The Failure of the International Press
January 16, 2008
I don’t like to be unduly critical of the media, having some connection with them, but enough is enough. Particularly they fail to cover Latin America well, as evidenced by their inattention to what has been going on here in Central Mexico.
I live on the shores of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico, roughly on the latitude of Mexico City but to the west. The region is fairly heavily populated with several towns along the northern shore—Chapala, Ajijic, San Juan Cosala, and Jocotepec. The lake is too contaminated for swimming, but is an attraction for the many North Americans who retire here. It’s a tranquil place. Nothing happens here. Usually.
Just over a year ago, a rumor spread that dogs were disappearing. (No, I don’t think that vanishing dogs in Central Mexico warrant international media coverage. Wait.) No big deal, I thought. Rumors abound in most places. Dogs wander off. When Mexicans tire of an animal, they are likely to dump it miles away in the countryside. If the neighbors weary of its barking, they will sometimes poison it, whereupon it crawls off and dies in the hills. In short, a missing dog is not news.
But they kept disappearing.
One day little Pablo Perez, the six-year-old son of the woman who ran the taco stand Saturdays on Ajijic’s plaza, was walking his pooch along the shore of the lake. The kid was at least borderline retarded, but he was a familiar sight around town. I saw him occasionally and gave him a couple of pesos for candy. Anyway—I got this third-hand at Tom’s Bar and so didn’t give it much credence—Pablo apparently came running home, sobbing, without his dog.
His mother was quoted as saying that Pablo had said, “Mi perro! Mi perro! La lagartija se lo comio!” My dog, my dog, the lizard ate it. Which was absurd. A lagartija is about six inches long. And Pablito wasn’t quite right in the head. The dog was gone, however.
A writer for El Ojo del Lago came and asked perfunctory questions. El Ojo is the local freebie cage-liner that exists to sell real estate. It is distinguished chiefly by having the worst writing in Western Christendom. Maybe it counts as press. Barely.
For some time nothing else happened. Pablito returned to normal, though he said he didn’t want another dog. For a while he refused to go near the lake, but got over this too. At Tom’s conversation went back to football and NASCAR. So far, the business of vanishing dogs was just small-town chatter.
Mexicans, the lower classes anyway, are on the superstitious side and began keeping their dogs away from the lake as best they could. Whether they really believed that something untoward was happening along the shore, I don’t know. They enjoy believing in the garish and frightening, as for example the Chupacabras, the Goat Sucker, that was supposed to be draining the blood from goats in Puerto Rico.
The Chupacabras began to appear prominently in grocery-store newspapers in San Juan. Then there were TV specials reporting sighting of space aliens with huge red eyes who, by implication, were Chupacabras. The same thing happened with the Narcosatanicos of northern Mexico, who also didn’t exist, which didn’t bother the Mexicans at all.
Then Pablito disappeared.
He had gone for his usual walk along the lake, his mother said, and hadn’t come back. At first, nobody was greatly upset. Kids disappear all the time, and show up at a friend’s house, watching television. But Pablito didn’t come back. The affair was no longer funny.
The towns along the lake don’t have real police, just traffic cops who will get your cat out of the tree if need be. Small towns are not hotbeds of crime. At any rate the locals had no capacity to investigate the genuine disappearance of a child.
Some real cops came in from Guadalajara. It wasn’t really their jurisdiction, but somebody had to find that kid.
They talked to people, heard about the vanishing dogs, and came up with an ugly but disagreeably plausible suspicion. Serial killers are not common in little burgs if only for statistical reasons, but they exist in Mexico as much as anywhere. The Matamoros murders are an example. The killers often begin as young kids by killing animals before moving on to bigger game, so to speak. Jeffry Dahmer murdered dogs. The cops began asking about young men who seemed odd. The case began to get national if sensational coverage.
Then Elisa Gonzalez, who tended bar at El Barco, another local watering hole, didn’t come home one night. This time, however, there was a break, though hardly a welcome one. A fisherman found a bloody woman’s shoe on the shore, next to some curious tracks that scared him witless. He ran to the police station on the plaza with the news. The Guadalajara detectives came to look.
There were indeed strange clawed tracks, and slither marks leading to the water. The detectives were baffled. If it had happened in the hills, a rare big cat might have done it, though they were thought extinct. This made no sense at all. At this point I got interested, told the cops that I had been a police reporter in the States, and would they keep me apprised. Sure, they said.
A retired zoologist, Dr. William Kemper, lived in one of the gated gringo enclaves hereabouts. He asked to see the tracks and pronounced them unmistakably those of a huge alligator. This also made no sense. There are no alligators in the region, and never have been. I would have said the climate was wrong for them, but I’m no alligator expert. The idea was nuts, zoologist or no.
The Mexican press went crazy with florescent national coverage, mostly inaccurate. The US ignored it. I’ll bet you have never heard of the case.
Some herpetologists flew in from the University of Florida. One of them, Jim Reznick, read Fred on Everything—it always surprises me when that happens—so I had an in. He said nothing made sense. Except that perhaps a gringo had brought a small pet alligator, which are sold in Guatemala as souvenirs, and released it in the lake. But that didn’t explain the size. And anyway, nobody had actually seen the beast. Nobody alive, anyway.
He said something about somatic-cell holomutation brought on by the contaminants in the lake, but looked doubtful. This was near science fiction, and he knew it.
So that’s where it stands. I’m going out tomorrow in a launch to see if I can find a trace of the creature, but frankly I don’t believe it exists. But then—what ate Pablito?
Last known photo of Fred, who vanished while researching a story. In the future the column will be continued by channeling.