The Ghost of Philip True (Dec. 5, 2001)

The story had everything: drugs, rape, torture, angry Indians, a corrupt justice system, gringo intervention… Philip True would have loved to cover it. But True, one-time correspondent for the San Antonio Texas Express-News in Mexico, wasn’t available for the assignment — in fact, the story was about his strange death.

As the third anniversary of True’s more mysterious-than-ever demise approaches, what actually happened to him in the distant, craggy mountains of north-central Mexico continues to stimulate curiosities.

This much is known: in the first days of December 1998, Philip True set out on a long-anticipated walkabout through the high mountain lands of the Huichol Indian (they call themselves the Wirarrika) where Jalisco seems to thrust fingers into Nayarit on the Mexican map. True, 50, was fascinated by Wirarrika culture — the Huicholes’ peyote cactus-induced vision quests have made them one of the most exotic of Mexico’s 57 distinct indigenous cultures, and he had been preparing for months for his journey through these remote mountains the Indians hold to be a living god.

But the Huichol sierra, which is off-limits to non-Indians without permission from tribal elders, is also a place where bad things can happen to outlanders, and Philip True instructed his wife Marta to get in touch with authorities and his editors in San Antonio if she did not hear from him by December 10th.

A hunter out for wild boar near the Nayarit line claimed to have seen the reporter December 4th. True was singing and shouting and the Indian thought he was drunk. When Philip didn’t call by December 10th, Marta got on the phone.

News that a US reporter was missing in the Mexican outback attracted immediate international attention — a working foreign correspondent had not disappeared here since old Ambrose Bierce wandered off to cover the battle of Ojinaga in the first years of the Mexican revolution and never filed again. Robert Rivard, True’s editor at the San Antonio Express-News, winged in and called a Mexico City press conference urging the Mexican government to intensify the search.

Rivard traveled to the Huichol region and hired native search parties. The hunter who had seen True December 4th now said that traveling back through the area the following week, he had seen a body by the side of the Estrella river at a place called Puente de Colotlan. On December 16th, Mexican army soldiers reached the remote site and found True wrapped in his sleeping bag and interred in a shallow grave by the riverside. Who buried his body is only one of the mysteries surrounding the correspondent’s death.

The body was flown to Guadalajara for an autopsy and two days later, controversial coroner Mario Rivas Souza delivered his shocking verdict: the US correspondent had been strangled by his own neckerchief. He had also been anally raped. “Strangulations are usually homicides,” Rivas laconically noted to the press and then declared himself under orders from the government of then-president Ernesto Zedillo, to say no more. In 1993, Rivas had been similarly silenced after he concluded that the Cardinal of Guadalajara had been deliberately executed during a shoot-out between drug gangs at that city’s airport — the Mexican government had insisted the Cardinal was a victim of mistaken identity.

Now the coroner’s conclusions that True had been murdered prompted Zedillo to act and 2,000 troops were sent into the Huichol sierra to track down the killers. But relations between the Wirarrika and the Mexican army were at best uneasy that December — twice in 1997 and 1998, military patrols had detained Huichols returning from peyote harvests for Holy Week ceremonies, the zenith of the Wirarrika year — the harvest is guaranteed by international treaty.

During their days in jail, the Indians were repeatedly interrogated about their ties to the largely Mayan Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas — Huichol elders supported Zapatista demands for Indian rights and culture and had sometimes met with them. Meanwhile, in that impoverished southern state, Zedillo’s military was rampaging through the Zapatistas’ autonomous villages — ten Indians were killed in May 1998 at El Bosque in a firefight with Mexican army troops.

Soldiers reached San Sebastian Teponahuaxtlan on December 20th. One of the most traditional Huichol communities, San Sebastian is the bastion of the Wirarrika Union, the EZLN’s most outspoken allies in Huichol territory. The army demanded names. The soldiers chained the town’s governor, Isidoro Lopez, to a tree and beat him repeatedly. The names of Miguel Hernandez, 24, and Juan Chivirra, 25, were mentioned. Only Juan’s father could be found. The old man was locked up for three days without food and punched until he vomited blood. When his son and Miguel returned to San Sebastian from a hunting trip, they were arrested and beaten with rifle butts. Taken by helicopter to the county seat at Mixquitic, the soldiers threatened to throw them from the aircraft into the deep mountain crevices below, unless they confessed.

The Indians readily confessed — three times in fact. They confessed they had killed Philip True to steal his cameras. Then they confessed to killing True because he was taking photos of sacred Huichol sites without permission from the elders. Then they confessed that True had gotten drunk, broken into Miguel’s house and tried to rape his wife, and Juan had beaten him to death. No interpreter was present during the multiple confessions as required by the courts.

Actually, one confession was quite enough. In January 1999, after a speedy “trial,” the two Wirarrika men were sentenced to 35 years in prison each for the murder of Philip True. Robert Rivard wrote of justice and closure and thanked President Zedillo in print. Although reporters from such mainstream US publications as the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Newsweek covered these events, their dispatches made no mention of how the confessions had been tortured out of the two Indians, a common practice whenever there are pressures to close a case quickly.

But certain anomalies troubled the rush to judgment. For one, the federal attorney general ordered a second autopsy and invited the US FBI to witness. This time, the coroner’s conclusions were markedly distinct — True’s alcohol levels had been dangerously high, he said. Valerium, a herbal stimulant, was also found in the reporter’s blood scans. The coroner ruled True had fallen into a ravine while drunk and high, been knocked unconscious, his lungs had filled with liquid, and he had choked to death on his own vomit. The swelling of the corpse made it appear that the neckerchief had been tightly cinched around True’s neck in a deliberate attempt to strangle him. The Feds found no evidence of anal rape.

After the second autopsy, Guadalupe Morfin, then chairwoman of the Jalisco state human rights commission, denounced the hasty sentencing of Juan and Miguel based on forced confessions. A maverick who hails from one of the founding families of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in a state that is run by the right-wingers, Morfin defied government officials by calling press conferences and writing op ed pieces protesting the convictions. She turned the results of her own investigation over to the National Human Rights Commission because the second autopsy had made True’s death a federal case.

After reading of Morfin’s efforts to free the two men, Miguel Gatins, a successful Atlanta Georgia businessman and 15-year resident of Guadalajara, became incensed at the apparent injustice. His father, a Frenchman, had been a Nazi prisoner of war, and besides he did not like the idea of the US pressuring Mexico to lock up its Indians — Morfin claims that the US consul in Guadalajara had tried to pressure her into dropping the Indians’ defense. Gatins subsequently hired a hot-shot criminal lawyer and financed a third and tie-breaking autopsy that concurred in all of its findings with those of the attorney general’s.

This past August 16th, Miguel Hermamdez and Juan Chivirra walked out of prison after having been locked up for 37 months in a windowless cell. Blinking wildly in the stunning sunlight, tears filled their wide and frightened eyes as they stood speechless before the reporters.

The release of the Indians embarrased Rivard who now had what appeared to be a drunken gringo correspondent to defend. The editor flew back to Mexico City and called yet another press conference. Juan and Miguel were guilty, even if that verdict had been based on a discredited autopsy and torture-wrung confessions. “This was no accident!” — the case wasn’t over yet. 

In Guadalajara, the newspaperman reportedly spread more of the Express-News’s money around and convinced the chief state prosecutor to appeal the release of the Huichols. Rivard is particularly angered by allegations that his reporter was drunk on the job and attributes the high alcohol content to the natural fermentation of True’s cadaver. Members of the correspondents’ community here who socialized with True and who are still haunted by his strange death, back Rivard up and say the reporter rarely even drank a beer — although others recall that True was a reformed alcoholic.

The first lesson a rookie reporter learns about Mexico is that truth is a multi-faceted commodity here.

There is, of course, more to this cautionary melodrama. Reports from Huichol country indicate that following his release, Juan Chivirra did not return to San Sebastian, a community with which, it is suggested, he has had previous scrapes. In fact, it is suggested that Juan Chivirra is not welcome in San Sebastian because he has sometimes worked for the narcos — the growers of marijuana and opium poppy who have invaded the Huichol sierra in recent years.

Suspicions are further heightened by a re-reading of True’s diary which was redeemed from Guadalajara authorities by an aggressive Newsweek reporter months after his death. One of the last entries in this diary of True’s doomed walkabout describes an abrasive run-in with an Indian named Juan: “He challenged me and asked if I had permission to be there from the local authorities,” the reporter wrote, “then he asked me to follow him to his ranch.”

The diary was in True’s backpack when his body was discovered by the side of the Estrella river at the place called Puente de Colotlan, a hot zone for the narcos, according to the elders of San Sebastian. Not even the villagers venture out there, they told the national daily La Jornada.

“A lot of people take our land to grow ‘enervantes’ (drug crops) — the communities are against it but the narcos are armed,” testifies Armando Hernandez, a San Sebastian elder. These days, drugs are probably the only cash crop grown in the Huichol sierra and the young Indian men have caught the bug. “Narco-corridos” (drug ballads) about young men who have “climbed the sierra to make their fortune” now crackle from the radios in these sacred mountains. The possibility that Philip True blundered into a local dope field during his perambulations in this dangerous sierra provides one more explanation of his baffling death.

It is a scenario first suggested by a struggling independent newsletter here — Mexico Barbaro (my publication) published this information days after Philip True’s bruised and bloated body was finally located up in Huichol country.

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