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Nine Houstonians Robbed In Mexico
DOVE HUNTERS ROBBED AT GUN POINT

By: Dudley Althaus
Courtesy of The Houston Chronicle

MEXICO CITY — Like generations of Texans, nine Houston hunters traveled each autumn into northeastern Mexico's wildlife-rich ranchlands for a few uninterrupted days of shooting game, far removed from the workday world. But that ended abruptly last month after the men were rounded up, robbed and terrorized by well-armed marauders.

The nine were wrapping up an afternoon of white-wing dove hunting about 100 miles south of the Rio Grande when a dozen men, armed with assault rifles, roared into the grain field in pickup trucks. The businessmen, some as old as 76, were forced to kneel on a gravel road or lie spread-eagle in the dirt for more than an hour. The gunmen drank from the Texans' booze supply, kicked several of their victims, and hit several with rifles and shovels, repeatedly threatening them and the Mexican men assisting the hunt. Before driving away, the brigands confiscated cash, shotguns, wedding rings, watches and cameras worth nearly $50,000, the hunters estimate. U.S. sportsmen have long enjoyed northern Mexico's hunting and fishing, spawning an industry that sustains dozens of lodges and feeds the incomes of thousands of ranchers and villagers.

Tourism to Mexico has sharply declined amid the economic downturn as well as worries over the H1N1 flu epidemic and narcotics-related violence that has claimed some 14,000 lives in three years. Despite operating in what many consider to be gangster country, the hunting largely has been immune from trouble — until now. “They were like a bunch of cowboys, Wild West guys,” said Stephen Spencer, 72, a former Harris County constable and reserve sheriff who was in the Oct. 18 hunting party. “When a guy has a machine gun pointed at you, you do what they tell you to do.” Mexican and U.S. officials, as well as hunting promoters and lodge owners, say the assault near Villa de Méndez — a village about 110 miles south of the border at McAllen — is an isolated incident. But the case raises the specter of alarm for the more than 17,000 hunters, many if not most from Texas, who flock each autumn to areas under the sway of the Zeta gunmen of the Gulf Cartel, the organized crime syndicate based in Tamaulipas state.

“I think they wanted us gringos gone and not coming down there,” said Mark Rand, 50, owner of a commercial printing company in Houston, who has hunted in northeastern Mexico for 21 years and says he lost $14,000 worth of equipment in the robbery. “I'm not going back.”

A U.S. consulate spokesman in Monterrey acknowledged receipt of the hunters' complaint about the robbery but said he couldn't discuss details of the case. Neither the U.S. consulate nor the Tamaulipas state government have received any similar reports, the officials said.“People are negative on Mexico already, and people getting robbed is not going to help,” said Dean Putegnat, who owns Rancho Caracol, a hunting lodge near Lake Vicente Guerrero in Tamaulipas.

A NEW PROBLEM

Putegnat, whose family has hunted in Tamaulipas for decades and owns several lodges in the state, said drug-smuggling gangs have never shown any interest in hunters. Putegnat's lodge Web site argues that reports and fears of Mexico's violence are overblown. “This is the first time in my whole life something like this has happened.”

On the other hand, with narcotics smuggling under pressure by the Mexican government's crackdown, cartel criminals and other gangs have diversified into kidnapping, extortion and other crimes in many communities. The Houston men were hunting out of Rancho Acazar, a not-for-profit lodge that until recently hosted nearly 2,000 sportsmen a year. Founded in the late 1950s by partners from Texas, the lodge has closed indefinitely. Business was off before the assault. Hunts were halved this year from the usual 18, and the number of hunters at each outing dropped by a third to fewer than 20. Still, relations with the locals remained good. Hunters routinely passed out candy to children in Méndez and offered seasonal jobs to locals at the lodge and in the field. “They usually don't mess with Americans,” said Jeff Van Wart, 49, a Houston investment banker whose 76-year-old father, Don, has been organizing hunts as one of nine partners in Rancho Acazar since the early 1960s. “That's what we were counting on.”

But this fall, Van Wart said, gunmen had demanded $1,000 to allow Acazar's guests to hunt the season. The hunters began noticing pickup trucks with men parked at the entrances to Méndez, as if watching who came and went. In early October, an Acazar hunting party was forced to a stop outside the village by an unidentified man with an assault rifle. The man angrily told them not to throw candy to the children in the street because it was dangerous. The robbery took place a few weeks later.

THE ATTACK

That Sunday, the nine hunters had driven through Mexican army checkpoints on either end of Méndez about 4 p.m. on the way to the field. Split into two groups, they had been hunting about two hours and were getting ready to quit when the gunmen showed up near sunset. Some of the bandits wore what seemed like police uniforms, the hunters said, and carried military-style portable radios. They gathered the entire hunting party, 20 all together, in a field: “I thought they were police officers at first,” said Rand, who was forced face down into the bed of a pickup truck, atop three Mexican lodge employees with a gunman's foot on his neck. What sounded like a shovel chinked into the earth nearby. He was certain, Rand said, that graves were being dug. Men were smacked with rifles or shovels. “I already made up my mind that if they lined us up like a firing squad they were going to have to shoot me in the back, because I was running,” he said. The man apparently in charge of the gunmen — who spoke English — told Rand to “relax, calm down. The next time you hunt, don't hunt so close to town.” After it was over, they were “whooping and hollering like an old Western,” Rand said. “It was like The Magnificent Seven.” The hunters don't plan to return to Mexico any time soon, if ever. “Until these guys disappear permanently, it isn't safe,” said Don Van Wart, 76, who acts as Rancho Acazar's president. “There isn't anything to stop this from happening again.”
 

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