The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 15, 1994
victim to Mexican uprising
A girl is
dead. Her American husband is accused. Rebels freed him.
NAJA, Mexico - In this ageless
Mayan community, the ill will toward Leo Bruce grew like the mountain of
empty tequila bottles and bent beer cans outside his house.
Bruce, 29, an American anthropologist, adopted the Lacandon language,
wore Lacandon clothes and, two years ago, married the adolescent daughter
of the Lacandon chief. But he never really fit in with the community he
hoped to portray in a documentary film.
While his Lacandon Indian neighbors lived in dirt-floor huts where
women baked tortillas over smoky wood fires, Bruce lived in a hacienda
built on stilts, where he played adult videos on television and prepared
snacks in an electric popcorn popper.
He was aggressive. They were passive. But the Lacandons said they
tolerated his aggression, which was increasingly aimed at his wife, Nuk
On Aug. 5, Nuk died from a massive skull fracture. She was 15. Mexican
police arrested Bruce several hours later and charged him with beating the
girl to death.
It was the first murder case that anybody could recall in Naja, a
village tucked deep in a vanishing rain forest, populated by about 400
descendants of a Mayan group that largely escaped the advance of
civilization until recent decades.
"These things do not happen here," said Chan K'in Quinto, 25,
the brother of the victim. He appeared puzzled when asked what the
Lacandons would do if an Indian beat his wife to death.
Bruce was jailed. His trial was under way in Ocosingo on Jan. 1 when
rebels from the Zapatista National Liberation Army launched a rebellion in
the southern state of Chiapas.
The guerrillas attacked government facilities, including several state
prisons, in four cities. They freed all 120 inmates from the Ocosingo
Bruce disappeared without a trace.
This is a story about how a young girl fell victim to a clash of two
cultures, and how the pursuit of justice fell victim to a peasant
Ironically, Bruce was freed by rebels who say they are seeking a state
where the rule of law is applied more fairly to Indians.
"It's so frustrating," said Martha Figueroa Mier, an attorney
for a women's organization in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas.
Figueroa had helped prosecute the case because of her group's interest in
"This involves a kind of cultural abuse, since Leo Bruce knew all
about their culture but they didn't know about his," said Hector
Ortiz Elizondo, an anthropologist for the National Indigenous Institute in
Mexico City, which also got involved in the case.
The chances of further prosecution appear dim. There's no defendant,
and the trial record must be reconstructed: the Zapatistas burned most
documents in the Ocosingo courthouse.
What's more, the array of government officials who took a special
interest in the case - the governor of Chiapas, the state attorney general
and all his prosecutors - have resigned as part of the tremendous
political upheaval that has torn apart the Mexican government since Jan.
"The whole government is being cleaned out," said Jorge
Trujillo, the private secretary to the new Chiapas attorney general. He
said the government was in such disarray that it had not yet searched its
archives for the names of the prisoners who escaped, much less launched a
hunt for the fugitives.
Certainly Bruce's family hopes the case fades away.
"There is a chance Leo was killed in the conflict and is one of
the nameless dead," said Bruce's uncle, Robert D. Bruce, 60, a
linguist who worked with the Lacandons for four decades before introducing
his nephew to the group.
He said he has not heard from his nephew since the jailbreak.
The elder Bruce contends his nephew is innocent, the victim of an
elaborate frame-up orchestrated by a rival anthropologist, a feminist
lawyer and dissidents within the Lacandon community. He contends that the
girl died in an accidental fall.
"This is a family matter," he said in an interview at the
prestigious National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City,
where he works. "It shouldn't be spread about in the mouths of
Robert Bruce has spent his entire academic career studying the
Lacandons. He translated their language and wrote several books about
Lacandon religious practices and the significance of their dreams.
Like many scholars over the years, he was attracted to the Lacandons
because they are one of the few Mayan groups that still worship the
traditional religion that revolves around nine Mayan gods.
The Lacandons managed to avoid Spanish domination and conversion to
Christianity by retreating deeper into the dense jungle. They hunted with
bows until the 1950s. The men still wear shoulder-length hair and plain
But with modern times came roads, electricity and outside visitors.
Giant mahogany trees were felled, replaced by television antennas and even
a few satellite dishes. The Indians still make bows and arrows, but now
they sell them to tourists.
"They kept running away from civilization, but civilization kept
catching up with them," said Will Hoffman, the cultural director of
Casa Na Bolom, an institute in San Cristobal de las Casas devoted to
studying the Lacandons.
Robert Bruce established what other anthropologists say was an
extraordinary rapport with the community's spiritual leader, Chan K'in
Viejo, over the last four decades. The elder man taught Robert Bruce the
Mayan language. Some say he treated him just like a son.
"Robert Bruce was a very good friend," Chan K'in, a gnarled
man in his 90s, said after he slowly hoisted himself into a hammock in his
dimly lit house, a structure built of uneven wood planks where cobwebs,
metal pots and a few drying roots hung from the rafters.
Robert Bruce first introduced his nephew to the Lacandons 15 years ago.
Leo came to Naja to stay about three years ago. He was preparing to assume
his uncle's work. The Lacandons readily accepted him into the community.
Leo Joaquin Palacios Bruce, the son of an American father and a Mexican
mother, grew up in Washington, where his father was a specialist with the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He studied anthropology for two years at
the University of Uppsala in Sweden, according to court records. His work,
however, was teaching scuba lessons near Cancun.
In July 1991, shortly after Leo Bruce arrived in Naja, Chan K'in led
the Lacandon men in a rare rite called the incense renewal ceremony. Leo
Bruce later described the ceremony as "a ritual voyage to the
underworld in which they accompanied the Maya gods in the symbolic death
and rebirth." The ceremony lasted 68 days.
Using borrowed video cameras, Leo Bruce photographed the ritual. It was
his first video. Suddenly he found his vocation: anthropological
According to handwritten notes left behind in his house, the footage of
the incense ceremony became the centerpiece of Leo's effort to sell a
documentary to the television networks. "Clinch the deal!" he
wrote to himself.
But Leo Bruce's efforts also meant keeping competing filmmakers at bay.
Figueroa said he began charging other photographers for access to the
"Leo was a very ambitious guy," said Christian Odasso, a
French filmmaker who lent Leo Bruce the cameras to film the ceremony in
1991 and then found himself excluded from photographing the ceremony
Odasso, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla., said that one of the stranger
aspects of Leo Bruce's behavior was the attention he gave to Nuk, the
adolescent daughter of the elder Chan K'in. "She was just a little
girl," he said.
At the end of the ceremony, Leo asked Chan K'in to permit him to marry
Marriages of Lacandon girls are frequently arranged when they are young
- the community is so small that there is a great interest in when
children reach child-bearing age. But according to court documents, girls
typically live with their parents until they learn household skills and
reach sexual maturity.
Chan K'in made an exception for Robert Bruce's nephew.
At first everything seemed fine. Leo Bruce built his bride a fancy
house, a 12-by-20-foot elevated structure that towered over the other
houses that are separated by muddy paths and lush banana and lemon trees.
By Lacandon standards, Leo Bruce's house was a palace. He had a stereo,
a television set, a videocassette player and kitchen appliances. He built
a bathroom and a shower in the back yard. He even installed a water
heater, the only one in the village.
Nobody recalls precisely when the problems with Nuk began.
According to some witnesses, the girl complained to her family about
Leo's sexual appetite. Scraps of pornographic magazines and an adult video
cassette were left behind in his house. Lacandons, on the other hand, are
uncomfortable even kissing.
"He was drinking much," said Chan K'in. "He didn't give
food to Nuk. He didn't make food. He just watched television."
Nuk also complained that Leo sometimes hit her. A few people recall an
incident in which Leo threatened his wife with an electric chain saw.
"He could only get as far as the cord would reach," said
Ortiz, the Indigenous Institute anthropologist. "But the threat was
The Lacandons took no action against Leo. "They're very shy,"
said Marie-Odile Marion, a French Mexican anthropologist working in a
neighboring Lacandon community. "They were scared of Leo Bruce."
Instead, Marion said, several residents of Naja asked her to help. She
complained to the National Human Rights Commission, but she was told that
only direct family members could file a complaint.
The problem went unresolved until Aug. 5.
According to Figueroa, Nuk complained to a family member the night
before she died that Leo had become more menacing. Leo spent the night
away from his house. When he returned at 8 the next morning, witnesses
described him as agitated and apparently intoxicated.
Several of Nuk's brothers said they saw Leo through a window striking
his wife with a bamboo switch. One brother saw Nuk tumble down the stairs
of the house and weave unsteadily across the yard, where she fell. He saw
Leo slam the back of her head several times into a narrow concrete walk
that crosses the yard.
According to statements given to the police over the next few days -
some records survived in the lawyer's files - Leo carried Nuk down the
dirt path to the village clinic.
At the clinic, he sat her down on a chair. She was experiencing
convulsions. Several witnesses said she fell and hit her head on the
Leo then drove her to another clinic a few miles from Naja. But by that
time, she was dead.
When Leo returned to Naja, he removed Nuk's body from the back of his
truck and changed into modern clothing - jeans, T-shirt and sunglasses. He
tied his shoulder-length hair into a pony tail.
He said he was going to the town of Palenque, several hours away, to
fetch some of Nuk's relatives for the funeral. Several Lacandon men joined
After Leo left, the women examined Nuk's body, said Ursina
Hastings-Heinz, a Bloomfield, Ind., teacher who was visiting Naja at the
time. Nuk's wrists, thighs and legs were bruised, according to the
autopsy. Her neck and jaw were swollen, presumably from the head injury.
"As the women ran their hands over the body, their tone really
changed from grief and sorrow to just being outraged," said
Alarmed and believing that Bruce intended to escape, the Lacandons
radioed ahead to civil authorities in Palenque. Bruce was arrested as he
drove into town.
Bruce acknowledged in his first two statements to police that he hit
Nuk with a bamboo switch. But he said he was only playing. He said he
never hit her on the face. He said he never hurt her.
Bruce insisted that his wife was sick that morning, so he took her to
the clinic. He said that she died because of the fall she suffered at the
Several days later, Bruce denied ever hitting his wife. He said that he
only signed the statements after police investigators threatened to cut
off his penis. He said police tortured him with burning cigars.
He lifted his shirt in court and showed nine burns on his stomach.
Robert Bruce, the Lacandon religious expert, explained that the reason
all the Lacandon have adopted a false story about his nephew is that the
group has the ability to collectively change its mind.
"If there's an undesirable condition, then the Lacandon gods can
agree it isn't that way," he said.
In Robert Bruce's cubicle at the National Museum of Anthropology and
History, portraits of Chan K'in and his first wife, Koh, are mounted on
the wall above the dozens of bound diaries he kept during four decades of
work. Once he was so close to the community that he traveled with Chan
K'in to an Indian conference in upstate New York.
But now, because of the accusations against his nephew, Robert Bruce is
no longer welcome in Naja. "I think I've studied there enough,"
As Robert Bruce noted, the Lacandons seem to have collectively put an
undesirable condition out of their minds.
"It's better that he's gone," said Chan K'in Viejo, curled up
in his soiled hammock. "Just so he doesn't come back. Nuk's mother is
tired of crying. We just want to leave the problem behind. We just want to
The Zapatista conflict, which has engulfed the countryside around Naja,
has supplanted Leo Bruce as the source of community stress. Armed Indian
groups block the roads, cutting off supplies. The Lacandons want no part
of the conflict. They have no grievances that cause them to take up arms.
But sometimes the outside world will not relent.
"The world," said Chan K'in, "is coming to an end."