Las Américas

True Stories

Armed with a compass, a backpack, a new 35-mm Canon, and what some might call an excess of nineteenth century Romanticism, Philip True set off in late November for a ten-day, 100-mile solo hike in the Sierra Madre Occidental, the rugged Mexican terrain he once described as “John Huston country.” On December 16, the Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News was found buried in a shallow grave at the bottom of a canyon about 120 miles from Guadalajara. And that’s about all we know for sure.

The story of Philip True, a fifty-year-old man about to become a father for the first time, has become a combination of Greek tragedy and what we refer to here in Mexico as la novela nacional, endless turns of plot which ensure that no story – particularly no major crime story – will have a beginning, a middle, and most important, an end.

There have been two conflicting autopsies, two conflicting confessions. The Jalisco State Human Rights Commission has determined that the two Huichol Indians arrested for True’s murder were illegally detained by the Army, and that “soldiers may have also committed acts of torture, illegal entry and abuse of power against several indigenous people.” Indigenous rights groups in Jalisco say that under the pretext of searching for True’s killers, some 2,000 soldiers searched Huichol communities in the Sierra.

I didn’t know Philip True; I read his stories. He wrote about the slums of Acapulco and the forests of Queretaro. About Zapatistas in Chiapas and elections in Tamaulipas. Some of his stories were beautifully written, but somewhat simplistic. Others were right on target; some were as good as it gets. A few years ago, he wrote about a man in Toluca who made the candy skulls that appear everywhere around November 2, the Day of the Dead. “It began with a wonderful line: “Wenceslau Rivas Contreras made an art form of sweetening the face of death.” I don’t remember any stories about the labyrinth of Mexican politics, the bilateral relationship, and the bilateral drug story, although he must have written the obligatory story or two.

A friend of mine recalls seeing True at a press conference last November at the Mexican Attorney General’s Office, when U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey was in town. It was the usual gung-ho stuff that both reporters knew by rote, and after the press conference they shared a cab. True was in great spirits. He was going on vacation the next day, hiking through the Sierra Madre. My friend was alarmed. True, whom she describes as incredibly witty, with an “ability to cut through the bullshit,” dismissed her concerns. He had an uncanny sense of confidence. He also had what seemed like an uncanny ability to convince his editors to publish stories about out-of-the way places.

His last story was not one of them. In March, True wrote a memo proposing a hike through Huichol country in western Mexico. The Huichols are an indigenous group of about 15,000 from the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango, whose language is related to Hopi. True had done some traveling in a town called Tuxpán de Bolaños, in Jalisco, where he had been invited to a Huichol ceremony and allowed to take photographs. “A day near a Huichol community is marked by the nearly constant sound of children laughing and playing,” he wrote in his memo to the Express-News. “This gives them a certain integrity in their being that allows them to welcome in strangers, something the Maya are usually loathe to do…. That lifestyle now stands on the cusp of dramatic change…. A look at the Huichol country as it confronts this influx of modernity would be a fascinating, wonderfully visual piece. The countryside, the people and their ceremonies are breathtaking and accessible.”

The proposal was never authorized. According to Express-News managing editor Carolina García, the paper didn’t know where True was going on his vacation until after he had left – an unusual arrangement for foreign correspondents who usually live with cell phones or pagers at reach. There had been no response to True’s proposal, she says, no follow-up about how such a story should be reported or whether it was feasible. Yet True began preparing for the physical rigors of the trip he had planned, mapping out detailed routes and meticulously packing and unpacking his backpack. He even added the hefty pack to his long morning jogs. What other preparation he made is uncertain. Did he have contacts in places other than Bolaños, a small town that is usually described as mestizo rather than Huichol? Who did he talk to? Anthropologists? Journalists? Activists? Government officials? To some of his friends, the question is superfluous. Of course, he had contacts. Others seemed put off by the questions. He wanted to walk through Huichol country. Anthropologists, guides – that’s missing the point. After True’s death, the Express-News published his original proposal, describing it as an example of the great lengths to which True was willing to go for a story. “It was a classic,” wrote editor Robert Rivard, “it showed [t]he intensity of his feelings for the Huichol Indians and his enthusiasm for this story.”

To others the memo was tragically naive, a mix of assumptions about “Huichols,” “accessibility,” “joyful” communities and “dramatic change.” Paul Liffman has worked on land-rights issues in San Andrés Cohamiata, one of three communities True had hoped to visit on the border of Jalisco and Nayarit. Liffman is at the University of Chicago, writing a dissertation on the Huichols. “The Sierra Huichol is not a wilderness to be traversed or a spectacle to be viewed from a detached point of view,” he says. “It is the setting for a group of communities that has been struggling against outsiders for centuries. Therefore, one should not be there except as a guest or visitor with authorization from the ceremonially constituted local authorities.” The region is also known for its land disputes, and recently several NGOs and a Guadalajara university have provided Huichols with high-tech surveying and sophisticated litigation strategies that have resulted in Huichol court victories over cooperative agrarian ejidos and powerful ranching and political interest groups. Enforcing their court orders, however, is another story.

The area has also seen more than its share of anthropologists, journalists, and photographers (including National Geographic and more recently, the Chicago Tribune). And it is a favorite destination of “metaphysical tourists” – Americans and Europeans inspired by Carlos Castañeda’s ersatz anthropology (and the peyote that fueled it). There is also some local ambivalence about fee-paying tourists and well-intentioned interlopers, conspicuously absent from True’s original proposal.

Several days before True queried his editors, the Army arrested twenty-one Huichol men, women, and children on their way back from gathering peyote for religious use. Huichol use of peyote in religious ceremonies has long been protected by Mexican law, and the arrests were part of what agrarian reform activist Angeles Arcos describes as a pattern of harassment that has increased over the past decade. A UPI report quoted a Huichol traditional governor saying, “If the government and military are going to end our way to life by confiscating our religious items and putting us in jail for completing our spiritual obligations, then they might just as well kill us all right now.”

The comments help explain the Huichol response to Rivard and others in the search party. “Disturbingly, a village leader in Almotita appeared highly agitated by the arrival of members of the search party,” Rivard said. “He angrily challenged their authority to land without a permit. He also complained about their presence as foreigners in the zone – and Philip’s recent visit – without citing any specific reasons.”

And always, in Mexico, there is the drug question. After his death, the Express-News published a story indicating that True had told a friend in New York that he had some concern about drug-trafficking, but believed there was little activity in the area. Ignacio Rodríguez, an investigative reporter and editor of the Mexico City magazine Milenio, says there are some plantations in the area where True was traveling. The poppy harvest, he says, occurs between November and January.

There were other professional risks. In 1997, three journalists were killed in relation to their work in Mexico City, Guerrero, and on the border in Sonora. Veteran Tijuana journalist Jesús Blancornelas was severely wounded and his bodyguard killed when gunmen opened fire on them. And last year a reporter for an afternoon daily was killed in Mexico City. Most of those cases involve drug trafficking. More frequent are incidents of harassment and intimidation, such as that experienced by Maribel Gutiérrez, a Guerrero reporter accused by state authorities of being a member of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR). And last year, photographers covering the deportation of foreigners from Chiapas were attacked by state judicial police.

Yet no American journalist has been killed since Peter Steele, an American who was an editor at Mexico City’s daily La Jornada and a correspondent at Inter Press, disappeared under mysterious circumstances at a Puerto Escondido beach in 1987. So when True disappeared, President Zedillo offered full assistance and called out the Army. The results have been less than what was promised. Almost as soon as True’s body was discovered, there were leaks to the press indicating that he had been drinking and had fallen to his death. Then Mario Rivas, a veteran Guadalajara pathologist who performed the first autopsy, announced that True had been strangled. There were also reports of sexual abuse. The next time he was confronted by reporters Rivas could say nothing more because there had been orders from above. A second autopsy was performed in Mexico City at the offices of Mexico’s attorney general, with an F.B.I. pathologist from Miami present. While the results were delayed, two Huichol Indians, brothers-in-law in their twenties, were arrested and charged with True’s murder. According to the first confession, True was killed because he was photographing sacred places; according to the second, because he was drunk and might harm their families.

Finally, on January 8, the attorney general announced the findings of the second autopsy. They were inconclusive. True had not been strangled, but had died from a blow to the head. There were no signs of sexual abuse. The second autopsy left open the possibility that no murder had ever taken place. It was unlikely the case would ever be resolved, Rivard told the New York Times, and despite all the doubts he was confident that the right suspects were in custody. What happened out in the Sierra, he said, was something like Deliverance, a reference to the James Dickey novel and movie about a group of male friends who meet up with some truly bad ol’ boys out in the woods.

There is something about this story that goes far beyond the realm of an unsolvable mystery. This is a story about myths – myths about journalists, about Indians, about gringos, myths about wilderness and solitude, and myths about drugs – the all-purpose cultural, political, economic and political myth of “civilization” at the close of the millennium. Groping for an answer, Arnoldo Kraus, an insightful physician who writes for La Jornada, decided that all the twists and turns and mysteries of the case of Philip True are the perfect metaphor for Mexico itself: “According to the autopsies, True had two deaths. Although nothing surprises us anymore, two deaths in a single person, hopefully, is still cause for disbelief.” In Mexico, everyone knows that nothing happens until after it happens. Something happened to Philip True.

Barbara Belejack is a writer living in Mexico City.

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Published at 12:00 am CST