By: Mark Fitzgerald

Americas Extra Looks At Philip True’s Murder

CHICAGO – Philip True came late to journalism. He was a
wallpaper hanger well into his 30s when he began a newspaper
career that earned him, at age 50, the post of Mexico City bureau
chief for the San Antonio Express-News. Not that he hung
around the city’s diplomatic circles much: True preferred
reporting the Mexico lived by the slum dweller or the rural

That impulse led him to hike alone into the remote Sierra Madre
Occidental mountains to
photograph and write about the insular society of the Huichol

“There is a beautiful story in this. Interested?” True had
written in his story proposal to Express-News Editor Robert Rivard.

What followed was not a beautiful story. After True went nearly
two weeks without contacting his pregnant wife, Martha, Rivard
organized a search party. On Dec. 16, 1998, they found True’s
decomposing body in a shallow grave. Two Huichol Indians –
Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and his brother-in-law, Miguel Hernandez
de la Cruz – were arrested when True’s backpack, camera, and
binoculars were found at their ranch. They confessed to
strangling the journalist, saying they were angry he was taking
photographs of sacred land.

Two years later, Chivarra and Hernandez remain in jail – but
justice appears farther away than ever. Three judges and three
prosecutors have shuffled in and out of the case, and each time
someone new arrives, the case goes back to square one. The
accused have changed their story twice.

Rivard’s meetings with Mexican authorities have repeatedly raised
– and dashed – his hopes. The entire frustrating story
is documented on the paper’s True memorial site (

Two weeks ago, Rivard tried another tack. Following the tradition
of ordinary Mexicans who press their written requests for justice
into the hands of a visiting president, the Express-News
published an open petition to new Mexican President Vicente Fox.

“Sr. Presidente Fox,” Rivard wrote, “demand that the state
officials conclude their work and bring the case to an honest
conclusion. The evidence is in, the suspects have long been
detained, and our worries now even include their welfare and
civil rights, even as we wrestle with the pain of their actions.”

Fox, whose election ended 71 years of one-party rule, appears to
be listening. Indications are that Rivard and Martha True will
meet with the president within a few weeks.

“I think this is a big test for Mexico,” Rivard said. “There’s no
question this is a case with international and bilateral
implications. It’s important as well for showing how the Mexican
press will be treated. There is only one American, but there are
many cases of [murdered] Mexican journalists, and these cases are
largely unresolved even though many times the intellectual author
is known. It’s a very opportunistic moment for the new president
to declare that Mexico is a land of law – and not a lawless land.”

Mark Fitzgerald ( is editor at large for E&P.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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