In 2010 Tim Gallagher went to Mexico to investigate the plight of the Imperial woodpecker. Various border hands I knew, like Chuck Bowden and J P S Brown (who had owned a ranch in the Sierra Madre) warned us that it might be a very dangerous trip. Tim went anyway, and encountered ecological devastation and deliberate biocide. His email to us when he escaped was the most harrowing I’ve received from someone in the field.
I thought he had it made for an adventure book but his 2013 book, Imperial Dreams, for whatever reason, showed little of this danger. I asked Tim if I could publish the email and he immediately agreed. Here it is, with his permission, for the first time.
March 26, 2010
Those guys are completely correct in their assessment of Mexico. It’s incredibly dangerous now. I made five trips there in the past 12 months, and each time it became noticeably more hazardous. But the level of danger took a quantum leap when I sent to Durango. I’m grateful just to be alive and well. That day we drove out was amazing. We spent almost five hours driving alone through a virtual war zone that we were warned not to go through without an escort. We did have something set up with a “friendly” drug lord and the director of the area’s forestry unit, who were supposed to meet us at 10:00 AM in the village of Guacamyita, high in the Sierra Madre, and accompany us to Durango. But this being Mexico, they didn’t show up, so we had to go it alone. We spoke with a middle-aged local man, who everyone called “the Judge” – and he did have some civic function in the area. He said Carnelio, the drug grower and prominent local citizen who was to accompany us, was supposed to have come back two days ago but didn’t show. The Judge has a quite blase attitude about our concerns. He said a few trucks had gotten through that week, so perhaps it would be okay. There had only been a few houses burned in the past few days, but no one was killed. Then he said, “You will get there at best.” (Of course, I wondered what the other options were – the “at worst” or somewhere in between.)
We weighed our options. Two-and-a-half weeks earlier when we had arrived in Durango, the situation was already becoming horrendous. At 5:30, the afternoon before we ledt for the Sierra, there was an enormous explosion not far from our hotel, followed by sirens. It turned out someone had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at another hotel where a lot of federales were staying, and it rattled our windows. WE had met with Julian Bautista, the forestry unit director, at his office earlier in the day and been introduced to Cornelio and his associates. Julian was great. He gave a speech to these guys about how important and historic the work was that we were doing and that they should be proud to help us. We gave them the whole song and dance in his office, showing them the movie of an Imperial Woodpecker that was taken virtually right in their neighborhood and various photos from Dr. Rhein’s 1956 expedition. They were very impressed and said they would escort us into the Sierra.
Julian planned to drive a third truck with his forestry unit insignia on the side. Originally we had planned to drive two trucks, but one of them had Sinaloa license plates and no insignia, and Cornelio warned us against taking that truck. Basically, everything bad in the Sierra seems to originate in the State of Sinaloa – many drug kingpins from that set up shop in the Sierra about 20 years ago, and everyone hated them. This really panicked Marco, a biology instructor from the Universidad de Mazatlan, who was supposed to come with us. He has a strong Sinaloa accent. He was already nervous because a massacre had just taken place along the Sinaloa/Durango state border, with more than a dozen people killed, including women and children. Anyway, we were supposed to leave for the Sierra at 4:00 o’clock the next morning.
At 10:00 that night, Martjan Lammertink (an ornithologist from the Netherlands who is now at Cornell) came into our room ashen faced and said that we would probably have to call off our expedition. Juliano had received an anonymous call from someone who knew about us coming to the Sierra, including the times of our coming and going, and wanted to know exactly who we were and where we would be staying. Juliano and Cornelio wanted to meet us 10 minutes later in the Plaza de Armes, the huge plaza across from the old Spanish cathedral, only a two-minute walk from our hotel. Marco was trembling visibly at the thought of this, and Martjan and I also felt sick. We had already lost two Mexican biologists, who had dropped out of the expedition at the last minute because of the danger. Now Marco was wavering. The only other people going with us were two field techs from ProNatura Mexico – Oscar, who was 26, and Manuel (our driver), also from ProNatura, who we later found out was only 16.
The scene at the Plaza was crazy. The place was surrounded by armed police. They weren’t stopping or hassling anyone, but I think they were just trying to establish a police presence after the grenade attack. Of course, we didn’t know if their presence made things better or worse. What if someone fired another grenade at them. As we walked across the dark plaza, every approaching person made us tremble. Then Martjan and I suddenly broke out laughing giddily, because the whole things seemed like a scene in a movie. There were even a half-dozen or so people on the other side of the park, pounding out an African rhythm on conga drums. The whole thing put our nerves on edge. (And one funny thing, I had planned to secretly tape-record our conversation in the park and had hit the record button as we were leaving the hotel, then put the recorder in my shirt pocket. As we were walking across the plaza, Martjan noticed a bright red glow coming from my pocket so I had to turn it off. I’m sure those guys would not have been happy if they thought I was wearing a wire!)
Julian showed up about 10 minutes late, followed by Cornelio, dressed in his purple shirt and jeans with pointy lizard-skin cowboy boots and a white cowboy hat with a small silver buckle in front. I remember after leaving Julian’s office that morning, Marco had said, “Those guys are up to their eyeballs in drug trafficking. You don’t wear clothes like that and drive a fancy truck like that on the money you can make honestly in the Sierra.” And it turned out he was right.
Cornelio said that because these anonymous people knew we were driving there at 4:00 in the morning, we should trick them by going earlier at 2:00. Julian didn’t like it. He said, “The devil walks at that time of night.” He suggested leaving at 6:30 and driving during daylight hours, and that’s what we did. (Marco, like the other two Mexican biologists, pulled out of the expedition, leaving just Martjan, and me and the two young Mexicans.) During our drive through the mountains, another truck came right up behind Julian’s truck and stayed close for awhile. Then it drove past his truck and the one I was in and pulled right beside Cornelio’s truck for a few tense minutes before speeding off ahead. A short time later, we all stopped in a small mountain village. Cornelio was visibly shaken, which disturbed all of us. He had seemed so cool through everything that happened earlier. He said the men in the other truck were well armed so we had to be very careful. (Turns out a local official from the next village over had been assassinated just ten days earlier, and perhaps Cornelio was afraid he might share that fate.) We spent two terrifying hours driving through the mountains on those terrible roads before Cornelio stopped and told us we were now in safe territory. That was a great relief, but at the back of our minds, we were all dreading going back over the same route a couple of weeks later. And it didn’t help when we got to Cornelio’s house and he went inside and came out holding what I think was an Uzi. He smiled at me and said, “Por coyotes,” then slipped it under the seat of his truck. I’m sure he wouldn’t make the mistake of going anywhere unarmed again.
During the next two weeks we had a few disturbing encounters. We ran across some marijuana patches and two opium patches, but it seemed okay. We were more or less under Cornelio’s protection. And he advised us to leave one day early, on Friday instead of Saturday as we had planned, in case those people were waiting for us. But he said not to go alone and that he would definitely accompany us.
So that brings us back to the drive out of the mountains. After getting the word from the Judge, I put my passport and wallet in my pockets (and also a notebook with copious notes I’d taken on the trip.) I also took the memory cards out of my cameras and my digital tape recorder and put them in the hip pocket of my pants. I figured we had about a 50-50 chance of having some bad encounter, and I thought if they were just garden-variety highwaymen, they might just take our vehicle and everything in it and leave us standing in the road. If anything happened, I didn’t want to lose all the work I’d risked my life to get. I also had the grim thought that, if everything did go bad, at least they’d be able to identify my body, and maybe my wife could use my notes and photographs to write the book for me. (Looking back, I can’t believe I was thinking things like that, but at the time I was dead serious.)
And I did have some awful fantasies on that endless drive out of the mountains – a truck blocking the road; men wearing black balaclavas rushing out from the woods pointing AK-47s at us. Anything seems possible. The road was so bad, in many areas we could only drive three or four miles per hour, not as fast as you can walk, so an ambush would have been easy to accomplish. I began looking back at my life, and I regretted so much. I thought about my wife and all the years we’d spent together – and how sorry I was that I’d never really expressed to her how much she means to me and that she would never know that I was thinking of her at the moment of my death. And I thought of my kids and how sorry I was that I wouldn’t be able to watch them all grow to adulthood and be there to help them. It’s funny how danger can focus your mind like that.
We drove in silence for a couple of hours, not even playing the lively Mexican CDs with their wild singing and brassy trumpets that Oscar and Manuel had brought with them. We didn’t see another vehicle until a huge old flatbed truck came lumbering along the other way, carrying a bunch of ragged Tepehuane Indians on the back – old men, women, and children, huddled like refugees in the cold mountain air. They stopped and spoke with us. The woman sitting next to the driver said the road was very dangerous further down the mountain. Then she said, “God may help you,” and she crossed herself.
The next vehicle we saw was a beat-up old white pickup truck coming toward us. It was moving erratically – slowing down; stopping; then lurching forward hesitantly. As it came near us, the driver kept as far to the other side of the dirt road as he could from us. We peered in at the two Mexican men in the truck as they drove past us, and they had the same terrified looks on their faces as we must have had.
As we passed another village with a tiny cabin where they sold various basic necessities, Martjan surprised everyone and suggested stopping there for some snacks. We shrugged out shoulders and said “Si, bueno.” He bought everyone some cookies and some small boxes of guava juice, and it completely broke the tension. “This is, how do you say it, your last meal,” he said to me. “Don’t I get a last cigarette, too” I said. We all laughed.
The drive was unimaginably long, and particularly disturbing as we drove past three burned houses what had been in perfect shape on the way up. We’d also seen a man walking down the road with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. We were giddy when we finally reached the paved road. Oscar and Manuel pushed a Mexican CD into the player, and we all sang loudly, laughing with relief as we blasted along the rest of the way to Durango.
The next morning, Martjan and I met Julian in the Plaza. We were planning to have breakfast together. He almost broke down when he saw us, and hugged us both tightly. He said he had been so worried about us and felt guilty that he had told us a couple of months ago that things were safe in that area. A tide of violence had been rising just as we arrived and was cresting as we did our work in the Sierra. He really hadn’t wanted us to go, he said, but when we told him in the plaza that we still wanted to go, he felt committed to help us. But then he found out he couldn’t get a forest unit truck to take up to us and that Cornelio was still in Durango and wouldn’t be there to meet us. He said if he could have gotten in touch with us, he would have told us to take the other route from Guacamayitas–the same route he had told us was far too dangerous two weeks earlier. He said that just the day before, someone had been abducted and held for ransom from the very village where we bought our cookies. He didn’t know what to do. He said he and his wife got on their knees together on the night before we left and prayed for our safety. He knew he would never be able to forgive himself if we had been harmed in any way.
You have no idea how great it felt a couple of days later when we landed in Houston. It’s another world in Mexico, and I’m so glad to be back in my nice warm (safe) office.