We're not hotel travelers, we're budget moto hippies that find spots hidden off the track to pitch tents and have drinks around the fire. Our stop in Tepalcatepec was only to top up our tequila supply and vamanos to the next best wild camping option Michoacán had to offer. Just twelve kilometers out of town, we crossed a long bridge exposing a beautiful sandy river to our left, the sun still hanging on the horizon high enough to cast the last few rays of light that glimmered off the water. It was beautiful, perfect in fact for a group of six to lay their heads for the night. A kilometer off the main road in a deep riverbed of sand, we found a small forest grotto out of view, next to a nice fresh river to wash the accumulative days worth of dust from our sticky, grimy, bodies. It was yet again an ideal campsite, the third one in a row with a new group of rock solid friends having the romantic idea of an adventurous life. All was absolutely perfect except for one thing....we were six gringos on motorbikes in one of Mexico's most savage drug running provinces. A place where the federal police don't go and the Army doesn't want to add any soldiers to the blood soaked soil. Foolish gringos.....we knew nothing. I'm going to be honest, I'm going to level with you...we were idiots. This was the beginning of many mistakes.
Patrick, an ex-military veteran from the war in Iraq, needed to fix an electrical problem on his bike, so after the tents were set up, he and I got to work. Just then, a local man approached our camp wearing flip flops, swim shorts, grey t-shirt, and a wrist watch; a very typical dress code, except he also had a shotgun slung over his shoulder. He approached us cautiously as not to intrude, and hung a coy smile between his ears. He tried small talk with us like every other Mexican did as we are a curious novelty. The middle-aged gentleman allegedly was out rabbit hunting before sunset. He began passing our makeshift village of tents by following the river before changing his mind, turning around, and deciding he was going to walk in between our tents making sure to have a good look at everyone and everything on his way out. Hardly breaking a stride in our electrical repair, I heard a loud echo-less crack of the shotgun in the nearby distance. No one else seemed to notice or if they did, paid no mind to it.
The sun was finally making its way around the opposite side of the earth when the rabbit-less Mexican returned with a gift of six grapefruits hanging from a branch. I teased him on the whereabouts of dinner, he smiled and in his basic English replied, "No rabbit today," despite the shot that rung out in the distance not long before. In hindsight, I'd spent two months camping and motorcycling through Mexico's wilderness and never saw a single rabbit. He skirted our campsite again and noticed we had two bottles of tequila sitting next to the makeshift fire pit. He asked if we were having a party, claiming to be the village 'doctor' and if we needed anything, anything at all, he could get it for us. We declined generously but he persisted. "Food, water, marijuana? Cocaine?" Again we smiled and politely told him no. He began a steady retreat to his motorcycle parked a few hundred meters further down stream, but not before insisting he would be back later to have a fiesta. At that point all six of us chipped in to assure him that we were tired and going to sleep early and wouldn't be having a party. Getting the final word before taking himself and his shotgun home, "I'll be back later to check on you." All of us were feeling the same discomfort in knowing a local guy was insistent on crashing our camp later that night against our best efforts to tell him not to return. Writing this down for you to read, it's clear that ignoring a gut feeling has never served me well. Although we didn't know it at the time, we were in the epicenter of the bloodiest, most active civil war in Mexico between The Knights of Templar Cartel, Los Zeta Cartel, and a local paramilitary faction (Autodefensa) made up by arming local farmers and villagers with automatic machine guns. The red flags were flying high and bright. We should have packed up. We should have rode out that very moment. We shouldn't have been there. We were stupid, blind gringos.
The day was gone and there was no moon to shed us any light. The night was crisp; we had a campfire, warm cooked food, with a belly full of tequila to top it all off. All six of us were down next to the water with our head torches illuminated, exposed to the same bridge we had crossed earlier. Beyond our own quiet voices, the sound of a car engine roared in the distance, piercing the tranquility of night. It was an unmistakable sound of a vehicle approaching us quickly, the engine revved high in a low gear to manage the deep sand between us and the main road. Two glaring headlights broke the peace of darkness, the beams swaying left to right, bouncing up and down, following the only path that led to us. The memory is still nauseating. I yelled out for everyone to turn their lights off and get into their tents as we scrambled wildly through the dark and up the bank. We remained silent as dead corpses, listening to the approaching vehicle. I laid my hand on Sara's chest, feeling her heavy heart beat growing faster as I tried my best to control my own. My pulse was steady but loud; I could hear it thumping like a drum between my ears, becoming louder, deafening with every beat. The headlights now cast a deep contrasted shadow against the fabric of our tents from only twenty feet away. The rumble of the engine combined with the sound of my blood pumping adrenaline through my veins gave me the feeling my head was about to explode. The engine went static but the headlights stayed on. The drum between my ears went quiet, so quiet, I could have heard a spider crossing its web. I whispered to the others in their tents, "Nobody go out alone, if one of us goes we all go, the two girls stay hidden." Against my best wishes, the vehicle didn't turn around and drive away, but a door squeaked open and a heavy foot hit the gravel beneath it. Another door opened and the sound of feet sinking into sand was heard by all. CRUNCH, CRUNCH, both doors closed. My hand still resting against Sara, we hadn't the need to tell each other we were scared.
The air was thick as mud, our throats dry like dust. The footsteps crunched their way towards us in the sand just meters away from our tents before coming to a stop, only a few strides between us and them. Next came a sound that still stands the hair up on the back of my neck when I think about it. A man yelled out in a deep stern tone, "Buenos Noches." There was nothing but a dead cold silence in the pitch dark night in that river bed. I could feel Sara's heart quicken; my own nervous sweat trickled cold from my armpits as the seconds of silence ticked by. The voice rang out again, this time louder and in a more impatient tone, "Buenos Noches." Even the frogs and crickets held their breath for those following moments of silence. The voice rang out one final time in a harsh, deep and angry tone, "BUENOS NOCHES," followed by an unmistakable, "Chuck - Chick" sound of a gun chambering a round; the distinctive noise of metal parts sliding back and forth, a spring being compressed and a bolt caulked ready to fire. My hand never left Sara, it was the only silent comfort I could offer. Tim, my German riding partner, was the first to emerge as he was closest to the freshly loaded gun. Ismail, the tall Turkish-Canadian, Patrick, and I emerged directly after in order to face our interrogators. As I climbed out of the tent I knelt down, looked Sara straight in the eyes, told her I loved her and gave her a kiss, closing the door. I didn't need to explain what that kiss meant. I believe its healthy to have some tough times together to build a strong relationship but damn that sucked.
The three of us cautiously walked down to join Tim's side in front of the two silhouetted men standing in front of something that resembled a 30 year old piece of shit American station wagon. The first man was roughly 5'9'' with a slim build, and holding an AK-47 with a big banana clip in his hands, round chambered. The other man was slightly shorter, a little thicker around the waist with a shotgun in his arms and a pistol tucked into the waist band of his jean shorts. They introduced themselves as the police, though their uniforms consisted of sandals and dirty singlets. The short man with the shotgun did most, if not all of the talking in very basic words of English. The bombardment of questions started flowing, gradually becoming unstable. It didn't take long for us to notice they were both drunk or high, probably both. The tall man would occasionally grow irritated, back away from us and prop up his AK-47 as if to get a good spread on us if he decided to open fire. The shorter one played the good cop pretending like he wanted to be our friend one second, then demanding our I.D's the next. In retort, Patrick asked for their identification since they claimed to be police officers. They both grew aggressive and confrontational, one of them caulking his arm back into a fist with an accusing finger pointed at Patrick in a way that only ends with a punch to the face. We backed off with our palms up visible for the men to see our dismissive place in this relationship and agreed to honor their request to present our I.D's. Up until then the interrogation hadn't gone so well, the entire event was a roller coaster of emotion, one second everything was fine, the next we were staring an assault rifle down the barrel. As I walked back to the tent for my I.D, I remembered the two girls we had met back at our hostel in Sayulita who had been waiting for their boyfriends to arrive. The two Australians never made it. They were found executed, shot in the back of the head and burned in their van in the province of Sinaloa, not far from where we were, and only two weeks prior. Were we about to be another headline in newspapers around the world?
Relationship goals 101.
It's taken me a long time to finish this story and make sure my head is clear so I understand what happened that night. I torture myself with questions. What if Sara had run like I asked her? What if they also discovered Rachel who had been quietly hiding in her tent the entire time? What if they discovered Pat was an American Soldier? What if we had said yes to buy a few grams of weed from the rabbit hunter? There's no way to know how things could have turned out that night had the circumstances been different, but we survived, we weren't robbed, beaten, or raped. This is my story of the way I experienced it and although the other five people might have a different view of what happened that night, one thing we can all agree on is that it was an experience worth living, but not worth repeating.
More information on Tepalcatepec uprising- https://www.netflix.com/mm/title/80039606
More information on the surfers- http://www.mensjournal.com/adventure/articles/a-bad-break-in-sinaloa-two-surfers-murdered-in-mexico-w205312