Behind Every Good Story in Cholila is a Gun

Behind Every Good Story in Cholila is a Gun
“The going price to hire a killer in Cholila,” our dinner companion tells us, “is 5000 Pesos (about $750).” We are learning that despite starting to feel comfortably at home in Cholila, there are some major cultural differences between what we know in Canada and what goes on in this corner of South America. Turns out it’s a lot more like the Wild West of vintage Western movies than we’d realized.
Over grilled chicken, stuffed pasta and a very good attempt at making Mexican tacos, complemented by a nice Malbec, we get the low down on Cholila. Our guest doesn’t live in Cholila; he lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s exquisite capital. But he was born in this part of Northern Patagonia and visits family here often. Before jumping into his tale of extortion, murder and corruption, he glances around the room to see if anyone else might speak English. Satisfied, he continues, though he avoids using anyone’s name and suggests we do the same. This was our first clue that all was not as it seemed as we walked the small town’s quiet streets nodding hello to a growing number of people whom we recognize. During siesta between 1pm and 5pm each day, nothing stirs.
He tells us in a matter-a-fact tone about the time someone hauled him out of his truck right in the middle of town. His attacker hurled him on to the pavement and then proceeded to hold a gun at his temple while accusing him of having an affair with his wife. Doing his best to remain calm, our friend tried to assure the crazed man that he had no idea what the guy was talking about. Our dinner guest said he wasn’t having an affair with anyone. He managed to talk his attacker down, but it was a scary incident. It turned out, our friend had purchased his truck from the guilty party. The attacker had recorded the licence plate number so assumed the driver was the person who had been visiting his house when he was off working. And I thought the worst thing about buying a used car was the chance of picking up a lemon.
The story stretched our Canadian sensibilities, but was easy to believe given the pistol-packing campesinos. A typical gaucho, at least when he is in the saddle, is clad in bombatchas, baggy cotton pants that feature a cuff at the ankles; a roughly knitted chaleco or vest usually made from raw lamb’s wool that has only received minimal processing so it’s full of oil that helps it repell rain; black leather, mid-calf-length riding boots; and a boina or beret usually made of light-weight black felt, red cotton or a pattern of black and white wool. They also carry a revenke, which is a sort of wide leather riding whip that makes more sound than sting; a very sharp machete; and a pistol of some sort on their hip to “shoot jabali (vicious wild pigs with enormous tusks) or puma.”
Firearm-related deaths in Argentina are on par with our gun-crazed neighbour to the south and four times what we experience in Canada. You need a licence to own one, but, to say the least, not everyone complies.
On a roll, our dinner guest tells us the disturbing story of his neighbour’s cousin. Seems he, let’s call him Juan, had a glorious place on the shores of a pristine lake not far from Cholila. A prime spot. Juan had to leave town for a time and left his nephew in charge of his place. During his absense, his nephew involved himself in a high-stakes poker game and lost — $50,000. His only way to pay his debt was the deed to his uncle’s farm, which he turned over. Upon his return, Juan moved back into his house despite his nephew’s story. The next night in the soupy darkness of a moonless sky, the poker players came calling. Seeing Juan hadn’t vacated the place, they lit his car on fire leaving it there as a reminder. The following day, they returned dragging the burnt-out vehicle down the mountain depositing it in the middle of the road, maybe as a reminder to all.
Hoping this would be the end of the shenanagans, Juan stayed put, but the battle wasn’t over. The thugs were deadly serious. The next night they came back. This time their target was Juan’s house. In what we’ve now come to learn is not that uncommon a practice in these regions, they sprinkled fuel around the house and tossed in a match. In minutes, Juan’s wooden house was engulfed in flames. He escaped, but his home was destroyed. Juan fled and now lives far away.
But the new owner hadn’t finished inflicting his form of thuggery. This time, he aimed his wrath at Juan’s neighbours. He erected a fence across the road and refused to allow these neighbours who lived farther up the only road that accesses this back country to pass unless they paid him $60,000. According to our dinner guest, the three affected neighbours had no choice but to pay up and it wasn’t just because they needed road access; they knew what might befall them if they didn’t comply. When we asked how these campesinos came up with this much dough, our friend shrugged his shoulders. “The good thing,” he said, “is that he has only collected the fee once.” Since the events of about five years ago, the house is a burned out shell. A handfull of cows and sheep pick away at the bit of grass that pokes from beneath the crumbling foundation. A local campesino from Cholila looks after the animals. The thugs have never returned.
At the heart of our dinner guest’s other revelation is the lack of effective land reform in Argentina. It seems that many campesinos don’t have a title to their land. At best, they can live on it, but they can’t sell it. This is the case with at least part of the land that our guide Ivan Hueche has at the end of Lago Lezana. Our friend said, “If Ivan wasn’t the popular guy he is, he’d likely be dead.” Such are the battles the Hueche family has had in their efforts to secure title to their 300 hectares of highly valued land.
Our guide Ivan (Jabali) Hueche tackles a wild pig (Jabali). Our friend told us,
“If Ivan wasn’t the popular guy he is, he’d likely be dead.”
Then there is Sonia Perry’s situation. Based on what our guest told us about Sonia, I decided to go meet  her and listen to her disturbing story first hand. It explained why there is an underlying tension to life in Cholila.
Anyone familiar with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, may know the name John Commodore Perry. In fact, those familiar with the lives of these infamous American train and bank robbers, especially anyone whose knowledge extends beyond what was presented in the 1969 Hollywood blockbuster, might even recognize the name Cholila since the duo, along with Sundance’s girlfriend, the elusive Etta Page, bought land in Cholila after fleeing from the US and before being chased to Bolivia. The modest wooden cabin they built near the banks of the Rio Blanco still stands as do the outbuildings. We visited the place one day as it has been preserved, though there is nothing more than a hand-painted wooden sign marking the spot. When I asked who owned land, I learned it was the subject of a disagreement between the municipality and a private citizen.
The notorious bandits raised some 300 cattle, 1500 sheep and close to 30 saddle horses on what is a magnificient piece of land set at the base of the soaring Andes Mountains. On about 6000 hectares of land that Cassidy described in a letter written in 1902 to his friend Mrs. Davis in Utah, as “…good agricultural country, [with] all kinds of small grains and vegetables grown without irrigation,” they led a quiet honest life and were reportedly well respected by their neighbours.
One of the people who lived nearby was John Commodore Perry, the great grandfather of Sonia Perry, who was a fellow American. By some accounts, John C Perry had been sent to Argentina to track down the outlaws, by others he happened to already live nearby. Even Sonia didn’t know for certain what the truth was. But John C Perry, who had been the first Sherriff in Crockett County, Texas, certainly knew his neighbours and was aware of their past. In the accounts I read, John C Perry liked Cassidy and along with others was respectful of Sundance’s skill with a gun and with horses. He was likely also taken with the lovely Etta Place, played in the movie by a young and demure Katherine Ross (no relation, I’m afraid).
Regardless of why he arrived in Cholila, John C Perry never left and by all accounts became a respected member of the community. He fought hard as Argentina and Chile battled it out over about where the border would lie between the two nations. HIs reputation within the community grew and generations of his descendents have benefitted from carrying the Perry name despite being gringos. In Sonia’s ongoing battles over her family’s land, she told me, “The name Perry is the strongest tool I have.”
Sonia Perry’s difficulties stem from the fact that like so many campesinos, her family has no title to the land they have lived on for five generations. In fact, Cassidy and Sundance had the same problem. When they were forced to take a quick leave of Argentina (after authorities pinned an Argentinian bank robbery on them despite clear evidence that they couldn’t have possibly been responsible for the hoist), they were also unable to sell their land. In his book, “The Last Outlaws,” the author writes, “The ranchland could not be sold because it was homesteaded property and not deeded to them…”
Sonia’s difficulties escalated when a few years ago, the local municipality sold the Perry land to a developer. Despite the traditional practice of campesinos being able to live on “their” land even if they couldn’t sell it, and maybe because it was light-skinned blonde woman who lived there now, the new “owner” was given a deed to the Perry land with his name on it. When Sonia went to court to fight the sale, the court upheld the new deed that bore the name of the new owner as well as what Sonia claims is a ficticious name as the seller. There is no mention of the municipality on the deed. “I am in a battle to keep our land,” Sonia tells me, “and it’s only 14 hectares.”
The next day as we walked the increasingly familiar streets of Cholila, we were a little more wary of who we greeted!