Scarpa North America Blog

El Potrero Chico: Climbing Among The Cartel

Apr. 11th 2013

SCARPA Regional Athlete, Sam Magro, spent time earlier this year in El Potrero Chico, a popular climbing spot in Mexico. While there, the tragic mass kidnapping and murder of 17 members of a Mexican mariachi band occurred. In his post below, Magro recounts the details of that horrifying event and how he found solace in the rocks surrounding him.

This past fall I contemplated several options for an early winter rock trip to offer up a little break from the cold days of ice climbing in Hyalite. I was offered a great guiding trip to El Potrero Chico, Mexico and my decision was made to tag on a few extra days before and after to climb on my own.

I had not visited this winter climbing paradise since 2005. In my mind’s eye there remained visions of top notch limestone cliff bands ranging from 100’ to 2,000’, a giant winter sun warming my shirtless back, 3 tacos for a dollar, friendly stray dogs, and tranquil camping. After a bit of research on the recent activities of the Mexican Cartels I felt it was safe enough to visit this Mecca of sport climbing, I didn’t think that the violence would end up being so close…

Magic Ed, as he is called, picked us up from the airport to drive us the 45 minutes to the town of Sabinas Hidalgo and then the final 3 km to El Potrero. Our cardinal direction of travel changed from west to south and there lay the 2,000’ limestone walls of this impressive cirque that I had not seen since 2005. I asked Ed about routes on that north side, particularly one with quite and alluring name “El Sendero Illuminoso”. He did not speak too highly of it but did mention a new route that had just been bolted to the left that was said to consist of 1,200’ of sustained technical 5.11s and 5.12s. The first ascender, a German fellow, had since left and was coming back to get the FFA on his route in a few weeks. I hoped he would do so soon so that I may be able to touch my fingers on to that nice looking line. We pulled up to our stop and just like that less than 8 hours from leaving Montana in the midst of winter I was now in the warmth of northern Mexico.

El Potrero Chico is about as close as it will ever get to a traditional vacation for me. Slow mornings, followed by a short walk with a light pack to endless high quality sport climbs, with an option to purchase margaritas as you leave the canyon each day. Climbing in sunny Mexico was going great, I never had to wait on weather, and the rack was “heavy” when you had over 15 quick-draws. Approaches were close, the short routes were of high quality, and the longer routes also offered a little something more when I tired of the cragging each day.

On rest days I’d walk the 30 minutes to town to purchase one liter of fresh squeezed orange juice for $1.60 along with several tacos for 30-40 cents each. I was eventually granted the use of a bike for having repaired 3 of the others that were in disrepair. With the wheel on my side and solid climbing partners things were looking up.

Then life’s curve ball came in hot. One night while bedding down I heard the sweet sound of a cumbia band rocking out on the other side of the wash some 300 meters from where I was camped. The sweet rhythm and beats tempted me to go join the festivities but thankfully I opted to lay low.

That next morning as I partook in my ritualistic cup of black coffee I noticed an uneasy nature in the folks who ran the place along with two girls who had rather worried looks on their faces. Word spread quickly that the entire band of 18 people was missing. Eighteen people missing? I couldn’t quite wrap my head around that one and so I figured they might have gone on a jaunt into the desert late at night. As a gringo who lives in a relatively safe bubble of Montana I could not imagine what had actually occurred. Though I think many of the locals of the area knew that once again the cartels had left their mark, and along with that an ever deepening fear in the general population.

We continued to climb each day as the level of police presence grew as did the number of saddened-faced family members hoping to find answers. The highs of each climbing day and the lows drawn from each reminder of the missing people was quite the dichotomy of emotions. One minute I was climbing, lost in the presence of the stone and the next I would turn around to see military trucks loaded with soldiers and gun turrets with the occasional helicopter flying overhead. I began to realize the seriousness of the situation. It is not easy to hide 18 people and I began to doubt they had survived.

The news spread fast. The police had found 17 of the 18 band members murdered and thrown in a well less than 20 minutes from the site where they were abducted. Word spread that these musicians had also played for a competing cartel in this land ruled by the gun. As a message to the masses not to play on both sides of the fence these 17 people were murdered. It is one thing to read about the tragedies of the world and a completely different one to be right in them. Knowing that there were groups of people with such disregard for life in this town I had formerly thought to be peaceful was enough to make me feel a bit uneasy to say the least. So maybe they would have no reason to kill a gringo, but did they really have that good of a reason to kill a group of people who create music for others?

My mind drifted to Montana where murders were few and far between. Where my worries on climbing trips consisted of mammals far less frightening than the human and in fact most dangers are relatively predictable or at least you know what you are getting yourself into. I thought of the book, “Blood Meridian” and how people can become numb to murder; I wondered about all the wonderful Mexicans I had met who had no choice but to coexist in an area dominated by a group that used murder and fear to control the masses. I knew this issue was far deeper than what I could see. I spoke with locals each day inquiring how it was to live in Hidalgo. I wrote in my book: “I spoke with Fernando (a local 18 year old kid) last night, or more so I listened as he told me about life in Hidalgo among the corrupt police and powerful cartel members. The local police force had been recently dissolved because they were entirely run by the cartel. In a town where work can be hard to come by, it becomes very easy to convince young kids to get involved with the local and national gangs; that is, it provides them with an all-too-tempting opportunity to make some money. As an entry level informant one can make 2.000 pesos (US $160) a week. All you need to do is stay in one locale and inform the cartel if the federal police drive by your post. The catch: you can’t get out when you want to, you have essentially made a deal with the devil.

Those next few days I wrote a lot and climbed as much as ever to keep my mind clear of the putrid death that seemed to linger in the air. I almost felt guilty that I could be enjoying myself at such a time. But what else can one do other than keep on?

I began to tire of this scene and only had four more days ‘til I was back home in Montana, which sounded like a haven at this point in the trip. While climbing one morning there was a German couple on the route next to us. We began to chat and he mentioned that he just returned from traveling around in southern Mexico. He spoke highly of all the people he came across and of the areas he had visited. I related to his stories, as I had once driven a car from Montana to southern Mexico and had nothing but positive experiences, which was a refreshing thought in the midst of recent happenings on this visit.

As we spoke I put a few clues together and thought this may be the fellow who bolted that new line on the north side of El Potrero. When I inquired he said, “Yes, I am hoping to find someone to go get the FFA with me. Are you interested?”

I responded without hesitation that I would be psyched to head that way. After two weeks of cragging and guiding, I longed for something more and this seemed like the perfect outing. We cragged together the following day, both acknowledging the fact that the other had been at this game for over a decade. He insisted on belaying me with a munter and though I rarely use this hitch, I saw no reason to object.

We planned to meet the next day at 7am, and knowing how punctual Germans are I attempted to arrive early, which ended up being right on time. With two ropes and fifteen quickdraws we strolled up to the base of what Jens had named “Prisionero del Cielo.” It was a frigid morning; we were on the north face, and the wind was blowing briskly. We figured it would warm up, although I can’t say I ever really had too many moments of warmth throughout the day. But it didn’t matter; it felt good to be a bit uncomfortable after having so many days in the sun. The climbing proved to be quite beautiful and the bolting job that Jens had done was perfect. I would hesitate to call it a sport climb, but more a bolted alpine climb. At times the bolts were 20’ apart and we needed slings to keep drag down; every pitch was around 50 meters. Jens had been developing routes for nearly 25 years and it showed. He picked a glorious line. The climbing was sustained at 5.11/5.12- technical water runnel pulling with a few steep powerful sections. Pitch after pitch we climbed without falling, happy that the other was in fact proving to be a competent climber on our first big outing together. The fact that a fall would mean lowering down, pulling the rope and re-leading the pitch, added incentive to hold on. 1,100 feet later we pulled onto the summit tower having established the FFA of “Prisionero del Cielo” or Prisoner of the Sky (1,100’, 5.12-).

Looking down, our route revealed beautiful stone and a day of great climbing. As my glance moved a bit upwards I could see the house where the musicians last played, the town of Sabinas Hidalgo, and the distant town of Mina where their bodies had been discarded in the well by the unknown cartel members.

These sights brought me back to the twisted reality that I had temporarily left out of my conscious all throughout that day. I recalled that this is indeed one of the things I have always loved most about climbing; it demands your complete presence of mind and action, which leaves no room for thinking about the past or the future. In certain moments, they line up just perfectly and that is the moment I think I always seek. Having found that connection with the rock, the day, and a new friend after such a wild trip brought closure to it all.

I shook the recent thoughts out of my mind and went right back into the familiar: coiling the ropes, threading through the rap rings, loading the belay device, unclipping from the anchor and pushing off and down a vertical face.

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