In the early nineties, The Beach of The Dead was little more than a greyish strip at one end of Boca del Rio, Veracruz’ twin city. Its burning sands were covered in spiny scrubs festooned with dead branches and bottles of chlorine that washed up during storms. It wasn’t a very popular or beautiful beach (not that any in Veracruz really fit that description): sometimes – during peak tides or heavy storms – the beach disappeared completely and the waves washed right over the breakwaters and onto the road between the two cities. Local people tended to avoid it: every year dozens of foolhardy souls, from Mexico City mostly, met their deaths in its treacherous waters. Signs hung only a few feet away from the water’s edge forbidding people from swimming while another less literate one read: ‘Danger: poolz’ underneath a lurid drawing of a skull. The powerful current that pushed the river up towards Antón Lizardo Point – home of the Heroica Escuela Naval Militar – burrowed into the breakwaters of The Beach of The Dead, leaving deep rock pools in which a grown man could easily drown.
I was nine when I saw the lights, which glowed like fireflies against the dark sea. The other witness was my brother Julio, who was six and a half. We were digging up the home of a celeste crab with a stick when we noticed a glow in the sky: five bright shining lights hovering over our heads. Then they flew inland, towards the estuary.
“Did you see that?” Julio asked, pointing towards the horizon.
“Of course, I’m not blind.”
“What was it?”
“A spaceship,” I told him.
But when we ran back to the campfire, none of the adults would hear us out. Not even our parents. They refused to listen and shooed us away from the fire and the group sitting around it.
On that Thursday, the eleventh of July, no one was thinking about the Gulf War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall… the fire and brimstone that was shattering Eastern Europe into pieces seemed a very long way away. Another raid by the Sendero Luminoso? People in the south dying of typhoid and dengue fever? No one cared about any of that: Mexico’s eyes were fixed on the skies, waiting for the miracle that would turn the sun into a ring of fire and reduce the moon to a large black circle. The TV showed nothing but shots of the sky and the crowds waiting for the total eclipse in squares, being careful not to look directly at the sun, just as the news had warned them.
In Mexico City, south of the ring road, Guillermo Arreguín was filming the sky from his balcony. He wasn’t interested so much in the eclipse’s climax as the planets and stars that he’d read would shine far more brightly in the untimely gloom. At the critical moment, Arreguín panned to the right. That was when he filmed the ‘shining object’.
That night, the video was being shown on the 24 Hour News channel. By Saturday the thirteenth, an article in La Prensa was describing it as a ‘solid metal object’ surrounded by ‘silver rings’; but the term ‘extra-terrestrial’ wouldn’t make its triumphant appearance until Friday the nineteenth on the programme ‘So… What do you think?’ whose subject that week was the supposed presence of aliens on Earth (the live debate lasted a record eleven hours and ten minutes). On it, a ufologist (as he insisted on describing himself) called Maussán claimed to have collected fifteen additional recordings made by different people during the eclipse. He stated that the videos had been subjected to tests that proved that the ‘object’ recorded in them was indeed a spaceship.
Thus began the UFO craze in Mexico. That summer I learned everything I needed to know on the subject: abductions, conspiracies, the building of the Great Pyramid, crop circles in the UK… All this fascinating information reached me via two sources: the television (or rather Mr Maussán’s videos of Lights in the Sky) and the tons of comic books I consumed each week. When it came to comics I was sickeningly sentimental: I liked Archie, Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck and Condorito and that was it. But the rag I most hankered after at the newspaper kiosk was Semanario de lo Insólito (Amazing Stories Weekly), an anthology of human morbidity, a cult to horror, an uncritical encyclopaedia of doctored photography. Even now, I can recall some of its more eye-catching stories: the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands; the primary school teacher with a third eye at the base of her skull that she used to spy on her pupils; the silhouette of a hanged Judas in the eyes of an ayate basket Virgin Mary; and of course the autopsy of the alien body in the small gringo town of Roswell.
Thanks to all this edifying research I learned at the tender age of nine that the strange light I’d seen on The Beach of The Dead could be nothing else but an interplanetary spaceship crewed by small grey super-intelligent creatures who had managed to circumvent the laws of physics. And that they could well be coming to warn us about a cataclysm that was about to destroy the earth now that the end of the millennium was approaching and people were killing each other and getting involved in stupid wars and spilling oil over poor defenceless pelicans. Maybe they were looking for someone who could understand them, someone to whom they could bequeath their science and secrets. Maybe they were lonely, wandering the cosmos in their plasma and silicon ships on an unending quest to find a welcoming planet, new worlds, new homes and new friends in distant galaxies.
After what we saw on the beach, Julio and I decided that we needed to keep an eye on the sky. Maybe we’d be taken more seriously if we recorded some evidence. The problem was that dad refused to lend us his camera.
“How can you be stupid enough to believe in that rubbish? At your age?” he’d say when he saw us glued to the TV screen trying to decipher the mysterious symbols being left by flying saucers in British wheat fields.
Dad hated Maussán. He couldn’t stand the sight of him, let alone having to hear him repeat his stories over and over again. He threatened to take away the VCR.
“Can’t you see he’s a stoner?”
Poor dad, he just didn’t understand. We felt sorry for him. Mum was different; she and a friend of hers took us back to The Beach of The Dead one night so we could look for the UFO.
There was a full moon and the water reflected the silvery light like a giant mirror. But everything had changed since the last time we were there: the beach was full of people and cars. Dozens of teenage bodies were draped over the breakwaters and piled up around campfires made from the dry scrubs. Their cars packed the sandy parking lot, so close to the shore that the salt water splashed their tires. The murmur of the wind was drowned out by their burping, honking, and Soda Stereo cassettes. Lovers lay on the hoods of their cars, shielding their faces from camera flashes. I saw men from the television setting up steel tripods to film the sky. I saw fat women plowing through the dunes. Whiny little kids with sticky popsicle fingers pointed at the sky asking: “Mummy, when is the UFO coming?”
“This sucks,” Julio exclaimed in disappointment.
Then, without another word, he ran off to play a game of night tag with some other boys. I regarded this as a cowardly betrayal.
A few hours later, I was falling asleep. I went back to my mother and curled up on her lap. Her breath smelled of wine and her fingers of cigarettes. She was talking to her friend about the UFO: apparently lights – red and white ones – could be seen in the distance but I couldn’t keep my eyes open a second longer.
“All this fuss for a narco plane,” said mum.
“But it’s a good excuse for a party,” her friend replied cheerfully.
The first reports of strange aerial activity over the municipalities of Sotavento (Veracruz, Boca del Rio, Alvarado and Tlalixcoyan, among others) date back to 1989. The inhabitants of these rural territories, farmers and ranchers, often saw lights at night. The oldest among them called them witches, everyone else called them light aircraft. They even knew the name of the strip where the planes landed, a stretch of barren scrubland and villainy that was kept under constant surveillance by the army: La Víbora.
It was a plain surrounded by marshes, a natural landing strip. The residents of Tlalixcoyan were used to seeing soldiers on their land: the strip was used by the army for special manoeuvres. So no one was surprised at the end of October, 1991, when gangs of men arrived to clear the scrubland with machetes.
A week later, on the morning of the seventh of November that year, the Army, the Federal Police and a Cessna from Colombia were involved in a bloody skirmish that only just made it past the government censors: members of the 13th Infantry Battalion opened fire on seven federal agents getting out of a King Air in pursuit of a Cessna that had been detected off the Nicaraguan Coast by the US Customs Service. The propeller plane, which was assumed to belong to smugglers, landed on the La Víbora strip at 6:50 in the morning, followed by the federal aircraft. The smugglers, a man and a woman, abandoned it and its cargo of three hundred and fifty-five kilos of cocaine and fled into the undergrowth while two columns of soldiers neutralized the federal agents with a withering burst of fire.
I remember two photos of the incident that appeared in the local newspaper, the Nottiver: in one of them seven men were lying in a row face down on the grass. They were the agents that had been gunned down that Thursday, the seventh of December by elements of the army. Five of them were dressed in dark clothing; the other two were dressed as peasants, although they wore black jackets now dirtied with mud and grass. None of them was wearing shoes.
The second photograph showed someone sitting on the ground with a rifle barrel very close to his face. The man, who was wearing a vest with the Federal Police logo on it, was staring straight into the lens. His tongue was swollen, his lips frozen mid-spasm. He was the only survivor of the massacre.
It was December, or maybe January or February, when I saw those photos in the old newspaper I’d spread out on the floor of the patio to wrap up the dry leaves I’d swept up. It must have been around then – when the north wind blows the leaves from the almond trees – because I had the (daily) chore of clearing the damn things from the patio. I remember seeing the images and reading some of the columns in the crime section spread out on the ground (I also remember asking my mother what ‘rape’ meant that night) but it would be more than a decade before I was able to put the photographs together with the UFO I saw on the beach, a vessel transporting cocaine, not aliens.
The municipal government forbade people from visiting the area during the months following the massacre so I didn’t get back to The Beach of The Dead until late 1992. By then it had lost all its charm. New breakwaters had claimed back more land from the sea and it was swarming with hawkers and tourists: they’d even got rid of the sign with the skull. Years later they renamed it: Beach of The Rings.
I don’t think I ever believed in anything as fervently as I had believed in UFOs. Not the Tooth Fairy or the Headless Horseman (my father told me that he appeared every night at Horn Beach searching for his errant skull, which had been blown off by a cannon) or the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands and especially not Father Christmas or God. It was all your parents, it was all made up by grown-ups.
People who live in the area say that on moonless nights, strange colored lights cross the sky on their way to the plains. But I have no further interest in aliens. That chubby little intergalactic vigilante is no more, just like The Beach of The Dead, and the foolhardy idiots who drowned there.