What (and Where) Is the Zone of Silence?

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Like the Bermuda Triangle, the patch of ocean between the United States’ Eastern Seaboard and Bermuda, the “Zone of Silence” also reportedly causes radios, electronics, and compasses to malfunction. Also known as La Zona del Silencio and Mapimí Silent Zone, the Zone of Silence is an area 30 miles wide in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua Desert. Sightings of UFOs, extraterrestrial visitors, magnetic vortices, inexplicable lights, mutated flora and fauna, and an abundance of meteorites are just a few of the mysteries attached to the Zone of Silence. Visitors and curiosity seekers locally known as “Zoneros” or “Silencios” flock to the area to collect mementos and catch glimpses of any loitering extraterrestrials. But are the mysteries debunked? Here’s everything we know about the mysterious Zone of Silence.

Where Is It?

Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the Chihuahuan Desert, Mexico.
Credit: James William Smith/ Shutterstock

Most of the zone lies inside the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve, a biologically rich desert ecosystem where desolate, cactus-filled terrain is interspersed with mountains. UNESCO designated the roughly 1,321-square-mile area as a biosphere reserve in 1977, and the Mexican government established a research station to study flora and fauna. The reserve sits in the corner where the Mexican states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Coahuila connect, and the zone is in Durango. Although the region is sparsely populated, several thousand people — mostly ranchers, farmers, and salt miners — live here. One compelling aspect of the Zone of Silence’s location is that it’s situated between the 26th and the 28th parallels, just like the Bermuda Triangle and other mystical sites such as the Egyptian pyramids and Tibet’s sacred cities.

What Is It?

Two airplane radio headphones stored inside a plane.
Credit: Claudio Stocco/ Shutterstock

By some reports, the Mexican pilot Francisco Sarabia was the first observer to experience instruments and radio signal malfunctions while flying over the area. During the mid-1960s, Mexico’s national oil company, PEMEX, sent an expedition to the region to look for oil. The team’s leader, Augusto Harry de la Peña, experienced problems with his radio and deemed the area the Zone of Silence. Reportedly, the entire zone isn’t “silent,” and the areas in which the interference occurs seem to change. Soon after, people began to pay more attention to the site. Locals often noticed meteorites, and a few large fireballs were reported to have fallen in the area around the same time, including the large Allende meteorite in 1969, which landed about 100 miles from the zone.

Rocket Testing

Missiles being launched during a test.
Credit: BlueBarronPhoto/ Shutterstock

Until 1970, the zone wasn’t well known outside of the region, but that all changed when the U.S. Air Force launched an ATHENA test rocket from Utah’s Green River Launch Complex in July 1970. Carrying two small vials of cobalt 57 (an isotope used to increase radioactive fallout), the rocket bound for New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range veered more than 400 miles off course and crashed in the Zone of Silence.

Worried about the potential risks to humans, along with the desire to maintain secrecy around a Cold War-era test program, the military quietly searched for the downed missile. They found it weeks later poking nose-down into a sand dune. To protect it from theft and public view, they hired residents led by a local named Jaime Gonzales to guard the site. An envoy came down to retrieve the rocket and clean up the area. The team built an airstrip and a railroad to the crash site and removed hundreds of tons of soil along with the missile, then left.

Myths

Lights shining behind a mountain, not knowing where they are coming from.
Credit: Nemanja_Mrva/ Shutterstock

Gonzales, a few local landowners, and their friends had apparently been impressed by all the attention, so they began devising a plan to build a hotel and turn the area into a tourist attraction. The group allegedly embellished paranormal and extraterrestrial stories to build up more mystery and allure about the strange sightings and happenings.

Ranchers who guarded their cattle at night reportedly relayed stories of rocks falling from the sky and frequent sightings of color-changing, floating, and racing lights. Residents also reported the sudden appearance of three blonde strangers who would ask to fill their water canteens and gave vague answers about coming “from above” when asked about their origins. In 1976, residents in Ceballos, a town about 25 miles from the missile crash site, said they witnessed a massive, rectangular-shaped craft with pulsating lights hovering overhead. Allegedly, it emitted a deep hum and sent the town’s dogs into fits of barking and howling.

Local, and then national media, picked up the stories of scrambled radio and TV transmissions, randomly spinning compass needles, mystifying lights and hovering objects, unusually colored and oversized fauna and flora, and a magnetic vortex that attracts space dust and meteorites. Visitors claimed they could communicate with otherworldly beings and past ancestors while in the center of the vortex, also known as the Vertice de Trino (where Durango, Chihuahua, and Coahuila meet).

Arrival of the Zoneros

Round clouds in the sky that looks like a UFO ship.
Credit: dONTkNOW/ Shutterstock

Curiosity seekers, mystics, conspiracy theorists, and UFO chasers often descend upon this remote area, and locals frequently find themselves inundated with visitors. They come to gather metallic dust with magnets, “communicate” with extraterrestrials or ancestors, or witness a UFO sighting. Some residents seized the opportunity to earn an income and welcomed the Zoneros. They serve as guides or run tourist-focused businesses.

Others view the Zoneros as annoying nuisances who disrupt the community, take precious fossils and space rocks, and leave behind trash. Members of the Zoneros trampling plants and disturbing animals interferes with the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve researchers’ work. Many arrive and assume that the research station is a hotel or welcome center. Some theorists believe the researchers secretly perform experiments on animals, UFO phenomena, and other paranormal activities — and the study of the ecosystem is just a cover. They also trespass onto private property owned by ranchers, damaging fences and leaving cattle gates open. Groups often hold overnight conferences and meetings in the zone and attempt to communicate with otherworldly beings. Members of the Zoneros are often rescued because they arrive ill-equipped to deal with the harsh desert conditions.

Mysteries Explained?

An aerial view of Copper Canyon in the Northwestern part of the Chihuahua Desert.
Credit: dani3315/ iStock

Skeptics and scientists have studied the area, and most say there is no discernible evidence to support the zone’s paranormal legends. Many locals say they don’t see any bizarre activities (other than the behavior of some of the Zoneros). Here are some of the more common explanations for the mysterious activity.

Radio and Electronic Interference

Silver spheres gravitate towards a red magnet.
Credit: MicroStockHub/ iStock

The Zone of Silence contains high iron ore magnetite concentrations, which can create magnetic fields. Magnetic fields can affect how compasses and analog watches work. Meteorites also often contain high concentrations of ferromagnetic metals, such as iron and nickel, and the area is rife with them. Mountains and rock outcroppings contribute to radio and TV signal interference, which would explain some of the disruptions. Many visitors find that compasses and radios work just fine but are tricked by locals using magnets.

Attraction of Meteorites

A piece of rock formed in outer space in the early stages of Solar System as asteroids.
Credit: abriendomundo/ Shutterstock

While the area contains many meteorites and disintegrated space rocks containing iron and other metals, most experts say the zone attracts no more space debris than similar desert areas worldwide.

Unusual Lights

Lightening bolts become evident and rush towards the desert floor.
Credit: Leslie Rogers Ross/ Shutterstock

The clear desert night sky makes it much easier to see falling meteors than in cloudy areas, so some of the light sightings are believed to simply be only meteor showers and various-sized meteorites. Nighttime temperature and density differences between warm air near the ground and frigid air above ground can bend light, creating a mirage. Visible planets in the night sky like Venus and Jupiter can often appear larger as they rise above or descend below the horizon and are often mistaken for UFOs. Headlights of ranch vehicles and other vehicles can cause odd flashes as they drive over hills and around curves, which may also explain some of the unusual light flashes. The Chihuahuan Desert also experiences frequent sandstorms, which can generate dazzling lightning displays.

Flora and Fauna Mutations

Violet prickly pear (Opuntia gosseliniana) cactus close up.
Credit: Abbie Warnock-Matthews/ Shutterstock

Many believe the Zone of Silence’s plants and animals are bigger than others in the region. This may be true, but could be because the zone lies within the protected reserve boundaries. Plants and animals are more likely to thrive here and may live longer and grow larger than those outside the protected area. Reports of triangular-shaped markings on animals in the zone often surface, but it’s not uncommon for reptiles to have geometric patterns on their skin or shells. The preserve’s endemic Bolson tortoise, North America’s largest terrestrial reptile, is one such example. Some members of the Zoneros believe the prickly pear cactus is only green on the zone’s edges and turns purple or pink inside the zone. These species regularly turn purple in the winter and during dry spells, so the hue variations are likely seasonal.

The Takeaway

A look at the milky way over a mountain range.
Credit: David ODell/ Shutterstock

Regardless of your beliefs in UFOs, extraterrestrials, and other Zone of Silence phenomena, visiting the area isn’t easy. The roads (many unmapped) are rugged dirt or mud during monsoon season, services and accommodations are scarce, and the hot desert days and frigid nights require the right gear. If you’re seeking a desert experience, the Chihuahuan Desert is a beautifully desolate place. You can visit the northern end without leaving the U.S. Big Bend National Park in West Texas is mostly located in the Chihuahuan Desert, and you can hike, bike, drive, and ride horses on marked trails. At night, be prepared for some excellent stargazing and maybe a meteor or two.

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