The New York Times Magazine – 10/18/1977

Text and drawings by David Harris

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, 1977, 27 Mexicans and six Americans boarded the Mexicana Airlines 8:30 A.M. flight to Oaxaca at Mexico City International Airport. The tall, smooth gringo in a tan leisure suit and shades who got on right before the doors closed went more or less unnoticed. He wore a deep blue polyester shirt patterned with red and orange blossoms. His tourist permit listed him as one Henry Amazon, a vacationing insurance agent from Denver. Amazon had paid for his ticket with two crisp American $20 bills and had lied about being on vacation. The journey he was starting over the Sierra Madre del Sur and into the highland Oaxaca Valley was a business trip, and Amazon’s real business had nothing to do with insurance.

Henry Amazon is a smuggler of fine marijuanas, and his pseudonym is just one aspect of his trade. Over the last 10 years, he has had papers identifying himself as Henry Amazon from Denver, William Spence from El Paso, Morris Wilson from Dallas and Hector R.Cruz from Oklahoma City. He has also been known, less formally, “Fast Eddie,” “Chorizo Sam” and “El Tortuga.” The only nickname that provides any real information about Henry Amazon is El Tortuga – the snapping turtle. It hints at the fierceness running beneath his pleasant, almost gentlemanly presence. More than anything else, that force is responsible for the American’s survival for a decade as what the Mexican police call a traficante, a drug trafficker. The Tortuga nickname had been hung on Amazon in a Zapotec Indian village six miles off the highway from Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka) to Puebla three years earlier. Amazon had driven there in May looking for a farmer named Ramon with whom he’d done business the previous November. Ramon’s crop had been destroyed by the Federales, but the farmer said there were two strange Indians from the coast who were around with superfine leaf. Normally, Amazon did business only with Zapotecs, but he was anxious to get the truck loaded and on the road. Ramon arranged an introduction.

The two Indians were members of the Huave tribe from Puerto Escondido, and the small sample they showed the American was of A-plus quality. The surface of the cannabis was greasy with resin that balled up between Ama:ion’s thumb and forefinger when he stroked it. The long hairs on the face of the leaf had turned a deep red, and the few seeds in the sample were a dark, mottled khaki color. As usual, Henry Amazon said friendly things to the Indians in his broken Spanish. Amazon is a quiet man who smiles a  lot. The two five-feet-tall Huaves mistook his style, and thought he was one more gringo they could sucker punch. It was a critical mistake.

The strange Indians told the American that their load was up the mountain a way, and offered to take him to see it that night. They said he should bring his money. At 11 P.M., Amazon started up a two-lane dirt road leading out of the village in his rented Volkswagen van, with the two Indians sitting behind him in the cargo area. They climbed the road steadily through the black evening, and were soon skirting a sheer drop of 200 feet to their left. The Indians were talking to each other and did not know that Henry’s Spanish was a lot better than he let on.  The Huaves were discussing where to kill him and  take his money. It was clear to Henry Amazon that he was going to have to do something quickly.

When he saw a third-class bus roaring down the slope toward them, Amazon whipped the VW across the bus’s lane and jumped out the passenger side of the van. The bus driver blasted his horn and slammed on the brakes. Smoke spewed from the bus’s brake drums as it rattied to a halt 20 feet from the van in a swarm of dust, and the beam from the headlights flush on the cargo door. The first Indian to jump out was blinded by the glare. He had a short knife in his hand. Amazon took the weapon away and punched the Huave unconscious. The second Indian was carrying a short length of wood. Amazon tore the stick out of his hand, picked the Indian up, and threw him over the nearby cliff.  The bus pulled around the van, blasting its horn. Then Henry Amazon found the other unconscious Huave in the dark and threw him over the cliff, too.

The story of what happened to the two Huaves got around and the Zapotecs began to say that the grande gringo looked as if he were asleep, but would snap your head off if you made a false move: El Tortuga. Henry Amazon used the name a lot. Being known as The Snapping Turtle was a good reputation to have in Oaxaca.

As marijuana smugglers go, Henry Amazon ranks among the turtles of the business, not among the hares. Other Americans with a lot less experience than he has are dealing in buys of thousands of pounds worth millions of dollars, but Amazon has kept his a small business. Henry and his one junior partner rarely use more than four or five other people in a smuggle, and rarely move more than 300 pounds at a time. At that rate, he nets $300,000 a year. Amazon’s income supports a wife, four children and a handful of needy friends. He owns his 360- acre Colorado ranch and four trucks outright, and pays all his bills in cash. Over the years, the traficante has converted his extra capital into precious metals, old coins, jewels and antique china that he keeps hidden under the floorboards of his two-story house. Amazon got his start in the business shortly after his discharge from the Marine Corps in early 1968. His first supplier was another veteran who worked for the United States Border Patrol. Flashier traficantes have come and gone from Oaxaca since Henry Amazon started, but few have lasted as long as he has. Henry Amazon stays close to the ground and remains hard to notice. The police detection systems are designed to catch braggarts, fools and folks working over their heads. The hotshots get caught up in greed and the thrill of the game, make a mistake and disappear from the face of the earth. During the month before Henry Amazon’s flight to Oaxaca, four Americans whom police have called traficantes, Paul Raymond Smith, Teresa Kelly Ward, Douglas Michael Dighero and Timothy Robert Trout, had been shot to death in Oaxaca under mysterious circumstances.

For those who are caught by Mexican police with more than an ounce of marijuana, the minimum prison sentence is five years, three months. Traficantes captured while hauling their loads are virtually guaranteed a police torture session at the site of their arrest. Traficantes say that if they are caught carrying money on the way to a buy, they have a way of just disappearing, never to be heard from again. Henry Amazon had boarded the Mexicana flight that day with $7,000 in American $20’s and another $3,000 worth of Mexican pesos in his bag. With luck, Amazon would have turned his 10 grand into nearly $90,000 in the space of two weeks.

The standard profit margins of the business are a considerable temptation. Few smugglers multiply their investment any less than five times in a single venture, and some clear more than 1,000 percent. The statistics that document American marijuana use are varied, and the numbers are only approximations. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a Federal agency in Washington, D.D., estimates that there are 15 million regular marijuana users in America. Recent public opinion polls suggest the figure is higher than that. If the polls’ estimate is true, 28 million adult Americans – 20 percent of the adult population – consume an ounce of marijuana every two months, and another 7 million – 5 percent of adult Americans – smoke at twice that rate.  There is, then, a market for something like 15 million pounds of marijuana a year. Taking into account the markups along the way as crops in the fields  become salable ounces in the street, in the average year a minimum of $10 billion changes hands in payment for marijuana on the American market. The nations from which the most marijuana is exported to America are Colombia and Mexico. Most of the Colombian product enters the country along the Gulf Coast, or on the Atlantic side of Florida. Most of the Mexican marijuana arrives by land, over the border any where from Texas to California.  Marijuana is grown throughout the Republic of Mexico, but the states of Sinaloa, Guerrero and Oaxaca are renowned for the high quality of their crops. The smuggle that Henry Amazon commenced on Aug. 31 was not an unusual venture, as typical as any activity in a freelance business can be. It took six days for Henry to get his load of marijuana together, and another four days to get it across the American border. This reporter accompanied Henry Amazon throughout his business dealings in Oaxaca, and followed the shipment as far north as Guerrero.


On the Mexicana Airlines Boeing 737, Henry Amazon was sharing a row of seats with an old Mexican in a black suit who crossed himself and mumbled Latin as they took off over the high brown scud covering Mexico City. Strangely enough, the part of the smuggle that Henry dreaded most was the 45-minute plane ride into Oaxaca. Planes made Amazon uncomfortable, and Mexican planes left him terrified. The air over the 9,000-foot mountains was never very steady, and on bad days, Mexicana’s planes experienced sudden drops and shuddering bumps that left Henry digging his nails into the armrests. When the plane skipped and fluttered, the pressure in Henry’s stomach made him squirm. Amazon ignored the stewardess’s offer of orange juice and rolls, and tried to ease his stomach by chewing Dentyne. He stared out the window and tried to watch the clouds.

As the Boeing dropped through the overcast, Amazon could see that the brown ridges snaking together in a lacy pattern on the ground below were dropping and getting steadily greener as the forests on their sides thickened. Gradually, the steep forest was interrupted by an occasional cultivated patch nestled in a hollow, or on the side of a ravine. The plane skimmed along the belly of a gray hammerhead cloud and began descending as the ground below got flatter and flatter. Tilled fields now covered the widening space between ridges in a green patchwork.

Amazon began to relax when the 737 crossed over the last high peak and the Oaxaca Valley opened up ahead. The pilot announced in Spanish and English that the plane was passing over the ruins of Monte Alban, ancient capital of the Zapotec nation, first excavated in 1931. The ruins appeared as a few quick arrangements of stone on the crest of a peak passing suddenly far beneath the wing, and then the Boeing began a slow turn around the city of Oaxaca, approaching the runway south of town. Amazon rolled his gum in a ball and stuck it under his seat.

The plane touched down with a sharp rubber slap and taxied toward the one-story terminal. The sun was burning off the last of the morning mist.  Yoked oxen were working the fields around the airport. August is the last full month of Oaxaca’s rainy season, and the runway tarmac was splotched with puddles. The Mexicana flight came to a halt opposite a detachment of four soldiers in full combat gear. The soldiers were carrying automatic weapons and lounging around a sandbag emplacement, guarding three blue and white helicopters. One private was sitting on an oil drum, balancing his Belgian machine gun between his feet while he threw pebbles at a stringy brown dog. The rest were standing, or leaning on the bags. The helicopters belonged to the Judicial Federal, Mexico’s national drug police. The Federales used them to hunt marijuana and to pursue traficantes all over the Oaxaca Valley, and into the surrounding hills. The choppers looked like locusts squatting on the asphalt. Henry Amazon let his . breath escape between his teeth with a hissing sound, then made his way up the aisle, out the exit, and bolted down the stairs for solid ground.


Henry Amazon’s first piece of business in Oaxaca was to meet his partner, Zoro CeAttl. After the incident with the Huaves in the van, El Tortuga had decided to give up working as a loner. Through a friend, he had found Zoro in the state of Guerrero, where he lived. Zoro CeAttl had paid for his large ranch by running wetbacks into California. Zoro CeAttl was half Mixtec Indian, and could get along in four of the Zapotec language’s 20 or more dialects. He was good with Indians and kept track of the local marijuana market. After three years of heavily shared risks, Zoro and the American were as close as brothers. On their last trip, Zoro, Amazon and a Zapotec driver had hidden in the jungle along the coast for two days and nights. They were waiting for the soldiers at the army roadblock three miles up the road to pack up and go back to base. When they did, and Amazon’s 206-pound load reached Colorado, Henry and Zoro made arrangements for their next meeting. They would make contact on the last day of August at a favorite diner of theirs along the Mexico City highway.

Amazon rented a Ford LTD from Hertz at the airport, and started across Oaxaca. To Henry, driving in Mexico was a game. When in doubt, his rule of thumb was to accelerate, with his hand on the horn. The technique was especially effective in an LTD. No one wants to run into one. The big Fords are the Coupe de Villes of Mexico. Virtually all of the vehicles on Mexican roads are made inside the country under manufacturing agreements with major automakers. Mexican Ford trucks, Volkswagens, Toyotas, and International Harvester-licensed Dina flatbeds dominate traffic. Prohibitive duties exclude cars manufactured across the border. In a country where most of the people move on burros, oxen or their own feet, an LTD is a sure sign of money and, therefore, influence.

Henry Amazon looked both ways and pulled onto the two-lane highway that leads from the airport to the city. In five minutes, he reached the outskirts of town. The burro traffic along the edge of the road had appreciably increased . The beasts around the airport had lugged towering mounds of freshly cut alfalfa on their backs, but as he approached the city, Amazon saw more and more men with machetes who were driving burros laden with inch-and two-inch-thick lengths of stick. These men cut the wood out in the countryside and then wholesaled it in Oaxaca to vendors who quarter, each stick, chopped the quarters into one-inch blocks an sold the blocks six or eight at time in the squatter settlements as cooking fuel. Amazon turned off the highway, cut through the streets on Oaxaca’s edge until he reached the Mexico City road, and followed the signs toward Matamoros.

 After half an hour of driving, Henry Amazon’s Ford pushed up a gentle rise. A brick house with a cane roof sat off to the right, with a 30-foot flowering tree by the front gate. The flowers were bright and burgundy-colored. A little more than a mile ahead on the left was a light green cafe and a bus stop. Amazon parked the Ford on the road shoulder out in front of the cafe and went inside to wait for Zoro.

Zoro CeAttl arrived 20 minutes later on a third-class bus. Henry Amazon could hear it coming five minutes before it arrived. Mexican buses are all equipped with an exhaust system of three-inch pipe that runs straight from the engine under the length of the carriage and up the back to the roof level, with no muffler anywhere along the way. While accelerating, the buses emit a tenor “blaaat . . . ” that can be heard for miles. By law, there are no bus companies. Each bus is owned by a driver who has a license to ply a given route. Ticket prices are controlled by the Federal Government, and each bus has its own name and decoration. The one Zoro rode on was orange, and El Tiburon (The Shark) was painted in purple on each side. A crudely brushed line of green waves ran the length of the vehicle, the bottom half was splattered with mud, and the roof was piled high with baggage. Zoro CeAttl got out, climbed the ladder to the cargo rack, and tossed his suitcase down. The two amigos greeted each other with big smiles and claps on the shoulders.

Zoro was hungry and ordered a dish of mole ( chunks of meat in a thick brown sauce laced with chocolate) from the old woman who ran the diner. The two smugglers sat in the corner of the room at one of the two oilcloth-covered tables, while the proprietor heated her mole in a pot braced over a small mound of glowing one-inch wooden cubes. When Zoro asked for coffee, she produced a bowl of hot water and a jar of Nescafe. CeAttl and Amazon soon stopped chatting and got down to work. Henry wanted to locate 250 pounds of marijuana as quickly as possible. They knew that Fiacco, the Zapotec they’d dealt with the last time, had close to 100 pounds, and he’d mentioned a farmer on the west side of Ocatlán who had 100 pounds more. CeAttl said he knew another Indian named Jesús on the San Dionisio road who could round the load out with some very high-quality leaf. Zoro would leave a message for him. Zoro CeAttl paid the woman, went outside and threw his bag into the LTD trunk. In the bag, Zoro had a Browning .45-caliber automatic and two Smith & Wesson .38 Specials that he and Amazon planned to trade for weed. The Oaxaca Valley is shaped roughly like a three-cornered star. Oaxaca, population 120,000, sits at the star’s axis, 240 miles south of Mexico City and 900 miles south of San Antonio, Tex. One corner points toward Puerto Angel, another toward Tehuantepec, and a third toward Puebla and Mexico City. After an hour’s drive in the valley toward Puebla, the elevation rises from Oaxaca’s 6,000 feet to close to 9,000. After three hours of driving the other way, toward Puerto Angel, the road drops into tropical jungle, full of avocado trees and mangoes.

Most of the state of Oaxaca’s 2.5 million citizens are Indians. There are approximately 250 Zapotec villages in the valley of Oaxaca. The largest are full of small brick and adobe houses with stuccoed walls, and cane or tin roofs. The smaller villages are collections of one-room cane huts back in the bush. The police are rarely seen outside Oaxaca City, and then only in the larger villages. The Zapotecs live on the valley floor and on ever-higher levels that reach up into the mountains. The Zapotecs in established houses stay in one place and farm with oxen and wooden single-blade plows. But after you pass the sixth village back from any dirt road, you can find small clusters of Indians still living as they did 2,000 years ago, in the cycle of camping for a season, planting, and then moving on into the depths of the Sierra Madre del Sur to camp and plant again.

What always amazed Henry Amazon about the Zapotecs was how many of them there were, and how hard they were to see. As he and CeAttl sped onto the Mitla road, Henry stared ahead at the green valley walls that rose on the horizon. The tops of the far mountains were obscured by formations of angry gray thunderheads advancing on toward the Pacific Ocean, 90 miles away. In Colorado, the scene would have been called a wilderness, but in Oaxaca, the seemingly unpopulated landscape is actually dense with Indians. There are few places to go in the daylight in Oaxaca where you cannot be seen by someone. Under the trees, in the shade of rocks, and along the ravines, families of Zapotecs cluster. Once members of a noble and thriving civilization, the Indians are now at the bottom of Oaxaca’s economic ladder. Their poverty has created political unrest in every comer of the valley.

According to the Mexican Labor Department, 74 percent of all of Oaxaca’s families live on less than 200 pesos ($8) a month. A quarter of them have electricity, and fewer than that have running water; 87 percent live in one or two rooms and cannot afford to buy milk, eggs or meat. Their principal nourishment is corn and beans. The price of beans has risen 310 percent in the last two years, and the cost of com tortillas has quadrupled. Most Zapotecs try to survive by growing corn and maguey cactus. Many cannot even produce enough corn for their own consumption. The maguey plants take 10 years to mature. The leaves are then discarded and the heart of the cactus is boiled down into the drink mescal, which can be consumed as it is, or further refined into tequila. A truckload of mature maguey hearts yields $10, a dollar a year, to the family that grows it. Some of the villages earn extra money from weaving and from handicrafts, but without their marijuana crops, a lot of Zapotecs would have no cash income at all.

Cannabis is grown throughout the valley and up in the Sierra Madre del Sur. Plots are largest deep in the mountains. The 2-acre-to 10- acre plantations back there are guarded by Indians who carry automatic weapons and have been seen drinking Coors beer. Some of those crops are serviced by airstrips cut into the mountainsides. However, most of Oaxaca’s marijuana is grown in family patches of 20 to 50 plants, or in village crops of up to 500. If 30 of a family’s B-quality plants reach reasonably lush maturity, their sale will net in the neighborhood of $600, almost six times the average family’s total yearly income from other sources. Since the temperature in the region rarely drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a fresh marijuana crop can be harvested every four months. The best harvest of all is at the end of the rainy season in late August and early September.

Zoro CeAttl was counting on the Indian, Jesús , for the best leaf. Jesús had relatives in a village back in the mountains that was famous for its sin semilla, mature female marijuana plants that have never been pollinated. In their unpollinated frustration, the virgin plants exude resin in large quantities that coats the leaves. Sin semilla is sticky to the touch, and has no seeds. Jesús had said he’d have some when Zoro returned. It was of triple-A grade. Henry Amazon could sell that kind of marijuana for more than $1,000 a pound in Colorado. About four miles past Mitla, Zoro began looking for the place where Jesús had said to leave messages for him. The highway had risen over the crest of a ridge, and when the LTD reached the first dirt road on the downhill side, Zoro motioned for Henry Amazon to turn onto it. After traveling another 200 yards, he told Henry to stop. Next to the road, someone had planted a straight line of eight maguey. Behind it, the countryside was covered with low trees, tall grass, brush and cactuses. Zoro collected several stones the size of his fist, piled them in front of the first maguey and hopped back in the car. Jesús would see the signal and get in touch with Zoro through a Zapotec in town. For all the traficantes knew, the Indian was watching them at that moment.

“Now let’s go find Fiacco,” CeAttl said. Amazon drove back to the highway and continued down the hill. Nearly 12 miles later, he turned right onto a dirt lane and slowed to 20 miles an hour. Stones rattled off the LTD’s underbelly. After five minutes, the road dipped as it entered Flacco’s village, a mescal village. Maguey hearts were boiled here. The edges of the street were dotted with heaps of processed cactus pulp, and the fresh piles were still steaming. Flacco’s village stank. The boiling of maguey releases an odor like that of gangrene. Henry Amazon sucked some air into his lungs and rolled the Ford’s window up. A matted white dog yapped after the LTD. A double-axle Dina truck loaded with mescal barrels was approaching from the opposite direction, and the two vehicles met at a spot where a small creek crossed the street. Henry Amazon came to a full stop in the muddy creek bottom as the truck squeezed by, reeking of maguey juice and splashing slop on the side of the rental car. The white dog attacked the oncoming Dina’s wheel, and was run over.

The two smugglers stopped at the storefront on the next corner, where a Zapotec family sold groceries and soft drinks. Henry and Zoro got out of the car and asked for some orange-flavored Tehuacan mineral water. Henry Amazon’s eyes began to smart from the shock of the mescal factories’ stench. The man behind the counter took their order, and sent his daughter to fetch the bottles from the cooler. He remembered Zoro from before, and was very friendly. Zoro told him to tell Fiacco to get in touch “the usual way,” and to tell him Zoro was in a hurry. The man said he would, and that Fiacco had left something there for him. The storekeeper produced a newspaper-wrapped parcel the size of two fingers. Zoro slipped it into his boot in one quick movement and thanked the man. The two smugglers took their drinks and drove back out of the village. The dead dog was still in the road. Henry wanted to go around it, but there wasn’t room. So he accelerated over the carcass, drove to the highway, and turned toward Oaxaca, planning to check into a motel room and wait for everyone to get in touch.

When they crossed back over the ridge, Zoro opened Flacco’s package, rolled a joint using the marijuana sample inside, and lit it up. The leaf was of B quality, with decent flavor and a sneaky punch that came on slowly. The LTD wound its way down the mountainside. Off to their right, the northeastern end of the valley spread out under an enormous sky full of thin gray silk, rushing along in patches. Zoro CeAttl stared west toward Ixtlán and in five minutes had spotted one of the Federales‘ helicopters. It was a blue and white speck 10 miles to the northwest. Zoro watched as the chopper darted over a ridge, circled a ravine, and climbed to surmount the next ridge and hunt again. When the pilot sights weed, the area is bombed with defoliants and noxious chemicals. The number of Indians who have been poisoned during or after this procedure remains an unrecorded statistic. Loads of weed coated with herbicides have recently begun to appear in the New York, Boston and Toronto marijuana markets. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has just begun to study the problem and as yet has no idea what the long-term effects of smoking poisoned marijuana may prove to be. Those who have consumed defoliant-laced pot experience severe headaches and occasional vomiting.


The effort against marijuana cultivation is the sole concern of the Judicial Federal. The Policia Judicial del Estado de Oaxaca (state police), the other major police force operating in Oaxaca, concerns itself with the rest of criminal activity. Political action is at the top of its list. During the last week of August and the beginning of September, six different high-ranking officials from Mexico City flew in to confer with the jefe of the Policia Judicial, Jaime C. Palencia Jimenez. Palencia, a 31-year-old huero – a white Mexican – from Mexico City, had been appointed to his provincial post five months earlier. The visitors, who came from the division of the Mexican Attorney General’s office that concerns itself with political crimes, were apprehensive not only about Indians but also about students. Several months earlier, the state had been in open turmoil. The Governor had been removed for having let things “get out of hand.” Palencia was imported as part of the new administration. The trouble had begun at the university on Oaxaca’s north side. When a Communist slate was victorious in the student-body elections, the former Governor had refused to let it assume office, and had imposed his own set of student officers. The result was a series of demonstrations that became a running battle, one that left more than 40 people dead. The Governor was finally replaced by an army general who allowed new elections to be held. This time, the winning leftist student slate was allowed to assume office.

In the course of the struggle at the university, the police had picked up reports of numbers of huero and mestizo (Mexicans of Indian-Spanish extraction) students making contact with insurgent Zapotecs in the south end of the valley and in the surrounding Sierra Madre. It was this alliance that bothered the political officers who came to visit the jefe. They worried about a replay of the events of the early 70’s, when the neighboring state of Guerrero had been torn by guerrilla uprisings. Things there had subsided only after an extensive campaign by the army that broke the rebel bands and sent scattered remnants fleeing south into the state of Oaxaca. The leader of the Guerrero guerrilleros, Luco Cabanas, was finally ambushed and killed in December 1974.

Historically, the Zapotecs have been a rebellious people. Barefoot Oaxaca Indians fought in the armies of Jose Maria Morelos, the half-breed priest who led southern Mexico against the Spaniards in the early 1800’s, and they fought under Gregorio Melendez when he rose up in 1835 against the “despots” who had “betrayed” Mexico’s new independence. Benito Juarez, the founder of the modern state of Mexico, was a full-blooded Zapotec. When Juarez nationalized the holdings of the Roman Catholic Church, Mexico was soon occupied by a French army. Zapotecs – half of them unarmed – in white cotton “pajamas,” huaraches, and black felt hats with red bands, fought the French and the hueros of the conservative Catholic militia outside Juchitan in September of 1866. Led by a chieftain named Nine Lives, the Indians pushed the French back past Tehuantepec. Zapotecs were used by both sides in the  civil wars following the revolution of 1910. They are a people short in stature, but they fought with the desperation that only those who live on next to nothing a month can feel.

Guerrilleros have been a part of life in the Oaxaca Valley  since before the arrival of Cortes, and they are still a part of it today. The modern guerrilla bands are scattered and largely isolated from one another. Most of the rebels are Indians whose opposition is fueled by their poverty and resentment of the rich hueros‘ domination of Mexican life. The guerrillas have little political leverage, and are struggling to rearm and regroup after four years of military  reverses. The most famous of the local guerrilla leaders is called El Coyote, a Zapotec brujo (medicine man) from deep in the mountains. Some of the bands are Marxist-Leninist, some are bandidos, but most are just groups of Indians who are tired of being at the bottom of the pile. The guerrilleros are usually on the move, traveling as far south as Guatemala and then journeying north again along the ridge of mountains that runs along Mexico’s spine. Some of the marijuana plantations in the South Sierra Madre pay for the military efforts of the more organized bands. Airstrips are used by traficantes who fly in and barter crates of weapons and ammunition for A-quality week. The strongest of all of Oaxaca’s armed political splinter groups is the Union del Pueble. The political officers from Mexico City who visited Jaime Palencia were worried that the U.D.P. had recruited student members through contacts in the Communist villages around the south valley. Walls in neighboring Ocatlán are dotted with crudely splashed hammer-and-sickle graffiti.

The state police exercises its political concern from a distance. It lacks the helicopters and other sophisticated equipment used by the Federales, and state policemen are prone to treat their own safety as their first priority. Rarely do they or the Federales risk moving around the valley after dark. and then only with an army escort.


Early Thursday morning, Zoro heard the sound of the Federales‘ helicopters again. He was sleeping in the bed nearer to the motel-room window when the droning pried his eyes open. It was 6:30 A.M. Zoro CeAttl swung his legs onto the floor and rubbed his face. Henry Amazon was still asleep on the other bed. They had holed up in a three-room establishment in the south end of the valley, 120 pesos ($5) a night. Zoro lifted one of the slats in the Venetian blinds, and peered out. Two choppers were heading farther south, specks on the far mountains.  Zoro grinned. During June, two Indians had shown him the remains of another helicopter that was wedged into a ravine in the southern foothills, in Zapotec territory. The blue and white paint was burned off, and the helicopter was a twisted wreckage among the rocks. The Zapotecs said the guards at the nearby fields had shot it down. Two Federales were killed, they said. After the crash, they maintained, another of the blue and whites came and, with the machine gun in the side door, killed everyone in sight of the ravine. The Indians claimed that 26 men from their village had been shot.

Zoro liked the idea that the men in the choppers were targets too. Zoro CeAttl had come to hate the police of the Judicial Federal. He considered them to be murderers and thieves who, in his experience, shot people only when they couldn’t shoot back. Officially, the Judicial Federal is the Republic of Mexico’s Federal police force. Half of the organization’s 300 agents perform functions roughly similar to those of the American FBI.  The other agents concern themselves with drug-control efforts. The Federales came into their own under former President Luis Echeverria. A formal training program was established, and selected agents were sent to Washington, D.C., for additional instruction. As the American Government made more and more money available, both for training and in direct grants, the Judicial Federal began to take its role against the traficantes more seriously. The Federal agents usually operate in squads of eight or 10, never for extended periods of time in any one location. An agent will work the frontier along the American border for a month, then move to Guerrero, and head on to Veracruz. The Mexicans work closely with the American Drug Enforcement Agency and with Interpol, the international police organization. D.E.A. maintains its headquarters in the American Embassy in Mexico City and fields 32 agents who work in pairs, dispensing “technical assistance.”

Money for the Federales‘ effort is appropriated as part of the State Department’s budget for international narcotics programs. Since drug-enforcement efforts were accelerated under the Nixon Administration, the Federales‘ appropriation from the United States has grown each year to the present annual level of nearly $16 million. Much of the money is spent on blue-and-white helicopters, on radios and for other machinery. Another part of the appropriation is plugged directly into the Federales‘ salary ladder. Federal agents live very well by Mexican standards. In Oaxaca, they work out of an office over a funeral parlor near the zocalo, the central square in the heart of the city.

As August became September, the agents of the Judicial Federal knew it was harvest time, too. Teams from Mexico City, from the frontier, and from Guerrero, along with D.E.A. agents, had been coming in and out of Oaxaca steadily all month. The Federales kept their choppers in the air, and occasionally went out with army units at night to set up roadblocks. During the last few weeks, the Indians said, a Federal team had been cruising the valley in a van with soda-pop advertisements on the sides. The Federales don’t wear uniforms, but seem to be most comfortable in polyester suites and open-collar shirts. Federales are either mestizos or hueros; no one in Oaxaca has ever seen a full-blooded Indian Federales. Zapotecs say the Federales‘ eyes give them away. According to the Indians, they have “bad eyes,” and the Zapotecs will look in another direction if they see Federales face to face.


Shortly before noon on , Thursday, after Henry Amazon awoke complaining of insect bites, he and Zoro drove to a spot 12 blocks from the Judicial Federal office to pick up their messages. The drop spot was a stall in Oaxaca’s downtown market, where an old Indian woman sold shirts and woven belts. The downtown market fills two buildings, each a half-block square, and overflows into the streets for another two blocks. Zapotecs from all over the valley take third-class buses into town, their goods tied to the roofs, then unload and set up shop. The market smelled of blood and leather, laced with the smoke from 20 cooking fires. Henry and Zoro made their way past sheets of thin beef hanging on hooks, buckets of shrimp from the coast, piles of serapes, oranges, discount huaraches, tortillas and black pottery, looking for the old woman.

Zoro had first met the woman’s husband the year before, when he had stopped in their village for an orange Tehuacan. Zoro had heard music, drunken laughter and the sound of gunfire, and had gone around the corner to investigate. There appeared to be a party going on, and there was lots of shouting and shooting of pistolas into the air. Zoro CeAttl asked one of the men squatting by the wall what they were celebrating. The Indian said it was a funeral. A young child had died, he explained, and when the young die they haven’t lived long enough to accumulate much sin, so they are assured of going to heaven. There was no reason to be sad. The man invited the stranger to drink mescal, and Zoro ended up staying there all day. After two more visits from Zoro, the Indian agreed that his wife would take CeAttl’s messages for 100 pesos ($4.40) a month. When Henry and Zoro found the woman, she said that both Fiacco and Jesús had checked in. Fiacco would meet the two traficantes on the Teotitlan road at 4 that afternoon. Jesús said that they should come to the usual place at midnight on Saturday night, and that they should be ready to do business. Zoro and Amazon headed back for the LTD.

On the street outside, Henry Amazon complained to his partner. “This is slow, Zoro. I mean slow. We’re gonna have to goddamn sit around all day. It’s gonna take a week to get the load.”

CeAttl shrugged. “What can we do, amigo? It will speed up. You’ll see.”

Henry didn’t answer. the biggest part of a traficante’s time is spent waiting, but Henry still hated it. Amazon and CeAttl wasted an hour drinking coffee on the terrace of the Hotel Marques del Valle across from the zócalo, went back to the market to buy a few blankets and then decided to visit Monte Albán. Amazon had toured the runis at least 30 times before, but he was still fascinated by the rich history of the nation of marijuana growers.

At its height, Monte Albán was the capital of a Zapotec nation that controlled the entire valley, and at times extended as far south as Tehuantepec on the Pacific Coast. Monte Albàn is six miles southwest of the modern-day city of Oaxaca, on an isolated group of hills that rise out of the countryside near the hub of the valley. The view from the ruins commands Oaxaca and most of the surrounding countryside. Until Mexico’s leading archaeologist, Alfonso  Caso, began digging there in 1931, Monte Albán was just a cluster of brush-covered hills that had lumpish outlines. Caso’s excavation immediately began uncovering a series of ancient tombs on the tallest hill. At first, the diggers found few artifacts, but when they broke through a fitted stone roof into a room divided into four chambers, Caso uncovered one of the richest archaeological finds in the New World. The tomb was the burial place of eight chieftains who had been laid to rest surrounded by carved jade figures, gold diadems, pearl earrings, turquoise mosaics, 30 strips of intricately carved jaguar bone, a solid-gold mask and much more. Five hundred pieces of treasure were shipped to Mexico City under military guard, and the artifacts were returned to the valley only after the State of Oaxaca fought a lengthy court battle against the Federal Government.

The excavation of Monte Albán has continued fitfully, until today the entire Great Plaza on the crest of the hill is open to tourists who come there from the rest of Mexico, the United States, Canada and France. The Zapotecs themselves seem to have lost any sense of connection with the ruins, and only the sleaziest of Indians appear there to sell trinkets and phony artifacts to turistas. Few if any Zapotecs can afford the 10-peso admission charge. The Great Plaza is a group of seven buildings of varying sizes surrounding a central rectangle, connected by inside passageways and outside steps. This is only a  small fraction of the ancient city that once covered more than 24 square miles. The “classic epoch” at Monte Albán lasted from the 6th to the 12th centuries A.D. The Monte Albán Indians were master craftsmen and left behind beautiful carved jade, polychrome frescoes and clay urns. The ancient Zapotecs worshiped a variety of gods. A special favorite was Quetzalcoatl: “Plumed Serpent,” “The Breath of Life,” the lord of the creative forces, the sky and the wind. Quetzalcoatl was the god of peace, art, wisdom and prosperity. The third son of the Lord and Lady of Substance, Quetzalcoatl disguised himself as an ant, discovered maize under the mountain Popocatépetl, and gave the seeds to the Indians. He also invented the arts, science and the calendar. Quetzalcoatl had many incarnations. In one of his most glorious, he made a raft from snakes and sailed to Tlapallàn, where he immolated himself. Quetzalcoatl’s ashes turned into birds and his heart became Venus, the morning star. On ceremonial occasions, Zapotec nobles wore jaguar-head helmets topped with long feathers from the bright green quetzal bird.

Monte Albán was finally abandoned when the civilization could no longer support the city’s magnificence. The Zapotecs had built a sophisticated and extensive urban culture, but their agriculture could no longer keep pace with their population. The Indians left their city and moved to the other side of the valley. In the 14th and 15th centuries, while the Indians were trying to stave off the onrushing Aztec empire, Zapotec culture flourished briefly again at Yagul, Mitla, and as far away as Tehuantepec. In 1465, the Zapotec army was surrounded by Aztec legions in the fortress atop Geingola Mountain. The Zapotecs broke the siege by sneaking down the mountain at night, kidnapping Aztecs and carrying them back to the Zapotec  lines, where they were butchered and eaten. The Zapotecs were finally conquered in 1495, only to be “liberated” 26 years later by the Spaniard Hernando Cortés.

At first the Zapotecs welcomed the advent of Cortés as a way to throw off the control of the Aztec empire and revenge themselves on their Mixtec neighbors. Within 20 years, the Spaniards turned on their former Indian allies and proceeded to crush all Zapotec outposts. Dominican friars dug out the ritually buried corpses of past chieftains and dragged them through the streets. Native Zapotec music, poetry and dances were forbidden. Indians caught with ancient hand-painted hieroglyphic scrolls were tortured, and the scrolls destroyed. The dominance of Spain and her church were complete. The evidence is still visible from the heights of Monte Albán today. In village after village, one-room brick huts with cane roofs cluster around three-story Catholic churches complete with 40-foot ceilings, mahogany pews and gilt altars.


After three hours of sitting on the ruins and looking out at Oaxaca, Henry Amazon’s watch indicated that it was time to meet Fiacco. He and Zoro drove down the mountain toward Milla. It took half an hour to reach the Teotitlan road. Shortly after, Zoro spotted Flacco’s truck pulled off the dirt in the thick brush bordering a cornfield. Henry Amazon pulled in behind.

Fiacco was thin as a rail and came up to Henry Amazon’s shoulder. His teeth were stained a deep brown color near the gums. The brown paled to yellow the closer it got to the chewing edge. His upper lip was covered with a sparse mustache. The Indian wore a T-shirt, twill pants and an ancient pair of huarache sandals. His heels were knobbed with a thick wall of callous. Fiacco owned his bright yellow Dina truck with his father and four brothers. It was theirs by virtue of long years of hauling maguey, thanks to lots of marijuana cultivation and a small but usurious loan from a man in Milla. By Indian  standards, the truck represented a great deal of wealth, and Flacco’s family was considered well off. The Dina’s cab was fringed in red tassels that dangled inside the entire width of the windshield. The grille was covered with a welded network of steel pipe designed to act like a locomotive’s cowcatcher and called a tomba burro (donkey dropper). Loaded trucks in Oaxaca don’t stop for livestock on the road. After everyone had said, “mucho gusto,” and got reacquainted, Fiacco broached the subject of money. He wanted 800 pesos ($35) a pound. Zoro CeAttl translated. Henry Amazon coughed and shook his head. He lowered his voice and spoke in a hard, negotiating tone.  

“Tell him not for that –he left with the Indian,” Amazon instructed his partner. “That ain’t worth 600 [$26).” Fiacco responded that the sample had been offered just to show them what else was around. His was much better. Fiacco produced another packet from his pocket and handed it to Henry to examine. The Indian said he had 98 pounds of it. Amazon unfolded the paper, picked the cutting up by its stem, and smelled the marijuana carefully. The leaves were stickier than those in the last sample, and had dried a deeper green with a gold tinge. “That’s worth 700 [$31],” Amazon told Zoro. Zoro translated and Fiacco looked hurt. He said that anything under 750 ($33) was impossible. Amazon immediately answered that he’d pay 750 if Fiacco would carry it with them as far as Guerrero. Fiacco was a little taken aback. He did not like to risk his Dina. Henry Amazon sensed the Indian’s mood and reached into his boot for the clincher. The gringo pulled out a chromed, snub-nosed .38 and handed it to the startled Zapotec, butt first. Fiacco rolled the weapon between his hands and hefted it.

“Tell him we’ll throw that in for him to keep now, since he’s taking a risk,” Amazon told Zoro. ‘ ‘ But we don’t pay for the weed till the other end of the line.”

Zoro translated and Fiacco agreed. The only way for an Indian to get a gun in Oaxaca is for a traficante to sell it to him. Gun possession is deal with harshly by the authorities. Fiacco said he would meet them at 8:30 that night with the other Zapotec he had mentioned, the one who had a fresh crop. Fiacco tucked his new pistola in his pants and mounted the family Dina. Amazon and CeAttl went back to the motel for a nap. An hour later, a curtain of rain began working slowly up the valley from Monte Albán. It fell in silver streaks, forcing the goat herds and the cruising red wasps to seek the protection of bushes and trees.


At 8 : 30 on Thursday evening, Sept. 1, the two smugglers were sitting inside their LTD with the windows rolled up, across from the Produce Market on Mitla’s main street. The Zapotec women in the market stalls were beginning to pack up their wares under the pale glare of a string of bare bulbs.  electricity came to Mitla two years ago. It was still raining outside. A one-tent entertainment, the Frank Brown International Circus, was in the village for the night, and Mitla rang with the sounds of hurdy-gurdy music. The first show was scheduled for 9 P.M., and Zapotec families huddled under the market awnings, waiting.

Mitla is the Zapotecs’ ancient “Abode of the Dead.” Called Yoo-paa in their native tongue, it was the Indian empire’s spiritual heart. The high priests lived there in low, flat-roofed temples that, the Spanish missionaries wrote, were “prouder and more magnificent than any seen in New Spain.” The central  temple was built on four levels, three of which were underground. The ground level was reserved for the gods. The first floor below that was a burial chamber for high priests. The level below the priests’ floor was a burial place for kings. The lowest level was a common burial site for Zapotecs who died in battle. In the 14th and 15th centuries, sick and unhappy Indians of all kinds went to Mitla to beg to be allowed into this last chamber, so they could die there and enjoy eternal bliss. Legend has it that when the Dominican priests arrived, they discovered a tunnel leading out of the bottom chamber going even deeper into the earth. The priests started to explore the passageway but were overcome with fright. Calling the tunnel a “backdoor to hell,” the Dominicans sealed it up so well that, the legend says, no trace of it can be found today.

At 8:50, Zoro and Amazon spotted Flacco’s yellow Dina splashing down the street. The Indian pulled in behind the LTD and got out. The Zapotec accompanying Fiacco was taller and even narrower. The other Indian’s name was Victorio, and he hadn’t grown a mustache yet. His deep brown face, like Flacco’s, was dominated by a broad nose and eyelids that appeared to droop. While the four of them huddled under an awning and talked,  Victorio’s fingers pinched the seams of his khaki pants. The Indian had never done business with a gringo before. Henry Amazon and Zoro CeAttl tried to put him at ease, with little success. Victorio smiled in greeting, but his face quickly returned to its flat set. He carried a machete in his belt. The smugglers explained that since they hadn’t done business with Victorio before, they would want to see his load when they talked price. The Indian said it could happen in six hours, at 3 A.M. Fiacco suggested that they meet in a gully that ran along the San Dionisio road. Amazon agreed, and leaned against the wall with Zoro while the Indians beat back up the street against the deluge. The hurdy-gurdy music made the adobe wall behind the smugglers vibrate.

“He sure was nervous,” Henry said.

“Sure he was,” Zoro answered.

Henry Amazon’s partner spoke the “s” with a “ch” sound. ” … Who wouldn’t be?”

The last month had been a very bad one for smugglers, and everyone in Oaxaca knew it.


Late Saturday morning, July 30, 1977, a Zapotec farmer from the southeastern end of the valley had walked into the local police office in the village of Ocatlan and recounted a grisly story. He had been approaching the village of San Miguel on his way from San Dionisio. At a spot where the road dipped and a creek crossed it, there was a wash, a dry stream bed. The farmer had seen smoke down the wash, investigated, and had come across the remains of two Volkswagen combis (vans). Both had been burned and were still smoldering. A mutilated gringo was lying dead a little ways down the wash, and a  dead mestizo was sprawled near one of the combis. Inside the other van was a mound of charred flesh. The Indian didn’t know how many people were in there. He didn’t want to go too close, because of the smell.

The gringo down the wash was immediately identified by the Oaxaca state police as a traficante from Fort Bragg, Calif. named Paul Raymond Smith, age 34. Smith had had a hard time of it before he died. According to the state police, his hands had been bound and he had been tortured with a long blade that had been dug into his pectoral muscle and twisted. After an unknown period of torture, Smith had somehow run 120 feet from the van before he had been shot twice in the back with a .22-caliber weapon. When he was sprawled on the ground, dying, one of Smith’s murderers had driven a combi back and forth over the American’s head, mashing the side of it and distorting his face. The Mexican corpse·was identified as that of a small-time hustler from the city of Oaxaca, Luis Alberto Villagomez Hernandez. He too had been shot to death.

The state-police detail that was sent out to fetch the bodies and inspect the scene on Sunday, July 31, was under the personal direction of jefe Jaime C. Palencia Jimenez, of the Policia Judicial. The police were armed with handguns and with automatic weapons.The investigators got what they needed and left quickly. During the entire time they were there, the cops’ activity was watched from afar by a barely visible line of 60 Indians on the ridge overlooking the road. A number of the Zapotecs were carrying rifles and shotguns. The police determined that there were four more bodies in the second combi. All had been cooked by a fire hot enough to melt the combi’s engine. Two of them were 18-year-old Americans who, like Smith, were from Fort Bragg, Calif. One was a woman, Teresa Kelly Ward. Before the burning, a bullet had been fired at point-blank range into the back of her skull. She was identified by her dental charts. The police tentatively identified the American male next to her as one Douglas Michael Dighero, although his dental exam was inconclusive. He was killed with a .765 Mauser rifle. The two incinerated mestizos were shot with a Mauser as well. One was named Manuel Hinojosa  Hernandez. The other, Alberto Aurelio Ortiz Mendoza, was also known as El Tasajo (Piece of Meat). El Tasajo was identified at the city morgue by an old woman who soId food to the Oaxaca whorehouse where Tasajo’s girlfriend, Nanci Gama Cortes, worked. She recognized Tasajo by the wristwatch cooked into his wrist.

The murders made headlines all over Mexico. American tourists began leaving Oaxaca steadily on the two daily flights out of town. By Monday, Aug. l, Raul Mendiolba Sereno, director of the Judicial Federal, had flown to Oaxaca from Mexico City to assume command of the investigation. Shortly thereafter, the identification of the third Mexican body was withdrawn. According to fresh police announcements, this body only appeared to be that of El Tasajo. The wristwatch that the old woman recognized, they said, had been put on that body to throw the police off the scent. El Tasajo, the police maintained, was the real killer. He had been the middleman in a big dope deal, and had got greedy. According to the Judicial Federal, at the time of their deaths the gringo traficantes had been carrying $60,000 in American cash. 

As the Judicial Federal investigators reconstructed the case, Paul Smith was the leader of a ring of California smugglers, six of whom – the state police gave their names as Richard and Darrell Peller, Donna Lynn Lefever, Betty Eggleston, and Ralph and Mark William Smith – were waiting for Paul Smith, Dighero and Kelly Ward in the Mocambo Hotel in Veracruz. The Veracruz contingent had two Ford campers that had false bottoms in which the load was to be smuggled north. Paul Smith and the two 18-year-olds were apparently planning to purchase the marijuana and drive it to meet the campers on the Caribbean coast. If the Americans indeed intended to spend $60,000 on marijuana, they would be hauling something in the neighborhood of a ton of  weed. One of the burned VW’s had been in Veracruz on July 20, and had been driven over the mountains to Oaxaca by Dighero and Kelly Ward. Paul Raymond Smith flew into Oaxaca on Mexicana Airlines, and rented the other combi on July 27. The Oaxaca authorities say that the Americans made contact with El Tasajo shortly after their arrival, and arranged a deal. The police version of events has the Oaxaca hood luring the Americans out into the countryside and murdering the three of them along with three other Mexicans who went along for the ride. Jefe Palencia theorizes that El Tasajo had one accomplice. Tasajo and the accomplice got the jump on everyone else, and then tortured Smith until he told them where the money was. After the two conspirators had killed the five others, Tasajo turned on his accomplice so he wouldn’t have to share the loot. Tasajo then supposedly burned the vans and made it back to Oaxaca on foot, where the police claim he was seen at 9:30 A.M. Sunday. Tasajo’s accomplice, the police say, was the unnamed third charred mestizo.

The Zapotecs in and around San Dionisio tell a story that differs in virtually every respect from that of the authorities. They believe the Federales were behind it all. Somehow the Judicial Federal had found out about the deal, and agents were waiting for Smith’s party when it headed out for San Dionisio. The Indians believe that the Federales kept the money for themselves, telling Smith to run, then shooting him as he did so. The original coroner’s report on the bodies stated that Smith had been tortured with a bayonet, a weapon that normally only the army and the Federales have access to. This report was withdrawn before becoming official. Two months later, there was still no official statement from the coroner on the results of Smith’s autopsy. The police insist that Smith was tortured with a sheath knife he had been carrying on his belt. No knife or scabbard was found at the scene of the crime.

No one in San Dionisio stepped forward as an eyewitness to the murders,  but several Zapotecs claimed to have seen events that, they say, took place the day after. Early Sunday morning, July 31, 1977 – before the police claim to have had any information about the bodies lying dead in the wash – according to the Indians, a team of Judicial Federal police drove into San Dionisio looking for the man who had arranged to sell sin semilla to Smith and company. The suspect wasn’t home, but they discovered three barrels of airplane fuel in his house, obviously stashed to supply planes at a hidden airstrip somewhere in the hills. The Indians claim the Judicial Federal officers then proceeded to burn the house down and arrest the missing Indian’s 13-year-old son.  According to the Indians, the boy escaped when he jumped out of the Federales‘ truck along the road to Ocatlán, and the youth went into hiding.

When asked about the Indians’ version, the local Judicial Federal officials consulted their superiors in Mexico City, refused to comment and directed all  questions to Jefe Jaime Palencia Jimenez of the Policia Judicial del Estado de Oaxaca. Palencia denied the validity of the Indians’ charges with a wave of his hand and a nervous laugh. When pressed, he refused to comment further.


One of the many people in Oaxaca who believed the Indians’ story was an American named Timothy Robert Trout. Timmy Trout was a traficante from way back. Timmy left Oaxaca for several days immediately after the deaths of Smith, Ward and Dighero, returning early the next week on a private plane that landed deep in the mountains. When he returned, Trout told his friends in Mitla that the Federales had killed Smith. Trout claimed to have known the dead American under the nickname “Huichole Pete.” Huiehole Pete, a.k.a. Smith, was a big mover whom Timmy had helped on deals over the years. Trout was visibly nervous. He stayed in the village and remained indoors. He kept repeating that the D.E.A. was identifying big smugglers and giving their names to the Federales to kill. Trout was sure they were after him next. Timothy Trout was registered at the Hotel Milla under the name Charles Nasey. Trout, a.k.a. Nasey, was wanted in California for evidence in several narcotics cases and was also being sought by the state of New Mexico for the armed robbery of an Albuquerque grocery store on May 15, 1975, and subsequent assault on a pursuing police officer. Trout had begun smuggling in the late 1960’s when he  was an Albuquerque hippie with hair down to his knees. Since then, he had filled out some, and had his hair cut and styled; but Trout’s business remained the same.

The people who knew Timmy Trout well swear that what happened on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 11, 1977, was at heart an act of suicide by Timmy Trout. Instead of continuing to hide out, Timmy Trout got drunk and drove into the city of Oaxaca to walk around the zócalo. His friends say Timmy just got tired of waiting to be killed, and made himself a target. Timmy, they said, couldn’t resist tempting fate.

According to the Oaxaca state police, at 2:30 A.M., Thursday, Aug. 11, Timothy Robert Trout, alias Charles Nasey, was staggering around downtown Oaxaca under the influence of an unknown drug, firing a .38 Special into the air. Elements of the 22d Safety Patrol were, the police say, attempting to disarm the American when he fired on them. Timmy Trout was killed at the intersection of Mier and Teran Streets, five blocks from the zocalo, by a shot in the back from an M-1 carbine. No policemen were wounded, and no damage was done to their van. Several weeks after the incident, police said Trout’s  gun was not a .38 Special, as first reported, but a 9-millimeter automatic. According to Oaxaca press accounts shortly after the incident, the paraffin tests instituted as a part of the preliminary coroner’s examination indicated that Timothy Robert Trout had not fired a powder-burning weapon at any time during the evening of Aug. 10, or in the early morning of Aug. 11. When questioned, the police confirmed these press accounts. This report, too, has yet to be made official. The Oaxaca police have no explanation for the fact that there were no powder traces on the American’s hands.

Both the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Judicial Federal deny that they had any knowledge of Timothy Robert Trout until after they read reports of his death. Both agencies deny executing traficantes, and deny all charges of stealing evidence or money. Trout’s body was shipped to his lawyer in  Albuquerque. Timmy’s Mitla friends weren’t sure how he was actually killed, but they were skeptical about the official version of his death. The most common theory was that Timmy was kidnapped by the Federales, questioned, and eventually executed. They believed that the body was dumped after death at Mier and Teran Streets, and arrangements made with the Safety Patrol to concoct a cover story. Most of those who knew Trout in Mitla quickly joined the outward flow of gringo tourists that increased as news of their countryman’s death got around Oaxaca. It was only three weeks later that Americans began to return in their usual numbers, with Henry Amazon among them.

Henry Amazon had known Timmy Trout in the old days around Brownsville, Tex. Henry had always thought of Timothy Robert Trout as a “mean little gila monster son-of-a-bitch who’d off a cop in a hot minute.” Henry Amazon couldn’t believe that Timmy would fail to take any police with him if he had a gun.


At 2 A.M., Friday, Sept. 2, Henry Amazon wheeled the LTD through the darkened village of Ocatlán. He and Zoro had napped at the motel and wakened to Henry’s travel alarm. The rain had slowed to a constant film of mist drifting toward earth. There was no wind at all. Amazon was wearing a dirty brown  serape and a 10-gallon hat. The LTD circled the Ocatlán square, sped along the street on the other side, and headed into the rolling hills. The road they followed touched the corner of San Miguel and ran on along the flats next to a stream. At around 2:30 A.M., the two smugglers passed the combi rented by Paul R. Smith the month before. The charred combi lurked in the mist and water dripped where the windshield used to be. The departing state police had towed it out of the wash to high ground, had stripped off its wheels and abandoned it. The other van, with the bodies inside, had been hauled back to the city as evidence. Twenty minutes after passing the combi, Henry Amazon pulled the LTD into the brush and turned off the lights. The stream beside the road had turned, and it ran under a rough stone bridge. Henry and Zoro walked upstream, and quickly lost sight of the road. Zoro led the way with a flashlight. When the two partners reached a tree that had fallen across the stream, Zoro switched the light off and they sat on a log.

“This is the spot,” CeAttl whispered.

Henry Amazon couldn’t see his hand when he held it in front of his face. He only sensed Zoro’s presence nearby. It was like being locked in a closet. Henry pushed the button on his digital wristwatch regularly. Usually the glowing green numbers read exactly as they had the last time he had looked.

Henry Amazon jumped half a foot when a hard hand grasped his shoulder. “Mucho gusto,” a voice said. It was Victorio. Henry Amazon had no idea how long he had been standing behind them.

The Indian led Henry and Zoro down a trail that seemed to die in the underbrush on the other side of the log. Victorio kept pressing on through the branches, and they stumbled into a cave at the side of the stream bed. Fiacco was inside, standing beside a mound of burlap bags. His new pistol was tucked in his belt. Each bag was stuffed full of two-foot- long marijuana cuttings. Zoro flashed the light on the pile while Amazon opened one of the sacks. The air in the cave was saturated with the sweet odor of recently cured weed, a presence that seemed thick enough to cut. The marijuana didn’t have  any red hairs on the leaf, and it had been harvested just a little too soon, but it was sticky green and colored gold around the edges: A-minus weed. The smugglers and Victorio quickly settled on a price of 700 pesos a pound, with a 25-peso-a-pound finder’s fee for Flacco. Henry and Zoro arranged to meet with Victorio the next night at a spot off the Tehuantepec highway where they could exchange money and goods. Flacco would meet them at the same place with his loaded truck. As soon as their business was completed, the smugglers returned to the LTD. Henry Amazon could hardly keep his eyes open during the drive back to the motel, and he slept until Friday noon.


When he awoke, Zoro was already dressed. After Amazon showered with cold water, he and CeAttl got back in the car and drove up the highway to talk. Henry Amazon made it a rule never to discuss business in a rented room. Outside, the rain had given way to a bright afternoon. The only clouds that could be seen were toward Tehuantepec, and all else was a fluorescent blue. Henry Amazon was in a good mood. The load was coming together quickly. When it came time to move, he told Zoro, he figured the best way to do it was to divide the weed between Flacco’s truck and the trunk of the LTD, but they would need another truck to cut the trail. The third – empty – truck would drive ahead of the two loaded vehicles. If it encountered roadblocks, the others would  have enough warning to turn and run for it. Zoro said it was a fine plan if the “bell cow” knew what it was doing. Henry claimed he knew just the man for the job. His name was Rascon, and he lived in a village off the Mitla Road. In half an hour, they had parked the LTD in the Indian’s yard.

Rascon’s wife came out of the house, where she had been making tortillas. She said Rascon was down at the field playing ball, and gave them directions. The game the Zapotecs play is called mano fria (cold hand). The ball field is a flat patch of dirt 40 yards long and 15 yards wide, bounded on each side by cornfields. Each player of mano fria is equipped with a glove attached to a knob five times the size of a large clenched fist. The knob is hard  as rock, the accumulation of countless wrappings of leather strips. The average glove weighs 12 pounds. The surface of the knob is studded with the  exposed heads of 200 nails. The ball is the size of a cantaloupe, and made from unprocessed rubber. The court is divided in half, eight men to a side, and the ball is delivered from the serving stone, a two-foot-high flat piece of rock with a slanting top. The server balances the ball on the head of his glove, drops it on the stone and clubs it over the midline.  Mano fria is a game of long volleys. The rubber ball is hard, and it reaches a velocity great enough to break an unprotected shoulder. Errant shots run through the corn like cannon fire. To the tourist’s eye, the game resembles a sort of cave man’s tennis. In the ancient version of the game, the ball was heavier, and was capable of crippling a player for life. At special games in Monte Albán, the entire losing team and the captain of the winners were ritually executed after the matches. They counted it a great honor.

Rascon was his team’s champion server. When he saw Amazon and CeAttl standing on the sidelines, he shouted to them that only one game was left. His team won easily, and Rascon walked back to the village with the two smugglers. Rascon had good teeth and a mustache that ran the length of his cheek down to his jaw.  When they reached his house, Rascon had his wife serve some hot soup made from chicken livers and bits scrambled egg. They discussed business in his dining room. It had a dirt floor, table and a single bench. One end of the room was dominated by the family altar, a brick shelf holding  several pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had been clipped from magazines. At night, the Zapotec, his wife and six children slept on mats rolled out on the floor.

Rascon wouldn’t make the run for the money that Amazon offered. He said that 1,400 pesos ($60) wasn’t enough. Who knew what would happen to his truck if there was trouble? Henry Amazon was in hurry, and didn’t know who else he could get for the job, so he upped the offer. He could give Rascon 1,400 pesos and gun. The American slid shiny .38 down the table to Rascon’s bowl. The Zapot, smiled. After extracting promise that the smugglers would also pay the cost of gas for the truck, Rascon agreed. He would be waiting, in a spot they decided upon, at 2 A.M., Sunday, Sept. 4.

Zoro and Henry were all smiles on the way back to the motel. The load was located, ready to be paid for and picked up. He and Zoro would buy as much of Jesús’s sin semilla as they could afford, they’d meet Flacco and Victorio, pick up Rascon and get on the road Zoro’s ranch in Guerrero. All that was left for them to now was to wait, being tourists for the next day and a half.

At 8:30 Friday evening, Amazon and CeAttl went to the zócalo for dinner. The Oaxaca State Band was giving a concert in the Victorian bandstand at the center of the square. The band members wore khaki uniforms with Sam Browne belts. The two smugglers took their dessert of fresh coconut ice cream at an outdoor table in front of the Hotel Marques del Valle. The band music was loud enough to fill the whole city. The Mexican, French and gringo tourists were lounging on the park benches or walking in the crowd that slowly circled the square on its sidewalks. The ritual is known as “The Dance’.’  Everyone strolls and watches everyone else. Mingled in the crowd were hustlers, Zapotecs, gigolos, Federales and smugglers. Amazon amused himself by trying to pick out the traficantes. They strolled by in twos and threes, looking just a bit too relaxed, and seemingly giving every passing face their personal Federale test. One likely traficante locked eyes with Henry Amazon and quickly turned away. Henry watched the American walk on by, and heard him  talking to his friends and motioning toward Amazon’s table as if the lanky American sitting there ought to be watched out for. A wrinkled Indian woman approached Amazon’s table trying to sell a peso’s worth of pumpkin seeds from her basket, but Amazon ignored her and listened to the brassy tones of  the Oaxaca State Band echo off the surrounding mountains. They were playing the United States Marine Corps Hymn.


Twenty-four hours later, at 10 P.M., Saturday, Sept. 3, 1977, Henry Amazon and Zoro CeAttl pulled out of the motel parking lot. They didn’t say much to each other. The air was full of thunder, and lightning flashed, but no rain was falling. Amazon could feel a pool of fear in his bowels. He and his Mixtec partner were about to run the gantlet. The next few hours were the most dangerous part of the business, and the two of them had been smuggling long enough to know they couldn’t help but be scared. Death might be waiting for a traficante on the other side of each approaching curve.

Their destination was along the dirt road that crossed 50 miles of rolling terrain to connect the Tehuantepec highway with the one leading to Puerto when they turned from the pavement onto the dirt road. The LTD advanced through the darkness with a steady crunch of pebbles under the wheels. Zoro peered into the fan of light cast by the Ford’s high beams, looking at the edge of the road for a formation of four boulders that had the shape of a pregnant woman. They reached it in 15 minutes and pulled the car off on a shoulder. The hillside dropped off to the smugglers’ left and Zoro located the narrow trail that ran down it. They stepped from the car and Henry Amazon plunged into the solid darkness, following his partner’s flashlight. The air was charged with the power of the approaching storm. A little way down the hill, the trail reached a clearing near a cane-roofed and adobe-walled hut. As the two smugglers approached the building, figures began to emerge from the darkness behind them. A few carried shotguns, and all were armed with machetes. Zoro and Henry turned and smiled.

“Mucho gusto,” Zoro opened.

The Zapotecs responded and said Jesús was inside. The two traficantes ducked through the doorway and their flashlight immediately fell on Jesús , squatting against the far wall. Next to him was another man in huaraches and wearing new twill pants. He wasn’t an Indian. Zoro introduced Henry Amazon to Jesús , and then Jesús introduced the smugglers to his friend.

“Mi amigo, el Cubano,” Jesús began. (“My friend, the Cuban.”)

Henry Amazon’s eyes lit up. “So,” the American said to himself, “this dude Jesús is connected to the Cubans. Hot damn.” Henry Amazon had been hearing about the Cubans in the hills, off and on, for five years. He didn’t know what they were about, but he knew they were there. Amazon had seen Cubans in Oaxaca the previous November twice when he had been middlemanning a big weed shipment for two Canadians. The deal had been struck in a remote south-valley village. The Cubans had been there when the money was exchanged, and again at a hidden airstrip when the pickup was made Cubans and the Zapotecs carried carbines slung over their shoulders. All that Amazon could find out about them was that they came from much deeper in the Sierra Madre. The Cubans might have been Communists who had filtered in over the years or remnants of some broken exile army whose members had become soldiers of fortune enlisting with the local guerilleros. The only, thing Henry knew about the Cubans was that they were connected to high-quality leaf.  This man’s presence was a good omen.

The traficantes got right down to business. They had sin semiIla on their minds. The Indian responded that he had 24 pounds left, and wanted 100 American dollars per pound. Jesús called out through the open doorway and another Zapotec entered with a long rectangular box, the kind used for shipping eggs. He handed it to Amazon and left immediately, while Jesús lit a candle. Henry Amazon opened the box and found a dozen small bundles of gorgeous brown leaf covered with red hairs. The marijuana was sticky and there wasn’t a seed in it. Amazon said that for all 24 pounds, he’d give them $2,250, plus a gun. Henry pulled the Browning .45 automatic out of his boot and passed it to Jesús . The Zapotec hefted the weapon and handed it on to his Cuban friend. The Cuban popped the clip out and tested the action. He handed it back to Henry, and engaged Jesús in a rapid, whispered Spanish conversation.

“Other Americans give two of those for a pound,” Jesús finally told Zoro. “We just want more cash, in American.” The statement had a final note to it and the traficante didn’t argue. Henry Amazon put the gun away and pulled a wad of twenties from his other boot. By the light of the candle, he counted out $2,400 worth. Jesús handed the cash to the Cuban, who stuffed it in his pants. Jesús blew out the light and they all stepped out into the clearing. The  night was warm and stuffy. Lightning was still flashing. Three Indians were waiting with five more egg boxes. The traficantes exchanged goodbyes with the Cuban and Jesús , and followed the Zapotecs up the hill to the LTD. The cartons were loaded in the trunk and Amazon turned the car back toward the highway.

“One down, two to go,” Amazon said to  Zoro.

Victorio was supposed to be waiting in a wash that branched off the next dirt road on the left. It was 1:30 by the time Zoro CeAttl and Henry Amazon found the place. There was no sign of either the Indian or Fiacco, and both of them were supposed to have been there a half-hour before. Amazon and his partner stepped out of the car and waited, leaning against a front fender. The dark was swampy and quiet, except for the thunder echoing across the  valley. Henry Amazon checked his watch. At 1:45, the traficante heard a noise behind him, and turned to peer into the black. It was Victorio. He had two other Zapotecs with him. They were wearing machetes.

The Indian said he hadn’t seen any sign of Fiacco, but didn’t want to wait. His two friends began carrying burlap bags and loading them in the LTD’s trunk. Only half would fit. The other bags were piled by the side of the wash, to await Flacco’s truck. The delivery totaled 103 pounds. Amazon counted out the Indian’s money, and a smile broke over Victorio’s face. As he handed the full payment to the farmer, Henry asked Zoro to ask the Zapotec if he was planting another crop. The Indian said he was, and Amazon pulled the Browning. The movement startled the Zapotec, but he quickly relaxed when the traficante handed it to him, butt first. “Tell him it’s a down payment,” Henry said. “His new crop belongs to us. And tell him to wait a little bit longer before he harvests –until the hairs get red.” Victorio nodded agreement, told Zoro how to find him the next time, then melted into the shadows with his two friends. Zoro and Amazon had to wait another two hours for Fiacco. They paced next to the LTD, and grumbled. Amazon checked his watch regularly. When they were about to give up on Fiacco, the two smugglers saw headlights approaching on the road. Zoro and Henry hid in the brush at the side of the wash as the truck pulled in next to the LTD. It was Fiacco.

“Where the — have you been?” Amazon demanded.

Fiacco said it had taken a long time to load the truck. He had covered his load with maguey hearts to camouflage it. Amazon told him to get ready to unpack, because they had more weed to put on the pile. Fiacco smiled weakly, and jumped down from the cab. It took the three of them an hour to move the maguey, to add the remainder of Victorio’s weed to Flacco’s, to cover with a plastic sheet and load the maguey back on top. It was 5:30 A.M. before the convoy reached the highway for Oaxaca. Henry Amazon hated run loads in the daytime, but he liked the idea of waiting for the next night even less.   A film of pink light had appeared over the eastern mountain slopes, and daylight was approaching rapidly. They were to meet Rascon at the Caves the Devil.


The Caves of the Devil are group of fissures in the face a 300-foot cliff 100 yards from the highway. The Zapotecs believe they are openings in the underworld. Indians who think their dead relatives have gone to hell climb to the caves and burn candles in their memory. Rascon was parked at the base of the cliff. His Ford flatbed had a deep green cab, and the tomba burro painted a powder blue. Numero Uno was painted in blue script on the driver’s door. Amazon woke up Rascon by pounding on his window.

“Let’s move,” the traficante shouted.

Rascon started up his Ford and led off. The signals remained the same as the last time he and Amazon worked together. Two flashes of the brake lights meant “watch out”; three “danger,” and four flashes meant “run for it.” Rascon cruised at least a quarter-mile in front of Fiacco, and Amazon and the LTD were another 300 yards behind. Zoro rode in the cab with Fiacco. To get over the coast road into Guerrero, the convoy had to cut across the outskirts of Oaxaca. Morning traffic had begun, and the city was alive with cooking fires and ambling burros. It took 20 minutes to get across town. Amazon was glad to leave the streets behind and finally, to hit the countryside. Sweat had soaked through the armpits of his leisure suit. There was one last moment of worry near Ocatlàn, when Rascon flashed twice, but the reason was soon obvious. A truckload of soldiers passed them going back towards town after an all-night roadblock. Most of the privates in the open truck bed were asleep. Several dangled their legs over the back lip of the truck. They didn’t give either the Zapotec vehicles or the LTD a second look.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. As the road began dropping toward Puerto Angel, the storm that had been rumbling all night finally broke. Rain fell in waves that cascaded over the nose of the Ford so strongly that the windshield wipers could barely keep pace. The roadside quickly became a mass of  puddles, and the trucks threw sheets of spray off their rear wheels. The deluge lasted for two hours, and shattered the day’s sultry heat. When it finally stopped raining, the loaded convoy was running along the road with jungle on each side. Henry Amazon rolled his window down and listened to the high chatter of the monkeys and the sounds of the tropical birds. He wanted to sleep, and slapped his cheeks to stay awake.

After two rest stops, the traficantes‘ caravan reached Zoro’s ranch in Guerrero close to 1 A.M. on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1977. Rascon was paid off as soon as they arrived at Zoro’s, and departed immediately. When Flacco and the two smugglers unloaded Flacco’s truck, Zoro and Henry discovered that Fiacco’s load wasn’t the second grade-A sample he’d shown them, but was of the same grade as the B-quality package Fiacco had left for them with the Indian in the mescal village. Henry had to be persuaded not to break Flacco’s jaw. After an hour of argument, Henry finally paid Fiacco a dollar a pound less than they’d agreed on, and sent him on his way. On Tuesday morning, Sept. 6, the two partners loaded their 225 pounds of marijuana under the floorboards of Zoro’s cousin’s third-class bus. Zoro rode with it, and his cousin, to Mexicali. Amazon drove the LTD to Acapulco, turned it in at the Hertz desk, and caught  the first flight to the States. Zoro unloaded the weed in Mexicali and stored it in his cousin’s garage. On the night of Saturday, Sept. 10, Zoro drove the load out of Mexicali in a Dodge Power Wagon with a camper on the back, crossed the Colorado River at a remote spot, and drove into Arizona. He and Amazon met six miles from the border and transferred the marijuana. Henry Amazon drove his loaded Pace Arrow Motor Home to Colorado. The weed sold quickly, and at good prices.

On Thursday, Sept. 22, Henry Amazon and Zoro CeAttl met again in Tihuana to split the profits. Zoro CeAttl made $44,130, Henry Amazon recouped his original 10 grand, and made $44,130 more.

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