New Twist in Case of U.S. Reporter Killed in Mexican Hills


June 1, 2002

New Twist in Case of U.S. Reporter Killed in Mexican Hills

By TIM WEINER

MEXICO CITY, May 31 -- "Civilization be dinged! It is the mountains and the desert for me," the American journalist Ambrose Bierce wrote before disappearing in Mexico in 1913.

Philip True, who covered Mexico for The San Antonio Express-News, felt the same. His love for the country led him on a long, lonely walk into what he called "Mexico's last true wilderness," Huichol Indian territory in the southwestern Sierra Madre. He set out on a hundred-mile hike in December 1998 with two books in his 60-pound pack. One was "The Right Stuff." The other was "In Cold Blood."

He died on that trip, the first American reporter killed in Mexico in most people's memory.

Two Huichol Indians were charged with his murder. But the case became a tangled web: the accused first confessed, then recanted. They were convicted, then acquitted on appeal in August 2001. At trial, Mr. True was portrayed as a drunken gringo who fell off a cliff.

Now the homicide convictions of Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and his brother-in-law, Miguel HernĚndez de la Cruz, have been reinstated by a three-judge state appeals court in Jalisco, which ruled Thursday night. The two remain free, pending a final appeal, but face 13 years in prison.

Mr. Chivarra, when arrested, had Mr. True's backpack, camera and notebook.

Mr. True's last notes described a hostile encounter with a Huichol named Juan who threatened to arrest him for taking pictures.

Mr. True had wandered, without permission of the tribe, into an ancient but culturally conflicted civilization.

The Huichol Indians, a tribe of about 23,000 known for its artwork and its use of peyote in religious ceremonies, spent centuries unchanged by Christianity or Western culture.

The encroachment of outsiders ˇ drug traffickers, soldiers, ranchers and tourists ˇ has brought tension to their territory.

"Philip stepped into a darker backwoods culture than he realized," said Robert Rivard, editor of The Express-News, who has fought to see the case through Mexico's often-crooked courts.

"Those two Huichols killed one of Mexico's best friends," he said. "That's part of the tragedy. This guy loved Mexico. He'd gone native. He was married to a wonderful Mexican woman who was carrying his first child."

His widow, Martha, named their son, now 3, after his father, who was 50. She said Mr. True had "followed the Huichol culture since he was in his 20's, and what he loved was that even though they live in such harsh conditions, they enjoy life, laughing, with that amazing smile."

Mr. Rivard said that Mr. True's death "didn't make much of a sound" at first.

"Here was an accredited American reporter who was killed doing his job in Mexico, and it appeared that justice was not being done," he said. "Now, it appears, justice will be done. The defendants have a final appeal, and they remain free. If they flee, we hope the government will have the political will to pursue them."

Mr. True, in a memo to his editors before his trip, said the Huichol tribe had "a certain integrity in their being that allows them to welcome in strangers." He was convinced they would make a wonderful story.

"Good-bye," Ambrose Bierce ended his last letter home before he disappeared, back in 1913. "If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia!"


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