My Mexican Cartel Mistake
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
It was 2008, I was eighteen years old, and I woke up to explosions firing outside the hostel. First, I’ll give you some background to better understand how I got into this situation.
Growing up in Bozeman, I was good friends with the Garcia family, owners of a local outdoor sports store. They had three sons; all attended a boarding school that was geared toward developing outstanding white-water kayakers. The oldest narrowly missed a world record by two feet in setting tallest waterfall decent, the middle son has won many competitions/awards and is at the forefront of trend setting in the white-water kayaking community, and the youngest, Nate, has followed in his brothers' footsteps paddling Class V white water on a casual basis. Nate introduced me to the kayaking community and can be attributed to how I found myself waking up to explosions in a small Mexican town.
I learned to kayak with Nate Garcia. We took a winter roll class together and after a few years of club kayaking with Wavetrain Kayak Team out of Bozeman, Nate left Bozeman High School to attend World Class Kayak Academy. He came back on semester breaks, telling me all about his trips to South America, Africa, and all over the world where he got to go kayaking after class. Obviously, I begged and begged to go to this wonderful traveling high school that trained their students to become world class kayakers.
I attended the 2008 fall semester of World Class Kayak Academy with Nate and another friend from Bozeman, Eric. In the first half of the semester we traveled from Montana, across Canada, and down the East Coast of the US. In the second half we went all across Mexico. In these travels I became a much better kayaker, but more importantly experienced new cultures firsthand. It broadened my view of the world. I can attribute a lot of my jump into becoming an author to the people I met and the experiences I gained through this incredible experience. Ivan, for instance, is not just one of the main characters in Bond of a Dragon, but was my English teacher at WYKA. The kayaker Ivan is much more peaceful than the dragonrider Ivan.
In 2008 Mexico was two years into the bloody and violent drug wars that still persist to this day. In 2006 the president of Mexico ordered the Mexican military to begin cracking down on drug-related violence caused by the cartels. The day our class tried to cross the US-Mexico border at Brownsville, there was a skirmish between the police and cartel. We were held up for sixteen hours before it was safe to go through. Nearly every town we came to during those two months had military check points where every vehicle was forced to stop, get out, and have the military search them. Most had them on either end of the city or town, but larger cities had them scattered throughout.
Going from my small world view of, extreme sports are everything, to seeing a military presence disrupting the day-to-day flow of everyone in the community gave me a reality check. At the time, I would have never imagined something like that happening in Bozeman or anywhere in Montana. Fights between the cartels and the military were in the news. We would whisper about the possibility of war breaking out in one of the towns we were staying in.
Our class was staying in small town on our way across the center of the country. We’d kayaked our way down the east coast of Mexico and were heading to the west coast. We were staying in this small town, a place that I was feeling pretty safe. It was after a long day of kayaking and we’d eaten and returned to the hostel for a good night’s sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night to explosions sounding nearby. My room had a skylight cut out of the adobe ceiling. I could see flashes coinciding with the loud bangs. I listened for gunfire, waiting to hear the rattle of machine guns. It didn’t come. More explosions sounded overhead, light up the skylight with bright flashes.
I rolled in my bed to face where my roommate, Griff, was sleeping on the other side of the room. “What’s happening?” I asked.
“I don’t know. What was that?” he replied, bolting up from the bed.
More explosions sounded over our heads, flashing lights into the skylight.
“Holy shit!” we winced in unison.
I rolled out of bed and rushed to the door in my boxers. If our sleepy little town was under attack, I was not going be caught lying in bed. Griff was hot on my heels. I cracked the door and peered out into the hallway. I listened for sounds of a raid but didn’t hear them. Thinking it safe, we quickly made our way to the next room over, where Nate and Eric were sleeping. We burst in, “Guys, guys, wake up.” They were already awake and wondering what was happening.
“What’s going on?” Nate asked.
“There’s explosions,” Griff said.
“Sounds like bombs,” I added.
“What are we going to do?” Eric asked.
“Let’s go up on the roof,” I said. Or maybe it was Griff. Or maybe it was Nate. Or Eric. I was so worked up I don’t remember, but someone had the idea.
Opening the door, I listened for gunfire. Not hearing any, we crouched, walking from the room and into the short hallway. Our hostel had an open common space, a tiled square in the middle of the building. At the end of the hallway we looked out at the square. From where we were standing, I could see out to the front gate and into the street beyond. I was expecting to see people running, scared of the explosions and men with guns chasing them down. I didn’t see anyone. There wasn’t even anyone else from the hostel out of their rooms. To our left, there was a staircase leading up from the common space to the flat rooftop above. We quickly scaled it to get to high ground and see what was happening in the town.
When I came onto the roof one of the other teachers was up there. She had the same idea we did. I quickly scanned the surroundings but saw nothing to suggest our town was under attack. No buildings burned, no tanks, or men with guns flooded the streets. “What’s going on?” Eric asked.
Since we had left the rooms, no explosions sounded. She must have gone up right before we came into the square.
We stood on the roof in our boxers, shirtless and chilled, waiting to see where the explosions were coming from.
Suddenly a streak of sparks cut through the night, lighting up the soccer fields to our right. It burst apart in flash of bright light and a resounding bang that exploded high over our heads. It was a firework. I felt a sense of relief followed quickly by a sense of stupidity and ignorance. Our fear was caused by two kids standing in the soccer fields, lighting off fireworks at two in the morning. They set off another mortar that exploded in a flash near the hostel. There was no fight happening with the cartel. I felt ashamed for assuming it had to be violence, but all of us were thankful it turned out to innocent. We stayed up on the roof, watching them for a time, then went back to bed. We were completely safe the whole time. Fear drove us into believing it was an attack. The rest of the semester went as smoothly as everything else. No hiccups.
That experience taught me a lesson about jumping to conclusions, though, considering the state of the drug wars I don’t think we were totally crazy to assume what we did. The fireworks were like flying pipe-bombs, possibly homemade, and definitely not the kind you can buy at stands in the US. They were loud!
That’s the closest I’ve been to believing something horrible that was at my front door. I’m grateful to live a place where the only gunshots I hear are for target practice or in the woods during hunting season.