Eight Mexican soldiers form a loose perimeter in the grass, machine guns slack at their sides. Fifty yards back in the direction of the highway, a metal sign along a gravel road announces the entrance to a lonely beach called La Majahua. The men, members of the 75th Infantry Battalion of the Mexican National Defense Forces, are there following up on an anonymous tip about a body. They have found what they were looking for: a motorcycle, caked in dried mud, lying on its side, propped on a woodpile. Two large trash bags, bulging and tied shut, sit beside the bike; a faint odor of decay emanates from them. A seasoned crime reporter at the scene, accustomed to the smell, estimates the remains inside have been decomposing for at least a month. It is 4:30 P.M. on July 10, 2014.
The men exchange observations about the site, noting the fresh set of vehicle tracks leading from the dirt path to the bike and how the motorcycle has been stripped of its gauges, handlebars, motor and seat. The vehicle ID number, however, remains visible. Dried mud encrusts every inch of the bike; investigators agree that it was buried, then later exhumed and left in the open, where it was sure to be found.
The oldest soldier extends a BlackBerry in front of him to take a photograph while an officer in a camouflage hat quietly inspects it. Back at headquarters, the battalion’s high command receives the photo and a message from the scene: “It’s him.”
In 2012, Harry Devert returned to his hometown of Pelham, New York, a suburb 10 minutes north of the Bronx, after five years of adventuring around the world. He arrived just before Thanksgiving, having been home only a few times during the previous years and never for more than a couple of weeks at a time. He would visit with his widowed mother, meet with the renters in the house his father had left him and grab a beer with friends. He never unpacked. His mother, Ann, was walking her dog when she noticed the next-door neighbor talking to a scrawny stranger with a full beard and dressed like a guru in flowing pants. She didn’t recognize her only son. Devert was 31, and his friends were getting married, buying houses and having kids. The neighbor who worked for the family business five years ago now ran it. The friend who traded stocks and blew through 10 grand in one night in South Beach was married on Long Island with two kids. Devert saw the ex-girlfriend he almost married wipe up baby spit-up with a dish towel.
He wrote in an e-mail, “What had I been doing this whole time? Had I been running away from all of this? Was I scared to face this world I barely recognized? Was growing up more terrifying than falling down the side of a cave in the middle of a Vietnamese jungle days away from any human life whatsoever, trying to just fight to keep my eyes open because I thought that if I let myself fall asleep that I’d never wake up like always seems to happen in the movies? Yes, actually, very much so.”
The novelty of being home wore off quickly. Devert needed money to travel, but no one would hire him. Six weeks as a volunteer at the Mother Teresa Center in Calcutta and a month working in rice paddies for room and board in the Philippines weren’t going to cut it with prospective employers. Finally, a friend’s wife got him a job in human resources on Long Island.
Then a neighbor from his days in Miami got in touch to say she was living in New York. They met for a drink in Midtown, and he was awestruck. Sarah Ashley Schiear had just wrapped up shooting for The Taste, a cooking competition show on ABC. It was scheduled to air in January 2013 (she finished third out of 16 contestants), and she had moved to New York to open a pop-up restaurant and capitalize on her TV exposure.
Schiear was direct, practical and ambitious, and, most eye-opening to Devert, she made a living doing what she loved. Devert did nice things for her, including assembling IKEA furniture for her new apartment in NoHo and showing up to support the opening of her restaurant (he clinks champagne glasses with two ladies in a promotional video). She told him he had the charisma to host a video travel blog (he declined) and encouraged him to write a memoir in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love.
His mother overheard phone conversations and sensed the tenderness in Devert’s voice. Schiear loved his stories about places like Nepal and Venezuela, about families who invited him into their homes and how he woke up with kids crawling all over him. She sensed he was special and told him he could be famous. “I tend to think of myself as positive and seeing the good, but no, no, no,” Schiear says. “He is honestly like an angel.”
The motorcycle was an 11-year-old olive-green Kawasaki KLR650, a.k.a. the Swiss Army knife of motorcycles, a.k.a. the poor man’s BMW. It’s an all-terrain dual-purpose motorcycle built to travel long distances on- and off-road. Devert bought it from an ex-Marine in Brooklyn with $2,500 he got from selling an anniversary-edition Cartier watch, one of the last mementos from his days in finance. Devert climbed aboard, rode 10 feet and fell over sideways. He got back on and started it up, kicked the bike into first gear and tumbled to the ground again.
Not knowing how to ride a motorcycle was part of the adventure for Devert. The idea—a two-year motorcycle journey to Brazil—was born of a fantasy, a totally impractical plan that he intended to see through to reality, risks be damned. Like the time in Vietnam when he set off in search of the world’s largest cave with nothing but the dim memory of a photograph he had seen in National Geographic. The magazine kept the location of the cave a secret, and Devert headed off during rainy season with no trail. He spent eight days lost in the jungle and ran out of food, but he found the cave and returned with a photo identical to the one on the magazine cover.
���If Harry had been born in the 15th century he would have been Christopher Columbus,” says one traveling partner, Pau Balaguer. “He was extreme, too extreme.” Balaguer, a native of Barcelona and a former stock trader, met Devert in a swimming pool in Pai, a backpacker town in northwest Thailand, and recognized him as a kindred spirit. Devert was limping badly from an injury he sustained during the Buddhist New Year celebration in Chiang Mai. Leaping from one moving truck to another, he slipped, sliced his pinkie toe to the bone and eventually had the gash stitched up (“with the help of a bottle of whiskey and a sock to bite down on,” Devert later wrote).
They traveled together in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. They wrecked their motorbikes on an eight-day loop of villages in Laos, feasted on cow eyes at a village wedding and were arrested for hitchhiking in Pakse. In Cambodia, security guards at Angkor Wat permitted them to stay after hours and watch the sunset from the temple walls, and the nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen allegedly threatened them with a knife at a party in Phnom Penh. In Laos, Devert bought a bag of mushrooms and woke up at dawn, alone and naked on a stranger’s roof in Luang Prabang.
“Maybe your mind thinks that this is your limit, but with Harry you feel so comfortable that your limit goes to the double. And you feel safe. You feel like, I’m a good person, so all the people around me are good people. Why would something bad ever happen to me?” Balaguer says. “Very deep in my soul I was thinking Harry will die young because he took too many risks.”
In October 2013, three months before Devert hit the road again, he posted the first entry about his trip on his new website, A New Yorker Travels. The headline read, NYC TO THE TIP OF SOUTH AMERICA ON A MOTORCYCLE I DON’T KNOW HOW TO RIDE. He included a Google map of his proposed route, a bold squiggly line that would have made Che Guevara blush: 18 countries in two years, from New York to California to Mexico, touching every country in Central America from Belize to Panama, then a ferry to Colombia, a loop through Venezuela, then down the length of the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Peru, into Bolivia and across northern Argentina to Brazil in time for the 2014 World Cup. When the Cup ended he would head to Uruguay and farther south through Argentina’s Patagonia, as far south as South America goes, to Ushuaia, the city at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. The sheer impossibility of the journey lent it the aura of not only a great adventure but a great feat. He thought he would document the trip and maybe write a book about it. “Some people dream of traveling the world, climbing mountains, sailing across oceans or down jungle rivers, and some people dream about owning a house, getting a promotion, buying a new watch or eating at a new restaurant,” he wrote in the last essay he published on his website, on January 13, 2014. “No matter what it is, however, I feel like adventure is that delving into the unknown, and everyone has that desire in them.”
Twelve days later Devert disappeared.
Erik Dissinger was on call late on the night of December 9, 2013 when an emergency crew radioed for a tow at the scene of a motorcycle crash on Interstate 4 in Daytona Beach, Florida. A car had cut off a motorcycle, knocking the rider off balance and sending his bike skidding into the right lane. The rider had gotten up and run into oncoming traffic, waving the cars away from his bike.
Dissinger sized up the rider as a weekend-warrior type. Dissinger, on the other hand, looks every bit a repo man. He is 300 pounds and five-foot-11 with a bull neck and Fu Manchu beard, and he rides a Harley. He loaded Devert’s damaged bike onto the truck, and they drove it to a mechanic who stayed open late. Dissinger asked how far Devert was riding and was astounded at the answer: Brazil. No one goes that far for his first real ride.
“He came from a totally different side of life than me, but the way he said he felt riding is the same way all of us bikers feel riding,” Dissinger wrote in a Facebook message.
An hour later, they were parked in front of the hotel, still talking. Dissinger was selling him on Daytona’s annual Bike Week, and Devert promised to come back for it. In his hotel room, Devert published a photo of the bike on Instagram. “Grateful to be alive is an understatement. Hopefully this won’t delay my trip too long. One of the best days of my life.” South Florida is an odd place for a stopover for someone riding from New York to Mexico, but Devert was looking for something from his past. Devert was 18 and a trainee in the Army reserves when his father, Georges, a Frenchman and successful insurance broker, was diagnosed with cancer. Harry was born outside Paris in Saint-Cloud, and Georges went to great lengths to initiate his son into French culture, even after he and Ann divorced. Harry grew up in Pelham but skied the French Alps on winter break and spent summers on the French Riviera. Georges used to say of his son, “C’est mon oeuvre”—“He is my work of art.”
Georges was a playboy and an adventurer and already 56 years old when his son was born. He had been in the French airborne division during World War II and lived in Algeria during that country’s war for independence. He was a mountain climber and a deep-sea diver. “I idolized him,” Harry wrote. “I still do.”
The Army granted Devert leave to visit his ailing father in France, but before he could depart, news arrived that his father had died. “Harry screamed and thrust his fist through the door and just ran out of the house and ran for hours,” his mother recalls. “I always felt that when he started traveling, it was to escape all those memories. And the chances he took—I sometimes thought it would be the same to him if he died, because that’s where his father is.”
A couple of years after his father died in 1999, Devert moved to south Florida. He had invested the money he inherited from his father in the stock market and discovered a knack for day-trading. Linda Raschke, a hedge-fund trader, recruited him to run her chat room in Wellington, Florida. He moved into an apartment complex in West Palm Beach with a pool and went to work in Wellington 12 hours a day. But something was amiss. When he was leaving for work, the young traders in his building were just getting home from partying. They made a couple thousand dollars in a day and were drinking beer at the pool by noon.
After six months, Devert quit the hedge fund to join them. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and blew through all of it. While other traders invested in real estate, purchased engagement rings or saved money to open a firm, Devert invested in Burberry pants, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and a collection of Cartier watches.
“He spent all his money on nightclubs and girls,” his mother says. “He didn’t have much that was concrete to show for it. He was like Mr. Miami.”
By 2007, algorithms that could predict the market rendered traders like Devert nearly obsolete. His friends cashed out and found other work. He moved to Paris and then Barcelona for a year, living the life of a beach bum, day-trading for spending money until he lost the shirt off his back. He would tell people the market crash made him a humbler person.
When Sean Axani opened his door to welcome Devert to his home in Fort Lauderdale, he noticed his old friend’s riding jacket was shredded. Devert turned down a replacement. He preferred to wear the one he had. It had been years since they’d seen each other, and Devert was different. The flashy personality was gone, the clothes were casual, the conversation understated. They had drinks beside Axani’s swimming pool, and Devert said he wanted a family. This was going to be his last adventure. Schiear flew down for a visit. They walked on the beach and talked about what they wanted out of life. He had built up in his mind the notion that his trip would make him a success, and now he was afraid of failure. She told him not to put too much pressure on himself to make a career out of his trip. On their last day together in Miami, Devert told her he loved her, and after a tearful good-bye they made plans to meet in Guatemala.
He made one last stop, in Tampa, to see Daniella McClutchy, an ex-girlfriend who had just given birth to her second child. He talked about wanting a family, but when it came time to leave, he couldn’t wait to get out the door. “It was that inner demon he was always battling,” McClutchy says. “It’s like an addiction. This fear of missing a good time was really something Harry always battled.”
He raced to New Orleans in time for Christmas and from there made it to the Mexican border in two days. He entered Mexico on December 28, 2013, commemorating the achievement on Instagram with a photo of a muddy road and a caption: “After crossing the border at Matamoros in the morning I spent the rest of the day getting chased by stray dogs…speeding by horses and chickens on the side of the road…dodging crater-size potholes…at military checkpoints…and riding on roads like these (this is actually one of the better ones). Made it to Tampico caked up to my waist in mud…parts of my bike falling off from the crazy roads…perfect excuse for a night filled with tequila and beer with some locals I met. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Forgot how much I loved Mexico.”
For generations, the people of the village of Macheros in the green mountains of central Mexico have witnessed one of the world’s great natural wonders: the annual arrival of millions of monarch butterflies. Howard Joe, a radiation oncologist from Victoria, British Columbia, and his girlfriend took a vacation to Macheros to see the butterflies.
After riding horses up a long rocky trail to the summit of Cerro Pelón on January 24, 2014, the first thing they noticed was a bearded man in a hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, lying in the middle of the trail. “It was really strange, because we’d just gone two hours up a mountain, and here was this white dude in the middle of the forest by himself. He wasn’t very talkative,” says Joe. “He was almost hypnotized by these butterflies, which were flying all over him and all around us.”
Devert had been sprawled there scribbling notes about his travels in a notepad all morning, recalling the 27 days he had already spent in Mexico, from caving alone in the Sierra Madres to visiting the ancient city of Teotihuacán. He had made his way through the rough-and-tumble state of Michoacán (where his mother had studied abroad when she was 19) and hiked to the top of Paricutín, the youngest volcano in the world.
Omar Martínez, a friend Devert had met in Barcelona, invited him to the charrería, a rodeo competition in his hometown of Uriangato, Guanajuato. When Martínez’s charrería team advanced to the finals, Devert made up his mind to come back the next weekend to watch.
“Harry didn’t consider factors like risk or time,” Martínez says. “Where he went was simply a matter of what he wanted to see and experience. Beyond noticing the danger, it was a matter of being more worried about the richness of the experience ahead than getting bogged down in concerns about his safety.”
When Devert found out that Howard Joe had come from Zihuatanejo, a city on the Pacific coast, he lit up. The final scene of The Shawshank Redemption, one of his favorite films, is set in Zihuatanejo. He decided on the spot to make it his next destination, asking, “What’s the fastest way there?”
The safe way is via the turnpike, Joe said, pointing at Morelia on a road map and tracing the line that curved downward to the coast. Devert didn’t like the looks of the route. It would mean backtracking 95 miles to Morelia and paying a toll. “What’s it like going straight?” he asked, pointing to another route to the coast along Route 51 and Route 134. Joe shook his head, warning him that the locals said it was nothing but potholes and bandits. Devert looked up from the map and repeated the words potholes and bandits. “Sounds like fun,” he said, grinning.
“He seemed to be someone who really wanted adventure,” Joe says. “ ‘Oh, people with guns? Okay, that might be kind of cool. Or potholes? Yeah, I’d like to negotiate that on my bike.’ ”
Devert’s serenity amused one of the other visitors that day, Jen Newenham, an ecologist from South Africa, enough that she took a photograph of him. It is believed to be the last photo taken of him alive.
The gas station attendant watched the lone rider on a green motorcycle come around a blind curve on Route 51 just north of Huetamo, six soldiers following behind him perched on an Army Motorized Patrol vehicle. The rider pulled off the road and didn’t notice until it was too late that the attendants were washing the concrete in front of the pumps. The bike slid one way and its rider bailed to the other, jogging with momentum until coming to a stop. The attendant remembers how the rider laughed, took off his helmet and flashed a smile. He picked the bike up off its side and pushed it over to the pumps.
“Zihuatanejo, muchachos!” the rider shouted.
The army patrol drew to a stop beside the diesel pumps a hundred feet away. The soldiers were from the 90th Infantry Battalion, stationed 35 miles away at a military installation in Tiquicheo. About an hour earlier, back at the base, the lieutenant in command of the patrol had noticed the motorcycle, equipped with saddlebags, and called for its rider to halt. He asked the rider for his name and occupation, where he was coming from and where he was going. Devert gave his name, said he was a writer from New York and that his destination was the World Cup in Brazil.
“Your proximate destination,” the lieutenant barked.
“Ah, the beach in Lázaro Cárdenas,” Devert said.
This was not the truth. Devert’s destination was Zihuatanejo, a hub of surfer beaches, coastal lagoons and crystal-blue bays an hour east of Lázaro, an industrial port city similar to Long Beach, California. Maybe he changed his plans or shot wide of the mark on purpose because he didn’t like the question.
The colonel in command of the battalion approached and admonished Devert to be cautious on the narrower road ahead, where vehicles bearing heavy loads raced by in the opposite direction. The colonel added one last piece of advice: “To avoid being robbed or assaulted, pay no attention to any civilians who order you to pull over.” Before leaving the base, the colonel had told the lieutenant, “Keep an eye on him all the way to Huetamo and make sure he arrives safely.”
The lieutenant said he tried to do as he was told, but the American motorcyclist was unpredictable. At first, he sped ahead. Then, at the village of Piedra China, the soldiers found him standing on the side of a bridge, taking photographs. At the crossroads in La Eréndira, he flew past the army patrol, and the lieutenant said they didn’t catch up to him until he reached the gas station north of Huetamo. From there, the lieutenant claimed, he and his men proceeded into town to retrieve a replacement vehicle part, which had been their original assignment.
The pump attendant remembers it differently. The army escort arrived right behind Devert, he recalls, but then turned around and drove back in the direction of Tiquicheo. He watched Devert remove the GoPro camera from his helmet, set it on top of his bike and improvise a dance step as the camera filmed. He danced with his arms raised as if to feign the close embrace of a partner. “Sort of a cumbia,” the attendant remembers.
For the first time in three days Devert had cell phone service, and he saw a new message from Schiear on WhatsApp. “It was some personal stuff,” she says of her message. “I was telling him I did this little recipe story for Esquire. He was really excited about it. It was short, like, ‘Oh, that’s great, baby; you’re amazing.’ ”
They chatted, fitting a ton of innuendo into a few hastily typed phrases, written with hearts and smiley faces, calling each other babe and “lova.” Then Devert changed the mood entirely.
“Just got an hour-and-a-half-long escort out of some area it was too dangerous for me to be. Stopping for lunch and…voila internet. Gonna get back on the road soon. Apparently there’s another military escort waiting for me in some other town.… I’m running way late because of the crazy military stuff…hopefully get a chance to talk to you tonight when I (hopefully) finally arrive. Missing you. Mucho.”
To Schiear, the message seemed like the windup for another adventure story. She didn’t feel afraid, not at first, because nothing had ever happened to Devert that he hadn’t been able to handle. On Sunday morning she was more annoyed than scared when she saw he still hadn’t written. Devert contacted her nearly every day, but Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday came and went without a word. On Thursday, January 30, five days after her last contact with Devert, Schiear felt certain that something was wrong. “I walked into my apartment and I was like, I know he’s not going to call. I just can’t imagine my phone ringing.”
She shared Devert’s last message with his mom, whom she had never met. Ann was beginning to worry too; Devert had not phoned home to commemorate his late father’s birthday. Every January 29 for the previous 14 years Devert had phoned his mother, and they sang “Happy Birthday” over the phone in French. Devert would bake a cake wherever he happened to be.
A hacker friend in Pelham tracked down the GPS coordinates of where Devert had sent his final text message from: Huetamo. The jurisdiction for the military escort ended in the very spot where the patrol vehicle had allegedly stopped. A separate battalion of the Mexican army stationed in Huetamo reports it did not take part in any second escort for Devert. From that point on, he was on his own.
The danger in Tiquicheo was emblematic of the entire region. A phenomenon akin to nuclear fission was under way, only instead of an atom splitting and exploding it was a monolithic drug cartel called the Knights Templar. Thousands of army and federal police deployed to the area, and cartel leaders—once untouchable—were being arrested and killed. The pressure caused the nucleus of the cartel to split in two, creating a chain reaction of turf wars in dozens of municipalities in the state of Michoacán.
“If what is happening in Michoacán is not a war, it certainly looks like one,” wrote reporter Verónica Calderón, a native of Michoacán, in El País.
When Devert steered his motorcycle back out onto Highway 51, the attendant watched him wave good-bye to the army escort and ride the last mile to Huetamo unescorted. This is where Devert’s tracks fade from view. A second fuel attendant in Huetamo claims to have filled Devert’s gas tank on the same day at a station only a quarter mile from the first.
In his seven years on the job, the second attendant believes, Devert was the first motorcyclist he had seen traveling Huetamo alone. When asked about the possibility of violence, the attendant does something locals do whenever the subject of the cartels comes up: He gestures toward the hills. From high up there, the cartel can see every movement down below.
“A military escort for a tourist who is alone will attract the wrong kind of attention,” the attendant says, wiping his face.
In addition to the permanent army presence at the northern limits of town, the federal police had set up camp in the Hotel María Isabel Valmar downtown 10 days before Devert arrived. A nest of sandbags on either side of the hotel entrance announces the temporary barracks. It is the peak of midday heat, and the police commander in Huetamo sits with an adjutant officer at a glass table beside the dipping pool.
The commander has just finished saying that drug traffickers don’t bother tourists because they make millions from exporting marijuana and opium; they don’t rob for the sake of robbery. Devert’s expensive gear—his motorcycle, GoPro camera, laptop, camera and iPhone—along with his French and American passports and billfold holding thousands of pesos, were liable to arouse suspicion, not envy. To organized crime in Mexico, a corpse is more valuable than goods, especially an American corpse, the commander says. Dumping a body in enemy territory forces the government to enter the area, ask a lot of questions and clean up the zone, thereby weakening the enemy.
“There were rumors of DEA agents in the area,” he says. “To go around filming people back then was suicidal.”
In Pelham, Ann posted a message to Devert’s Facebook page, appealing to her son’s 1,848 friends: “Has anybody heard from Harry?”
Ann, Schiear and a host of volunteers created the Facebook page #HelpFindHarry to gather tips and coordinate a search in Mexico. Nearly 30,000 Facebook users around the world joined the page and volunteered to help. A notice on Devert’s disappearance that the U.S. Department of State posted online attracted an astonishing 600,000 page views. Sympathizers were attracted by Devert’s Instagram photos, his effusive essays on the virtue of adventure, his outlandish motorcycle journey and the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance.
Those factors also turned Devert’s disappearance into gripping TV. The story was binational: CNN en Español broadcast the smiling face of the American motorcyclist beside a map of the war zone he’d traversed in Mexico, and the national TV news channels in Mexico broadcast daily updates on the search. The legend of El Trotamundos, the missing American wanderer, was born.
Soon the #HelpFindHarry Facebook group received tips from anonymous accounts with names such as Courage for Michoacán and For a Free La Huacana, warning that Devert had been mistaken for a DEA agent and been picked up at a cartel checkpoint. On February 12, 18 days after Devert’s disappearance, Facebook user For a Free La Huacana posted, “I heard they thought he was with the DEA and they took him away only for questioning. But the heat has come down and now they don’t know what to do.” Other users claimed the Knights Templar cartel invented this story to sow discord in the ranks of its enemies.
On February 21, a feature article about Devert appeared in Excelsior a major daily newspaper in Mexico City. The headline read AMERICAN MOTORCYCLIST DISAPPEARED IN GUERRERO, NOT MICHOACÁN. The story claimed a law-enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation told the newspaper that Devert had arrived safely at the Pacific coast of Guerrero, only to be kidnapped after a meal in Troncones, a surfer town 20 minutes from Zihuatanejo.
The source of the information was Bryan Jiménez, alias Cheeks, a local hoodlum who offered the information during police questioning. Jiménez claimed Devert’s arrival had aroused the suspicion of El Tigre, a crime boss who runs the drug rackets in Zihuatanejo. El Tigre, whose real name is Adrián Reyes Cárdenas, had worked for the Knights Templar but became its enemy after he and another cartel member left to form a breakaway group. They adopted the name the Guardians of Guerrero.
Jiménez, who worked for El Tigre, claimed his boss had Devert picked up after suspecting he was a DEA agent. The Excelsior report claimed that Devert was interrogated at a ranch called La Palma near the city of Petatlán, about an hour away from Troncones, and that El Tigre himself was spotted riding Devert’s motorcycle.
Locals in Troncones find this story hard to believe; they say the kidnapping of a foreign tourist in town would not have gone unnoticed or unreported. The U.S. Embassy did its own follow-up and told Ann that Bryan Jiménez, the key witness in the story, was a fictitious person; however, the federal registry lists a prisoner named Bryan Jiménez as being held in a maximum-security federal prison in the state of Nayarit. A federal investigator says the sighting of Devert was “unconfirmed.”
Confirmed or not, the Excelsior report immediately turned El Tigre and the Guardians of Guerrero into the prime suspects in Devert’s disappearance and made enough of an impact to elicit a public denial. On March 23, the Guardians of Guerrero posted on their Facebook page: “Who are these stupid fucking people who blame us for the disappearance of the American Harry Devert? One more time, we’ll make it clear to our Facebook followers: The Guardians of Guerrero did not kidnap him. He disappeared before he made it to Zihuatanejo, which is why it couldn’t have been us.… The Knights Templar have him and they did this to fuck us over and turn up the heat on us, but they fucked up because the whole search is going on in the area where he disappeared, and that is why we aren’t worried.”
The argument between cartels was not confined to social media. On March 28, the Mexican army rushed to take down four banners that appeared on a stretch of highway in La Unión, reading EL TIGRE IS INVOLVED IN THE DISAPPEARANCE OF EL TROTAMUNDOS! They were signed Pueblos Liberados (“Liberated Peoples”), a previously unknown group that claims to be a civilian self-defense guard against organized crime.
Ann viewed the banners with skepticism. “My thinking was that the banners were just trying to shove the blame somewhere away from where it belonged,” she says. In fact, when Mexican authorities arrested the leaders of Liberated Peoples a year later, a well-known enforcer for the Knights Templar was among them.
On April 21, 2014, the Guardians of Guerrero responded with four banners of their own: WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE AMERICAN AND WE KNOW FOR CERTAIN THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR DID IT FOR STRATEGIC REASONS.
The banners also claimed the Guardians of Guerrero had wrested the eastern half of the municipality of La Unión from the Knights Templar. An unconfirmed April 2014 report claimed the Guardians attacked a Knights Templar stronghold, kidnapped four inhabitants and tortured them to find out where the body of Harry Devert was buried.
When federal crime investigators opened the trash bags stashed alongside Devert’s motorcycle near the beach in La Majahua, they found a jigsaw puzzle of bones, teeth, clothing and a motorcycle helmet. The trash bags were clean on the outside, but the remains and clothing inside were coated in a thick layer of dried mud, an indication the body was originally buried somewhere else (probably near the area it was found, according to official sources). The rider’s leather jacket and boots were missing. He was buried in his socks. John Doe had been dead anywhere from two to six months. The body had decomposed so thoroughly that scientists had no soft tissue to inspect for marks of torture. The fingers and thumb were missing from the left hand. The right hand was nowhere to be found. The skull was broken into 16 pieces, but there was no sign of a bullet wound. He was bludgeoned to death, and the fatal blow damaged the part of the brain stem that regulates breathing. The victim died from a shortage of oxygen to the heart.
Ann flew to Mexico for a DNA test. She didn’t need the results to know it was her son. She recognized his string bracelets the second the examiner pulled them out of a little manila envelope. DNA tests indicated with more than 99 percent certainty that Ann Devert was the mother of John Doe.
“One of them showed me the pictures of the skeleton they put back together, and I realized it did not horrify me,” Ann says. “My own imagination was a lot worse. And seeing his bones, which I hadn’t planned on doing, also held no horror for me. Because it wasn’t Harry anymore, it was only his bones.”
At a press conference one week after the discovery, Iñaky Blanco Cabrera, attorney general for the state of Guerrero, revealed that a significant amount of marijuana and cocaine had been recovered at the scene. The amount of drugs was a closely kept secret until now. Crime-scene technicians found a cellophane bag containing dozens of individual doses of cocaine, half a gram each—two thirds of an ounce in all—ready to be sold, according to sources. One of the two trash bags at the scene held 30 pounds of marijuana.
The whispers haven’t reached Ann directly, but a reliable source informed her what officials in the Mexican government have said in private—that Harry Devert was a drug trafficker. The rumors about him surfaced long before his body did: Why else would a lone biker ride through a cartel war zone? The drugs found at the crime scene strengthened the insinuation.
But law-enforcement officials concur that the crime scene was tampered with and that the body was moved from somewhere else, which leads Ann to question where the drugs came from. “They moved the body from its original location to the field where it was found, where the earth had not been disturbed, and the terrain there did not correspond to the body and bike,” she says. “That’s why the drugs are laughable, because you can’t move yourself after you’re deceased and take drugs with you.”
Officials also found a payment ledger marked “Knights Templar/Pueblos Liberados” containing the nicknames of a dozen leading members of the cartel in the area. A cash amount in Mexican pesos was jotted beside each nickname in a separate column. The second page contained the record of two large cocaine transactions: a payment of 100,000 pesos to someone called the Teacher, and another for 300,000 pesos to El Chapulín. Both the payments, the ledger indicates, were withdrawn from “the cocaine account.” The third page included records of regular payments owed to “lookouts” paid to report on suspicious activity in 10 different towns spread out along the coastal highway to Zihuatanejo, including the village of Lagunillas, about 400 yards from the abandoned pasture where Devert’s body was dumped.
This January Ann traveled to Mexico to observe the one-year anniversary of Harry’s final days and to get answers. She paid homage to her son in Macheros, hiking up to the monarch butterfly preserve, where she buried two string bracelets of his that were included with his remains. Then she took a bus to the Office of the General Prosecutor in Morelia to see the homicide file.
Worried investigators warned her not to tell anyone where she was or what she was doing. According to Ann, documents in the homicide file suggest that investigators do not believe Harry was kidnapped in Troncones, as the Excelsior article claimed, but at a checkpoint on the highway at the northern limits of Nueva Italia, Michoacán, after which he was brought to a safe house in Zicuirán.
The information came from an anonymous witness who, the file indicates, came forward of his own volition a month after Devert’s disappearance. The prime suspect is a drug trafficker from Michoacán who is suspected of exporting an average of two tons of crystal meth per month to Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, California. The suspect was an associate of the Knights Templar until a falling-out one month before Devert arrived. The men under the suspect, the informant said, boast that they have the support of the federal police and the Mexican army.
These were the men stationed at the checkpoint in Nueva Italia when Devert appeared on the afternoon of January 25, en route to the coast. “They signaled for him to pull over and, upon confirming that he is American, transported him to Zicuirán to investigate whether or not he was working for the DEA,” the informant claimed.
Mexican federal investigators performed a background check on the men named in the statement and found records for three canceled arrest warrants in Mexico and two drug arrests in San Jose, California. A note left in the file by one of the investigators mentions that the suspect donated $17 million to the election campaign of the governor of Michoacán.
After delaying nearly four months, a federal police investigator finally traveled to La Huacana in June to investigate the assertions made by the anonymous informant. He drove his department-issued white pickup truck to the towns of Zicuirán and El Chauz and detected no sign of a checkpoint. In town, he questioned locals about the men who allegedly work for the suspect. They said they had never heard of them. Back in Morelia, Ann Devert was told in plain language that the people who killed her son will never be caught.
“I wanted to tell my friends and loved ones (who really are the same thing because I love all my friends) that I died doing what I loved, and while I knew I couldn’t keep escaping death forever, that I at least hoped to keep it up until I was nearly a hundred years old…but that I was okay with this. Our time here is so short, and many people I have known have passed on before their time, people better than myself…. It would only be fair for me to have to go as well.”—e-mail draft written by Harry Devert in 2012, found after his death