A Canadian couple held up by more than a dozen armed bandits while travelling through Mexico said the frightening experience was exacerbated by facing days of bureaucratic hurdles.
“Two minutes of terrorism and twelve days of legal terrorism,” said a weary Jack Vander Byl from his home in Portland, Ont. in eastern Ontario.
Vander Byl and his wife Michelle were spending their final day in Mexico, driving their pickup truck and trailer on March 26 along a road in Tamaulipas.
Their two friends, Joyce and David Miller, were following, and the travelling campers were 300 kilometres from the U.S. border. The four had been in Mexico since Jan. 5.
As the road split, Vander Byl said he noticed three pickup trucks ahead, parked near the ditch, and one driver suddenly darted across the road to block any traffic.
“They looked like policemen, had black uniforms, flak jackets, machine guns,” said Vander Byl, adding he was not alarmed by the sight as it was common to drive through police checkpoints.
When Vander Byl asked the man in Spanish for identification, the man laughed, and another bandit began forcing his hand through the cracked window.
One of the 16 or more bandits pointed his gun in the air and fired a shot.
“At that point, I said ‘whoa, this is not a police checkpoint.’ I put the truck in park and in a split second the door was open and he had me by the shoulder and yanked me out of the truck,” said Vander Byl.
In a few minutes, the two couples and two dogs — their friend’s pets — were left by the side of the road as the bandits drove away with the vehicles.
“As the guy driving Dave’s truck and trailer goes by us, he waves at us and smiles,” said Vander Byl.
In retrospect, Vander Byl believes the couples were targeted, spotted at their last campground by the bandits.
“That was the risk we were willing to take to go into Mexico, that someday this could happen. But you never dream it’s going to happen to you,” said Vander Byl, acknowledging certain areas of Mexico could be like “war zones.”
But Vander Byl always assumed they’d be safe.
He said there has always been an understanding between the bandits and the government to leave the tourists alone.
The vehicles were recovered two days later, but rigid bureaucratic rules prevented the couple from taking their truck and trailer home.
Vander Byl went to the federal attorney general’s office in Mexico, and tried to retrieve his vehicles.
He said officials in Mexico took him and his distraught wife through a maze of misinformation.
They were required to provide copies of the Canadian-issued ownership for the truck and trailer.
But officials wanted more information, they wanted the original bill of sale translated into Spanish by a certified translator and then verified and stamped by officials in Ottawa. This process would take almost two weeks by mail.
“They were making it impossible,” said Vander Byl.
The couple were then told they would have to prove that the truck and trailer were legal to have in the country, and would have to go to the point of entry in Mexico and retrieve the original documentation allowing them into the country.
Eventually, the couple gave up and abandoned their vehicle. They took the bus to Monterrey, where the Canadian consulate issued emergency passports and the couple left by plane, landing in Ottawa on April 8.
Vander Byl said the experience has been psychologically damaging. While they were in Mexico, his wife wasn’t eating, or sleeping and she was crying all day.
He only hopes the insurance will be able to cover some of the cost.
“It’s been an awful nightmare. The holdup by the bandits was probably the smallest part of it.”
Vander Byl said his friends have been in touch with their MP, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who assisted them with getting passports.
After seven years of travelling to Mexico, Vander Byl said he likely won’t return.
“On thinking about how much power the officials have, if you got mugged in Mexico, and had your tourist visa and passport on you at the time you were robbed, you might never get out of that country,” said Vander Byl.