B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
THE TWO BIOLOGISTS studying the Tarahumara frog in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico were tired. They pulled off the road and made camp in remote country near Chínipas, on the southern border between Sonora and Chihuahua.
Early in the morning they awoke to the sound of gunshots just outside their truck.
At first Howard Lawler thought it was just some prankster with fireworks. The sight of a gun-wielding bandito, his face covered in a bandanna and revolver pointed at Lawler, made it abundantly clear no one was playing around.
"We thought we were dead," Lawler says.
After taking everything of value he could carry on his back, the bandito disappeared over the ridge. But the impact of that harrowing encounter in 1984 lingered on with Lawler.
"For several years I was totally paranoid," Lawler says. "It destroyed my sense of security in that area because it is so rife with (narcotics-driven) organized crime activities."
These days Lawler is curator of herpetology and ichthyology at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He's since controlled his fear and now even conducts field work in Mexico again, with a great deal of caution.
Horror stories like these often make would-be explorers of Mexico take pause. Legends abound concerning corrupt police officials, drug-lords and roving bands of thieves.
But reading a Tucson newspaper may help put things in perspective. Robberies, murders, muggings and the like are routine business around here, yet everyone generally goes about their business without panic. When you consider 15 to 16 million U.S. citizens visit Mexico each year, the occasional story about violent crime becomes just that, occasional. Which is not to say it doesn't happen, but by following a few rules, official and otherwise, one can travel with a moderate degree of safety off the beaten path in Mexico.
The first rule Norte Americanos need to know is that Mexico operates under the Napoleonic code, meaning you are guilty until proven innocent. Proving yourself innocent under the Mexican legal system, where sentencing can take six to 10 months and bail can be difficult to determine, much less set, is no simple task. Obviously, it makes sense to avoid confrontations.
Bringing a firearm into Mexico is one way to get yourself into hot water fast. According to U.S. State Department documents, possession of a single non-assault weapon carries a penalty of up to five years in a Mexican prison. Some firearm sentences can be as long as 30 years.
Another legal quagmire to avoid is failing to have the proper documentation to drive your automobile into Mexico. A U.S. driver's license is valid throughout Mexico, but to drive your own car you'll also need Mexican insurance, the current registration and proof of your citizenship (passport or notarized copy of your birth certificate). Make sure your Mexican insurance covers municipal property damage. If you hit a street sign, the authorities will impound your car until the sign is paid for. Cars impounded by Mexican authorities often disappear or aren't worth recovering.
Using your collection of documents, you'll have to get a tourist card and car permit ($11) if you travel beyond the frontier zone (about 21 km south of the border). Getting the permit requires putting down a bond for most of the vehicle's worth or leaving your credit card number in the hands of the border officials. This supposedly keeps cars from being illegally sold in Mexico--so much for NAFTA.
These permits are not required for travel to Puerto Peñasco.
Following the rules will keep you out of official trouble, but knowing your surroundings, or knowing someone who does, is invaluable.
Paul Martin, a retired ecologist with extensive experience traveling in the Mexican wilds, suggests inquiring about conditions with established locals. Before traveling to your next destination, you can ask them for an honorable person to contact in a town near your destination.
"He may be a dealer," says Martin "or he may be in the business, but now it's his responsibility to ensure your safety."
Traveling as a tourist in Mexico can be safer than being a local, Lawler says.
Basically, if something happens to a tourist, a big stink is made by assorted authorities. The tourism industry in Mexico is huge, and robbed or murdered tourists make poor advertisements. Generally, established locals will do their best to direct you to safety and thereby save themselves the heat from federal police.
If locals adivise against exploring a certain area, believe them and ask for an alternative.
Clandestine drug operators could care less about nabbing a few tourist dollars, but they're definitely interested in keeping their whereabouts unknown to outsiders. In the unlikely event the person you ask is involved in drug operations, the last thing he's going to do is direct you toward a dangerous processing area. He wants his business to run smoothly and quietly.
One of the safest things to do might be to camp right at the farmhouse of a campesino you've met.
"You just have to put up with curious kids," says Lawler.
If camping on your own, make sure your vehicle is hidden from view and never camp in the same spot more than one night in a row.
With a certain regularity you'll run into bullying or corrupt police officials. La mordida (meaning bribe, but literally translating to "the bite") is a common state of affairs. Making a big stink only makes more problems. For instance, if you commit a minor traffic violation, frequently a little mordida is expected of you to make it go away. Accusing the officer of extortion will get you hours of bureaucracy.
Never openly try to bribe the police. An honest official may arrest you or a corrupt one be insulted and then arrest you. Speaking Spanish helps tremendously to couch things in phrases like "may I pay the fine here to you?" or "I'm sorry to inconvenience you, may I buy you lunch." Suggesting an amount may keep the officer in question from getting overly creative.
This is not to say the Mexican police force is a vile or ineffective institution.
"Even people who are corrupt," says Lawler, "have a certain honest dimension to them. They may think nothing of taking a bribe, but would fight vehemently to keep someone from being killed."
There are worse systems.
"Something that will get you a long way with anyone, anywhere, is friendliness," says Robert Haag, a meteorite collector who has traveled to some of the remotest corners of the world in pursuit of space rocks.
"Always be friendly and courteous," he says. "The last thing they want you to give them is a bunch of bullshit...What you give will come back to you, it's a big Karmic circle. "
Haag suggests carrying all one and five dollar bills and never quibbling about change. Handing out a five dollar bill for a service can make a big impression, he says.
Naturally, you also want to avoid being flashy. Don't pull one bill out of a four-inch stack.
Following the rules, knowing what's going on around you and being friendly will keep you out of trouble most of the time. Carrying good insurance makes it easier to surrender your stuff in a robbery. If you do run into trouble, contact the Mexican office of tourism or the nearest U.S. Consulate.
With this kind of savvy under your belt, a country of remarkable sights awaits you.
"Mexico," says Lawler, "certainly has some of the most beautiful places on the Earth and some of the finest people on Earth. I have a high regard for the Mexican people and I've learned a lot from them."
You just need to know how to avoid the bad apples.
Critical Phone Numbers:
U.S. Embassy, Mexico City (52-5) 211-0042
U.S. Consulate, Hermosillo (52-62) 172375
Bureau of Consular Affairs Request an information sheet (gives up-to-date information on country you plan to travel to).
Phone: (202) 647-5225 Fax: (202) 647-3000
Computer- Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB) (202) 647-9225 modem software set to N-8-1.
Mexican Ministry of Tourism 24-hours (91) (5) 250-0123/ toll free in Mexico (91) (800) 90-392/ toll free in U.S. (800) 482-9832
Mexican Consulate, Tucson (520) 882-5595
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth