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Downtown Cancun, Mexico in August 1970

Downtown Cancun, Mexico in August 1970



During the late 20th century, much happened in the Maya Lands about which the American public was never told!

Photo Above:  My luxurious guest suite was the small Maya hut immediately behind the communal outhouse.  I ate with the family, who owned this luxurious cottage.  They lived in the larger hut on the far left. Note the timber pole, rising from my hut, which brought a bit of electricity to the two guest huts, plus functioned as a radio antenna for communication with other guerilla units.   A young couple from France was staying in the other little hut between mine and the large hut.    On the last night I was there, a young pig was barbecued by wrapping the carcass in banana leaves and burying it, along with sweet potatoes and bananas underground in a mass of hot coals. 

In 1970,   Cancun, Territorio de Quintana Roo was a small, sleepy Maya coastal hamlet that seemed lost in time, but was secretly a base for the Maya Independence Movement, which would later become known as the Zapatistas.  Throughout much of the 1800s,  Quintana Roo was an autonomous province known as the Chan Santa Cruz Republic and governed by Mayas.  In the early 1900s the troops of President Portfilio Diaz massacred the Maya leaders of the Chan Santa Cruz Republic and then established the Territorio de Quintana Roo under martial law.  Throughout much of the 20th century, the interior of Quintana Roo remained a dangerous place for Mexican Federales troops or rich Mestizo families to spend the night, but Gringo and French tourists were treated with great hospitality.

In the summer of 1970, Mexico’s president, Luis Echeverria, announced a seemingly hair-brained plan to convert this sandy spit of land into a world class resort.  Both the people of Mexico and Gringos, who saw the architectural renderings of the resort’s first phase, thought Echeverria had gone bonkers.  The beaches and Caribbean waters there were beautiful, but there was only one paved highway passing through the length of Quintana Roo, no airports or ports capable of handling a cruise ship.

There was method to Echeverria’s madness.   For 150 years, the Yucatan Peninsula had been a hotbed of secessionist movements. He wanted to transplant enough Mestizo Mexicans to Quintana Roo to make the Mayas a minority.   Both the Mayas and their Mestizo overlords had never wanted to be part of Mexico.  Left out of Gringo history books is the fact that the Mexican states of Coahuila,  Tejas and Yucatan simultaneously rebelled against Generalissimo Santa Anna to form a short-lived separate nation.  Santa Anna’s army brutally crushed the rebellion in Coahuila then marched northward to massacre the Alamo.   However, his army was decimated at the Battle of San Jacinto near present day Houston.   The Republics of Texas and Yucatan formed a confederacy – in both nations, led by Masons.

Yucatan would have probably become a state, or at least a close ally of the United States had not Great Britain intervened.  Great Britain had plans to expand its colony of British Honduras (now Belize) into the rest of Yucatan.  British officials realized that Yucatan’s close relationship with the Republic of Texas and extensive trade with New Orleans would ultimately result in the peninsula becoming a state or territory of the United States.  The British Navy sent a fleet which drove off the ships of the Texas Navy from Campeche thus allowing Mexican soldiers to invade Yucatan along a coastal route.  It was suicide for Mexican troops to travel through the interior of Yucatan.

Cancun turned out not to be a government boondoggle, but an incredible success story. Cancun now has over 542,000 residents. The city has grown to a scale far beyond anyone’s expectation and has replaced Acapulco as the prime destination of Gringo tourists.   Fifty years of guerilla warfare and now drug cartel murders on an industrial scale in the Mexican State of Guerrero has made its largest city, Acapulco, undesirable to English-speaking tourists.  When my bride and I were on our honeymoon and traveling in a bus to Acapulco,  we started seeing burning Mexican army Jeeps and personnel carriers.  The bus suddenly stopped at an army checkpoint.  A Mexican lieutenant boarded the bus with a cocked sub-machine gun and examined each passenger.   That experience made me not want to return to Acapulco.

In contrast . . . to this day, most Mayas generally are fond of Gringos . . . especially Native American Gringos . . . and despise Spanish-speaking Latin Americans.  The Mayas of Quintana Roo eagerly learn English so they can profit from the large numbers of North American tourists, who visit there.  For over a decade, a large chunk of Chiapas, southern Tabasco and eastern Campeche has been controlled by the Zapatistas as an autonomous region.  In the secret truce between the government and the Zapatistas,  both sides agreed to cease combat activities . . . the government agreed to allow passage of trucks carrying food and manufactured goods, while the Zapatistas agreed to promote tourism and protect foreign tourists. That is about the only area in Mexico right now, where it is safe for North Americans to travel alone in remote terrain.

A surprising outcome in Guatemala

When I was traveling alone into the heartland of the Maya country,  a bloody guerilla war was beginning to erupt in Guatemala.  There were four components . . . 

(1) La Guardia Nacional – Conscripted government troops trained by the US Army at Fort Benning, GA and furnished arms by the US Army. These troops were typically supported by the white-skinned, upper Catholic church hierarchy in Guatemala, who typically came from wealthy families.

(2) Christian Democratic Socialist guerillas, These Maya guerillas were funded by North American Catholics. They were supplied arms by sympathetic Catholics within the US Army,  the Irish Republican Army and Quebecois Separatists in Canada.  They were trained by Catholic Vietnam vets from the USA. The arms were being stolen from US army bases.   Sympathetic priests all along the route, protected the arms shipments and helped hide guerillas.    The CDS guerillas typically avoided killing unarmed civilians, especially since they had so much moral support from poor and middle class Guatemalans.

(3) Hard core Communists  were funded and trained by Cuba.  They were supplied arms by the Soviet Union.  The Communists were just as bloodthirsty as the government troops.  Like the government troops, they were more inclined to murder unarmed civilians than to risk their lives in combat against trained soldiers.  The Communists were not liked by the indigenous peoples in Guatemala and never grew beyond small terrorist cells, composed of Mestizo crazies.  Their only real support came from Middle Class Mestizo college students.

(4) Fascist (white skinned) assassination squads were funded by wealthy Guatemalans, the United Fruit Company,  Nestle Inc. and several other North American corporations that owned plantations in Guatemala.  They were led by former Guatemalan Guardia Nacional officers and former US Army personnel, now working for the CIA.

View of the Maryknoll Mission – Guerilla Compound

The architecture professor, who taught Pre-Columbian Architecture at Georgia Tech, was deeply involved with the CDS guerillas.  He was a graduate of Notre Dame University.  No one in the US Army could be trusted to provide an objective view of what was going in the Maya Country.  As stated above,  US Army officers (mostly Roman Catholics and Hispanics) were protecting the illegal theft of US Army weapons and their blatant shipment on US passenger planes and private yachts to Mexico, British Honduras and Guatemala.   That’s how a naive US Navy Midshipmen from Georgia Tech was intentionally involved in the situation . . . a situation that I quickly wanted to get away from.   Romantic dates with Alicia in the Zona Rosa of Mexico City were far more fun.   

A Maryknoll missionary, who was a close friend of the Georgia Tech professor,  welcomed me to his mission station deep within the Guatemala Highlands.  He assumed that as a student of his friend I would be highly sympathetic to his cause.  The mission station was actually a major guerilla training base and storage depot for arms sent by the Irish Republican Army.  He and the other priest had live-in Maya girlfriends.  Two Lesbian nuns from Quebec also lived together in the compound.   Both were nurses.  Some Irish priests and terrorists came and went during the few days, I was there.   Because I was a Protestant, they didn’t trust me at all.  I was not allowed to take photos inside the mission, but did quickly take a snapshot as I was coming down the mountain trail to the compound.

Well, I was sympathetic to the Mayas because of their centuries of persecution, but didn’t think that Christian churches should get involved with guerilla warfare.  The situation in Guatemala was a mess. During the next 20 years, many thousands of innocent Maya civilians would be killed by the three rightwing factions.  During the Reagan Administration, government troops and the Fascist Assassination Squads were slaughtering Maya villagers just because they were devout Catholics.  Of course, our wonderful media and politicians in the United States never told the public that important fact.   They only talked about the insignificant Communist guerilla cells.

I reported back to my contact in Mexico City that for over 150 years,  the Mayas had liked North Americans and now, in general, disliked Communists from Cuba because they were Spanish.   The solution to the poverty in the Maya lands seemed to be to encourage a large flow of North American tourists and archaeologists to the region.  The United States should not get involved militarily in the region, because  that would destroy the good will that the Mayas had for us.  My contact, however, was primarily interested in my confirmation that . . . indeed . . . stolen US Army weapons and weapons donated by the Irish Republican Army were being smuggled by Catholic missionaries into Central America.

Here is the strange thing that has resulted from that bloody era.  Guatemala is now predominantly a Protestant country.   The white elites are still predominantly Roman Catholic, but the indigenous peoples have switched to Protestantism in large numbers.  They quickly learned that if they joined a church from a Protestant Christian denomination, based in the United States, the government soldiers would not bother them.  Was this a homegrown solution to a horrific problem or the result of Machiavellian activities by the United States government?   I don’t know, but I was awfully glad to get out of the Guatemala Highlands, before I stumbled into somebody’s ambush. Along the way back to Chiapas, I encountered a Kekchi Maya woman, who looked just like my grandmother.  I had no clue how important that observation would become in the 21st century.

This is a story that I was not allowed to tell to ANYONE, including US Navy officers, for twenty years . . . but now you know.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Cancun now borders the Mayan Rivera which is a hot bed of foreign tourist. The Americans we see there appear to be motivated by sex, alcohol, and in some cases, illegal drugs-truly giving new meaning to the word “Ugly Americans.” Tours are offered to “Mayan Reservations” where foreigners meet really great locals. Also many Baha’is in the Cancun area are Mayan who know more about ‘our’ history than we do!

  2. I probably would not recognize the region now. I have not been back to Cancun since 1970, since my main interest through the years were the Purapeche in Michoacan, Tepotzlan in the State of Morelos and the Highland Maya in Chiapas.


    Thanks for the revelation of what occurred down there. Too bad you got caught up in all the political intrigue and not much in your own field. Didn’t know the IRA was involved anywhere down there. Now I do. Any political intrigue I ever heard about down there was Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, and Reagan going after them there in Nicaragua. Nothing about the Yucatan and Belize.

    • That’s right! There were insurrections all over Central America in the late 20th century. Actually, I did have the qualifications to do what they had me do. (1) a plausible “cover” – being there on a fellowship (2) Inactive reserve officer, so there was no indication on my passport of representing Naval Intelligence (3) Very high score on whatever they like to see in Naval Intelligence officers (4) very good at learning foreign languages and (5) Creek Indians get along well with people from other countries. Nevertheless, i felt very vulnerable because you had all these rogue groups running around the countryside, killing civilians for no reason- and I was traveling alone, with only a SEAL Kbar knife for protection.


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