held by Mexican Authorities


Milmo, Cahal, The Independent (London, England)


WHEN OPERATION Cuetzalan Tiger swung into action early last week, its aim was to provide a group of off-duty British soldiers, sailors and airmen with a month of quiet exploration of the darkest reaches of Mexico.

By yesterday what had started as an "adventurous training exercise" of Latin America's largest cavern complex by a joint- services caving club had become what one Foreign Office official in London bluntly described as a "diplomatic dog's breakfast".

The 13 members of the British team, including six men who had to be rescued from the remote Alpazat cave system after becoming trapped for eight days by flood water, were last night being "interviewed" by immigration officials after the Mexican government ordered they be taken to a detention centre in Mexico City.

The official inquiry into whether they have broken Mexican visa laws capped a calamitous week which put the hitherto low-profile Combined Services Caving Association at the centre of full-blown international incident complete with a rebuke from a president and allegations of clandestine uranium prospecting.

A senior Mexican minister made clear the lack of amusement in the country at the activities of the Britons - two civilians and 11 members of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force - by ordering a criminal investigation of Operation Cuetzalan Tiger's compliance with strict immigration rules.

Armando Salinas, the deputy interior secretary, said: "They will be placed in the custody of immigration authorities. We have reason to suppose that their actions could touch on our immigration law. Statements will be taken regarding their activities to determine if these people violated the general law... Their stay was legal as tourists but there are indications that their activities were not of this type."

The row was centred on whether the British team, who had financed most of the pounds 15,000 cost of their four-week expedition themselves, had followed the correct procedure before they entered Mexico to explore and map the Alpazat caves, a labyrinthine 60-mile network near the town of Cuetzalan in the centre of the country, 110 miles north-east of the capital.

The Mexican embassy in London said the tourist entry obtained by the team would cover normal leisure activity such as caving. But the group's plans to produce a detailed map of the system required a special scientific visa, which had not been sought.

The matter was exacerbated by separate legislation which bans training by foreign military forces on Mexican soil.

Such was Mexican anger about the issue that the foreign relations department said it had expressed "profound concern" to London about the expedition and the country's President, Vicente Fox, said he would be sending a "protest and demand for clarification" from Downing Street.

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