It was surfing that drew Dean Lucas and Adam Coleman to Mexico last November: the lure of perfect waves, warm water, and empty beaches. Their construction jobs in Edmonton, Alberta, had wrapped in October, and, with six months’ worth of paychecks stashed in their bank accounts, the two Australians loaded their boards into Coleman’s 1992 Chevy van, drove across the Canadian Rockies to Vancouver, and then headed south along the Pacific coast.
They passed through Washington and Oregon, stopping when the waves looked promising. Then Northern California. After a quick jaunt inland for a night out in Vegas, they beelined it back to the coast for a few sessions at Leo Carrillo, a break near Malibu. Then they were off again, down through SoCal and across the border into Mexico.
“I don’t know what I am doing in 10 years, let alone next year,” Coleman wrote in a Facebook update as they drove, “but I don’t think that matters. Because today is today. And today is good.”
Lucas and Coleman, both 33, had been friends nearly their entire lives. This trip was a last chance to catch a few waves together in Baja before heading separate ways. Coleman, with long, unruly dreadlocks and a buoyant personality, was in a hurry to get to Guadalajara. The previous winter he’d taken a trip to Mexico, where he met Andrea Gómez, a university student from the city. They’d made plans to reconnect at her family’s house, where they were going to spend Christmas together.
After Baja, Lucas, an unflappable Aussie who grew up 500 yards from the Indian Ocean — and had been on a surfboard since he was 11 — had seven days left in Mexico. After that he would fly to Los Angeles and then to London, where he’d spend the holidays with his longtime girlfriend, Josie Cox, an English acrobat. They had met in India in 2012, and had become nearly inseparable. The two had plans to set off on a road trip through Europe once the holidays were over. But first Lucas wanted to catch some waves.
“He could have been a professional surfer, but he couldn’t be bothered,” says Ben Smith, a longtime friend. “He just wanted to go surfing when he wanted and where.”
In Baja the swell was epic. They ended up scoring nearly perfect surf. They camped on remote beaches, cooked meals on the sand, and woke at first light to paddle out. But after a week of waves, it was time to move on.
The plan was to take a ferry across the Gulf of California, the 140-mile-wide bay that separates the Baja California peninsula from the Mexican mainland, then drive south. It was 560 miles from the port of Topolobampo, Sinaloa, to Guadalajara. If they had any hope of making Coleman’s meeting at noon with Gómez, they’d have to drive through the night, taking turns at the wheel.
Then the ferry was delayed two hours. As they waited, Lucas sent a message to a friend in Edmonton, where he lived with Cox. “Can you do me a huge favor if you are seeing Josie?” he wrote. “We have our three-year anniversary tomorrow and wanted to get some things for her like flowers and red Lindt chocolate.”
When Lucas and Coleman finally arrived on the mainland, it was just before midnight. The two, together and on their own, had spent the last decade traveling the world racking up dozens of countries — South Africa, Sri Lanka, Iceland, India — as well as multiple surf odysseys to Mexico. They knew how to handle themselves in foreign lands, but it’s almost certain they didn’t know just how dangerous the stretch of road is that they were about to set off on. In the last two years, at least half a dozen travelers have been murdered on it, by bandits preying on motorists. On maps it’s marked as the Benito Juárez Toll Road. But locals have another name for it: the Highway of Death.
Since 2006, more than 80,000 Mexicans have been killed in the country’s ongoing drug war, with another 27,000 missing. Even tourist areas are vulnerable. For instance, the U.S. State Department now advises against traveling outside the beachside tourism zone in Acapulco, and U.S. embassy workers are no longer allowed to travel inland. In Sinaloa, there are advisories against all unnecessary travel by road. It’s a similar story across most of the country.
“Car theft, kidnapping, crimes that used to be taboo — today they’re commonplace,” says Tomás Guevara, a social psychologist and author of two studies on violence in Sinaloa.
The recent spike in crime is a result, paradoxically, of Mexican authorities’, with the backing of U.S. antidrug forces, finally cracking down on it. Dozens of capos recently have been arrested or killed. But with the leaders gone, the militarized wings of their criminal organizations have been left to fight among themselves for the spoils or to strike out on their own. Many of those orphaned gangs have turned to crimes like extortion or highway robbery to extract a living.
Their highway victims are usually motorists from far away, driving at night, and the bandits act quickly — a hijacking and robbery is usually over in 10 minutes. Typically, it’s a straightforward affair: The motorists get stripped of their valuables, and the crime goes unreported under threat of reprisal. But things occasionally go very wrong.
In 2011, a philosophy professor at a university in Sinaloa was driving alone after dark when his car was hijacked and he was murdered. His body was found on the Benito Juárez just 80 miles from Topolobampo. In 2013, in separate incidents, a sports reporter from Sonora and a hotel manager from Los Angeles were shot execution-style on this same road. The Highway of Death is just a few hours from the coastal resort town of Mazatlán, itself just an afternoon’s drive from Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita.
“Sure, there are night patrols on the highway,” says Eduardo Valdez Verde, the news director of the newspaper El Sol de Sinaloa. “But the bandits know the schedule of the patrols. They go away, they come back.”
Last May, Verde was assaulted in broad daylight on the Benito Juárez with two of his colleagues. It was half past 8 in the morning, and he was driving at 75 miles an hour when an SUV swerved to a stop in his lane and three men sprang out, pointing AK-47s at his windows.
“They almost broke the windows of the car with their rifles,” Verde recalls. “They poked an AK-47 in my ribs. I thought for sure they were going to kill us.” Instead they took all their money and their company car.
Verde’s robbery happened a half-mile from where Lucas and Coleman were now driving. Thirty minutes after leaving the ferry at Topolobampo, their Chevy van pulled into a convenience store at Los Mochis. Coleman asked the lone gas attendant on duty that night for directions. “He asked me to direct him as far south as Mazatlán,” says Pedro, the 23-year-old attendant, who asked that his full name not be used. “But we weren’t understanding each other too well. So with gestures I told him which way to go.”
Two hours later, at 2:23 a.m., a security camera captured their van passing through a tollbooth at Las Brisas, 50 miles away. The grainy photograph shows the van stopped briefly to pay the fare. The booth is brightly illuminated, and the sky beyond is completely dark.
There is still a charcoal trace of burned earth off to the side of the tractor path where someone doused Adam Coleman’s van with gasoline and ignited it. When investigators picked through the debris, they found two gas grills, heat-swollen vegetable and soup cans, jars, dishes, and two sets of human remains. At first, police figured the victims for tiangueros, vendors who hawk their wares from street-market stalls in the city. In Mexico, 95 percent of murders go unsolved, so the crime was unlikely to warrant any special attention. It was largely a coincidence that led the police to look more closely.
During the long drive south, Lucas and Cox had been texting each other frequently. He’d tell her about the surf in Baja or include her in a discussion he and Coleman were having. So after receiving the flowers and chocolate, then not hearing from him for 24 hours, Cox had a feeling something had gone horribly wrong.
“I knew he was dead,” she says. “But the families were trying to keep positive.” Cox’s mother tried to assuage her fears, telling her that Lucas probably just got caught up surfing. Gómez was receiving the same sort of reassurances about Coleman. “I reached out to one of his friends and told him I was upset, and he tried to calm me down,” she says. “But more days went by, and we had to begin the search.”
Seven days after last hearing from Lucas, Cox posted an appeal on Facebook: “It breaks my heart to do this. . . . We are appealing for any information regarding Dean Lucas and Adam Coleman.” Gómez translated it into Spanish.
Pedro, the gas attendant who had given Lucas and Coleman directions, had seen images of the burned van displayed on the front page of a local paper. He recognized it immediately but had no idea who the two gringos were. Then he happened to see Gómez’s Facebook post, which had been shared widely.
“This is going to upset you,” he wrote to her shortly afterward. “Please stay calm and try not to panic. The van in this photo looks like your boyfriend’s.”
Suddenly the murders morphed from just another local tragedy into an international incident, with headlines around the globe. “Australian Surfers Missing in Notorious Sinaloa, Mexico,” ran a headline on an Aussie news site. “Australian Surfers Feared Murdered in Mexico During Quest for ‘Crazy Waves,’ ” ran another, in the U.K.’s Telegraph.
The Sinaloa attorney general took the rare step of holding press conferences to detail progress on the case. Within 48 hours of discovering that the van had been registered to Coleman, he’d announced, police had captured three suspects and had issued arrest warrants for two others. State marshals from an elite investigative unit had set a trap for the bandits, stopping them at 5 a.m. on a dirt road leading from a breach in the fence along the Benito Juárez. They recovered the getaway car, a Jeep Cherokee, and the murder weapon, a .357 Magnum revolver. They’d also extracted signed confessions from all three suspects in police custody.
At the wheel of the Cherokee was Julio César González Muñiz, a round-faced 27-year-old with a wispy mustache. The marshals, the arrest report notes, discovered the revolver in his waistband, and a ballistics test quickly matched the gun to a bullet removed from Coleman’s body. In the Cherokee’s passenger seat was the driver’s first cousin, Martín Rogelio Muñiz Ponce.
The details of what happened that night come solely from the confessions of the Muñiz cousins and Sergio Simón Benítez González, their supposed lookout. On November 21, shortly after González witnessed Lucas and Coleman passing through the toll booth, the Cherokee pulled out behind them and flashed police strobes on the dashboard. Lucas and Coleman continued to drive for another mile before pulling over. One of the trio’s alleged accomplices that night, José Luis Espinoza Bojórquez — who remains at large and has at least two other murder charges against him — stepped out of the Cherokee wearing the uniform of a highway patrol officer.
“They pulled two males out,” reads Julio César’s statement. “One of them was shirtless and wearing shorts and had long dreadlocks, the other was wearing dark pants and a black shirt.” Bojórquez forced “the long-haired one” into the backseat of the Cherokee and the other into the van and started driving to a nearby field, so they’d be out of sight. But as they exited the highway, Coleman tried to escape, forcing the Cherokee’s door open and jumping onto the dirt road.
A desperate fistfight erupted. “This guy was getting in some hard shots and beating the hell out of them,” the confession reads. Muñiz pulled out the .357 and “put a bullet in the gringo, getting him in the face.” Coleman was severely wounded, but not fatally.
At that point, Bojórquez, “furious from the ass-whipping he had gotten,” took charge. He jumped behind the wheel of the van while the others loaded the wounded Coleman and Lucas into the back. Soon they came to a stop at a tractor path dividing two cornfields. Bojórquez took the gun, then went to the hinged side doors of the van and fired four or five shots straight inside. The assailants doused the van in gasoline and Bojórquez threw a lit match inside.
It was a tidy description of events. But nearly as soon as the arrests were announced, the case against the men began to unravel. The Muñiz cousins’ parents filed a complaint with the Sinaloa State Commission on Human Rights, alleging that authorities had coerced the confessions after beatings and death threats. “They were pouring water down my nose and mouth,” Martín says now, in a meeting room at Sinaloa’s state penitentiary, pantomiming the hand of a police officer pulling his shirt over his head to waterboard him.
Martín says that plainclothes police came first for him, to his sister’s house in Culiacán, where he was staying. “I was asleep. They were hurting my sister, hurting me, wanting me to say where Julio lived,” he says. “That stuff was planted on us — uniforms, guns, all of it. We weren’t involved.”
The cousins’ defense attorney, Francisco Fierro Verdugo, says the coercion is not surprising. The attorney general’s office was receiving massive amounts of bad publicity for the murders. “It is safe to presume there was a lot of national and international pressure to find the persons who committed these homicides,” says Verdugo. “The arrests relieved that pressure.”
Javier Valdez Cárdenas, the editor of the Sinaloan newspaper Ríodoce, is familiar with the government’s description of the events and the upcoming trial. Valdez has been a journalist in Sinaloa for two decades, and he is an entrenched skeptic. “The story sounds really good,” he says of the Coleman and Lucas case. “That’s why you have to distrust every word.”
It may never be known who killed Lucas and Coleman. Mexico has a way of absorbing things these days — lives, ideals, justice. What’s more probable is that Bojórquez, the shooter in the police version, played some role in the deaths. But the rampant suspicion among close observers of the case is that he is connected to a cartel and will never be arrested. And if the Muñiz cousins are clean, where did the murder weapon come from?
Cox doesn’t entirely believe the police version of events, but she has no expectations that she’ll come closer to the truth by pressing the authorities. “This has been a problem here for so long,” she says. “I don’t see how it’s ever going to end.”
In January, Cox and Lucas were supposed to be in the U.K., shopping for a camper van they planned to drive across the south of Europe. Instead, she was on her own, leaning on a stool at an empty bar on the roof deck of a hostel in Sayulita. It was near here, to the lighthouse in the small village of Punta de Mita, that Lucas took Cox for her 30th birthday, the previous year. The lighthouse overlooks a long, gentle left break, where on a good day a surfer can ride for half a mile. She’s decided to donate part of her and Lucas’ European travel fund to Peace, a community center just up the hill from the harbor in Punta de Mita. She also started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Peace and Share the Stoke, the latter a nonprofit that works with impoverished kids around the world.
Before Lucas left, he had a discussion with Cox about what he wanted if he died before her. It was a random conversation, prompted by no serious concern. Sprinkle me over good waves, he said.
Lucas’ parents had his remains cremated in January and entrusted Cox with fulfilling his wish. In the months and years to come, Cox plans to visit Jeffreys Bay in South Africa, the Gold Coast of Australia, Bali, Hawaii, Mexico, India, Iceland, California, Barbados, and Morocco. “I have to get him into all five oceans and pick some of the best waves in the world,” she says. These days, nothing lifts her spirits quite like when she faces the ocean.