The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 20, 1994
birdwatcher for rebel
Marcos? A flight of fancy!
OCOSINGO, Mexico - Peter Bichier
Garrido said he was an ornithologist. The Mexican government said he was
the mysterious Commandante Marcos.
Apparently all because Bichier speaks several languages and has green
In the two weeks since a rebellion broke out in southern Mexico,
Bichier has been threatened by interrogators who thought he was concealing
computerized rebel information, and he has seen most of his belongings
carried off by Mexican soldiers.
"I'm just a birdwatcher," said Bichier, 30, a Venezuelan who
works for the Smithsonian Institution Migratory Bird Center in Washington.
Bichier's misfortune began on Jan. 1, when guerrillas calling
themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army invaded Ocosingo, a
bustling town perched on the edge of the Lacandon Forest, North America's
last remaining tropical rain forest.
For two years, Bichier and other Smithsonian researchers have been
studying the warm, lush lowlands surrounding Ocosingo, which is the winter
habitat for dozens of North American and Canadian songbirds.
It is also the full-time home of the nascent Mexican guerrilla
"Everybody around here knows us as the bird guys," said
Bichier, who is given to wild arm gestures to punctuate his remarks. When
the guerrillas entered town on New Year's Day, Bichier and the other Latin
American researchers knew instinctively what to do: hide the valuables.
Their most important possession was a personal computer containing two
years of bird counts, insect data and behavioral observations.
"It was all of our research, worth thousands and thousands of
dollars," he said.
Bichier wrapped the computer in plastic and buried it in the back yard.
Four days later, when the fighting was dying down and the Mexican army
had taken up posts around the researcher's house, Bichier and his
colleagues left Ocosingo to take some of the researchers to an airport so
they could leave the country.
Bichier was driving back to the research station alone in his white
pickup truck when he was stopped at an army roadblock.
Bichier matched the description of a rebel called Commandante Marcos
who had led the guerrilla takeover of the tourist town of San Cristobal de
las Casas. Bichier, like the infamous Marcos, had green eyes and light
skin, and was tall, handsome and multilingual.
"I knew I was in trouble," said Bichier, who speaks three
languages - his parents are French, he grew up in Venezuela and he studied
biology in Colorado.
They drove him off to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas.
There, the questioning became harsher as interrogators from the army
handed him off to detectives from the attorney general's office who then
handed him off to two leather-jacketed bruisers who identified themselves
as public security police.
They refused his requests to use a telephone. They tied his shoelaces
together and talked of taking him to "a park where not too many
people can hear him scream." They talked about dumping his body in a
"I was really nervous," said Bichier. "They never hit
me, but it was very intense. I really thought I could be
Then they came across the computer disks that Bichier carried - copies
of the information he had buried in Ocosingo.
"They kept waving the disks at me and yelling, 'What is the access
code?' " Bichier told them the information was a bird census that
could be read by any personal computer.
"They yelled again, 'You must really think we're stupid. Give us
the access code.' "
Finally, without explanation, they released him. "Well, that's it.
Good luck," they said. They gave him back his truck.
Bichier tried to return to Ocosingo, but the army blocked the road. For
seven days he stewed in San Cristobal de las Casas, convinced the military
would stumble across the computer buried in his back yard.
Last week, the government reopened the road to a bullet-pocked Ocosingo.
Bichier returned to the stone house he shared with several other
He was stunned at what he saw: Four uniformed soldiers were scurrying
out the back door. One carried a bowl of beans. Another had a stereo
speaker tucked under his arm.
"They said the Zapatistas had looted my house," said Bichier.
"And I said, 'What are you? Zapatistas?' "
Inside, the house was a jumble of empty beer bottles, overturned
furniture, scattered clothes. Gone was all the electronic equipment,
camping gear, music cassettes and film. The researcher's files and
photographs were scattered and soiled.
The looters had painted graffiti throughout the house to make it appear
as though the Zapatista National Liberation Army had passed through. They
painted Bugs Bunny on the wall, with the words "I love you" and
"Bad Rap." They also misspelled "Zapatista."
But in the end, Bichier said, it doesn't matter. Deep in his back yard,
beneath the shrubbery, he found the buried personal computer, undisturbed.
The data were intact.