An unexpected and bizarre
form of land use generates income in the towns near the Reserve
and threatens the credibility and influence of the scientific
endeavors undertaken in the Reserve. The MapimI Reserve overlaps
an area known as La Zona del Silencio (the Zone of Silence)
which attracts tourists and curiousity-seekers from all over
the world. These people and their guides are locally referred
to as zoneros or silenciosos. They are generally considered
to be slightly daft or a nuisance, but they represent a substantial
population of strangers who wish to see, experience, and take
away with them a memento of what they perceive to be the strange
essence of the MapimIan desert. For them, the Reserve's resource
is its rare atmosphere which they believe transforms the magnetic
waves of the zone and results in strange phenomena and occurrences,
from mutations in the flora and fauna to meetings with space
How did such a strange and internationally-held belief in
the Zone of Silence get started? It was deliberately invented
to generate tourism and sold to the world via the mass media.
Its development is a story worthy of its own dissertation on
how information, no matter how erroneous, can spread across
the globe and develop from a tall tale into accepted fact. The
thread of the story starts in Green River, Utah, in 1970. On
July 2, the U.S. military base there fired an Athena test missile
southwards which was intended to land at or near the White Sands
military base in New Mexico. Perhaps someone on the Green River
base made a mistake or perhaps the equipment itself was faulty.
Whatever the case, the missile did not land at White Sands or
in New Mexico or even anywhere near the U.S.-Mexican border.
Instead it continued 400 miles south and fell from the sky in
the southeastern corner of the state of Chihuahua, a few scant
miles from where the Reserve's field station is now located.
The story might have ended there, for hardly anyone saw the
rocket fall. A few shepherds in the hills thought perhaps an
angel had fallen. A rancher living closeby was frightened and
then angered as his cattle broke out of the corrals in their
panic. People in the towns attributed the flash of light to
an unusually bright falling star or meteorite. Maybe nothing
more would have been said, except that the U.S. government came
looking for its wayward missile and did not want anyone to know
about it. Consistent with governmental common sense, no one
asked the rancher whose cattle had been spooked where the missile
had landed, or even asked anyone residing in the general vicinity.
Instead, people from Gomez-Palacio were hired to scour (quietly)
the Bolson for the missing missile while U.S. planes scouted
from the air. It was finally found after three weeks, buried
nose-first in a sand dune.
A local security force was formed to protect the missile from
vandals and sight-seers, captained by a town resident named
Jaime. Jaime rather liked his role as "Capitán"
and later on was willing to round up his security boys and hire
them out as a self-styled local vigilante group (los rurales).
Ten years later, he was shot to death in Ceballos in a duel
over a girl, a romantic incident which was turned into a corrido
sung over the national airwaves by Los Principes del Desierto.
A small marble marker commemorating Jaime stands alone on a
small hill in the Reserve overlooking the Zone of Silence.
What happened to the missile? "Los americanos" built
an airstrip near where the missile fell and set up camp while
they built a special extension from the railroad to the sand
dune. The missile and the dune were dug out, put into bags,
loaded into the train and planes and taken away. The americanos
left, taking the railroad tracks with them and leaving an airstrip
and half a dune stripped of its treasure in what was destined
to become La Zona del Silencio.
The story might have ended here as well. The ranchers watched
with relief as the invasion left as quickly as it had come.
The workers went back to Gomez-Palacio without ever really knowing
what the fuss had been about. The U.S. government was mute on
the subject. But Jaime, two local landowners, and their friends
in Gomez-Palacio noticed the importance that had been attributed
to an otherwise godforsaken region, and they began to talk of
the possibility of building a hotel in the area to encourage
tourism and interest in the area.
What happened next is not quite clear. Some say that Jaime
started to play up the importance of the region and his role
in revealing its mysterious occurrences. Others say that the
landowners embellished the story of the missile, added some
pseudo-science and local folklore, and fed the story to the
regional media. Or maybe it was the work of a few scientists
who wanted some public attention and a share in the hotel business.
A growing group of supporters contend that "La Zona"
really exists and that the landowners and their scientific friends
had the guts to go against the established scientific community
to bring to light some strange desert phenomena.
Whichever the case, the local newspapers and later the national
media picked up a bizarre story that continues to unfold in
the newspapers and airwaves of North America. According to the
self-proclaimed founders of the Zona del Silencio, the strange
magnetic anomalies of the atmosphere prevent radio transmission
in specific points and make the needles spin on magnetic compasses.
The magnetic waves are so unique that they create a vortex that
draws in material from the upper atmosphere, hence the strange
behavior of the missile. According to a pamphlet put out by
a group of zoneros from Quebec (sponsored by the Canadian Ministry
of Cultural Affairs and the Quebec Museum), the center of this
vortex is called the "Vertice de Trino" and is located
where the three states of Coahuila, Chihuahua and Durango meet.
Metallic, cosmic dust can be gathered here with a magnet. The
case of the "rational meteorite," or Allende meteorite,
which fell in the general region of the Zone (give or take 100
miles or so) in 1969, is often cited as corroborating evidence.
The meteorite allegedly avoided a Russian satellite and orbited
the Earth once before crashing in Allende, Chihuahua (GarcIa
1988). A comparison of the Zone is frequently made to the Bermuda
Triangle, the Egyptian pyramids, the sacred cities of Tibet,
and Cape Canaveral, all of which lie between the 26th and 28th
parallels (Hunt 1984). The general impression left by these
stories and supported by regional inhabitants (but not Reserve
residents) is that "things fall from the sky" in the
Zone. One of the founders also claims that NASA planned to build
a scientific facility in the Reserve area to investigate the
phenomena and the possiblity of extraterrestrial communications.
To these basic claims have been added every imaginative story
and theory that might come to the human mind. Among others,
Abnormal mutations in the flora and fauna in the Zone. In general,
the plant and animal populations are considered to contain larger
and more robust individuals than 'normal' populations outside
the Reserve. Typically cited are triangular shapes on the tortoises'
shells, the occasional purple coloring of nopal coyotillo (Opuntia
violacea), and the large size of human individuals in the Zone.
An unpublished, unseen, but often-cited study also contends
that the blood of the inhabitants of the Zone is different.
The attraction of outerspace debris to the vortex of the Zone
of Silence, as evidenced by the Allende meteorite and the strange
rocks found in the desert (GarcIa 1988). Small pebbles with
desert varnish, an iron manganese coating common in desert environments,
are considered to be pieces of meteorites. The Zone also has
the reputation for being an ancient area with a close connection
to the past and future. Hundreds of zoneros come each year to
look for fossils, artifacts, meteorites, or anything curious,
all of which they take away with them. The rock shops throughout
the region also sell geodes, fossils and artifacts from the
Extraterrestrial communication from both above and below the
desert floor (Perez 1991). The vortex and strange magnetic waves
are also believed to provide the ideal atmosphere for the reception
of outerspace communication. Groups of zoneros regularly hold
conferences and overnight meetings in the Zone (usually in the
Reserve itself), where they claim to see and hear beings from
other worlds. One group, El Centro de Investigacion de AntropologIa
Cosmica de la Escuela Filosofica Lu Men (The Research Center
of Cosmic Anthropology from the Philosophical School of the
Light), believes that an ancient race of tall, yellow Maya (the
lost civilization of Tulum-Balaam) live directly below the Reserve
and that the cerros are really hidden pyramids (Ral Perez, pers.
com. 1989). This subterranean civilization is called MAGNETO
TZEN or "Tierra del Magnetismo."
Does the Zone of Silence exist at all, even with respect to
the mildest of claims? Neither I nor anyone with whom I spoke
(apart from the zoneros) had any trouble with either their radios
or compasses while working in the Reserve. The claims of mutations
refer to natural phenomena; the triangles are a normal pattern
variant in the Bolson tortoise populations and the pads of nopal
coyotillo turn a shade of violet during a dry spell. In addition,
the human population is made up of all sizes and types, just
like any of the surrounding populations. However, the only local
person most of the zoneros have seen either in the Reserve or
in Gomez-Palacio is the resident of the Reserve's field station,
who indeed is bigger than most. Yet they do not seem to notice
that many of his cousins or brothers do not come up to his shoulders,
even with their hats on.
As to the Zone itself, there seems to be little consensus
on exactly where it is. It was originally considered to be the
place where the missile fell. This is also the place marked
on the topographic maps of INEGI and the road maps of American
Automobile Association. Sometime in the last twenty years, the
spot moved to closer to the preson of El Tapado, where an engineer
working for PEMEX claimed his equipment stopped functioning.
Since then, the exact spot has marched its way north, and the
hapless visitors may be guided to any number of areas in the
Reserve. Most guides take their customers to an area where they
can collect fossils near the preson of El Macho, or further
south, to an area which is littered with the little smooth pebbles
that look like meteorite debris. In addition, the local residents
find the zoneros a nuisance and tend to get them to move on
by indicating that the zone is just a little further down the
road. Upon being asked where la Zona could be found, a local
rancher told a carload of people that they needed to keep following
the road until they saw martians jump from one side of the road
to another. The amazing part, he commented later, was that they
thanked him. Another group of zoneros arrived at the field station
and asked one of the workers how to get to the Zone. The young
fellow, struggling to be polite and truthful at once, only replied,
"Nunca van a llegar (You are never going to get there)."
During 1989 alone, over 650 people arrived at the field station
asking for the Zone of Silence. Since the main road to the zonish
area detours away from the field station, one can assume that
many more people actually visited the Zone itself (or thought
that they did). People come from all over, alone, with local
guides, with foreign ones, or with school excursions. The tourism
is not limited to Mexicans either, though that is the predominant
nationality of the visitors. People from the United States,
France, Germany, Italy, Chile, and Uruguay arrived at the field
station in 1989-1990. The extent of the Zone's influence is
amazing. It seems that nearly every cab driver in Mexico has
heard of La Zona del Silencio (though not of the MapimI Biosphere
Reserve). In 1992, a popular FM Spanish radio station in Los
Angeles treated its listeners to an entire morning of callers
expounding on the mysteries of the Zone of Silence. The disc
jockey had even contacted an L.A. engineer to add an expert
opinion regarding the magnetic forces in the Zone and the reasons
why voices would not travel over the radio there.
The Zone of Silence may be no more than a thorn in the side
of the Reserve management, but it has a tendency to dig in and
truly irritate the researchers. It is an especially unfortunate
form of tourism which relies on fabrication of events and phenomena
and encourages fossil and artifact collection. Zoneros drive
off the main roads to explore or camp. They take firewood, leave
trash, destroy property and leave gates open, the ultimate sin
in an area of livestock production. They frequently have to
be rescued since they are rarely prepared for the distances,
the quality of the road, or the lack of water. In addition,
many leave angry when they do not find the strange things they
seek. Buses of schoolchildren arrive at vacation time, and one
can only guess at the type of environmental education they are
receiving about the area.
The subtle threat presented by the Zona del Silencio is that
the philosophy and influence of the biosphere reserve is mixed
with propaganda regarding the Zone. The media does not help,
often including the field station and the Reserve as the scientific
component of the Zone or by indicating that the Reserve was
established to protect the Zone. It has perpetuated a myth that
the field station is no more than a front for secret government
research, and that the water tower is really an observatory
for extraterrestrial phenomena.
The Instituto de EcologIa has had to limit the entrance of
visitors into the field station. Zoneros arrive thinking that
the Laboratorio del Desierto is a hotel, and are often quite
angry (and unprepared) when they are informed the facilities
are for research activities only. The Institute's informal policy
is to give a short guided tour and talk about the Reserve and
ongoing research activities. However, this is usually unsatisfying
for both the researchers and the zoneros. In addition, the zoneros
like to take mementos of the Zone, and have at times taken scientific
equipment, parts of experiments or field studies, or specimens
of the flora and fauna, including tortoises. Worse than being
a nuisance, the zoneros perpetuate a false idea about the area
and, because of the mythology's popularity, obscure the objectives
and activities of scientific research in the Reserve.
The local residents do not believe in the Zone of Silence.
When asked about strange phenomena, they invariably reply that
they do not see strange things in the desert, only strange people.
The only unexplained oddity in the Reserve are the desert lights
that flicker, blaze and bounce in the distance. The researchers
claim it is a common desert phenomenon, and the local residents
say that the lights are strange, even spooky, "pero no
son nada (but they're nothing)."
The attitude of the residents towards the zoneros is more
ambivalent. The zoneros represent a potential source of income
for the residents. The local boys hire themselves out as guides,
and one settlement keeps a supply of sodas and candy to sell
to passersby. They are prevented from developing Zone tourism
to any extent due to their liason with the Reserve management
which disapproves of any encouragement of the zoneros' presence
or perpetuation of the belief in the Zone of Silence. Yet, it
is not clear whether the local residents would be interested
in further development of tourism. The ranchers fear that it
would mean a better road, more people, and greater risk for
their property and livestock. In a workshop in the field station
in 1990 at which the Secretary of Tourism for Gomez-Palacio
was present, the ranchers demanded that zoneros be kept out
of the area and off of their land. One of the researchers from
the Reserve management had to intervene in the discussion to
point out that the zoneros would always come to the Reserve;
the reasonable objective was to regulate and guide the development
of tourism in the region.
Amigos que quede claro
Que no hay Zona del Silencio
Y les invito a conocer
Este bonito desierto
Friends, let it be clear
That there is no Zone of Silence
And I invite you to know
This beautiful desert
- from a local corrido by Jose Dolores Olivas
and Adalberto Herrera