Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 20, 1994
Mexicans mistake birdwatcher for rebel
Commandante 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 eyes.

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 movement.

"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 river.

"I was really nervous," said Bichier. "They never hit me, but it was very intense. I really thought I could be disappeared."

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 Smithsonian scientists.

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. home page   
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