Outside magazine, June 1999
Journalist Philip True hiked into Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental seeking meaningful contact with the native Huichol Indians: an exotic trek with a little reporting thrown in, an encounter with an ancient people’s spirit-world. The contact he ultimately made, however, was less meaningful and more bloody than that.
By Paul Kvinta
On December 14, 1998, Margarito Diaz Martinez awoke before sunrise in the village of Popotita, gathered a coil of fishing line, and began the 4,500-foot descent from the west rim of Chapalagana Canyon to the river below. He moved swiftly and gracefully, sometimes trotting, even though the steep, narrow trail was littered with loose
rocks and soil. In the early light, Diaz, a Huichol Indian, could begin to make out the sculpted folds, creases, and cliffs on the far side of the canyon, as well as the mocha-colored peaks and mesas beyond, undulating like a rumpled blanket to the horizon. He was already halfway down the path when the sun broke over the eastern rim and painted the volcanic
outcroppings of the canyon’s western slope orange and chartreuse. Soon he reached the river. In the rainy months, the Chapalagana transforms the lower gorge into a roaring, rushing drainage pipe, making crossings treacherous and effectively slicing Huichol country—an area the size of Maryland in southwestern Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental—into eastern and
western halves. But this was the dry season, and the river Diaz began to fish was shallow and calm.
He had no reason to think that this day would present something horribly out of sync with what he had come to expect from the world. Diaz was a mara’káme, a shaman-singer, and more than anyone else in the village of Popotita, he was attuned to the cyclical rhythms of life and death. He had presented newborns to Werikœa, the
sun god, in dawn ceremonies; consulted his dreams to cure the sick; and started the souls of the recently dead on their journeys to the afterlife. Diaz had crossed this canyon many times during the annual pilgrimage to Wirikœta, on the high desert 300 miles to the northeast, where the Huichols’ sacred peyote cactus grows. And upon his return, he had presided over
the marathon peyote ceremony, singing long, epic poems while his people plunged into trances that make them one with their pantheon of ancestral spirits and nature gods.
But today was an ordinary day of fishing—at least, it was until Diaz’s line broke. Disappointed, he began the long hike back up the canyon. As he climbed, he noticed dozens of vultures circling low above a branch of the trail he was on. When he had climbed high enough, the shaman walked over for a closer look, expecting to find a cow or a pig. What he saw at
the bottom of an embankment 30 feet below the trail, surrounded by vultures, was unmistakably human. As Diaz scrambled down the slope, the vultures squawked and lifted into the sky. He stopped when the stench overwhelmed him. Though the body was bruised and bloated, Diaz knew immediately that something even more extraordinary than a man’s death had occurred, for this
corpse was not Huichol. Nor was it Mexican.
Two days later Diaz returned, leading a small search party, including an American newspaper editor named Robert Rivard who had spent several frantic days coordinating a massive search effort to find one of his reporters, 50-year-old Philip True, the Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News. True had gone missing a week
earlier during a solo hiking trip in the rugged Huichol Sierra, and Diaz’s report that he had found a body made the searchers fear the worst. But now, when the shaman led them to the place where he’d seen the dead man, the corpse was gone. Baffled, they searched the surrounding area before someone noticed tufts of goose down scattered back toward the main trail and
down the canyon slope. It took the group an hour and a half to track the trail of feathers to the river’s edge, where a dog accompanying them started to bark at a sandy bank. The men began digging with their hands, and two feet under they found the body encased in a tattered sleeping bag and wrapped in a blue plastic ground cloth. It was Philip True.
The next day, medical examiners determined that the journalist had been murdered—most likely strangled. In other parts of Mexico, where violence is more common, the death of an American traveler would probably not have seemed like such a shocking event. But here, in the largely peaceful homeland of the Huichols, where no one could remember if a foreigner had
ever met a violent end, this gringo’s disappearance and murder—and the onslaught of police investigators, reporters, soldiers, government officials, and human-rights workers that followed in their wake—was a jarring disruption of an increasingly anxious culture. As fear and shame swept from village to village, the Indians worried that this was one more sign
that their centuries-old isolation could no longer withstand the embrace of greed and voyeuristic reverence and misguided paternalism that was gradually transforming their lives.
For the colleagues and friends of Philip True, and for his Mexican wife, Marta, five months pregnant with their first child, it was a senseless, maddening mystery that Philip, whose admiration for the Huichols was boundless and who had taken such pains to learn about their changing culture, could have stumbled into the hands of a killer in this beautiful, remote
place. And when the police arrested two young Huichol men and charged them with the crime, it seemed even more inexplicable. He was the wrong target, the wrong victim—and yet that fatal outburst, and True’s presence at that moment, may prove to possess some dark, tragic logic, if not inevitability. Or perhaps not. Having retraced the course of Philip True’s final
days, I’m still not sure.
True made his first descent into Chapalagana Canyon last December, but he was no stranger to the expanse of Mexican wilderness he called “Huichol country.” In fact, the journalist with a looping mustache and a thicket of unruly brown hair had been traveling there since the 1980s and had twice visited Tuxpan de Bola–os, a town of 350 in the state of Jalisco and
a Huichol ceremonial center. Unlike the reporting trips he ordinarily undertook as the chief Mexico correspondent of the San Antonio Express-News (circulation 240,000), these journeys to the Huichol Sierra were short personal junkets intended to gratify True’s longstanding passions for indigenous cultures, noble struggles, and far-flung
wilderness. Last year, however, he began to conceive of a way to turn this private enthusiasm into a professional opportunity and started planning a longer, more ambitious journey: a ten-day hike that would result in a feature article about the Huichols and their rugged homeland.
In March 1998, True submitted a breezy, somewhat vague 520-word story proposal to his editors at the Express-News. Instead of admitting his own long fascination with the subject, True began his pitch by writing, “I have come across what I think would make a good story; if not for the news side, certainly for one of the Sunday sections.”
He described the territory that he wanted to explore as a place that combined elements of Lost Horizon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “The Huichol Indians live in Mexico’s last true wilderness…. It is John Huston country: a 100-mile-wide swath of big-boned mountains and rolling mesas cut by vertical
river canyons. In an area of tens of thousands of square miles, there are only a handful of dirt roads…. The Huichols have retained a certain joy in their life. A day near a Huichol community is marked by the nearly constant sound of children laughing and playing. This kind of joy gives them a certain integrity in their being that allows them to welcome in
Although the proposal alludes to the encroachment of modern life upon Huichol culture, which True said would be part of his story, he otherwise emphasized Arcadian, transcendental qualities of the Huichol universe. “Outside a handful of small towns, wheels do not exist…. Distant communications are still conducted with a column of smoke…. Their shamans don hats
decked with mirrors, eagle and parrot feathers. Peyote is an integral part of their worship of nativist gods…. A look at Huichol country as it confronts [the] influx of modernity would be a fascinating, wonderfully visual piece. The countryside, the people, and their ceremonies are breathtaking and accessible.”
“There is a beautiful story within all of this,” True concluded. “Interested?”
They weren’t, at least not at the moment, perhaps because it was such a soft-focus idea. Citing more pressing stories, the Express-News opted to pass.
But True had become so enamored of the project that he decided to make the trip anyway—with or without a formal assignment. He arranged to take two weeks of vacation time starting in late November. And although he was an experienced backpacker, he prepared for the rigors of the terrain by taking long walks around his Mexico City neighborhood carrying a
50-pound pack. He meticulously mapped out his route: He would take a bus to Tuxpan de Bola–os and then pick his way through a maze of ancient footpaths that would take him across four major river canyons and through the Huichol villages of Mesa El Venado, Almotita, Popotita, and San Miguel Huaistita. He chartered a single-engine plane that he would summon by
radio-phone to fly him from San Juan Peyot‡n or Santa Maria de Huazamota—depending on how far he’d hiked—on December 10. After landing at Tepic, he would call home. Marta, who had rarely accompanied True on his backcountry trips even before she became pregnant, agreed that if she didn’t hear from him by the night of the tenth, she’d assume something
had gone wrong and would send someone in to find him.
“He told me it was part walkabout, part reporting,” says Geoff Mohan, a close friend and colleague who covers Mexico for Newsday. But even before True left Mexico City, the tenor of the journey seemed to have begun shifting from a balance between journalism and “walkabout” to more of the latter—an ascetic vision quest of sorts.
“He referred to it as a solo hike,” adds Mohan. “The solitude of it seemed very important to him, and I didn’t detect that at any point he was looking for a partner.”
Three months have passed since True was murdered, and dozens of Mexican, American, and other foreign reporters have come and gone. Now I’ve come to the sleepy silver-mining town of Bola–os, about 100 miles northwest of Guadalajara in the Sierra Madre Occidental, as part of an essential detour before I can follow the path of Philip True’s trek through Huichol
The first thing one learns while preparing to encounter the Huichols is that an outsider must obtain permission from Huichol leaders to travel across their land, and that doing so requires time and patience. After dozens of phone calls, I’ve been told that my best option is to travel to Bola–os to meet with elders from the districts of San Sebasti‡n and
Tuxpan de Bola–os, who are coming to discuss upcoming provincial elections and negotiate with a federal judge over issues connected to a land dispute with mestizo ranchers. There is no guarantee that I’ll receive the permission I need, or even that they’ll agree to hear me out.
I arrive at the cobbled town plaza before nine in the morning, and shortly thereafter a convoy of two rusty pickup trucks and two small vans pull up. Eight men—several dressed in white pants and puffy-sleeved blouses embroidered with roosters, deer, and jaguars, and the rest in jeans and T-shirts—get out and amble across to the government building where
their meetings are taking place.
I wait my turn all day. It is early evening when I’m invited into an interior courtyard to be presented to a group of Huichol elders.
“So, you like to walk?” one of the men asks in Spanish, when I finish making my proposal.
“Do you like to walk up walls?” asks another, and the assembly bursts into laughter. The men begin bantering in the simultaneously lilting and staccato language of the Huichol. They shake their heads and disagree with one another. They have serious reservations, it seems.
Even so, after more lobbying, the elders grant me permission to travel for five days through their territory in the company of a Huichol guide. They agree to prepare an official document, signed and stamped by four officials, which will be waiting for me three days from now at the start of my journey in Tuxpan de Bola–os. They instruct me to present myself as
an “ambassador of friendship.” Then, after some debate in Huichol, they point to a thin, dark-skinned young Indian in jeans and well-worn leather huaraches who is standing nearby. His name is Simon de la Cruz Gonzales, they tell me. He is 22 years old, and he will be my guide.
The meeting is a relaxed, friendly one, but given the event that has precipitated requests like mine, it’s not surprising that there’s an undercurrent of anxiety as well. I’m a little uneasy too, because this elaborate process has brought me face to face with one of the most puzzling questions posed by Philip True’s behavior as he embarked on his walkabout: Why did
this journalist—a person who professed great respect for these Indians and had steeped himself in their lore and traditions—violate a basic tenet of proper relations with the Huichols by failing to ask permission to travel through their territory?
The issue of access is a profound one in the context of Huichol cultural history, for the control of access has been crucial in maintaining a continuity of tradition unrivaled in this hemisphere. According to the American anthropologist Peter T. Furst, the Huichols “represent the only Mesoamerican population whose aboriginal ideological universe has remained
basically unaltered by Christian influence.”
This self-preservation can be credited both to geographic isolation and sheer willpower. The most insular of Mexico’s 54 indigenous groups, the Huichols live in five self-governing provinces in the heart of the Sierra Madre. Extended families occupy small mud-brick ranchos and villages on the open mesas, growing corn in communal plots and traveling to larger Huichol
centers for peyote ceremonies and elections.
Archaeologists have dated Huichol religious artifacts and maize agriculture as far back as 200 a.d., but their tradition of stubborn independence began after the arrival of the conquistadores and their Catholic missionaries nearly five centuries ago. Unlike other groups, the Huichols successfully eluded Spanish pressure by retreating deep into the Sierra’s nearly
impenetrable landscape of forbidding canyons and desolate peaks. Even when the Spanish succeeded in forcing missionaries on the Huichols in 1722, the Indians responded by tailoring ecclesiastical doctrine to fit their own beliefs—insisting, for example, that Franciscans must have modeled the Virgin Mary after their own sky goddess, Our Mother Young Eagle Girl. By
the late eighteenth century they’d chased the priests out altogether.
The first real threat to Huichol autonomy since Cortés landed in Mexico did not arrive at the borders of Huichol territory until the midtwentieth century. It came in the form of population pressures and technology. During the late 1960s and 1970s, the Mexican government began building the first roads in the Huichol area as part of an ambitious assimilation
program. In search of economic opportunity, large numbers of Huichols migrated to outlying regions to work as farm laborers and to sell crafts. (Several thousand of the 23,000 Huichols now live outside their traditional territory.) As isolated as the Indians have remained, logging, cattle ranching, tourism, and the drug trade have brought in outside influences and new
tensions. Meanwhile, Huichol territory has been steadily shrinking for decades; increasingly, mestizo cattlemen from surrounding regions have been poaching Huichol land—some 890 square miles since 1910.
The Huichols understand better than most traditional peoples that remaining distinct is essential to their survival—and thus their understandable vehemence in insisting that visitors must be invited guests who respect the etiquette of encounters with a culture that is still, in many ways, radically not of our time and way of thinking. Philip True knew this
and, like me, had submitted to the necessity of undergoing the long wait and scrutiny that were a prerequisite for travel in the Huichols’ homeland on previous trips. For reasons we may never know, in December 1998 he failed to do so.
The chain of events leading to True’s murder may have been set in motion by one simple thing: He was late.
When his bus rolled into Tuxpan de Bolaños at 4 p.m. on December 1, True immediately got off and began walking out of town. A woman sitting in front of her house near the bus stop noticed the American and his backpack. He didn’t say hello to anyone.
After flying to Guadalajara on November 28, True had run into trouble making his bus connections, and he spent two frustrating nights in the mestizo town of Tlatenango. It was here that he made his last phone call to Marta, telling her he was disappointed that his carefully planned schedule had already slipped. After boarding the bus out of Tlatenango on the 30th,
he apparently encountered more problems, because his whereabouts that evening are unknown; he wasn’t spotted again until December 1. And at some point before he was seen walking northwest out of Tuxpan de Bolaños, True made the critical decision to hit the trail on his own, and fast.
Yet the decision may not simply have been a matter of limited time and a demanding itinerary. After all, “Philip knew permission was important,” says Marta. “When we visited Tuxpan de Bolaños during Holy Week in 1998, we spent three hours with the elders in order to be allowed to watch a peyote ritual.” In all likelihood, True realized that the elders would
probably insist that a Huichol guide accompany him through the backcountry—and that was a chance he didn’t want to take.
This may explain yet another puzzling and uncharacteristic oversight. Before he left Mexico City, True had packed a gift of parrot feathers for Jesus Gonzales, a Huichol shaman he’d met on a trip to Tuxpan de Bolaños several years earlier, and he told Marta he would visit Gonzales and drop off the present before leaving town. Again, True may have just been in
a hurry, but he was probably also aware that Gonzales would strongly disapprove of any plan to go it alone, without papers or a guide. “We were good friends,” says Gonzales. “I don’t know why he didn’t stop by to see me.”
As True set off on his 100-mile tour, he was behaving less like a reporter—one would think that encounters with Huichol elders, shamans, and guides would have made for great story material—than a seeker on some kind of inner journey or retreat. (Or at least a simple vacationer: He brought only two books in his pack, In Cold
Blood and The Right Stuff.) On one level, this pilgrim stance was not surprising, since True was, after all, a child of the sixties who had devoured Carlos Castaneda’s books and had taken peyote in a Huichol ceremony on at least one occasion. But friends say he was no New Ager. “He had his feet on the ground more solidly than other
folks when it came to the Huichols,” says Peter Harris, one of True’s college roommates. “If he had an interest in them, it was along the lines of their social, political, and economic situation.” Indeed, as a reporter he covered a range of labor issues and political struggles, and wrote hard-headed stories on the Zapatista Mayan guerrillas in Chiapas and impoverished
maquiladora workers along the Texas border. “He was a bottom-up reporter,” says Newsday‘s Mohan. “He’d just go off somewhere and talk to a bunch of people and a story would come out of it.”
Yet True wasn’t necessarily as grounded as he seemed. He and his younger sister, Bonnie, were raised by their divorced mother in the then-rural San Fernando Valley of southern California. Before taking up journalism at the relatively late age of 40, he spent two decades drifting between jobs as a warehouse worker and union organizer. In the mid-1980s, he began
volunteering to assist Salvadoran refugees in New York, and he later traveled to Central America. And always, he took extended solo backpacking trips into wilderness areas from Joshua Tree to Glacier Bay. Hiking was almost a religion to him. “He often said he wished there was another word for walking, because it was so much more than that,” says Bronwen Heuer, a former
girlfriend. “It was his god.” At the end of the eighties he finally seemed to find a calling; he turned his involvement in Central American politics into an opportunity to become a reporter, and he soon landed a staff job at a small newspaper in Texas. He moved over to the San Antonio Express-News in 1991, the year he met Marta, then a
Brownsville-based social worker, and got the Mexico City assignment in 1995.
Thus True would seem to have little in common with the legions of spiritually unmoored hippies and shamanistic-minded tourists who believe that the Huichols constitute a pure and authentically psychedelic remnant of a pre-Columbian Golden Age. Since the 1970s, such devotees have become one more breed of interloper in Huichol country, sometimes taking too much peyote
(the Huichols themselves ordinarily consume the mescal cactus buttons in moderate doses) and disrupting Huichol ceremonies in the name of druggy solidarity.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Philip True had in mind as he hurried out of Tuxpan de Bolaños late on the afternoon of December 1. But he was now traveling as a stranger, a man without the proper bona fides and without any way to justify his presence in the wilds of the Huichol Sierra.
True spent his first night camped on the western edge of Comotl‡n Canyon. T—mas Gonzales, a son of True’s shaman friend Jesus, was passing by that evening and saw someone in a sleeping bag in a grove of large-leafed roble trees. “If I’d known it was Philip, I would have gone over and talked to him,” says Gonzales.
On our first day out, Simon, my Huichol guide, leads me to the spot where True camped, about a two-hour hike northwest of Tuxpan de Bolaños, but we spend the night in Mesa El Venado, a dusty collection of 20 mud-brick buildings surrounded by a pine and oak forest. Arriving near sundown, we’re greeted by a sudden cessation of all village activity—the
hammering of workers repairing a school, the screaming of kids chasing a dog. We’ve seen no one all day except for two young boys on mules. Simon approaches a group of men who stare at us blankly, asks some questions in Huichol, and hands them our documents, which they scrutinize for several minutes. Then, all at once, they drop to their knees and begin drawing maps in
the dirt. “The American came northwest from Tuxpan,” says one man, his finger trenching through the soil. “Then he went north, toward Popotita.” Everyone speaks at once. Yes, True had passed through, but he didn’t stop. “He walked right through the village,” says one man. “He had a big bag on his back. But he didn’t talk to anyone, and no one talked to him.”
One of the men offers to let us spend the night on the floor of his small house—perhaps because we are an entertaining novelty. “Our village might see four non-Huichols a year,” he tells us. Our host sleeps out in the courtyard. Before we nod off, Simon tells me about his 19-year-old wife and his one-year-old son, Flavio Dilberto, whose Huichol name is Tikiya,
which means “Pollen of the Flowers.” (Simon’s Huichol name is Sithkame, which means “Blooming Corn.”) He is an artisan who makes leather belts and also does work from time to time for a mestizo rancher outside the town of Colotlán.
After True’s first night on the trail, he reached the seasonal hamlet of Popotita by midday. The maize harvest was in full swing, and while the farmers watched him warily, he took several photographs. When Simon and I arrive here on our second morning, it’s deserted except for an elderly couple hunkered in the shade of a thatch-roofed corn bin. “The gringo stayed 15
minutes,” says the man. “I was at a festival across the canyon, but when I returned everyone was talking about him.”
In the afternoon we reach the top of a windswept mesa, where we are confronted by a maze of dirt trails crisscrossing a waving grassland. Here we pass columns of men on foot and horseback, all wearing white embroidered shirts and pants, trooping through the yellow glow of afternoon. The men eye us suspiciously, and Simon responds with a disarming spiel in Huichol:
“Hello. I am Simon de la Cruz Gonzales, and I have been commissioned to guide this man with permission from the authorities of San Sebastián and Tuxpan de Bolaños. He is making a story about Señor Philip True.” The men nod, and when they’re gone Simon tells me that they’re heading to San Sebastián for an annual meeting to select new
provincial leaders. They will discuss recommendations from shamans, who receive the names of candidates in dreams.
These encounters leave me grateful for Simon’s presence and the documents that give us safe passage, but they also make me wonder what kind of reception I would be facing if, like Philip True, I was traveling without sanction across this unfamiliar countryside.
For all his knowledge about the Huichols, True was naive in one respect: He didn’t appreciate the extreme degree of anxiety that exists in Huichol culture or the ominous undercurrents of change. “There are tensions in those mountains today that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” says anthropologist Peter Furst. “Along with land encroachment, drugs have come into the area,
and the military has come to crack down.” Illicit marijuana and poppy fields have now spread deep into Huichol country, including up and down Chapalagana Canyon.
Tensions were particularly high in 1998. In March the military, intent on drug interdiction, stopped two groups of Huichols making the peyote pilgrimage, jailed them for two days, and confiscated their peyote, even though government policy since 1971 has been to tolerate the religious use of the drug. Meanwhile the regional courts were clogged with land disputes in
which the Huichol plaintiffs often felt that the machinery of justice was rigged against them, another factor heightening resentment toward outsiders. Under the circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude that the last thing any Huichol wanted to see was an uninvited foreigner trespassing on his land.
On our third day, Simon and I reach the eastern rim of Chapalagana Canyon, and suddenly there’s no more ground to walk on. The Indians call the gorge “House of the Snake,” because of the way the chasm twists and curls for 150 miles.
When Philip True arrived at the canyon on the afternoon of December 4, he must still have been recovering from an edgy and unsettling encounter he’d had that morning with a 28-year-old Huichol ne’er-do-well (and, it was rumored, marijuana grower) named Juan Chivarra, just outside Almotita, in a tiny hamlet called Yoata. When True saw the young man, he was, as True
wrote in his notebook, “sitting on [a] hillside hooting & whistling to somebody barely visible in rancho below.” The scene struck True as exceptionally picturesque, and he scrawled in his notebook, “THIS IS THE PICTURE OF THE TRIP.” He may simply have been referring to the mental picture he had witnessed; no photograph of Chivarra was found on True’s film.
Whether or not Chivarra had just been photographed without his consent, he responded to True’s presence with immediate hostility. After True identified himself as a journalist, Chivarra demanded to know who had given him approval to travel here. In his reply, True hedged, claiming that someone in Tuxpan had OK’d his trip, but Chivarra was unsatisfied with the vague
explanation and threatened to have True arrested. “It looks bad for a bit,” the reporter wrote, adding that he asked Chivarra, “If I take no pictures, can I pass on?”
Eventually True continued on his way, unmolested by the distrustful Huichol. After he reached the canyon, it would have taken him close to four grueling hours to make it all the way down to the Chapalagana River.
When I follow Simon along the switchbacks and 45-degree sections of the trail, I slip, fall, and barely hang on in places where there seems to be no trail at all. But the blue Chapalagana is a beautiful reward for the most brutal hike. Although there are no Huichol settlements in the canyon, I am surprised to find signs of their presence: Colorful Huichol hats
dangle from poles, marking corn plots along the river.
True spent December 5 resting and recharging at his riverside campsite before taking on the exhausting ascent out of the gorge. In a notebook entry, he jotted down his resolve to call Marta from the halfway point on his itinerary, San Miguel Huaistita, if it had a phone—a notation that suggests maybe he’d had enough. On the morning of the sixth, he broke camp
and began searching for the best route up the western slope of the canyon.
Everything from this point on, except for the grisly outcome for Philip True, is subject to speculation and contradiction. The most detailed account of what happened next came in confessions that Juan Chivarra and his 24-year-old brother-in-law, Miguel Hernandez de la Cruz, gave to the police following their arrest on December 26. They subsequently recanted and
changed their story several times, accusing the authorities of torturing them into confessing. (Such coercion is common in Mexico, according to human-rights investigators.)
The decent thing to do might be to pass over this final episode of True’s journey—for who knows what portion of truth or lies exists in those first confessions, or in the later alterations Chivarra and Hernandez offered to investigators? Apart from the justifications one can find in the teasing plausibility of the accused killers’ initial narratives, the plain
fact is that human beings need stories and explanations. So, based largely on those first confessions, this is what happened—maybe.
Forty-eight hours after Chivarra’s confrontation with True, the Huichol, his wife, Yolanda, and his brother-in-law were crossing the Chapalagana River on their way to bring an offering of arrows and beaded bowls to a sacred cave on the Mesa de Nayar, beyond the west rim of the canyon, when they saw True beginning his ascent. Chivarra noticed True’s camera and became
angry again. The three Indians lingered, bathed in the river, and then, about an hour later, came along behind the intrusive hiker toiling up the trail. Hanging back about 15 feet, Chivarra turned to Hernandez and said, “Let’s kill the gringo,” adding, “he is making evil things.”
Chivarra lunged at True from behind, grabbed him, and sent him falling backward down the slope, where he struck his head against a rock. While Chivarra held True down, Hernandez took True’s purple bandanna and began to strangle him, as Yolanda screamed in horror and ran out of sight. Hernandez held the bandanna taut around True’s neck for a long time, and once they
were sure he was dead, they rifled through his pack, took his camera and binoculars and about $600 in Mexican pesos, and left the body where it lay.
Eight days later, on December 14—the same day that Margarito Diaz Martinez discovered True’s body—the two men, having grown alarmed by the news that an extensive search for the missing American was under way, returned to the murder site, wrapped True’s body in his sleeping bag, dragged it down the steep canyon trail, and buried it near the river.
When Thursday, December 10, came and went without a call from her husband, Marta True began working the phones. She summoned Robert Rivard, the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, and recruited Philip’s best friend, Fred Chase, to charter a plane and search villages along True’s route. When Chase and Manuel Obaya, Marta’s
brother-in-law, showed up unannounced in Almotita on December 13, they got a frosty reception. “It was hairy,” recalls Chase. “This leader acted really pissed that we had landed there. You could tell people were already tense about something.”
Meanwhile, in Mexico City, Rivard and officials at the American embassy lobbied President Ernesto Zedillo to send army troops and helicopters to help find True. Within two days, a contingent of soldiers had set up a base of operations in San Miguel Huaistita and searchers began fanning out along True’s presumed route. As more outsiders poured into the Sierra, the
rescue effort became increasingly frantic and confused. On December 15, Marta received a phone call informing her that the army had found the missing journalist—tired but unharmed. Hours later, however, she learned that it had been a false report; in a bizarre coincidence, the man the troops had turned up was a Swiss anthropologist named Philip Truempler, who had
been doing research in the Huichol village of Guadalupe de Ocatán.
After he discovered the body on December 14, Margarito Diaz told his nephew what he had seen, and the nephew conveyed the news to the searchers in San Miguel Huaistita. On the 16th, Diaz (who later claimed a reward) led Rivard and Chase to the bottom of Chapalagana Canyon. True’s body was airlifted out of the canyon by helicopter and driven to Guadalajara, where an
autopsy was performed early the next day.
Finding the body in a shallow grave had raised suspicions of foul play, but at first the death was attributed to a fall, and news reports in Mexico and the United States declared that True’s death had been accidental. When the autopsy results were released, however, the investigation turned into a murder case: True had been strangled, the coroner announced.
If True’s own one-man incursion into the Huichol Sierra was symptomatic of the way that the modern world is encroaching on a people who merely wanted to be left to themselves, then the search for True’s murderer represented a devastating escalation of that larger invasion. The army, in particular, was aggressive in making its presence felt in Huichol country, and
rumors of brutal interrogations began to spread through the widely scattered Indian settlements. On December 20, in an attempt to quell the growing panic and convince the army to moderate its methods, a group of Huichol leaders released a statement to the press:
[We] manifest our profound pain over the tragic death of an American citizen in an area of our community, and we send condolences to family members for such a terrible loss. We want to clarify that such an act has never occurred in our land where we have anthropologists and foreign and domestic tourists…. We demand that justice be done
and that whoever is responsible for this be punished. We ask the press and the public opinion to avoid making generalizations that lead people to think that Huichols are violent. Our people have always been and always will be peaceful people that seek dignity and respect for our ancestral culture, rights and territory…. We ask the authorities to investigate and
locate the criminal or criminals, be they Huichol or not. But we don’t want this to lead to violations of human rights of community members or to the framing of individuals merely to keep up appearances.
The next day, some 200 troops arrived in the town of San Sebastián, the Huichol center for the region that includes Yoata, where Juan Chivarra and Miguel Hernandez lived. The two had been missing for six days, and now the army was demanding to know their whereabouts. According to interviews gathered by a Mexican human-rights group, the soldiers placed the
Huichol provincial governor in shackles, paraded him around the town, and then tied him to a tree. In Yoata, an army unit allegedly terrorized villagers and beat Chivarra’s father.
On December 26, military officials returned to Yoata and found that Chivarra and Hernandez were back home. They arrested the pair and shortly thereafter extracted confessions. Since then, Chivarra and Hernandez have languished in jail in the mestizo city of Colotlán, awaiting a magistrate’s adjudication of the case. They have changed their stories several
times, and offered detailed accusations of torture against the investigators in the case. Meanwhile, True’s body has been autopsied twice, with contradictory results and dubious findings, such as a test indicating that he had been drinking heavily prior to his death—a possibility discounted by everyone who knew him. The Mexican press has reported a variety of
rumors: True was a CIA agent; he was killed by drug traffickers; he got drunk and fell from a cliff.
The rumors—and the idea that True had somehow brought his death upon himself—offended his friends. “It would be hard to find a reporter more sensitive to Mexico than Philip,” Dudley Althaus, a journalist for the Houston Chronicle, told a reporter earlier this year. “And it’s offensive to suggest what they’re saying about
him… He represented the best of what we do.”
Before the Huichol elders in Bolaños gave me permission to travel across their “big-boned mountains and rolling mesas,” one of them told me why they granted my request. “We don’t want to be known as bad people,” he said. “We want you to show the world that our lives are simple and that we are good. We have no need for bad people. The mestizos can take care of
them. We feel very bad about what has happened, but it happened. And we want to get beyond this. We hope you can help us that way.”
In February, Marta True moved to Brownsville, Texas, and on March 9 she gave birth to a boy she named Philip Theodore, after his father. This spring, she had still not unpacked the three dozen works of Huichol art that once decorated their Mexico City home.
“He always bought weird and strange things,” Marta says wistfully. “Now I’m stuck with them.” One Huichol piece made of yarn incorporates complex motifs depicting sacred deer and peyote buttons. “I know it’s supposed to have meaning, but I don’t know what it is,” she says. “Philip would know.”
Paul Kvinta’s profile of Cuban freediver Pepin Ferreras appeared in the October 1998 issue.