By: Dave Jurasevich
On Saturday, February 24, 1996 Richard Carey, Mark Adrian, Carol Snyder, John Strauch, Eric Beck, Lori Lando, and I crossed the border at Mexicali for a day climb of Cerro Pescadores. Following the DPS Guide, 3rd Edition, we found that recent highway construction on Mexico Route 5 had altered the turnoff for the peak. Referring to the road map in the Guide, the approach we took was via the dirt road 0.1 mile S of KM post 24 (The KM post was missing during our visit). Getting off the highway to the dirt road was difficult because of a high berm along the margins of the road. Anyway, we did manage to get off Hwy 5 just N of the Mexican Rod and Gun Club building to continue our journey to the base of Cerro Pescadores.
Four-wheeling our way to the large sand wash at the eastern base of the mountain (designated "Gap" in the Guide road map), I was forced to stop and help extricate one of our vehicles that bogged down in the heavy sand. While hooking up the tow strap, I picked up some movement out of the corner of my eye. Looking up, I noticed about 8 or 10 heavily armed men materializing from all directions and approaching our location. Kinda' takes your breath away for a second! Their jefe, a fella in his late 30's, began questioning us about our reasons for being there and asking if we had any drugs or weapons in our possession. Having a very limited grasp of the Spanish language (except enough to get into trouble!), I proceeded to tell him we were clean, our only interest being in climbing Cerro Pescadores. After about 15 minutes of discussion, we were comfortably sure they were the Mexican Army and not banditos, and they were fairly comfortable with our story. El Jefe considered his position and made us a deal; we could climb the peak but had to be back to the cars and out of there by 5PM latest. He stressed upon us that it was very dangerous to be in the area after dark and that overnight camping would not be allowed. We agreed to his terms (as if we had room to negotiate!) and promised to be on our way out ASAP. Being a bit cautious about our situation, I told the group to go on without me to the peak. I had done it twice before and felt that someone should stay back with the vehicles for the duration. That done, the group left and I settled down to do some reading and await their return. Within 20 minutes of their departure, about five of the Army soldiers reappeared and began a cursory inspection around the outside of the vehicles. I had asked everyone to leave their keys with me just in case the military did return and want to search the vehicles. I asked if they would like to look inside. They seemed to be satisfied that we had no drugs or guns in our possession, so no vehicle searches were initiated. I breathed a sigh of relief with their decision, since I had a .44 magnum handgun in the camper shell of my truck. I always take it the desert just in case of any trouble, and had it with me the previous seven days in Arizona while peakbagging there. Half-way not remembering, half-way not caring, I took it across the border with me to Pescadores, never imagining it would be a problem. Pretty dumb; being found with a gun in Mexico is a serious offense that usually includes jail time!
Hanging around with a bunch of armed hombres, I figured that it would be best to play the gracious host. I broke out all the cold soft drinks, chips and salsa, sardines, tuna, etc... I had and we proceeded to have a little picnic right there in the sand wash. To their credit, the soldiers displayed great professionalism by turning down my offer of cold beer; they said they couldn't drink while on duty. Boy, I was glad they declined the beer. I just knew that cerveza and young men with machine guns didn't somehow mix. After subsisting on the meager rations provided by the Mexican Army for their ten day tour of duty in the desert, those guys really gobbled up the food I had to offer. All the food gone, I had only one more thing to offer. Pulling out a bunch of Cuban-seed Honduran rolled cigars, I passed them around like a proud father who just had a baby. That was the clincher; those guys and I became best pals. We all sat around in the sand smoking, grinning at each other, grunting out conversation, and exchanging family pictures from our wallets. They got so comfortable with me after a while that one of them handed me his fully loaded machine gun to inspect. There I was, sitting back in a beach chair, smokin' a good stogie, suckin' down a cold one, and resting a 20 round Mexican made machine gun across my lap. Life was good again. If only my friends could see me now!
The soldiers explained that they were on patrol around the entire perimeter of the Sierra Cucapa Range. They did not know the peak by the name Cerro Pescadores, in fact, they looked at me quite puzzled when I used that name. To them it is known as Cerro Iguana, to which I gave them puzzled looks every time they used the name. Their purpose for being there was to intercept local marijuana smugglers and/or aircraft dropping South American cocaine shipments around the mountain. These air drops would be picked up by operatives at night and smuggled across the border to the United States, hence the danger of overnight camping in the area. They pointed to a nearby area and told me they had a Hummer (4WD all terrain vehicle) stashed away in the bushes, ready to pursue the bad guys across the desert if necessary. Their lookout post, visible from the sand wash, was about 300 yards distant to the northwest atop some high rocks. It had a tarp draped over the top of it to shield the sentries from the hot sun, and offered a commanding view of the desert floor. From that vantage point, those guys must have seen us coming all the way from Highway 5. In hindsight, we must have appeared like a bunch of dumb gringos to have so easily fallen into their trap. During most of the time while my friends were away climbing the mountain, the soldiers periodically scanned Cerro Pescadores with my binoculars to catch a glimpse of the climbers and, I assume, convince themselves that these crazy Americans were actually there to do nothing more than trudge up a big rock pile. I was glad to assist by spotting and pointing out the group on numerous instances as they made their way up and down the mountain. It really seemed to add credibility to our being there. The soldiers left about twenty minutes before my friends got back to the vehicles. Knowing that a picture would be proof of our adventure, I convinced one of the soldiers to pose for a photo session before leaving. Corporal Bladimir Flores graciously sat at my picnic table while I composed a shot of him with Cerro Pescadores in the background. Promising to send him the photograph, he gave me his mailing address in Mexicali. No one was searched on their return to the cars and we left the area around 3 PM, exchanging friendly waves and goodbye with our Mexican Army buddies as we drove off.
For the record, I must say that the Mexican Army personnel we encountered that day at Cerro Pescadores were a very decent group of men who acted in a most professional and courteous manner, except perhaps when they allowed me to play with the machine gun. Considering the seriousness of their work, these gentlemen were more than understanding with what I'm sure they felt was a silly request on our part to climb a mountain. We gringos should take a lesson from this encounter and strive to be as hospitable to the locals when traveling in Mexico.
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