You may need to take Richard Grant’s Bandit Roads with you if you venture into Mexico’s lawless Sierra Madre
Bandit Roads: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre
2008, Little, Brown
289 pages, hardback
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
ALBERT CAMUS said that what gives value to travel is fear, and Richard Grant’s initial objectives in venturing into the arid, craggy graveyard that is northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre certainly lived up to that premise.
The author set off with so many warnings by hoary ol’ whiskey-slugging cattle pokes that he would be killed ringing in his ears that it is hardly surprising he spent much of the trip suffering insomnia.
The remarkable product of Grant’s self-induced terror, like its classic predecessor and namesake, Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, is much more than a travel book based on a bemused Englishman’s detached observations about an alien culture. It is the most revealing exploration yet of the way of life of ordinary people in the hyper-macho and profoundly dysfunctional world that is held in the grip of drug-trafficking warlords well beyond the reach of Mexico’s beleaguered state.
That is because, unlike the product of Greene’s poorly disguised, almost racist, disdain for other cultures deriving from his very colonial demeanour, Bandit Roads is written by a man without apparent prejudice and blessed by a remarkable ability and desire to communicate with ordinary people. Grant, unlike Greene, goes prepared to honour the code of the mountain men if they prove themselves deserving … the trouble is, they do not.
As a result, Bandit Roads is a compelling treatise on machismo – all the more convincing for having been written by a man. Time and again, it is the corrosive, destructive, chauvinistic and ignorant behaviour of Mexican men living in a nirvana of impunity that forces the writer off the road in his sincere odyssey to find some merit in their way of life. Grant writes:
“Most long journeys have their sour, depressive times and mine arrived with a vengeance in Baborigame. I was tired and run down and my body ached all over from being rattled and jolted. The constant breaking down of the Suburban wasn’t helping, but what I really lost tolerance for, as I chauffeured Isidro on his rounds, met his friends and dodged his enemies, was Mexican machismo. I came to hate it with as much venom as the most strident lesbian feminist. It was the root of the worst evil in Mexico, I decided, the real reason why men killed each other and raped women in such horrifying numbers.” [p. 251]
A combination of adventure and curiosity found the writer – winner of the 2004 Thomas Cook Travel Literature award for Ghost Riders – journeying through various sections of the rugged 900-mile mountain range covering parts of the Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa, where bloodthirsty bandits, warring mafias and billionaire narcos control some of the world’s largest areas for cultivating marijuana and opium. This landscape has spawned many legends whose red dust – before the white dust of the drugs trade became such big business – attracted the makers of westerns from Hollywood and beyond. Today it is one of the most lawless parts of the Americas, where the writ of the Mexican state is written in tiny letters – mainly on death certificates.
Grant’s experiences and observations are full of extremes – the stuff that makes a good read great, yet the author recounts the horrors and excesses he encounters with empathy and humour that belie the fact that, like his subjects, self-doubt or even self-hatred fuelled the bouts of intoxication that, at times, gave this journalist-adventurer such insight, making this a kind of contemporary Fear and Loathing played out in the wilderness of Mexico.
Those experiences take the reader on a colourful journey through the Sierra’s diverse communities that is sprinkled with just enough historical background to inform.
The Sierra topography is so harsh that it became the final refuge of the marauding Apaches who were still raiding Mexican homesteads into the 1930s and eventually preferred extinction to assimilation, clearly living by the maxim that it’s better to die standing than live on your knees. Not surprising, given the appalling atrocities committed against them by Mexican landowners and officials.
Grant encounters little-known indigenous tribes so reserved and laconic that they hardly speak and Tarahumara Indians whose remarkable capacity for long-distance running is matched only by their prowess as boozers.
He investigates the bloody Tomochic rebellion, a precursor to the Mexican Revolution, and the life of Pancho Villa, whose expansive charisma and compassion for the peasants was matched only by his appetite for rape and murder.
The region has long been a haven for US outlaws cantering across the border “for their health” and intrepid adventurers such as those from as far as Norway who had blazed a trail into the mountains many years before. The author meets Mormons and Mennonites; searches for a legendary horde of gold buried on an outcrop; and runs into liberal American eco-warriors bravely trying to save the last remaining forests.
Grant ends up glugging cerveza with Mexican cops who snort cocaine openly and would-be cops who offer to sell visitors rocket-propelled grenades, popular among the locals for bringing down army helicopters.
The AK-47 – the so-called cuerno de chivo – has become as emblematic a symbol of power and potency among these men as the Mexican flag, and it is no surprise that stories of violent death fuelled by drug-trafficking, feuds and the hunger for vengeance, recounted from behind 1,000-yard stares, abound in Grant’s travels. The murder rate in some of the small Sierra communities is eight to 10 times that of the most homicidal US cities, and that’s after a period of relative calm. Only in Mexico would Rosary-chanting viejitas place Smurf stickers on the eyes of Christ’s effigy, “because Our Lord has seen enough suffering”.
While the writer is the recipient of many kindnesses along the way, what is particularly revealing from his accounts is the blind hypocrisy of the Mexican macho, almost synonymous with the Sierra Madre. For alongside the recurrent encounters with moustachioed men in shades whooping as they drive in circles around the Sierra’s long-suffering pueblos while they sip the mind-altering tesguino in the cockpits of exaggerated land cruisers, Grant uncovers tales of cross-dressing bandits and gay and bisexual narcos who spend their time cruising for a very different reason. Hyper-machismo, it would seem, conceals a feminine side, giving a whole new meaning to the term pistolero.
Predictably enough, towards the end of the book Grant finds himself fleeing a murderous band whose desire to kill the foreigner for no other reason than drunken sport recalls Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. It’s a fitting end to a story in which death is as close to the surface of life as it is ever likely to get.
It’s certainly not going to win any awards from Mexican tourism authorities, and whether you choose to use Bandit Roads as your essential travel guide next time you decide to backpack in the country’s badlands is up to you. But take it with you anyway … at the very least it should stop a bullet.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books