There was a persistent gloomy atmosphere on the afternoon of August 28th, 2015 as we travelled steadily down through the mountains of Palenque to the third and final destination of our excursion. We’d completed the steepest part of our descent and the terrain had more or less levelled out when our van suddenly came to a halt on what, seconds before, had been an open road.
I was sat near the back, wedged between the window and a young Mexican couple. I strained to see what was going on ahead, but could only make out a few people in the road, seemingly oblivious to the traffic approaching them from either side. Through my window I could see a man stood a couple of feet back from our driver's door. His appearance struck me as peculiar; we’d just experienced thirty minutes of torrential rain and the drab, low clouds were promising more, yet he was wearing sunglasses. Not only that, he had a bandana obscuring the lower half of his face. As he spoke to our driver another masked man, holding a short plank of wood, joined him.
The peso finally dropped. These guys weren’t here to clean windscreens.
50 metres away in the background scores of men, women and children had quietly gathered to observe us from either side of the road, residents of the remote village it transpired we were attempting to pass through. Only a handful more were making an effort to conceal their identities, some of whom were pulling a crude spike strip across the road. Every so often they’d move it to allow a car to pass, before blocking our path with it again.
The two men had been talking heatedly to our driver for a few minutes but I couldn´t make out what they were saying. I asked the guy next to me what was going on. “They said if we don’t give them money to let us through, they’re going to kill us,” he replied. My face fell. I asked him how much they wanted. “300 pesos for each person and 500 for the van.” 300 pesos equated to about £10, which I had on me and considered a small price to stay alive, but as nobody else showed any signs of handing cash over, I too kept quiet.
I surveyed the other 13 people in the van. Couples everywhere: The youngsters next to me, a husband and wife at the front and girls directly ahead, all of them Mexican. Italian-French behind and a pair each of French and German. All held their partners a little tighter; I turned my phone over and over in my pocket.
'They´re going to kill us,' was on a loop in my head. I was far enough away from the door I’d never be able to make a run for it if they did start pulling us out to murder in whatever way they saw fit, and being so close to the window I could at the very least expect some glass in my face if they resorted to smashing the van up. I moved past imagining my gruesome end and started to wonder if anyone would ever find my body. I quickly concluded no. At least not all of it.
Raised voices outside snapped me out of my brooding and back to the situation at hand. Still nobody had emptied their wallets and this seemed to be angering our assailants. One by one, cars passed us from behind and continued their journeys. Some must have paid up, others seemed to be known to the men. All but a few drivers had a gun stuck through their open window and into their faces as they side-stepped the spike strip. I grew more and more concerned at our lack of movement in proportion to how angry the masked bandits were becoming.
Then, all but a tiny thread of their patience snapped. The short plank of wood was raised with white knuckles, ready to bludgeon our driver’s face. He held his hands up in a combination of protest and protection. Time briefly stopped, like a second hand sticking that moment longer when you catch it out of the corner of your eye. If he smashes our driver’s face in here, we are fucked. I am fucked. I am dead.
The second hand flicked. The white knuckles flashed with intensity before lowering the wood. The bandits exchanged final words with the driver and I held my breath as the two men took a step back, allowing our van to briefly reverse and then swing left, driving back up the road past a queue of traffic. I have no idea what our driver said but it worked and we were safe, for now. The French girl behind me asked me if the men were police. I slowly exhaled and closed my eyes.