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Outside magazine, November 1996
Don Benigno Aazco carved his way 36 years deep into the green heart of the Andean forest, founded 14 settlements, abandoned his wife and many children, married his daughter, slew his son-in-law, fought drug peddlers, tamed the wilderness, and reclaimed, as best he could, the Inca Empire. And now I was going to find him.
Geographers writing in Spanish often refer to Peru’s Eastern Andes as muy accidentado, “very accidented.” The same could be said of the lives shaped in these devastating mountains. If you live between Cajamarca and Chachapoyas, between the Marañón and Huallaga Rivers, you could have as a neighbor a man whose name is Hitler, or
Those people live relatively close to roads, police, schools–civilization. But as you travel east from the sere peaks of the Andes and fall into the greenblack, steaming jungle, the lives become even more excessive, filled with more danger. This tropical montane forest contains some of the thickest undergrowth in the world. Within six months, any machete-cut trail utterly
This wilderness had been literally empty of human life for the better part of 200 years when Benigno Aazco, a determined mestizo from a small highland village, began chopping his way into the no-man’s-land of the forest, reopening the Inca roads of stone.
Nearly everyone who lives in this part of northeastern Peru has heard the story of Aazco, or at least some version of it, and he is known, with some affection, as Don Beni. Sometime around 1960, they say, the devout Seventh-Day Adventist gathered his wife and children
People say that Aazco killed his son-in-law, shot him point-blank in the chest with a shotgun. The young man wanted to put in a cocaine airstrip, and Aazco would not abide drugs in his kingdom.
He’s got 800 head of cattle, they say. Owns more than a dozen houses, each piled high with dried meat and fortified with guns. They say he can tell a man to stand at the edge of a stream, close his eyes and count to 500, and by the end of that time Aazco can show him ten fresh trout laid out on the riverbank. They say he has the pelt of a human-like being that he shot in the
For years at a time, he would pause to farm, always near ruins: Ancient terraces, he discovered, mark fertile soil. Once he deviated from the Inca roads and spent years on a detour that took him into a maze of swamps that proved impassable. There was no food; several of his children died. He backtracked to his original course and continued on, sacrificing everything, including
Peru is unmapped south of the Ecuadoran border, between the Maraün and the Huallaga, north of Cajamarca. Political maps are mostly blank, except for rivers that tend to be misnamed and shown running north-south, 90 degrees off course. Due to the difficult surveying conditions, topographic maps simply don’t exist. And because archaeologists have generally avoided the
Yet there is at least one independent scholar, a German-born ethnohistorian named Peter Lerche, who has made it his life’s work to study the region. He married locally, renounced his German passport, and now lives along the edge of the rainforest on an isolated farm, where he returns from explorations to write up his findings in various self-published pamphlets and books.
I met Lerche in 1994 on an archaeological tour of the Peruvian city of Chachapoyas. He was a muscular, eerily concentrated man with blue tattoo lines fanning down his cheekbones in imitation of the Machiguenga people of Ecuador and Peru. Lerche claimed he was the only outsider who had seen Aazco in decades. It had been back in 1989. He was scouting from a tree in an area of
Yes, he said, Aazco had murdered his son-in-law. Yes, he’d had children with his daughter. “But the world would be a poorer place without such people,” he contended. “Aazco is in his late sixties now. People don’t last long out there. You want to meet him?”
It was more than a year before we could arrange an expedition. Besides Lerche, photographer Steve Alvarez, and me, our six-person party included my old friend Oscar Arce, a local guide and outdoorsman who first told me Aazco’s tale; Segundo Huam¤n Huam¤n, a soft-spoken 20-year-old peasant and a friend of Arce’s; and Julio C‹sar Soto Valle, an ambitious
It took 18 hours in an open truck to reach our takeoff point, the highland town of BolŒvar, not far from Aazco’s birthplace. From here, Lerche said it would take 11 hard days to reach Aazco’s log cabin, on a tableland known as La Meseta–that is, if he was
We followed this route down the backside of the mountain, spending the first night in a ruined Inca tambo, or guest house, at 10,000 feet. Then we dropped into the forested Yon¤n River valley and followed this to the confluence of the Yon¤n and Huabayacu, where another Inca road was visible running southeast toward La Morada, a
Up close, the forest had little romance. Rain, mud, slopes, vines, cliffs, sinkholes, swamps, thorns, ants, mosquitoes, and biting flies. We crossed whitewater canyons on bridges made of rotten logs, pulled ourselves up cliffs on pencil-thin roots, and fought our way through thickets of bamboo. Any Inca highway that may have existed along the river valley had long since
One horrid day we found ourselves shuddering in a cave, trapped for hours, watching the endless sheets of rain. Lerche chose this place to tell us the story of what had happened to the last U.S. citizens who tried to cross through this area. In 1913, two engineers from Chicago, William Cromer and William Page, formed a partnership with the brothers Mirko and Stevo Seljan, two
The Croatians and Americans split up, planning to meet halfway between the Huallaga and the Andes. The two parties were never heard from again, and no bodies were found. A 1920 report in the bulletin of the Lima Geographic Society says, somewhat cryptically, that “the Americans were more or less assassinated near [BolŒvar].” In 1922, the bulletin noted that a British
Within a few days we had slipped into Aazco’s kingdom. One afternoon we met a family of settlers living in a small cabin set in a slash-and-burn clearing. They were not relatives of Aazco, but they knew about him, knew that he had come before them, opening up the jungle. Lerche had brought along snapshots of Aazco, his daughter-wife, and their pale, expressionless children. The
All places were marked by Aazco’s imagination. Osiris, House of Gold, the Enchanted City, the Vineyard, the Garden, Angola. Aazco’s place names were culled from his dreams, fantasies, convictions, or the war reports he listened to on his transistor as he began to work new land. In this country without maps, directions were poetic: A couple hours’ walk downriver, we’d see
Orpheus, an abandoned cabin used as a travelers’ rest stop, sat on a lawn as green and misty as any in England, overlooking the Huabayacu. The Aazcos got there in 1960, their first year of exploration. A day’s journey downriver, Israel was substantial, a house of rammed earth. The Aazco family lived there longest, from 1966 to 1972.
The Huabayacu valley must have been densely populated during Inca and pre-Inca times. Our trail passed by innumerable ruined dwellings, crumbled walls, and terraces. Along the cliffs were many tombs, often decorated with ocher paintings of jaguars and scorpions. High along the far shore, we traced the indentation of an Inca highway that Aazco had cleared and followed. Yet these
Civilization! La Morada (The Purple One) is a town of more than 200 people, pioneering families that Aazco’s ex-wife somehow managed to recruit from villages to the west. It’s named for the purple flowers that cover a nearby limestone cliff in the spring. The town contains the ruins of a Spanish church as well as a denser share of ancient stones. No accident: In this part of
To us, La Morada looked like heaven. Children raced around the school grounds. Arce and Huam¤n went to buy cane liquor and a chicken. Hymns resounded from Seventh-Day Adventist gatherings. Pigs are commonplace in most Peruvian villages, but here we saw only one hog wandering the lanes: Adventism maintains that pork fills the body with demons.
La Moradans presented a united facade. Theirs was a town of goodness. They insisted we ignore any rumors we might have heard that La Morada was a stronghold for drugs or terrorism–never would they allow such things. Here lived Aazco’s former wife, Noelita Bardales; his oldest daughter, Cayade Aazco; sons Zacarias, Silver, Alejo, David, and Mercedes; and 30 grandchildren. La
Cayade Aazco, 37, told me that her childhood had often been frightening. “Very difficult it is to walk,” she said in her hill woman’s mild voice, “when there is no one to guide us. We placed our faith in God, and in that way we lived, all alone, for many years.” When I asked what she had learned from her father, she began to list herbal cures. “Mud on the stomach lowers the
“I’d like to ask you about something that might have been sad in your life,” I finally forced myself to say. We were sitting on a log, yards from where her father shot her first husband, Jos‹ Aliaga.
“I have to serve dinner,” she said, and walked off.
The matriarch, Bardales, sent word she would receive me. I was led to her compound, which was large if not especially tidy, with several spacious houses built around it. Bardales sat on a bed, a 63-year-old woman surrounded by daughters-in-law and infants, in a windowless, unpainted room. She had a pleasant, open face and an easy smile that revealed a number of missing
In her courtyard, one son circled, gripping a corncob; another sat in a doorway smiling gently. They both were in their twenties, and both were retarded–the result, most likely, of malnutrition during infancy. “My little dummies,” Bardales tenderly called them. “They’ll never leave their mother.”
Refusing to discuss the killing of her son-in-law, she waxed lively on the subject of her husband, presenting an unheroic portrait. In 1960, she said, she and Aazco and their three children were living in the town of Chuquibamba, some 26 crow-miles west of here. One morning after she had stayed out all night at a dance with her brothers, Aazco furiously announced that he was
As they cut their way into the woods, Bardales worked and suffered at least as much as her husband. She bore and raised nine children in the uninhabited forest; she also broke trail, cleared land, helped with construction. Her husband would walk ahead with the machete while she followed with a hoe, flattening a path for a nasty mule named Camiün, or Truck, loaded with
Whenever Aazco went for supplies, Bardales and the children stayed alone in the forest, eating seeds and leaves for a month at a time. Wild pigs attacked them. Jaguars ate the calves. (Bardales once chased after one with her machete.) Bird cries spooked them, and they imagined ghosts, dwarves, and walking spirits.
Just across the valley from La Morada, the family lived together for the last time. Bardales decided to give up the journey and leave her husband in 1975. Bushwhacking had become too hard for her, she said; the change of life had come upon her, and she could no longer wield a machete. Besides, she said, the children needed school. Bardales moved here with most of the
Aazco, meanwhile, continued traveling eastward with their youngest daughter, Margarita, then 13, and one retarded son. They established themselves up on the tableland of La Meseta. The last time he visited La Morada was in 1986, and it was on that visit, Bardales said, that he shot Cayade’s husband.
Bardales was proud of La Morada. Her ex-husband, she pointed out, hadn’t succeeded in recruiting any new settlers to live with him. It seemed he and she were competing to see who could create the more lasting civilization. “When my town started to grow,” Bardales says, “he got jealous. Last time he came he said, ‘You have filled this place with your grandchildren.’ Well, he had
I offered her the photo of Aazco with Margarita and the children. Her gaze grew profound, and she surprised me, suddenly, with a burst of candor. “I cried for years over that. That man stole my daughter. He treated me badly. Well, in God’s house you can’t push the women around. On Judgment Day, when God comes back with the Great Carpenter, we’re all going to have to be on our knees, praying that we’ll be in heaven together.”
No one in La Morada was certain where Aazco might be. Some said that he might be a week’s walk away, maybe farther. We decided to climb up to La Meseta and look for Aazco’s son Fabi¤n in the hope that he might lead us to his father. Crossing the Huabayacu, two of us were nearly swept into the next box canyon, the edge of the unexplored country where the Croatian
By a lucky choice of trails, we reached Fabi¤n’s compound in three days, including one day of vain machete work in search of Lerche’s favorite temple, Puca Huaca. Fabi¤n lived with his extended family in log cabins strung out along a stream that Aazco named the River of Repose. He wore an emerald-green poncho, soccer shorts, and rubber tire sandals. He had a
Inside the main cabin, Fabi¤n’s wife was lying in quiet agony on an enormous bed. A cow had stepped on her foot, and she was feverish, her leg badly swollen. We gave her antibiotics and aspirin. Perhaps it was because of this that Fabi¤n decided to trust our intentions and agreed to lead us first to the red temple and then to his father. “No one of low character
Fabi¤n hacked at the underbrush for nearly an hour before he found Puca Huaca. It was covered with green moss, which Lerche scraped off, almost worshipfully, with handfuls of fern. The salmon-pink stones had softly rounded contours, as if warm dough had been patted into shape and then hardened into rocks. We pressed our hands against them, amazed to consider how few
“It’s incredible how it’s been covered up,” Lerche said. This entire part of the forest had been gnawed down by Aazco’s cows, so that the temple and its surrounding cell-like structures were plainly visible. Had it not been for Aazco’s cows, I could see how another few centuries could go by without Puca Huaca ever being found.
The following morning, Fabi¤n led us down the River of Repose, and after four hours of walking, we spotted a large cedar log that appeared to be the outer barrier of a domestic compound. Arce spun around and said, “It’s him! It’s him!” Alvarez and I looked at each other, grinning as we walked across the log bridge that led into Benigno Aazco’s courtyard.
Perhaps it’s always a shock when a myth turns out to fit into a human body. Aazco was golden-skinned, whip-strong, far handsomer than his picture. But he’d aged. His beard was white and stringy. He no longer gave the impression of truculent power we’d projected into the shadowed, bluish images that Lerche had snapped, in forest light, at the entrance to Puca Huaca. He looked
Aazco seemed overjoyed to see us. He invited us into his house, a one-room cabin of well-fit logs, with a bed and a table inside. He apologized for the corn husks on the floor. He sent Idmas to cut sugarcane and promised to kill a heifer the next day. Soto and Huam¤n dropped their packs and began playing with the children.
He spoke eagerly, as if we’d been waiting years to resume an urgent conversation that had been interrupted. I showed him a government satellite map from Lima, and he traced his thumbnail across the indistinct image, determining our precise location: on this river, below that mountain. He told Lerche that his dream of opening the jungle all the way to Saposoa had failed. A new
We washed up in the river and sat down in front of Aazco’s cabin to resume the conversation. His benches were enormous logs of tropical cedar, hand-split and smoothed, protected from rain by a corrugated overhang. We didn’t chat for long: Aazco’s favorite child, Zoila, gave her father no peace. Climbing onto his lap, she seized his wrist, jumped down again, yanked him with her
Following Zoila’s exuberant lead, we ducked through canopies of wild plants into field after field where beans, sugarcane, and potatoes grew in neat rows. It was summer, and the farm looked its best. In a month it would be time for the harvest; from October to May, torrential rains would flood the trails waist deep. The Aazcos would hole up with stores of salt and radio
Aazco was clearly the hardest-working man in the region, and the wealthiest. His farm rose above the muck and exigencies of pure survival. Fat cattle–85 head, not the rumored 800–grazed on the bank of the River of Repose, quietly gnawing back the jungle. “Cows,” he said, “are the great discoverers.” Wooden bridges eased hard spots on the trail. Perhaps it was the bridges, an
Schooled for just two years in his hometown of Chuquibamba, Aazco’s active mind had patched a vision out of local legends, Bible reading, personal ruminations, and the advice of the grandparents who raised him. (His mother lost her health after bearing Aazco at age 40; his father was a womanizer who left his children “nothing more than a name.”) His grandmother had been an
In 1942, when he was 15 years old, Aazco entered the forest with three friends. Turned back once by cliffs, again by swamps, the friends gave up. Aazco went on alone, discovering a pasture, which he called the Garden, and then several tombs at Osiris. He sighted the flat, fertile La Meseta through binoculars in 1955. He and Bardales had three children, but his attentions were
He explained the thinking behind some of the names he’d given his farms. “I named Orpheus because of a dream,” he said. “A man came giving me advice. I forgot the advice, but I remembered the name. When we came down to Israel, it was the time of the Six-Day War. It made me want to cry that they would destroy this tiny nation. I said, ‘If they erase it there, I will do
Altogether, Aazco had chopped 14 farms out of the jungle. “I fall in love with land as if it were a woman,” Aazco said. “When I find a nice piece of land, I don’t want to go on without working it a little. I build a house, and then, because I must keep going, I move on with pain in my soul.” It was for the sake of others, he said, that he moved on: “God gives some of us an
He was bitter, though, that others hadn’t responded to his dream of founding towns. He once sold eight cows to buy 2,000 acres of La Meseta from the government and set aside much of that land for the poor, anyone who’d claim it. One group traveled from the Maraün valley after Aazco circulated a cassette tape extolling the virtues of the virgin jungle. He helped them build
We assured him that all the people we’d met had come down the river valleys following his example, that one lifetime was not enough to see the effects of work like his. Privately, though, we wondered whether he had driven neighbors away with his pet theories. He could go on for hours about how air becomes water deep inside the mountains, why there is a heaven but no hell, why
The next morning, we killed the brown-and-white heifer. Aazco donned an apron and rolled up his sleeves. Entwining the cow’s legs and body with rope, Arce pulled her down easily. She lay snorting in the grass. Lerche held her horns flat against the ground, exposing her throat. Aazco sliced through her skin. Then, with a long knife, he dug expertly for the spinal cord. Death
All the next day it rained. We sat on the benches, eating beef with fresh yucca and sweet potatoes, listening to Aazco’s life story, and watching Idmas collect rainwater from an ingenious wooden sluice. Pentatonic Andean music issued thinly from the black transistor radio. Across the brown, swollen river, toucanets cried, and scarves of mist threaded slowly among the opulent
Timidly, I asked Aazco whether he could accept a difficult question.
“For me, miss, I think there are no hard questions,” he replied. Long ago, he’d asked pardon for his evil acts–murder, incest, cruelty. “God is something superior,” he said, “like electrical waves. If electricity can light a bulb, how can God not be in contact with our hearts? And so, if I have sinned, God must forgive.”
“How was it that you got together with your daughter?” I asked.
Aazco didn’t flinch. He began by explaining his relationship with Bardales. He was her last choice after she had pursued four other men. “So when I took her on, I made her swear she’d never make me jealous. She remembered for a while, but after some time, that woman, she made my life a hell with her character. And so we separated. After that, I tried to find another woman. I
Aazco told us that Lot, the righteous man who was saved from the burning of Sodom, had a child with each of two daughters after his wife was turned to salt. “One of those sons went on to become the father of the Moabites,” Aazco challenged. “If it’s in the Bible, what is your opinion?”
Quiet, shy, and a little stocky, Margarita trundled through her daily tasks, usually with Idmas at her side in silent communion. She harvested beans and potatoes, tended the fire, crocheted baby clothes, and discreetly listened to Aazco as he told their story. She was 33. She’d been with her father for 20 years. Though her legs were splattered with mud, she was not immune
That afternoon, as gently as I could, I asked her about her life. We were cutting up more of the heifer, flicking botfly eggs into the waiting jaws of Pinochet and Seguidora, Aazco’s two dogs. Her voice was barely a breath, but she came straight to the point, bluntly summing up her painful history. “My mother left,” she said, “because everyone thought my father was a madman.
“When I was small, we always thought we would come to a town one day. But not now. Now I am of the mountains. I hear on the radio how people live in towns. They steal, kill, take each other’s land. They have no peace.” She had learned to cope with her pain, she said, through resignation. She had no one to confide in, and so, when something bothered her inside, she had to rely
We invited Aazco to come out to one of his pastures, alone, for a portrait, and while Alvarez was setting up his equipment, I took advantage of our solitude to ask Aazco about the murder of Cayade’s husband.
He said that his son-in-law, Jos‹ Aliaga, was one of those ambitious village youths who went to the coast to discover that where jobs are scarce, crime could be the most direct way of obtaining a living. “He came back saying that he had specialized in all the ways of evil, robbery, rape, and drugs,” Aazco said. “He said it was my duty to help people rise. He wanted me to
One day, Aazco said, Margarita had just given birth, and he traveled to La Morada for supplies. He went to Cayade’s house, and she and Jos‹ came out. “Bang! I got him. I got him in the heart. Bang! To the ground. I made a death.” Aazco’s voice quivered with remembered passion. Though he didn’t mention it specifically, other relatives had insisted that in addition to his
How did he feel about killing another human being?
“I felt, ‘I have gotten rid of my problem.’ As soon as I killed him, my whole body relaxed. I’d been watching my back for years. To this day, I feel nothing but relief about it.” Aazco’s only regret was that his fugitive status now impeded him from gathering settlers for his towns. He planned to stay here for the rest of his life, on the land named after his mother, Pascuala.
I would later learn that the murder case against Aazco, filed in 1989, remains mired in a Kafkaesque limbo. Since the police won’t go and get him, the suspect must present himself, and since he does not present himself, nothing can be done. But after meeting with the subprefect of Chachapoyas, Manuel Paredes Rodriguez, I doubted that Aazco would ever be prosecuted. “There,
Down the hall, attorney Conrado Mori leafed through the law on incest, discovering that the statute of limitations had elapsed. Margarita had been an adult for too long. “Well, the Incas used to practice incest deliberately,” Mori mused. “Brothers would marry sisters. They’d get one superintelligent one and six idiots, throw away the idiots and make the good one emperor.”
I thought of Aazco standing alone in his field, waiting for vindication before he dies. Waiting, amid the cries of the emerald toucanets, the lowing of his broken-legged mule, the laughter of his beloved children–amid all of his kingdom’s lovely, awful splendors. Aazco had his own summation. “On the seventh day,” he said, “God surveyed all of the creation that he had made, the
That’s not exactly waht is says in Genesis. But surely, in the end, only God is qualified to judge Benigno Anazco.
Katie Wheeler is the author of Not Where I Started From (Houghton Mifflin) and this year was named one of America’s top 20 young novelists by Granta. She grew up in South America and now lives in Massachusetts, where she is working on a novel set in Peru.
Photographs by Stephen Alvarez