Friday, June 30, 2017

Buenas Noches - The Mexican Cartel

      Buenas Noches

               The sun was sitting low in the dusty orange sky of Mexico's central province, Michoacán. Big plumes of white and yellow dust chased our convoy of motorcycles down the road. Everyone had sun-kissed noses, calloused bums, caked on dirt from days of hardly bearable heat, sweat, and dust streaking our foreheads. The heavy vibration synonymous with a Kawasaki 650 motorcycle engine massaged my muscles in its familiar way. It was bliss to be back in the saddle, a feeling of freedom only a biker knows. It had been more than a month, nursing a separated shoulder, caused by high-siding my bike when inadvertently meeting a herd of cows on a dirt road in the mountains. I had been in Sayulita, a party town on the west coast, and what had been lost in time and liver health was gained by meeting my life partner and the four other people who will never forget this night.

                 We were a freshly born band of brothers, a testimony to friends made on the road, the brapp family was forged. And then there is Sara, the most beautiful, energetic girl who was just the right amount of crazy to pack up her life and jump onto the passenger seat of my motorcycle, even after hearing about how I have crashed and injured every girl who has ever gotten on my bike. We were four motorbikes and six adventure hungry friends, clad head to toe in protective gear, all bearing smiles inside our helmets.  Engines purring, stones flying, while the raw, beautiful country of Mexico unrolled itself for us around every corner. It was all too good to be true, but as the saying goes, it usually is, and this story is no exception. It was one of the best days of my life, until I found myself staring up into the barrel of a loaded AK-47 in a riverbed of Mexico's most dangerous province.  If you dare to explore the meaning of that, please read on.         

             Three days after leaving Sayulita together, we approached the town of Tepalcatepec just a few days before Christmas. A kilometer before the township proper,  we met two rifle-clad checkpoint guards dressed in army green singlets, jeans, sandals, and baseball caps. They asked the usual friendly questions; where are were coming from, where are we going, how big the bike engine is, and how much fuel the tank can hold, with the same exasperated expressions of bewilderment that usually follows. Sara and I were the caboose in the convoy and when we arrived last, the other four were already conversing in their broken Spanish. It was soon offered up that Sara speaks fluent Spanish, so the men approached our bike with gentle smiles and soft eyes. It made the rifles look no more intimidating than an old man and his walking cane.  At that time it was a small detail, after all, every gas station, convenience store, even Pizza Hut had a shot-gun clad show of authority standing guard outside. Guns are a regular showpiece and there's no separation between good and bad when it comes to the one who holds it, and more often than not it’s the official police you want to avoid.  After a few more smiles, some hand shakes and confusing twist of the wrist for directions into town, we were off and rolling again into the lingering sunset. I must emphasize on the importance of this conversation. It was just like the other dozen conversations we'd had with friendly gun slung security, but this passive conversation with the gentle-faced men is important. It would later be used in a pivotal moment that could very likely be the only reason this story gets told.


             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, "Buenas 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, "Buenas 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, "BUENAS 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?


            Luckily, up until then Sara and Rachel, the 5th and 6th members of the group, had still gone unnoticed, hiding quietly in the tents. We weren't sure of the intentions our interrogators had with four men, and I wasn’t letting my mind explore their intentions with two attractive women. As I opened the tent door to retrieve my I.D, Sara was in the exact same position, legs locked, sitting straight up with her arms propped against the ground to keep her supported, head forward as if paralyzed. She broke her trance to hand me the backpack with the drivers licence. I grabbed my fake laminated I.D, used as a decoy for corrupt police and instantly my guts hit rock bottom. My real drivers licence was hidden away in the air box of my motorcycle along with $500 USD and my credit card. It was a bad time to be caught using a fake I.D. Disassembling my bike to retrieve the original wasn’t an option, I just had to reach down, grab my little balls and use the fake. I looked at Sara and spoke to her softly. I asked her something I wish never to repeat.  "Sara, can you do me a favor? Do you think you can be quiet enough to sneak away and run?" Sara knows my reckless history – speeding through rebel controlled territory at night in West Africa, sinking a boat in the Canary Islands, and nearly starving to death in the jungles of Papua New Guinea to name a few, so she never doubted the severity in my voice with regards to one of us escaping. Without hesitation Sara answered, "No." Being close to danger is something I'm familiar with, I thrive on it so to speak, but this was more than I had bargained for. The body language and the growing aggression of the two men were telling me things were about to get worse before they got better. I was preparing myself for the idea that we were all going to die that night. I closed the tent without kissing her; the time for that romantic, wannabe-tough-boyfriend-bullshit was long gone. 

           I gathered everyone's I.D cards and handed them over in a stack. The short plump man questioned all of us individually on our nationality and the explanation we gave them. Patrick is a dual citizen, American-Canadian. He served a couple tours in Iraq before getting blasted out of the army by an I.E.D. Pat knows war. He has 'ALL AMERICAN' tattooed across his stomach, yet I had handed over his Canadian I.D. It was clear we were lying to them. They handed us back our cards individually, looking at the picture and the subject in front of them. They were doing their best to find a reason to light us up and we were doing our best to avoid it. Ismail seemed to have soothed them with his minimal audio-book Spanish skills by telling them we were harmless foreigners on a motorcycle trip. Every now and then the two-way radio would crackle to life in the car and the short stubby guy would lean into the window to respond while the tall one held us in his cross-hairs. Twenty painstaking minutes of this went by before they seemed more calm and collected, ensuring us they waned no problems and everything was "tranquillo". Finally, there was hope of making it to my 27th birthday. Thank fuck....

           My family likes to tell me I have a guardian angel looking out for me. Unfortunately, my guardian angel was still back in Sayulita getting drunk on the beach, that prick.  The two-way radio had suddenly sprung to life with new information. "Wait, wait, wait!" The aggressive, impatient demeanor had returned. The roller coaster of being shot or released was wildly tumbling towards the ground. I heard the radio this time, with my minimal Spanish I could hear the worst words blurting from the speaker. "Y la chica, la chica que habla español?" (What about the girl, the girl who speaks Spanish) These guys are organised crime, in this area they are the government, not something to underestimate no matter how worn their clothes are or unprofessional they may appear. The knew us. They knew of my girlfriend from the brief conversation we had with the checkpoint guards hours before. There was probably a thousand people with guns in that town who knew who we were. We lied to them and they caught us red handed. What was once a friendly release of custody became an aggressive return to our torment.

          The round short man sang out, "Where is the girl, the one who speaks Spanish?" I've never heard a silence so thick in my life. I imagined what a bullet feels like burning through my insides and what kind of mangled body would be left of my girlfriend. They were angry, we told them we were only four when the boss man knew we had a Spanish-speaking girl. Caught in our own lie. (Side note - Twenty seconds is a very long time when you're looking down the barrel of a gun.) We were four guys not really indebted to each other at all, the only one who really had something to lose was me. But there beside me stood three of the toughest guys I know, who never mumbled a word; not even with a gun in their face did they even consider giving up one of our own. Good lads, the very best of brothers. It was a stale mate, us looking at them, them looking at us. We weren't about to break and they weren't about to let up. I can't go over this situation enough in my head, wondering if I made the right choice, maybe the only choice. We were four against two, Pat and I sized them up, I've shot a few guns in my life and watched a shit load of movies about this stuff.... but they knew plenty about real life shooting and killing. In the end my choice was to speak up, I told them simply "Okay, I'll get her," turning around to retrieve my partner and offer her up to two angry drunk men with guns.      

Relationship goals 101.

    Before opening the tent, it crossed my mind that maybe she had a change of heart and had been able to slip away. I unzipped the door to find her still sitting there in the exact same position, still paralyzed. I knelt in close and told her she was being summoned. She already knew, able to hear the entire time, even picking up most of what came in over the radio. She broke from the trance and climbed out of the tent without hesitation. There was no real alternative. We walked together through the dark towards the car. I rejoined my place in the execution line as Sara lingered in the shadows, attempting to hide herself from the men. As she approached, the shorter man stared her down, rolling his hand into a fist and cracking his knuckles into the palm of his other hand. Despite her fear she spoke perfect Spanish, without a single tremble. Sara has a way with people, nearly every person, including myself, who has ever spoken to her tends to fall in love. Sara was just being Sara, charming the Mexicans in her charismatic way, answering their questions in a friendly happy tone, bit by bit defusing the explosive situation between us. And just like that, there were no more threats, tensed shoulders or clenched fists. He repeated all the same questions they asked us, Sara explaining it to them in clear Spanish, until they seemed satisfied with the explanation. Their demeanor changed again and it was all smiles and just good police work as far they were concerned. They told Sara they had only come to warn us about the scorpions; because apparently in Mexico, scorpions are more dangerous than two drunk, high, angry, armed men in the middle of the night. Who would have thought? Fucking assholes.

               After satisfying the big boss over the radio, the men wished us a buenas noches and retreated to their shit box car. I wasn't convinced; my guardian angel was still being a dick somewhere far away from here. During the forty minutes since their arrival, we watched the water level rise in the riverbed, swallowing up the sand underfoot. We waited on the river bank, knowing we couldn't rest easy until that car and its occupants were long gone. My heart was pounding, wondering if their car would start after having the lights on for so long. The lights dimmed, but the engine rolled over and came to life with a loud rattle. My guts began making their way back up to the stomach after spending the evening hiding in my ass. The motor roared and sand flew, but the car was stuck in the wet sand. Again, like a recurring nightmare, my insides nearly ended up in the sand. The four of us raced over to the car to help, the tall thin man got out of the passenger side, slung the AK-47 onto his back and we all pushed together while the driver put his foot down on the accelerator, throwing sand and rocks in our direction while the station wagon slowly gained momentum and found solid ground to collect its passenger.

         We stood watching the red tail lights grow smaller as the distance between us grew bigger. In the far off distance, the rabbit hunting village doctor from earlier came racing towards us on his motorcycle. Our new friends in the car stopped again and the motorcycle pulled up to their window. Not more than a minute passed before the motorcycle turned around, followed the 1980-something shit mobile station wagon out of the riverbed and they were gone, luckily never to been seen again.

Final Thoughts-

        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.

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