Saturday, December 19, 2009

One Last Call

November 9th, 1999

The man milled about the Uruapan, Michoacan airport terminal. He was uneasy. A Strange feeling inside him. Thoughts racing through his head. He had recently had a fight with his wife. He felt really bad. He would soon board a flight to Mexico City but he would soon return.

Before boarding his flight he summed up the courage to call his wife. Forget the problems, forget the fighting. Start anew. He dropped some pesos into the phone and dialed the number. No answer, just the machine.

So he left the message: "Baby, its me. Sorry for everything thats happened.I feel like working things out. I dont know, I feel strange. Dont know why. Just wanna call you and say I love you. Ill be back in Uruapan in a few days. I miss you. Love you.

Minutes later Transportes Aereos Ejecutivos S.A (TAESA) Flight 725 from Tijuana landed in Uruapan. It had a layover in Guadalajara where 83 passengers had descended. In Uruapan only he and a few others boarded the DC-9 bound for Mexico City.

He thought about his wife and how they would soon start anew upon coming back from Mexico City. But the strange feeling didnt leave him. He boarded Flight 725 and buckled up. The jet taxied down the runway and took off.

5 minutes later and 14 kilometers from Uruapan airport, Flight 725's captain declared an emergency. The planes slats on the right wing had stuck.

"Slats...slats...slats, slats!" were the last words on the Flight Data Recorder of TAESA Flight 725.

The DC-9 with 18 passengers and crew aboard rolled over on its roof and plunged, crashing onto an avocado orchard and exploding near La Tzararacua, Michoacan. There were no survivors.

The wife watched the report on the disaster on the late news that night. She had heard her husbands final, heart wrenching message on the answering machine.

Stunned and in shock she sat down. She couldnt help but cry.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Deadly New Years in Guadalajara

Juan woke up in the middle of the night. His stomach hurt. He had drank countless times before but this time he felt strange. "Man, I need to stop drinking" he thought as many of us have thought when a horrible hangover assaults us.He remembered the previous night's New Years party where he and friends had consumed bottle after bottle of tequila. He went back to sleep.

He awoke again almost at dawn. His stomach hurt even more. Now it burned horribly and when he got up he vomited. He couldnt see straight. He awoke his wife "Vieja, something is wrong, please take me to the clinic".

His wife rushed Juan to Guadalajara's Number 6 Clinic in the Polanco neighborhood. Upon reaching the clinic, he collapsed on the tile floor. Juan was dead.

Juan's mysterious stomachaches were not the only ones reported at Clinic Number 6 that New Years morning. 5 more people had been there before Juan, and after Juans death, 10 more people came in, complaning of burning, vomiting and horrible stomach cramps. 4 of them died.

That New Years Day morning in 1968, the city of Guadalajara's hospitals and clinics in the southern neighborhoods had dozens of people reporting the symptoms, which pointed to mass poisoning. The first cases, were of people staggering blindly into police stations or talking incoherently. They were tossed into the drunk tanks, where later they were found to be dead.

More and more people would die on January 1st and 2nd. Dozens were hospitalized the first week of January as city and state authorities scrambled to find the source of the mass poisoning.

Upon investigating they concluded that all the persons affected had one thing in common. They had all consumed cheap homemade tequila. Unbeknown to Guadalajara city authorities, more cases of poisoning were being reported throughout villages and towns in Jalisco, Michoacan and Guanajuato states. The death toll mounted. 40 persons were now dead by the end of the first week of January 1968.

Authorities soon found out most of the victims had purchased bottles of homemade hooch at the small neighborhood store Tendejon La Rosita, in the Polanco neighborhood. The owner was questioned and he told authorities that the vendor of the poison tequila was a man from the country whose name he could not remember.

City authorities quickly raced throughout the city streets using loudspeakers and bullhorns and warning residents to not drink any tequila purchased from La Rosita.

The man was found and arrested and charged with negligence and homicide and illegally brewing tequila, a major crime in Jalisco state, home of the Tequila liquor, which manufacture and distribution is heavily regulated by the Tequila Regulatory Commision.

The man, an illiterate peasant told police he had made the hooch in a still at his home using cans he had found at the city dump, which he assured, he had washed and cleaned thouroughly.

Unknown to the man, one of the discarded barrels he had used to make the moonshine, had been used in a factory to store a highly poisonous and corrosive industrial chemical, which then mixed with the booze. To make matters worse he added deadly methyl alcohol to give his brew a special "kick". The consequences were fatal.

The man, who cried and lamented the horror and death he had caused by wanting to earn a few pesos during the holidays was sentenced to several years in prison.

His fate after that is unknown. But the memories of Guadalajara's painful and deadly New Year celebrations of 1968 are still remembered by those who lived through them.

Inferno and Horror on Ramon Corona Street

Christmastime was in full gear that gray December afternoon. Thousands of Mexico City residents thronged the narrow street stalls surrounding the sprawling La Merced Market, east of the Zocalo. Many shopped for Christmas present, others for candles and fireworks in honor of the Day of the Virgen of Guadalupe, celebrated every December 12th, which would be the next day.

La Merced market is a huge complex of different markets east of the downtown area in the seedy and notorious La Merced neighborhood. Prostitutes and pickpockets abound. The market is divided into several areas: The Meat market, the vegetable market, the flower market, the herb market and the Ampudia Market, which is mostly candy and toys.

None of the unsuspecting people crowding Ramon Corona Street, next to Ampudia Market, imagined the hellish horror that would be unleashed that day.

Illegal Fireworks are often sold in the city and throughout the country. Though forbidden, fireworks form a part of Mexican life and culture. Illegal or Legal, they are easily found hidden under the candy stalls in Ampudia Market. Stashed in a corner, hidden in the countless boxes and crates that crowd Merced market, people fear them but also turn the other way. Improperly handled, they can unleash a holocaust of death and fire. On December 11th, 1988, tragedy rocked Ampudia Market.

Nobody to this day knows how it started, but a fire broke out at a candy stall on Corona Street. A fire that quickly reached a box of illegal fireworks, which then began to burn and detonate. Dozens of people ran terrified at the sound of the exploding fireworks and gunpowder, which started a flash fire that quickly raced down the stalls, incinerating everything in its path: people, paper, candy and more fireworks.

More fireworks exploded as the screams of the victims burning alive were heard all throught La Merced market. Then came the huge blast.

The fire reached a warehouse in a building in Ampudia Market and exploded. Pounds of gunpowder, used in the making of the fireworks, blew up, killing dozens of people. The fire still raged inside the Ampudia building, spreading to apartments on the upper floors. Dozens were trapped behind the iron roll up doors of the market storerooms where they sought refuge from the fire and explosions. These storerooms proved to be deathtraps as many contained even more fireworks, which then exploded.

Red Cross ambulances and firefighters quickly raced to La Merced market and extinguished the fire on Corona Street. The toll was grim. 72 persons had been killed in the blasts and fire, including 12 children and 25 women. 83 more persons were injured or burned and required treatment.

The day after, The Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City mayor Manuel Camacho Solis toured the fire-ruined area. Dozens of relatives of the dead mobbed him demanding justice. Vendors who lost everything tossed down soggy and burned cardboard and debris at the mayor demanding those responsible for the negligence and corruption of allowing clandestine fireworks to be sold in such a populated area.

He declared the sale of fireworks illegal in the Federal District and the Valley of Mexico (Mexico City greater area). None of the vendors responsible for the tragedy had valid permits. Rarely any ever do.

It wasnt the last fireworks related disaster at La Merced or in Mexico. Fires routinely break out at the market, but none have been as devastating as the one on December 11th 1988.

In 1999, a market exploded in Celaya, Guanajuato, due to the burning of an illegal cache of gunpowder and fireworks. 65 were killed. On New Years Eve 2002 the Veracruz city market burned, killing 32.

In 1998, in Tultepec, an illegal fireworks shop blew up, devastating 5 city blocks, and killing 20.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pilgrimage of Death

Every March, the festival in honor of the Holy Virgin of the Rosary gets started in the tiny mountaintop village of Talpa de Allende in Jalisco state. Hundreds of Roman Catholic pilgrims walk to the shrine of Our Lady of Talpa or crowd the aging Dina buses that make the perilous trip down the winding narrow road through the mountains. In 1980, the festival was marked by tragedy, a tragedy that sadly would be repeated throughout the years.

Our Lady of the Rosary is a small figurine made of old maize and corn paste, dating back to the 16th century. Legend has it that one day, the bishop of the nearby town of Mascota ordered the Virgin of Talpa to be sent to the Mascota town church instead of the crumbling basilica in Talpa.

The next morning, the statue of the Virgin of the Rosary was gone. Down the main aisle of the church tiny little foot prints could be seen. Upon inspection at the old church in Talpa it was discovered that the statue was once again on its pedestal at the main altar.

Surely the work of pranksters the Bishop declared. The Indians who lived in the area cried miracle. Once again the statue was taken to Mascota. This time with guards outside the locked doors of the church. Once again, without explanation, the statue would be in Talpa by morning. Talpa is about 20 miles from Mascota and in the 16th century that was a long distance to travel in such few hours.

Every March, a week long festival is held in the village of Talpa de Allende in honor of the virgin. Pilgrims from near and far visit Our Lady at the basilica, the third most visited Roman Catholic shrine in Mexico.

The morning of March 20, 1980, an aging Mexican made Dina bus left Guadalajara packed full of Roman Catholic pilgrims headed for Talpa.

They didnt know they would soon meet their death.

The bus was travelling at high speeds on the curvy, rain slicked road. Right near Cruz de Romero, a sightseeing spot in the mountain, topped with a huge concrete church, the bus driver lost control of the overcrowded bus. The bus smashed into the rock wall on the side of the highway and flipped over, tossing passengers to and fro inside the metallic coffin on wheels. The bus then plunged off the highway into a rocky wooded ravine, falling 600 feet.

Bloody broken bodies, pieced of seat and luggage spilled out all over the ravine and the bus practically disintegrated into a pile of smashed steel. The few motorists on the dangerous road who witnessed the tragic accident quickly notified the Federal Highway Police and authorities in town. Talpa de Allende, being a small isolated village and lacking a proper hospital, phoned in Red Cross ambulances from Mascota and Ameca, 4 hours away.

Paramedics and police upon arrival at the accident in ravine found a gruesome scene. Bloody muddy corpses of men women and children strewn around the rocky ravine. Candles and rosarys, mixed with pictures of the Virgin and bibles littered the ground. 43 persons had died. Another 15 were injured.

Police Commander Jorge Zamudio of the Federal Highway Police via phone interview with local news informed the horrendous accident was due to "excessive speed and lack of precaution in the rain". 43 persons had died in the terrible pilgrimage of death.

Tragically as cranes were being used to lift the bus' wreckage out of the ravine, a big rig carrying watermelons also lost its brakes going down the Cruz de Romero curve. The tractor trailer hit 2 ambulances and a police car, tumbling down the same ravine as the bus, hitting rescue workers and policemen working the first accident. Three were killed, and 2 more required hospitalization.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Plan Of Extermination at Oblatos Penitentiary

Oblatos Penitentiary in Guadalajara in the late 1970's

In the 1970's guerrila warfare was strong in Mexico. Groups like the 23rd of September communist league took hostages and planted bombs all throughout Mexico, fighting the authoritatirian PRI government. Many such guerrillas ended up at the Oblatos Penitentiary in eastern Guadalajara.

Many of the guerrillas arrested banded together in the overcrowded, squalid Jalisco State penitentiary. They slept in the same dormitories and helped each other out against agressions. Many "comrades" would be stabbed and killed in the prison's patios and hallways. The guerrillas were seen as friends by most of the inmate population but in 1977 the sinister Federal Security Directorate devised a diabolocal plan to exterminate all the guerrillas in Mexico.

The DFS would recruit goons in prison and pay them a sum of money to kill the guerrillas and stage "riots". In the faux riots, the guerrillas would be murdered, in the perfect environment. Casualties of a prison riot.

One day in September 1977 one of the guerrilla leaders imprisoned at "The Castle" as Oblatos was called, asked to speak to Warden Pedro Parra Zenteno. He denounced the conditions at the prison and asked for protection for a group of inmate trustees nicknamed "The Jackals" had been extorting the general population and abusing the inmates, stealing, beating and raping the inmates wives and sisters during visiting hour. The leader, as he spoke to the Warden, noticed 3 men in suits, sitting near the Warden, staring at him intensively. He later realized the men were DFS agents.

Warden Parra's answer was simple "Get the fuck out of my office."

The leader now realized something bad was amiss. Their days were numbered. The guerrillas took turns sleeping while others stood watch all night, in case someone should sneak in and try to stab them in their sleep. In early October 1977, the leader of the "Jackals"Reynaldo Arellano showed the guerrillas a fistful of pesos.

"Look what they've paid me to kill all of youse. Stupid boys!" he said with a cackle and walked away.

The night of October 9th, 1977, the guards at Oblatos Penitentiary were told to go home. Some guards made it to Dormitory "I" where the guerrillas stayed and out of their gun holsters, took out some shanks and gave them to the group of prisoners.

"Here you go boys, God protect all of you." said one of the Guards.

At dawn on October 10, 1977 the guerrillas noticed the Jackals and several other prisoners outside at the patio. It was 5 am and the population did not go out to the yard until late morning. Something was up. The Jackals, armed with sticks, knives, machetes and other tools rushed the guerrillas. The Guerrillas fought back and were chased all the way back to the dormitory.

Thats when the Jackals and DFS plan of extermination went awry. The general population, seeing how the Dormitory "I" boys were being attacked, counterattacked and rushed the "Jackals".

The hunters were now the hunted.

More than 500 inmates went after the Jackals, and beat them mercilessly. One locked himself in a cell. The inmates showered him and the cell with fuel and tossed a match. The Jackal trustee ended up blackened, bloody mass of charcoal.

One of the Jackals, the one responsible for the rapes of their sisters and wives, received the most cruel treatment of all. His genitals were cut off with a rusty knife and shoved in his mouth. His eyeballs were poked out of his socket and a steel bar was driven through his skull. His body was chained up to a wall for all to see.

As the bloody riot raged on at the Jalisco state penitentiary, the remaining prison staff ran for the exits. The inmates were massacring each other. One by one, the bodies of the trustees were piled up at the gate leading from the administration building to the jail. Laughing, one of the inmates would bring a wheelbarrow and dump a bloody corpse at the door.

Riot police assembled outside the prison and the Mexican military surrounded Oblatos. At night, the riot police in full gear entered with electric nightsticks and shields and quelled the riot. The rioting inmates issued a statement to radio and TV saying what they had done was not murder but "justice".

17 inmates died in the bloody riot, the worst riot in Jalisco state penal history. Dozens more were injured. Many of the inmates say the death toll was much higher, perhaps 50. The horrible riot marked the end of The Castle. Oblatos State Penitentiary was closed down and all inmates were transfered to the new Puente Grande Maximum Security prison south of the city. The Castle was bulldozed and is now a park.

One of the survivors, recalling the 1977 riot thanks the general population of Oblatos for their survival that hellish Autumn day.

"The "Rancho" (gen pop.) saved us. They served as a barrier protecting us from the Jackals. If it weren't for them, we would all be dead. The DFS would of gotten away with it."

The Miner and the Phantom Hitchhiker

In 1983 a huge gold vein was discovered near the village of Guachinango in Jalisco state, 2 hours east of Guadalajara by road. The Barqueno mine soon opened up, providing hundreds of jobs for the people living in the western part of the state.

One cold night in December 1983 a mine worker who lived in the city of Ameca, an hr from El Barqueno was driving on the lonely dark dirt road that leads from the main highway to the village of Guachinango. Locals would tell tales of apparitions and ghosts on the dirt road late at night but most dismissed them as tall tales. That night in December among the fog in the night, the tales would prove reality.

As the worker was driving, nearing midnight he saw a man on the side of the road. Feeling bad at that the man was walking at this late hour he stopped and offered him a ride. The man came in his pick up and sat and buckled up and they drove off. Further down the road his radio became static and shut off. Then his truck lights shut off. Then the truck shut off completely.

This frightened the miner who asked his passenger what could possibly have happened and in the darkness he couldnt see the mysterious man anymore. The seatbelt was buckled but NOBODY was sitting next to him anymore. At the moment he realized in horror that he was all alone in his truck, the truck lit up, radio came back on and it started again.

The miner in fear, accelerated his truck and didnt stop until he reaching Guachinango's main square where he ran into city hall and told police what had happened. The man, in shock, fainted and had to be taken by ambulance to Guadalajara.

Before the land was cleared to make the dirt road connecting Guachinango to the Guadalajara-Ameca-Mascota highway, the strip of land was the site of a massive battle in 1914 during the Mexican revolution. Hundreds died in the battle between revolutionaries and the Mexican Federales. Again in the late 1920's there was another bloody battle, this time between Catholic guerrillas and government troops during the Cristero War that ravaged central Mexico. Dozens more died there during that skirmish. Some bodies were said to have been buried near the road, and in the 1950's 8 skeletons were found, presumibly victims of either the 1914 or 1928 battles.

To this day, the miner, who still lives in Ameca will not discuss the incident as to not attract spirits, benign or evil, for he doesnt want another ghost to get into his vehicle ever again. El Barqueno mine is now closed and reports of ghosts on the isolated dirt road to Guachinango still come up time and time again.

2 College Dropouts And A Christmas Heist

An empty display case after the 1985 heist at the Natl Anthropology Museum in Mexico City

On Christmas Morning 1985, Mexico City newspapers rolled out a sensational story. 140 priceless artifacts from 7 display cases at the city's National Anthropology and History Museum had been stolen.

At 8 o clock on the morning on December 25th, the morning shift of security guards entered the National Anthropology Museum in sprawling Chapultepec Park and were shocked to see the Maya Room of the Museum virtually empty. Several display cases were empty. Nearly 140 Aztec, Mayan and Zapotec pieces had been stolen overnight.

The media and society immediately blamed an inside job. The night security guards, who were supposed to visit the rooms every hour on the hour were arrested and interrogated. Due to lack of evidence they were freed. Focus turned on international thieves. The problem was that the artifacts were so famous and well known that it would be virtually impossible to sell them off. Several pieces were from the Palenque and Chichen Itza archaeological sites in southern Mexico. One was the famed "Murcielago" Zapotec God mask. One US expert said trying to sell the items was like trying to "hock the Mona Lisa".

Three years later investigators caught the real culprits of the daring multi million dollar heist at the Anthropology Museum: Two college dropouts with an obsession for archaeology. It wasn't a gang of professional international art thieves as previously thought and how they did it wasn't that difficult either. They were certainly no Danny Ocean.

On Christmas Eve 1985, they scaled a fence at the museum. Then they broke in through an air duct. Once in the Mayan rooms they pried open the cases and stole about 100 priceless artifacts (not 140 as previously thought). Then they drove off with the loot.

First they wanted the artifacts for themselves but then decided to sell them off. They met in Acapulco with a drug dealer and supposedly established a "1 billion dollar" deal. They would trade the items for Cocaine. Before this could happen, authorities closed in on them and some accomplices, arrested them and recovered most of the stolen loot. The Murcielago Mask had been cracked and had to be repaired but most the artifacts were indeed recovered.

Far from being sophisticated, 2 amateurs with a fetish for history committed one of the most expensive museum heists in the world one Christmas Eve in 1985 and stole irreplaceable and priceless objects important to Mexican culture and heritage.