It’s been over a year ago since all this happened. It seems longer somehow, far away from the present. Those were intense days, which we came through unscathed and intact but somehow, something subtle has changed. We are not as adventurous and ambivalent about travel in uncharted places as we were. It reminds me of a bad fall while skiing, what they call a ragdoll descent. I didn’t break anything but my spirit and even though I still ski, I am not the fearless skier I once was.
We would wake up in the middle of the night and stare into space, reliving those moments when our normal lives were suddenly turned upside down, hanging in the balance between living and dying. It took several months and many retellings, mixed in with a good portion of denial and bravado to normalize our equilibrium.
We are more wary now when we encounter strange cultures, maybe more careful when we meet strangers, more reserved even. We chose not to drive our van to Mexico, as we had planned and took a flight instead. We are somewhat damaged goods when it comes to adventure travel. I insisted that this incident is separate, unique and cannot rule our lives forward. It has to stand alone and be compartmentalized and yet, something lingers on at the back of our minds.
We always wanted to go to San Cristobal las Casas and Palenque. In fact we had the whole trip planned back in 2010 when my sudden purchase of a French restaurant changed our plans, and we cancelled the whole. We now had a chance to do this trip since we were already in Cancun where we spent a fabulous New Year on Isla Mujeres with our family. We flew to Tuxtla Gutierrex from Cancun and then took a short bus ride to San Cristobal. It was cool and fresh after the humidity of the coast and we found our way around the center of town in no time. The locals are a small people, the women in black felt skirts and long black braids, short and stocky with men who were no taller with the cutest tiny kids in tow. Several hundred tourists mixed in with the locals and populated the big square and the two or three main streets around the cathedral. Several restaurants and bars catered exclusively to our kind, who had money and time. We enjoyed the people, the sights and the food, walked all over the cobbled streets, bought some amber jewellery, which was for sale in every second shop. We took some side trips to outlying towns and always felt safe and well respected.
On Jan 8, 2016 we boarded an OCC bus scheduled to leave at 12:15 in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, bound for Palenque. It left at 12:30 and was almost full with a majority of international tourists. Approximately 1.5 hours or 70 km into the trip, along the windy, narrow road we were coming into the town of Oxchuc, Chiapas. The bus was stopped and waved to the side of the road by some young men. After about 20 minutes with limited information from the driver as to why we were stopped, a pick up truck with several masked men armed with sticks and machetes, crowded in the back of the pick-up, sped passed us going out of town and a few minutes later passed us again going back into town. The road was now barricaded behind our bus by a semi-truck, which was parked across the road and several large rocks. Looking down along the street towards the centre of town we could see burning tires and more rocks barricading the road. We were now told by the driver, that there was trouble ahead and that the road in and out of town was blocked. The driver, informed us at this point, that delays of this sort had happened before in this town and sometimes a simple cash payment would allow us to proceed.
Most of us stepped off the bus to stretch and we congregated in front of a small convenience store. Protestors, masked and armed with sticks and machetes, came running up the road towards us yelling for all of us to re-board the bus. Several of these masked young men entered the bus as well and their leader yelled at us to remain on the bus, not to take photos nor use our phones. We obeyed their demands. They said if we did as they said we would not be harmed. One of the tourists, a Swedish woman, spoke Spanish and translated for the rest of us.
After 2.5 hours at about 5 pm the bus was repositioned closer to the centre of the town where we were parked diagonally across the road next to a second empty OCC bus facing the other way. At this time the masked men boarded the bus and yelled at us to call our embassies and alert them of the situation in Oxchuk. This we did – many calling family and friends as well. I couldn’t reach the embassy in Cancun, so I called my friend Bill and informed him of our plight. “Call somebody Bill,” I asked, “the embassy, foreign affairs, CBC. We don’t know what’s going to happen but right now we’re being held hostage. I gotta go, everything is going crazy around us.” At this point the situation escalated. A second more militant group entered the bus and screamed at us: “You are all going to die if you don’t do what we say!” This group was followed by a masked woman, telling us to obey the guy’s orders. Suddenly we heard loud bangs, like firecrackers and the militants were beating and smashing the bus and yelling at us to get out immediately. We grabbed what belongings we could, leaving all of our suitcases in the luggage compartment and ran off the bus into a cloud of tear gas. We could hear the teargas grenades explode behind us as we ran down the road towards the center of town. Just then a local man, unmasked, about 50iesh, asked us to follow him and go to the right, down a side street while other masked militants further down the road were beckoning us to go towards the centre of town where plumes of black smoke hung in the air. Locals, including women and children were running in both directions. All store fronts were shuttered and gates to houses closed. I insisted to follow the local man who led us away from the center, half running, half walking. “We need to stick together,” I insisted, fearing the worst if we got separated.
Halfway down the side street we were stopped by another group of masked men who ordered us to hold a large banner pointing it at the hovering helicopter overhead. We did as told and then they let us go. We continued to follow the local man who took us up the road leading out of town. When we looked back we saw a massive plume of black smoke emanating from where the buses had been parked. We passed two barricades of large fallen pine trees blocking the road.
Our group of 15 tourists and 5 Mexicans had been separated during the confusion and re-grouped at a junction leading out of town. After we passed the last tree barricade we encountered several locals with pick up trucks and cars, who offered to transport us to Oscingo for 40 pesos each. The time was close to 6 pm and the light was fading. We wanted to be as far away from the violence as possible before dark. We crowded into the back of two covered pick-up trucks and were driven for over two hours along a winding bumpy road to Oscingo. We arrived at the Oscingo OCC bus terminal about 8 pm and saw that our bus driver and the other Mexicans from our bus were already there. They told us our bus had been burned and that all of our luggage was lost.
The 15 of us hired two combis to take us to Palenque at 60 pesos each. Not far down the road from Oscingo we were stopped by the Tourist Police and told it was not safe to travel on our own and that they would escort us. Our mini van waited for the second combi and we continued on with a police escort. Approximately 30 to 60 minutes later we were stopped again, this time by the regional police who checked the credentials of the Tourist Police and then joined the procession into Palenque where we were taken to Villa los Mercedes, a resort between the town and the archaeological ruins of Palenque. We arrived around 11 pm and were met by several Mexican Regional Government and Police Officials. We were served some soup and beers and were all asked in turn to give a statement of what happened and also itemize what we had lost. This process continued until well after midnight at which point we were given accommodation at the resort and asked to reconvene at 10 am the next day. During this time I was finally able to contact Bill, who had alerted everybody from the kids to the local TV and radio stations to the Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa, as well as any and every personal contact who could intervene in any possible way in our situation. He was as exhausted as we were when I talked to him, which was six hours after I first called him from the bus. Clueless as to our fate he imagined the worst, which is what we had feared and now that it was all over we all collapsed. I also returned a call to a CBC reporter from Vancouver, who interviewed me about the events up to that point. The interview was subsequently broadcast on the Canadian National TV News, radio and printed on CBC On-Line and in the Vancouver Sun. This way all our friends, family, co-workers and some people we haven’t heard of in years, found out about our misadventure in Oxchuk.
The next day, Jan 9, 2016, our group (15 tourists – 2 Canadians, 2 Swedish, 2 New Zealanders, 2 Swiss, 2 British, 4 Australians and 1 Dane) were questioned again by different regional and federal authorities as well as the police. Statements were typed, reviewed and revised according to each of us, all day long. There was no official translator. Livia, a Swedish tourist on holiday with her boyfriend, acted as our translator. We were then given 300 pesos each to buy personal belongings and were accompanied by a regional government official to the local department store where we bought some essentials.
We returned to the hotel where the process of filing the police report and correcting statements continued. At this time we met another group of tourists – 21 – who were on one of the other two buses which had also been detained in Oxchuc. Their experience was much more harrowing than ours. They left their bus, as we did, but instead of being led out of the town they were led into the centre. According to their verbal report, there was much confusion and many were going in different directions. They finally made their way to the other side of town where a farmer led them through the jungle to his home. All 21 spent the night on the farmer’s kitchen floor and were charged 100 pesos each for the sanctuary. The next morning the farmer led them through the jungle to the main road where they were met by regional police who provided transport and escort to the Villa los Mercedes resort arriving mid afternoon. They had also lost all their belongings, forcing some to cancel their entire planned trip. The process of filling out reports and statements now started for them. Our group was given transportation to a local restaurant ‘Don Mucho’ for dinner. It almost felt like a regular party and we all talked about nothing but the events of the past 24 hours. We walked back to the hotel at 9 pm and joined the other 21 tourists in the conference room at 10 pm. Regional Government and OCC bus officials were present. Livia again acted as our translator and main communicator between the groups and the Mexican officials. It was at this time that the three OCC officials asked each of us for our destination and ensured us that we – the 36 tourists who had knowingly been put at risk by them, as Livia pointed out to them in no uncertain terms – would be given a special bus and safe passage to our destinations. We all went to bed feeling grateful for the support we were receiving as our accommodation and breakfasts had been provided for the last two days by the Regional Mexican Government.
The next morning, Jan 10, 2016, a government official drove our group of 15 to the Palenque ruins and covered the cost of the entry fee. We hired a guide for the morning and toured the archaeological site.
We had been told to arrange our own transportation to the bus station in town. Some of the group left us at the resort leaving 6 of us to continue on to the bus station, expecting to be met there by the other tourists. Instead we were met by a female representative of OCC who had been present the night before and privy to the promises of a special bus and safe transport for all of us travelling to Merida, Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. After a heated discussion with her, it became apparent that no such bus or plan was going to materialize. The 6 of us travelled on a regular bus to Villahermosa where 4 transferred to another bus on to Merida and we decided to make our own travel plans not trusting OCC any longer.
We stayed in contact with other members of our group and found out that 4 others were also promised a pick up at the resort that never occurred and were also scuttled onto a local bus to Villahermosa and then on an even lesser quality bus en route to Merida, Cancun and Tulum. It was obvious that the OCC officials wanted to get rid of us as fast as possible. They knew that this town had stopped busses before and that this was potentially a dangerous route. In order to save a few pesos they risked our lives instead of driving an alternate, albeit longer but safer route to Palaneque.
It also became clear to us later on that Bill’s calls to the Mexican embassy and the CBC as well as the alerts the father of Gitte (the Danish woman who was on her Mayan adventure trip) sent out to his connections in the Danish government, resulted in forcing the Mexican and Chiapas governments onto the scene who then dispatched the regional, the federal and the tourist police. Without these calls, I am sure, we would have been ignored or worse, harassed because they did not want to tarnish and impact their tourist industry. This could cost them money.
It took us many weeks and months of retelling the story dozens of times to everybody, to get over the trauma of those 24 hours. Could we have avoided this situation ? Palenque is a popular tourist destination with over 100’000 visitors per year and we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The day before we would have arrived unscathed at our first class resort. The day after, the OCC bus took the longer, safer route and no other tourists were inconvenienced.
Here is the back story as it appeared in the Mexico News Daily on 9th January, 2016:
A six-month-old electoral conflict in Chiapas flared up this week, putting innocent lives at high risk — including those of American and Canadian tourists traveling by bus — and cutting off communications to the small town of Oxchuc.
The election on July 19 last year of Oxchuc Mayor María Gloria Sánchez Gómez has been marked by dissension and discontent ever since.
The mayor and her husband, Norberto Santíz, have been accused of perpetuating a nepotic municipal government, as the two have held the office several times.
Protests against Sánchez’s candidacy continued after the election, and early yesterday those opposed began demonstrating their disapproval once again.
The protesters were subsequently summoned to a meeting with officials, but were surprised on their arrival by a joint operation of army and federal and state police elements, resulting in the arrest of 38 of their number.
It was then the violence began. Dozens of people from Oxchuc donned hoods or balaclavas, armed themselves with sticks and machetes and raided the mayor’s house, pillaging it and setting it on fire.
The main access routes into the town were also blockaded by residents. One of those roads is part of the highway that connects San Cristóbal de las Casas to Palenque, and a busload of unfortunate tourists happened to be passing at the time.
Meanwhile, there are reports from within Oxchuc that at least 15 houses have been burned down, three of which were allegedly owned by the mayor. Three police vehicles and two passenger buses had also been torched.
An article about this has also appeared in Process Magazine in Mexico City