By: Mark Fitzgerald
I thought I knew the Philip True story pretty thoroughly. Then I read San Antonio (Texas) Express-News Editor Bob Rivard’s recent book, “Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True.”
Since December of 1998, when the strangled body of True, the Express-News Mexico City correspondent, was discovered in a shallow grave at the bottom of a remote Sierra Madre canyon in Mexico, I followed the story closely and wrote and editorialized frequently about its twists and turns in the Kafkaesque labyrinth that is the Mexican justice system.
But Rivard’s masterful book reveals so much more to the story — in large part because the editor himself had so much to learn about True.
This murder of a U.S. journalist in Mexico seemed especially senseless, even by the standards of a country made one of the most deadly in Latin America for journalists by the rip tides of narcotics and human trafficking, and official corruption.
It was a heartbreaking end for a reporter who had hiked alone into the isolated Huichol Indian country to report on a people who at the end of the 20th century were coming into more frequent contact with modern Mexico. In a memo to editors proposing the reporting trip, he revealed his romantic notion of Huichol life: “A day near a Huichol community is marked by nearly constant sound of children laughing and playing,” he wrote. “This gives them a certain integrity in their being that allows them to welcome in strangers, something the Maya are usually loathe to do.”
But True would end his journey into Huichol country strangled by two strangers who tried to smear his name with constantly changing lies when they were caught.
True’s story proposal concluded: “There is a beautiful story in this. Interested?”
The newsroom never responded, and Rivard reveals in “Trail of Feathers” that he never saw the proposal until after he learned that True had disappeared.
As the book makes clear, it was death that brought the reporter and editor close — and allowed Rivard to see how much the two had in common.
Both had begun their journalism careers relatively late in after abusive childhoods and periods of drift as young adults. True’s childhood, Rivard discovered, was a nightmare of sexual molestation and nearly inconceivable family dysfunction that left him for much of his life a loner seemingly incapable of emotional commitment until his marriage at age 44 to Martha Perez Gonzalez.
Rivard subtly weaves this theme through masterful storytelling of the confounding and frustrating facts of the search for Philip True, his killers, and justice.
Rivard manages to be fair, even charitable, to a cast of characters that strain the quality of mercy in the Lord Himself: a loopy Mexican lawyer who sits on the murderers’ confessions for more than a year, partly out of political ambition; a rich American expatriate who takes up the cause of the killers with a naive belief in Huichol culture that eerily mirrors True’s romanticism; and a Mexican judge who issues a not guilty verdict against all evidence, and just after the rich American has given the killers’ lawyer wads of money with no accounting required.
Rivard undertook his search probably better prepared than any other U.S. editor to deal with Mexico’s police and justice system. He’d been Newsweek’s chief of foreign correspondents when civil wars and rebellions raged in Central America. He had met with every Mexican president since J&243;se L&243;pez Portillo in 1979. At a meeting with the current president, Vicente Fox asks after his wife and children by name.
But his hope is continually dashed by Mexico’s far-from-magic realism.
“What separates us [the U.S. and Mexico] today,” Rivard writes, “more than distrust or our history of intervention, is that Mexico is not a nation with the rule of law. It is a country where justice is the exception to the rule, where people are preyed on by the very forces that exist to protect them.
“Mexico, like True, needs to find a way to put together the pieces of its broken soul.”
When Rivard’s book was published in October, the killers of Philip True — Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and his brother-in-law, Miguel Hernandez de la Cruz — were convicts, sentenced to 22 years each in prison. But they were not in prison then, and they’re not in prison as I write this on Jan. 17, 2005, seven years after they killed True for reasons ultimately known only to themselves.
At the very end of book, Rivard notes that True’s body was discovered because the killers and one of their wives had dragged it away from the murder site by placing it on True’s sleeping bag. A trail of feathers led searchers to the shallow grave.
“A trail of feathers follows the killers everywhere they go,” Rivard concludes his book, “even into their dreams.”
Perhaps. But I think Rivard may have gotten deeper at the truth a few pages before, when he speculates on the reasons Huichol leaders, having heard the men’s murder confessions in a spiritual ceremony, kept the information to themselves. He allows himself one of the few bitter asides in the book: “Perhaps it takes a village to conceal a murder and hide a corpse.”
Rivard’s absorbing “Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True” is published by PublicAffairs. Information is available at www.publicaffairsbooks.com.