We always planned to tell the story of our encounter with Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), but we didn’t want to worry our family and friends whilst we were still travelling. We never thought for one moment that our experience in Michoacan would closely relate to an international news story ten months later. After reading the recent headlines, we decided it was time to tell our story.
Vigilante groups in the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan have entered a stronghold of the Knights Templar drug cartel, occupying the main square.
BBC News, 8th February 2014
The video above shows one of the leader’s of the Knights Templar handing out money and perpetuating fear in Tumbiscatio, a town we passed through in Michoacan State.
The Knights Templar cartel emerged in 2011 from the disbanded La Familia Cartel. They are known to control drug trafficking throughout much of Western Mexico, especially in Michoacan state. Until recently, Knights Templar were feared by all and challenged by none. The police do not even go near certain known hideouts in the hills of Michoacan.
We were saddened to hear the recent news of a American motorcycle tourist gone missing in this same region. We hope that he is found not to be a victim of the recently escalated troubles in Michoacan.
Our Story: 20th April 2013
As we sit drinking coffee in the comfort of Lars’ Mum’s house I can see the clouds linger over Bellingham Bay. The pencil-shaded islands across the water are a multitude of grey. I force my mind back to April 2013 and the grey hills transform into the hot, arid mountain range of Michoacan, Mexico.
Our bicycle tour was in its infancy; our Brooks saddles barely broken in. Two weeks earlier we had started our ride from San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato with the plan to ride south to the Pacific Coast.
After descending from the cool comfort of the highlands of Michoacan, we stopped in the small town of Nueva Italia for a greedy cyclist lunch of carnitas (pulled pork tacos), a mouthwatering meat treat found throughout the state of Michoacan.
A couple of hours into our afternoon ride we stopped at a small settlement situated on a crossroads. We were debating whether to turn right off 37 onto a minor road that we could see on the GPS. This would take us on a scenic, mountainous route through Tumbiscatio and onwards to Arteaga. Although my mind was fixated on getting to the coast, I agreed the detour would be fun. Afterall, we were on an adventure.
A few kilometers into our detour, we rolled into the small town of Cupuan del Rio. A young man with a walkie talkie asked us some questions. Our Spanish was not yet good enough to hold a conversation, so we said our goodbyes and carried on without a thought. A few hundred metres later we stopped to buy water and to take a rest in the shade. A black SUV sat watching us. The two men asked us where we were from and where we were going. We explained we were from England and were heading towards the coast. By now we were used to people stopping and asking us inquisitively what we were up to, so again we thought nothing more of it.
That evening we found a quiet, secluded spot and stealth camped without any trouble, except trying to sleep that is! The dirt had soaked up the sun’s rays all day, turning our little tent into a sauna for the night.
We were back on the road by 8:00 am on 21st of April with the sun already beginning to scorch us from behind the nearby hills. We began the sweaty 720 metre ascent up to Tumbiscatio as the heat became more and more intense. We stopped to buy just enough water to make it up the climb with the intention of replenishing food and water in Tumbiscatio.
After a punishing climb in a blistering oven, we reached the north entrance to Tumbiscatio. Another young guy with a walkie talkie was standing at the entrance and this time it was clear that we could not pass. We were told to wait because someone wanted to meet us and ask us some questions. He was friendly but serious.
We waited under the shade of a lonely tree. Ten minutes went by before another black SUV arrived. A man spoke to us through the car window. We got the usual questions; where were we from and where were we going? Lars tried to explain with his then limited Spanish that we came through Nueva Italia and that we were heading through Arteaga towards the coast. He asked if there were any others in our group we said ‘no’. He then asked if we knew anyone nearby; again we said ‘no’. He appeared suspiciously dissatisfied and drove away fast. We were told to wait for someone else.
More cars arrived. This time, it was the same man in the SUV, a Mustang Cobra and another expensive pickup truck. All three vehicles parked strategically around us and three or four men exited each vehicle one by one, about 12 men in total. We realised then, that this was not the inquisitive, friendly greeting to which we had become accustomed.
Several of these men had elaborately decorated guns in holsters at their hips. The sight of the narco bling instantly made me forget my thirst, hunger and exhaustion. One man covered with gnarly tattoos and jewelry spoke to us in English. He looked the part of cliche gangster rapper, except without the smile and his edginess was not an act.
The last man to get out of the car was dressed in black. His T-shirt clung to his body. He was a middle aged man who had been fit in his prime. His stockiness was intimidating but his round paunch gave us the impression that he delegated the grunt work to his minions these days. He was wearing a black mask. His dark, greasy curls poked out from the sides. It was clear that he was in charge. My mind was racing. I was no longer worrying about getting robbed. Thoughts of rape and murder were swimming through my consciousness. We were both petrified.
The man in the mask whispered questions in the ear of the interpreter who in turn, repeated them in English to Lars. I decided to keep my mouth shut.
What business do you have on this road?
Lars explained that we chose this road because it was quieter than route 37 and that it would be a beautiful ride through the mountains. He translated for the masked head honcho who nodded in acknowledgement.
What are you doing in Mexico and how long have you been here.
Lars calmly recalled about our time in Guanajuato with his mother before heading off for our tour south. He asked why his mother had come to Mexico and Lars explained that she was an artist. The boss nodded at the mention of family; I guess even gangsters are sentimental about their mothers.
What do you think of Mexico?
I knew Lars was scared but you wouldn’t have known it. He answered calmly about our love for the food, music and friendly culture. The masked leader nodded once again.
What do you think about the Los Caballeros Templarios?
Lars explained that we had come from far away, so we didn’t know much about them. He finished by saying that, as travellers, we believe in mutual respect for people and their culture. The masked leader nodded at hearing him say the word ‘respect’.
The man in the mask then reached out to shake Lars’ hand. He put his left hand into his pocket and pulled out a big stack of cash. He peeled a few notes from the stack and handed Lars $2000 pesos ($150 USD). He explained via his translator that we were to use this money to buy food and water in Tumbiscatio and that we could pass on through to Arteaga with their protection all the way to the coast. No one would give us any problem from here on out.
Suddenly the mood changed and all the men were smiling and offering us their hands. We were like exotic fish that had swam into their net, only we were caught on a good day so they decided to throw us back in the water. We accepted the money (as if we had a choice!), got back on our bicycles and rode to the only shop in the town for food and water. Once we had refuelled, we politely declined multiple offers to stay for a beer and we quickly made our exit towards Arteaga.
The mood on the road had changed. The SUVs and pickup trucks without license plates that had previously ignored our waves and smiles were now honking their horns and grinning as we passed. It seemed that the narco news spread fast on the secret airwaves around these parts.
The ride onwards to Arteaga was longer and harder than we’d planned for the day, but the adrenaline spurred us on to complete what still remains to be our toughest day of bicycle touring. We finished a final climb up to Arteaga before 5:30pm, after almost 10 hours on the road. The sun was lowering in the sky as our brush with danger rolled over again and again in our minds.
With dirty money to burn, we walked into town for dinner after checking into a hotel. We had an unnerving feeling that we were being watched. Walking past a line of shops we began to feel the ground tremble. Terracotta tiles were falling off the rooftops, goods were falling off shelves and people we looking uneasy. Was it a bomb? It felt like a train was going past but there were no tracks in sight. We heard people exclaiming ‘terramoto’ and ‘temblor’. The 5.8 earthquake we felt in Arteaga that night was like an almost unnoticeable aftershock compared to our lucky escape from one of Mexico’s most notorious narco cartels.
No Pasa Nada
This song was inspired by our experience with the Knights Templar and the recurring stories we heard from the people of Mexico.
No pasa nada is a common saying in Mexico, the literal meaning ‘nothing happens’. I use it in the context of this song to express the lack of justice in their daily lives and the effect it has on family values.