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Truth of the Matter

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Trail of Feathers: Searching for Phil True. A Reporter’s Murder in Mexico and His Editor’s Search for Justice

In 1998 Phil True, a good-looking, hippie-ish foreign correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News, vanished while backpacking alone in the Sierra Madre Occidental north of Guadalajara. This is one of Mexico’s wildest, most isolated regions, and if it hadn’t been for Express-News editor Robert Rivard’s search after True went missing, evidence suggesting he’d been murdered might never have been found. True’s body was located after Rivard enlisted Mexican politicos and military forces to take him into the Sierra. There he personally helped dig True out of a shallow grave. With his own hands, he touched his reporter’s rotting corpse. Hours later, he was in the autopsy room when a coroner determined that the cause of death was homicide.

Few would be able to walk away from such an experience, and Rivard vowed to find the culprits and bring them to justice. Starting just after the murder and continuing for years, he used his power as a Hearst Corp. newspaper editor to exert pressure. He pushed the Mexican government to send soldiers to flush out suspects—who turned out to be two members of the Huichols, a destitute, indigenous group native to the Sierra. They confessed to the crime, but no clear motive was ever established. When the accused Indians were acquitted, convicted, and acquitted again during various legal proceedings and appeals, Rivard continued to press for a guilty verdict. After five years the Huichols were convicted once and for all, though today they’re still at large, presumably in the mountains. Rivard is still offering reward money to nab them: money he’s advertised by dropping flyers from airplanes, and by distributing to destitute Huichol children basketballs emblazoned with the logo of the San Antonio Spurs.

All this is recounted in Trail of Feathers, which takes its title from the goosedown that seeped from True’s ripped sleeping bag as the killers dragged his enshrouded body while searching for a burial place. Hansel-and-Gretel-like, the feathers led Rivard to the site. The feather image has mythic appeal and Rivard provides a protagonist with a mythical, tragic flaw: True’s supposed compulsion to go into the wild by himself, even if doing so proved irredeemably dangerous.

Where did this need come from? Three places, according to Feathers. One was True’s working-class background: When he was young, his father had operated a gas station. That upbringing gave him a yen for leaving the beaten track to report on underdogs—including poor, marginalized Mexicans like the Huichols. More important was his longtime failure to settle down as a responsible adult. Until a few years before he died, at age 50, True had led an “unfulfilled” life, according to Rivard. He’d been a ’60s-era campus radical and later a union organizer and college degree-holder who chose wallpaper hanging over white-collar work. He’d attended Marxist study groups in the home of socialist-feminist Barbara Ehrenreich. He’d harbored a Marxist aversion to marriage. His wardrobe invariably consisted of blue jeans and huaraches.

But by the time he hiked into the Sierra, True had become an Express-News reporter with a wife, and a baby was on the way. According to Rivard, his trip to the mountains was “the last solo trek in a lifelong journey to leave behind” his pre-newspaper past, “a final walk before embracing his future.” That future included monogamy, fatherhood, and—Rivard implies—a nose-to-the-grindstone loyalty to the paper that presumably would lead True to trade his Levis and sandals for Dockers and sensible shoes.

Why had he waited so long to get with the program? More to the point, why had he left his five-months pregnant wife at home in Mexico City to venture into the hostile Sierra? And why by himself, with no one to watch his back?

According to Rivard, these questions are answered by the third, and most salient, factor in True’s life: his rotten childhood. Feathers’ entire first section consists of extraordinarily sleazy dirt that Rivard unearthed about True’s family posthumously. His father was a closet bisexual who photographed himself fooling around with men and who molested Philip’s younger sister. The elder True was eventually kicked out of the house; Mrs. True divorced him, then remarried and divorced a string of losers. Years later, we are informed, Philip went to therapy and recovered “memories” (whose truth he apparently didn’t question, and neither does Rivard) of himself having been molested: by his mother.

That’s why Philip True marched against the war in Vietnam, knocked around the hemisphere on a bicycle, backpacked in the wilderness, hung around Central America in solidarity with revolutionaries during the 1980s, and otherwise rejected the usual trappings of corporate, yuppie U.S. life. (Never mind that millions of young people his age all over the world did these same lefty and artsy things.) Furthermore, explains Rivard, it was psychological damage that kept True so long from journalism. His first mainstream reporting job didn’t come until his early forties, when he got hired at the border-rat Brownsville Herald. Later, after moving to the more prestigious Express-News, he was skeptical of “anyone in power, in government, and even at his own newspaper”; meanwhile, his clothing was “hardly the uniform of a professional.” As Mexico correspondent, he “was not interested in the latest Wal-Mart opening, the growing use of cell phones … or … the increasingly active and growing Mexican stock exchange.” He preferred reporting from places like Jalisco and Chiapas, where he could write about grassroots people fighting their government’s labyrinthine corruption and intrigue. On his periodic trips to HQ in San Antonio, he disliked the institutionalization and politics of the newsroom. They had a name for him in the home office: “Agent True.”

I was working at The Current, San Antonio’s “weekly alternative,” when the news hit about True’s murder. At first, the Express-News intimated that True had been killed in the line of duty, while on assignment to do a story about the Huichol Indians. According to an editor’s note published on the newspaper’s website, when he died, True “was doing two things he loved: hiking through territory new to him, and pursuing what he knew to be a significant story.” Citing it as an example of his dedication and journalistic excellence, the paper published the story proposal that True had submitted months earlier. “A day near a Huichol community is marked by the nearly constant sound of children laughing and playing,” he had written in March 1998. “This kind of joy gives them a certain integrity in their being that allows them to welcome in strangers.”

True was an amazingly prolific reporter who had won accolades from other publications for his insightful writing about Mexico’s socio-economic nooks and crannies. But the language of his proposal was dangerously romantic. It read like the ideations of a gringo Mexicanophile on Valium and headed for trouble. Yet the paper described it as “a classic” that showed “the intensity of [True’s] feelings for the Huichol Indians and his enthusiasm for this story.”

The Express-News later admitted that the proposal had never been accepted. Nonetheless, True had decided to use his vacation time to visit the Sierra and submit the article later without the paper’s previously having committed to publish it.

Shortly after the murder story broke, I looked up an anthropologist who’d spent two decades among the Huichols. “True went to their territory alone?” he said incredulously, then noted that the Indians were neither joyful nor welcoming to strangers. On the contrary, they were roiling with anger at being exploited and harassed by peyote-seeking, Carlos-Castañeda-inspired tourists, abusive Mexican soldiers, and an influx of mestizos who were terrorizing them in order to chop down their forests for profit. Here’s how bad it was, said the anthropologist: Even though he was a Huichol-approved holy man who’d come and gone freely for years, lately he no longer dared enter the Sierra unless he carried written authorization from community elders and was accompanied by a Huichol guide. If Indians really had killed True, he surmised, they’d done it because he’d come on their land without permission. As well, maybe he’d taken photographs. “That’s also taboo. It’s serious.”

Trail of Feathers would have you believe True was in la-la land and divorced from critical thought processes because he was bidding farewell to the demons of his youth. I think it’s likely that instead, he was grappling with a demon of his adulthood: the Express-News. Rivard tells us that True was ready to come out of the Sierra and into Oxford shirts and 401(k)s. But he also says that True was making plans for a “showdown” with the home office; he felt that his work was being marginalized. Rivard admits that by 1998, “Mexico simply wasn’t generating the kind of headlines it did when the [Zapatista] guerrilla uprising first broke out four years earlier or when the free trade agreement was signed in the early 1990s.” If it wasn’t green or it didn’t bleed, it didn’t lead. True was thus understandably angry at the “decline in front-page play of Mexico and border stories. The clique of bilingual reporters in the San Antonio newsroom … shared his view.”

True was so pissed that in late November 1998, just days before he left for the Sierra, he sent the managing editor and several other editors an e-mail challenging their news judgment. “[I]t seems that the paper’s Mexico news hole is closer to page nineteen than page one,” he complained. “Thoughtful and provocative project ideas go without response … little interest is evidenced in longer pieces … What is wrong with this picture?”

At the end of his e-mail, he mentioned his plan to visit the San Antonio office in December to take up these questions. According to Rivard, all the message did was irritate True’s superiors. As for Rivard, he was completely removed from the discussion. Further, “No one ever brought [True’s Huichol story] proposal to my attention,” he writes. Nor did subordinate editors tell him about True’s plans to go into the Sierra solo.

Rivard is known as a smart, charming guy who likes to curry a public image as a respecter of great journalism. Right around the time True died, he was talking about spending whatever money it took to hire good people for the Express-News. He assembled a stable of middle-aged reporters and columnists with varied, often bohemian careers like True’s and stellar writing reputations. Within a few years most had left on their own or been fired.

Like so many mainstream editors these days, Rivard keeps his eyes sharp on the corporate bottom line and the extent to which the contents of the news hole advance that line—or not. “If you are going to be an editor in today’s newspaper world,” he told a national media conference not long ago, “you have to not only be a journalist, but you have to have a fluency in the language of the business side. …. We came to this calling because we’re people of words, but, in fact, the wars for good newspaper budgets are fought over spreadsheets and numbers.”

Obsessive market research is an important component of those numbers, as corporate media outlets continually poll the public about what they like and don’t like. Anything deemed unpopular tends to get dropped from coverage—and in most surveys, international news comes in at the bottom. This was especially true in the 1990s, when foreign reporting virtually disappeared from TV and many newspapers. That’s when True’s Huichol proposal was turned down.

Imagine if, instead, an editor had appreciated his pitch. That editor would have looked at True’s flaky descriptions of joyful Indians and known enough about Latin America to see a real story. It’s the one described by the anthropologist, and it really is about Mexicans—even Huichols—having their lives turned around by “newsworthy” things like free trade and political change. (More neo-liberal democracy means more tourism and more of those rich, peyote-seeking tourists. Opening markets for export of raw materials means more deforestation of the Sierra, as does the pervasive drug trade.)

An editor who appreciated True’s work would have okayed the story after helping him retool the proposal and contact the anthropologists. Is that asking too much of the mainstream media? Maybe so. Ironically, however, in his pursuit of the story of True’s death, Rivard ended up devoting time and resources to the Huichol story that his reporter could never have imagined. Moreover, had True been given the Huichol assignment instead of being ignored, he would have been joined by a staff photographer. When working in a foreign country, Rivard writes, “one rule is that there is strength in numbers. … People with bad intentions are less likely to act against a pair or groups than an unwary individual.” Had True gone to the Sierra with a photographer, it’s likely that they would have kept their journalists’ wits about them, obtained all the required permits from the leaders of each Huichol community, and True would still be alive. Instead, he seems to have ended up thinking of the trip as a retreat. Thanks to former Newsweek correspondent Alan Zarembo, True’s journal was later found in a Guadalajara police warehouse. The journal contained virtually no reporter’s notes; instead it was filled with love letters to his wife.

So what about that trail of feathers? It points not just to human remains, but also to the heart of Robert Rivard, who seems to feel guilty about how True got treated on his watch. Unfortunately, he responded with a tawdry, pop-psychology number on True’s past, while at the same time claiming that he and True were kindred spirits in bohemianism and suffering.

Rivard tells his readers that he was a blue-collar kid like True. Indeed, both were reporters in Brownsville; both worked south of the border early in their journalism careers. But True didn’t get his first real reporting job until he was in his 40s. Rivard had entered the corporate media world while still in his 20s. Not only do the parallels not hold up, Rivard’s attempts to commune therapeutically with the dead reporter—by casting himself as a fellow casualty of bad parenting—ring embarrassingly false. (When he misbehaved as a child in the 1950s, he writes, his mother whipped him and sent him to his room.)

Feathers serves mainly as an attempt to aggrandize Rivard professionally. The book narrates tale after tale of his besuited meetings with Mexican presidents and luminaries, and his extensive efforts to have True honored by media organizations as a martyr to journalism. (According to the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mexico is indeed one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters, editors and commentators. Besides True, CPJ counts at least 11 victims in the past decade. Except for True, all of the victims were Mexican journalists. Most of their murders seem directly attributable to their i
vestigations and criticisms of corrupt officials and narcotraffickers. In other words, they were assassinated in the line of professional duty, and not because of dumb, bad luck on a vacation.)

In a recent review of Trail of Feathers that he wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quiñones, who worked as a freelance journalist in Mexico City for many years, recalls how when Phil True was still alive, he and other foreign correspondents had a habit of meeting each Friday for drinks at a bar called the Nuevo Leon. “It was a vibrant group,” Quiñones writes, “one, I felt, that was becoming aware that a historic story of Mexico’s change was slowly unfolding before it.”

But by the time True died, foreign journalists were already leaving the country due to corporate U.S. media’s declining interest in Latin America coverage. The Nuevo Leon salon was further doomed by September 11, which “finished it off as the world’s focus turned elsewhere.” Quiñones associates True’s demise with the end of lively journalism in a place long loved by U.S. seekers who dress in Levis and sandals. Or who, if they favor suits, still love to drink cervezas with idealists in huaraches. Despite what Trail of Feathers implies, it was probably the decline of this fine sensibility, and not some tawdry psychodrama, that pushed a good reporter irreversibly into the wild.

Contributing writer Debbie Nathan lives in New York City.

Debbie Nathan is a Texas native and writer who divides her time between New York City and the border. She is author, most recently, of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.