It was 4 a.m. when Miriam Rodriguez’s phone rang and her daughter Azalea’s name popped up.
“What happened?” Miriam asked.
“Something awful,” Azalea answered, sobbing. “With Karen.”
Miriam quickly packed and left a note for the family she was working for in McAllen, Texas. Though she was employed full time as a nanny for the family’s young child, whom she adored, Miriam told them she would not be coming back. By 6 a.m. on that January day in 2014, she made her way to the international bridge in Reynosa and waited for the bus that would take her to San Fernando, a two-hour journey through the center of the state of Tamaulipas, in Mexico. On the bus, Miriam sat near the back and silently wept for Karen, her youngest daughter, only 20.
An elderly man across the aisle handed her his handkerchief and asked if she was OK. Miriam, normally guarded around strangers, told him her daughter had been kidnapped by the Zeta cartel, becoming one of tens of thousands of disappeared.
Ever since 2010, when the Zetas had stormed San Fernando, laying waste to government buildings and imposing a draconian order on the town, San Fernando had become an icon of Mexico’s ruin: mass graves unearthed from the town’s peripheries bearing hundreds of human remains; dismembered bodies displayed on roadsides like mortal scarecrows; kidnapping so widespread that banks began to offer loans to pay the ransoms.
The Zetas had pioneered murder as messaging in Mexico, and there was arguably nowhere more deformed by their innovative cruelty than San Fernando, which had the geographic misfortune of lying at the nexus of several highways into the United States.
The old man nodded, needing no more explanation. He pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket, scribbled something onto it and handed it to her.
“That is the name and telephone number of my son,” he told her. “He’s a lieutenant in the Marines. His name is Alex.”
The Mexican Marines were revered by many, in part because, much like the Zetas, they held no compunction about murder. But unlike the cartels, locals considered the armed forces a necessary evil — a means to fight violence with violence.
Miriam stuffed the number into her purse and forgot about it.
On the street, she offloaded her bags and hugged Azalea, the eldest of her three children. After Miriam settled into the car, her phone rang. The kidnapper told Miriam to be quiet as he outlined the Zetas’ demands, then handed the phone to Karen. When she heard her daughter’s voice, Miriam felt her insides turn.
“Are you OK?” she asked, her voice cracking. “Have they done anything to you? Have they hurt you?”
“Mom, please, let me talk,” Karen shouted. “This is about money. Please just get together whatever you can.”
As Azalea listened, Karen told her mother the same thing that she had told her father, Luis, hours earlier, when the kidnappers had called him, as if Karen had rehearsed the lines. That it was just about the money, and if they paid, everything would be fine.
The kidnapper took the phone back and abruptly hung up.
Miriam collapsed into tears. Azalea had never seen her mother cry like that before. The family was a mess: The fate of Karen lay in the hands of men for whom murder was little more than contract enforcement. Karen’s brother, Luis Héctor, tried to keep everyone calm. The Zetas were businessmen, he said, and they had no reason to renege on the agreement, as long as they paid the ransom. The family clung to his conviction as they navigated the bitter space between hope and despair.
Miriam’s husband headed to the bank. Having been a store proprietor for more than 20 years, Luis was on good terms with the managers there and maintained good credit, which mattered: He needed them to lend him money for the ransom.
While at the bank, Luis received another call from the Zetas. He was to bring the money in a bag to the San Fernando health center, where someone would collect the cash and indicate where the family could find Karen. He was to come to the drop alone.
The family bundled together their life savings with the money the bank was willing to lend them, altogether a little less than $10,000.
Miriam parked down street from the health center, where she could watch the handoff without being seen. A few people sat on fold-out chairs while others milled around outside, where Luis stood waiting.
The bag man arrived two hours later. He had the rangy look of a teenager, with barely a trace of facial hair and a chest so slight it looked concave. As he grabbed the money bag, Luis held on.
“And my daughter,” Luis asked loudly, drawing the attention of the people standing outside.
“At the cemetery in 20 minutes,” the boy replied, tugging the bag loose.
Miriam watched as the teenager hopped into a cherry-red Ford Explorer and sped off. The couple drove slowly to the cemetery, just a few hundred yards away. Organized crime touched everyone living in San Fernando, if not directly then through friends or relatives murdered, neighbors disappeared or the simple privation of life that marked everyday routines. More than one-fifth of the population had fled or disappeared from San Fernando following the Zeta takeover in 2010. Parents had to shield their children’s eyes from the carnage that could spring up on any corner, macabre contortions of the human form meant to fascinate and terrify the population. Who could explain to a child how such a thing was possible?
Miriam and Luis waited in the cemetery parking lot until dark, but no one came.
Two days later, Miriam was driving in San Fernando when she noticed the red Explorer following close behind her. She tried to stay calm, but before she could change course, the driver raced ahead and cut her off in the middle of the street.
Two young men jumped out. “You are Karen’s mom?” one asked.
“Meet me in 10 minutes at Restaurant El Junior,” he said. “Come alone.”
Inside the restaurant, Miriam sat across the table from the Zeta commander, studying him: Tall, with a gaunt face, light skin and curly hair. His hand-held radio buzzed to life every so often, static reports from the lookouts posted around town relaying the movements of police and military units in San Fernando. Though he never shared his name, on the radio they referred to him as Sama.
Seated beside him was a smaller man, a boy, really, probably still in his teens. He had a round face and eyes that looked too big for his head. He looked over at Miriam’s untouched sandwich and asked if she was going to finish it. She pushed her plate toward him.
As the younger one ate, Sama assured Miriam that Karen was alive and safe and in good spirits. He said Karen was easy to deal with, and her laid-back demeanor was one of the reasons Sama wanted to let her go. Though it wasn’t ultimately his call, Sama said that for $1,600, he could make sure the right people said yes.
Miriam watched him with distrust. The desire to believe that Karen was alive was overwhelming. But they had already paid the ransom, and now Sama was asking for another, claiming he could help while at the same time saying he was not in charge.
It made no sense, but little about the Zetas made sense anymore. Most of the original Zetas were dead or in jail, leaving a younger generation in their place. The broken structure meant the organization was unpredictable, especially at the local level, and far less experienced. In theory, that meant that maybe Sama was telling the truth; maybe some underlings had taken Karen without the permission or knowledge of the higher-ups. In which case, Miriam thought, she needed to play along. She tabled her doubts that all of this might just be another way to tax her grief and agreed to make the extra payment. And then she waited.
The days grew indistinguishable from one another, their edges blurred together. Memories became unmoored from time and date. Miriam received calls about Karen, though none from Sama. Most were new attempts to obtain ransoms. She ignored most of them, keenly aware that San Fernando was full of misery shoppers so inured to the pain of others that an open kidnapping presented itself as a business opportunity. But she paid a third ransom for one especially convincing fraud.
Miriam got nothing in return, not even the knowledge of what had happened to Karen, which was what she wanted more than anything. Families could accept death, and had even grown accustomed to it, in the crucible of Mexico’s drug war. But a disappearance robbed loved ones of even the finality of death, consigning them to the perpetual torture of wondering what had become of their child.
Exactly one month after Karen’s disappearance, Miriam pulled herself off the couch and went upstairs to take a bath. She sat in front of the mirror, brushing her hair for the first time in what felt like ages. She applied makeup and put on nice clothes. She came downstairs to find Azalea in the living room.
“Well, it’s been a month and they are not going to bring her back to me,” Miriam said. “I know this in my heart, as a mother.”
She told Azalea that Karen was never coming home, at least not in the way she had once hoped, because Karen was dead. There was no self-pity in her voice, no tears or currents of pain spread across her face. She stood for a moment, choosing her words.
“I’m going to find the people who did this to my daughter,” Miriam said. “And I’m going to make them pay.”
She left the house that day, jumped into Luis’s truck and called Lieutenant Alex, the Marine whose number she had received from the stranger on the bus.
Weeks later, Miriam was driving through the central plaza of San Fernando when she spotted two girls seated on a bench, typing on a laptop. She did not recognize the girls, who were laughing and staring intently at the computer. She did recognize the laptop: It was Karen’s.
Miriam parked and called Lieutenant Alex from her car, keeping close watch over the two young women. She would learn they were Margarita and her friend, Jessica. Both were young, in their mid-twenties, one with black hair, the other nearly blonde. They might have been students, studying for an upcoming exam. Since reaching out to Lieutenant Alex, Miriam had discovered that the Marines worked in an entirely different way from the police. They were decisive, and lethal, slaying their enemies at a ratio of nearly 30 to one, and killing more enemies than they wounded, suggesting a tendency to finish off their rivals rather than leave them to fight another day.
On the phone, Miriam persuaded Lieutenant Alex that the two women in the plaza almost certainly knew what had happened to Karen, or at least knew someone who did. While she watched, the Marines entered the plaza and whisked them away.
A few hours later, Luis dropped Miriam off in an open field not far from their home, where she hid in an abandoned house and waited for nightfall, when the Marines would come to collect her. She had asked to accompany them for a raid on a ranch that sat near the old municipal landfill, known as the Basurero, or the Dump. The Zetas allegedly operated there. When the convey came to collect her, Miriam put on a Marine uniform so she would be impossible to spot by the Zeta lookouts that followed Marines everywhere they went.
The Marines had brought along Margarita and Jessica, who directed them to the ranch in the Basurero. Miriam did not ask how the Marines confirmed where the target was — whether they had simply scared the girls into sharing this information or had to torture it out of them –— and she did not much care. As everyone advanced toward the camp on foot, Miriam walked behind, trudging through the soft earth toward a series of small structures arrayed at the far end of the site.
Suddenly the Marines were yelling. Miriam could hear the sharp pop of incoming fire. The Zetas were shooting at them. The Marines responded swiftly, firing with precision as several of the Zetas fled into the woods beyond the ranch.
By the time the firefight ended, four bodies lay strewn in the tall grass, scattered between the ranch’s structures and the trees on the property. Three men and one woman. As they scanned the property, the Marines found a few kidnapping victims still alive; one was babbling incoherently about how a female Zeta was preparing to cut off his head when the raid began. Miriam walked among them in disguise, searching. These innocent lives were saved by this raid, her raid, and none of them was Karen.
She entered the dilapidated structures and scanned the grounds; the mud floors were covered in dark, reddish stains. Rusted implements of torture sat on wooden tables, and a yellow rope dangled from a tree. What had these people done? How could they be so stripped of humanity as to create an entire property dedicated to slaughtering people like cattle? There were IDs tossed everywhere, lanyards with photos of employees and government licenses. Had they all died, or were some returned home?
Miriam stopped to inspect a stack of items, among them a scarf and a seat cushion. Both were Karen’s. There was something both gratifying and crushing in the discovery, knowing that her daughter had been there and was no longer, a sadness and a relief, a mystery lifted only to be followed by another. She left the items where they were and kept to herself most of the details of what she saw that night.
The next day, the papers reported that the Marines had been attacked while on patrol. In the ensuing firefight, the government forces killed six people — three men and three women — and saved the lives of three kidnapping victims.
But those were just stories. The Marines killed four people in the gunfight at the ranch that night, none of whom were ever identified. They then searched the area and, after finding the living kidnapping victims, began finding the remains of others long since murdered, including the bodies of three women, one of them pregnant.
Incensed, the Marines threw Margarita and Jessica to the ground and asked them about the dead women. They told the Marines that they had snatched the women from the highway, and then killed them after their families failed to pay their ransom.
The Marines listened quietly to the explanation. When the women finished confessing, the Marines forced Jessica to her knees and killed her on the spot.
They then told Margarita to run. If you can make it to the tree line, you’re free, one of the Marines said. Margarita took off at a sprint, heading toward the forest at the edge of the ranch. The Marines, meanwhile, took their time lining up a clean shot.
According to the government autopsy reports conducted the following day, four of the assailants died from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen. A fifth victim, a woman, carried a single round that entered near the front of her clavicle and exited from her lower back, as if she had been made to kneel before being executed. The sixth victim, also a woman, was the only individual to die from gunshot wounds to the back.
Miriam knew that the six Zetas killed in the Marines’ raid were only a part of the crew responsible for Karen’s disappearance, and that they were not even necessarily the ones who had taken Karen. This was justice of a sort, the swift brutality of it, but their deaths registered in practical terms for Miriam: A half-dozen witnesses were now gone, witnesses that she needed alive if she was ever going to find out what had happened to her daughter.
Miriam wanted to hold the Zetas responsible, to track them down and punish them, as she had promised Azalea. But she also wanted to understand why Karen had been taken, and by whom. And more than anything, she wanted — needed — to know where her daughter was.
Relatives of the disappeared inhabit a liminal space where their loved one is neither dead nor alive. They live instead with the ghosts of loss, as haunted by the absence of certainty as they are by the absence of their loved one — tortured by the hope they might return. Miriam knew there were more than 100,000 families like hers, nearly all consigned to the margins of functional life, doomed to wonder what had become of their lost ones. In Tamaulipas, Miriam came across them in the local and state government offices, mothers and fathers with faces fixed in a state of spent anguish.
Exacting revenge, satisfying as it was, did not quiet Miriam’s need for closure. The only way to get that would be to question — and not simply execute — the Zetas who could give her those answers. And so Miriam came to the unwelcome conclusion that she would need to seek the help of the very authorities who had allowed the Zetas’ reign of terror in first place: The corrupt politicians, indifferent prosecutors and feckless cops who collectively solved fewer than 5 percent of murders in a nation breaking its own homicide records every year. She would need to build a roster of allies among state investigators and the police that could help her construct a case against each of Karen’s kidnappers.
Miriam understood even then that the government would do little to find her daughter’s kidnappers. But an open case would come in handy when pressuring suspects and witnesses to speak up. And that was precisely what she needed at the moment: witnesses. Since the Marines’ raid, there was only one she knew of: Carlos, a family friend who had come by Miriam’s house to fix Karen’s car the night she was taken and was himself kidnapped.
Through some miracle of mercy, Carlos was alive. But he refused to talk by phone to Miriam. What little he shared was over Facebook messages, and in short, sporadic bursts. He was traumatized and scared. He claimed to have seen nothing; he was blindfolded during the ordeal, and only overheard conversation and names. She spent weeks chipping away at his resistance before finally extracting the name of the individual that Carlos said was most involved in the kidnapping: Sama.
She had always suspected that Sama was behind her daughter’s kidnapping, even though he had been convincing in his offer to help find Karen. Miriam was certain she could recognize Sama, but the one thing she needed — and had no idea how to find — was his real identity. For the case to proceed, for the police to even issue a warrant, they needed Sama’s name.
Miriam spent months trying to track down people she thought might know him, even paying shady cartel characters for intelligence on his whereabouts. Nothing worked. She scoured Facebook for him, hoping he would slip up and post a photo or identify himself by his handle on social media. About six months after Karen’s disappearance, he finally did. It was a poor image, but Miriam recognized the lanky frame, thin face and curly hair. Beside him, a young woman was wearing the uniform of a local ice cream chain, Helados Sultana.
Helados Sultana had dozens of locations spread across the state, and Miriam resigned herself to visiting each one to find out where Sama’s girlfriend worked. She had increasingly come to understand that there was no magic to investigation; you just had to put in the work, be methodical about your process. She started with the locations in Ciudad Victoria, sitting outside of each for hours, hoping to spot the young woman. It took her weeks, but she finally found Sama’s girlfriend coming out of one. Then she watched and waited for several more weeks until Sama finally showed up.
Miriam stared at her reflection in the mirror, her hair now cut short and dyed bright red, the sort of attention-grabbing color that would distract from her face. She fished through her closet for an old uniform, and grabbed her old government ID. If she was going to play the part of a worker for the state health department, where she had once been employed, she wanted to look convincing.
Dressed in her disguise, Miriam made the trek back to the neighborhood in Ciudad Victoria where, a day earlier, she had followed Sama and his girlfriend home from Helados Sultana. With her now-expired identification card around her neck, she began with the first house on the street. One by one, she conducted a mock survey of every home on the block, asking after the number of children, adults and seniors residing there, peppering people with enough questions to be convincing. She asked for the names of all residents and their birth dates, registering them in an official-looking notebook.
By the end of the day, she had acquired the details of everyone on the block in service of a single name, which at long last she now had, along with a date of birth: Dec. 23, 1994.
Having done their jobs for them, Miriam handed over the information to the authorities in the capital and waited for them to arrest Sama. When a week passed with no action taken, she began calling to check on her request, badgering the authorities to issue a warrant. When that didn’t work, she sent a formal letter. But by the time the investigators finally got around to checking on the location where Sama was living, he was no longer there and the trail went cold.
By then, Miriam had traced an entire network of individuals connected to Sama, young men and women living the expendable lives of cartel kids. It had been easier than she thought once she had Sama’s Facebook account. He and his friends posted photographs of themselves packed together in tiny, grim hotel rooms, holding assault rifles, wearing faces of youthful bravado. But Miriam’s work would be meaningless unless she could find officials willing to do their jobs.
She went everywhere she could with her rudimentary dossiers of photographs and phone numbers, names and associations. Instead of warmth and compassion, officials gave her lessons in administration.
After weeks of rejection, she finally gained purchase with a federal police officer who had been introduced to her through a mutual friend. She asked him to meet her at El Junior, the same restaurant where she had met with Sama. Before he could even introduce himself, Miriam reached under the table for a black computer bag and presented it to him like an offering.
Here, she told him, is everything that I have found out about the men and women who kidnapped my daughter. She opened the bag and papers spilled onto the table.
The officer pushed his chair back to catch some of the documents before they fell to the floor. Staring at them, he shook his head in awe. There were pictures of alleged Zetas with Facebook handles for each. Some had their real names scribbled beside the photos, others just nicknames.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” the officer told Miriam. He asked how she had come across so much intelligence, and how long she had been at it.
Months, she said. She explained her process of cross-referencing connections via social media, her own contacts around town and shoe-leather research, like how she had found Sama. But she needed someone to act on it. She needed trusted allies who would not be corrupted by bribes or slowed down by the inbred lethargy of the system. “I need to be able to call you and get results,” she told him.
Luis Héctor kept photos of Sama that his mother had given him on his cellphone. Ciudad Victoria wasn’t so large — fewer than 350,000 people. If Sama was there, as Miriam suspected, he might cross paths with him at some point.
Like his father, Luis Héctor owned a store selling boots and hats, his in a space near downtown, in the historic center of the capital. While security was precarious in the capital, which still belonged to the Zetas, being close to the government’s offices was safer, and it also meant extra foot traffic, especially on holidays, when the plaza in front of the government palace filled with people.
On Sept. 15, 2014, eight months after Karen was kidnapped and a month after his mother had lost Sama’s trail, the entire city of Ciudad Victoria was gearing up to observe El Grito, the nation’s Independence Day celebration. Thousands would gather in the central plaza, and live music and fireworks would punctuate a night of festivities. Luis Héctor intended to close his store early that evening and walk over.
At about 6 p.m., as he prepared to lock the metal shutters over his storefront for the night, his neighbor in the market raced over to ask him a favor. Would he mind watching her store while she grabbed something to eat?
He did mind, but he sat down on a chair in front of his store to wait, watching as dozens of people filed past, all heading to the plaza. Having fun, returning to normal, all the things that specialists told you to do after suffering loss — he had been unable to do any of them. He worked and worked and occasionally drank, but losing his sister was a blow he was not prepared to recover from.
Luis Héctor checked the clock on his phone, mildly annoyed at his neighbor. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a shopper trying on hats near the entrance to his store. He was wearing jeans and a light blue shirt; tall, skinny, with slightly curly hair. Luis Héctor cycled through several thoughts at once: that perhaps while waiting for his neighbor, he might get a sale; that the individual was trying on too many hats; that the individual looked vaguely familiar.
“Look at how cool this hat is,” the young man told someone with him. “I’m coming back tomorrow to buy it.”
Luis Héctor glanced down at the street and saw a mother, a father and what appeared to be a girlfriend, all together for the celebration.
And then it struck him. The young man admiring hats was Sama.
Luis Héctor jumped up and quickly began shuttering his store, yanking down the metal curtain and closing the register. He kept his eye on Sama, who was already wandering into the crowd with his arm around his girlfriend.
Luis Héctor was fumbling with the locks to the gate when his neighbor returned, smiling. He waved her off and raced into the crowd. On the street, he kept a short distance between himself and Sama, careful not to lose him in the crowds.
He called his mother to ask what he should do. “Don’t let him out of your sight,” she said. “I’m going to make a call, but stay with him and don’t let him see you.”
Miriam hung up and called the federal police officer she had met at El Junior, who answered right away. She didn’t know if Sama was armed, or whether he was meeting up with other Zetas in the plaza, but here it was, the chance to get Karen’s killer.
Miriam passed the officer’s phone number to her son. “Where are you?” the officer asked when Luis Héctor called.
“In the centro, heading toward Plaza 15,” he whispered, fearful Sama might overhear.
“I’m on my way there now,” the officer said. “Don’t lose him. And don’t lose faith.”
Sama had no idea what Luis Héctor looked like, or that he even existed. But the comfort of Luis Héctor’s anonymity only went so far: How long could he follow a Zeta and his family before they noticed the short store owner with light skin and dark brown hair following them?
If Luis Héctor lost Sama, there was no telling when they might find him again. He pondered stopping Sama himself and beating him, unleashing his grief and anger right in front of the man’s family. But for all the revenge fantasies that had played out in his head, Luis Héctor felt afraid. Here, walking in front of him without a care in the world, was the man responsible for taking Karen.
After a half-hour that felt like an eternity, as Sama meandered through the plaza, passing violinists, vendors and food sellers, Luis Héctor called the officer again. He seemed relaxed, as if out on routine patrol. He was close, he said, heading toward the plaza on foot.
Luis Héctor angled himself toward the main church and its grand, wooden doors. Three officers found him there. The lights from the plaza filled the nighttime sky, and the sound of the crowd echoed along the walls of the buildings. Luis Héctor walked the three officers to within 30 feet of Sama.
Sama still had his arm around his girlfriend when the commanding officer grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. Luis Héctor was some distance away, watching but unable to hear. Everything seemed calm to him, too calm, as if the officer was just giving Sama a little warning. He called the officer and through the phone, Luis Héctor could hear Sama yelling about a heart condition, a murmur, and that he couldn’t possibly be a criminal because he was too unhealthy. The officer told Sama to take it easy before he gave himself a heart attack.
It still appeared far too friendly to Luis Héctor. He began to wonder whether Sama had talked his way out of the arrest. He begged the officer to arrest Sama, no matter what he said. The officer laughed.
“We have him,” he said. “But call your mom and tell her to get over here as fast as she can.”
The officers took Sama to the special unit for kidnapping at the state attorney general’s office in the capital. They hadn’t bothered to handcuff him — Sama was too frightened to run. Miriam was waiting for them, and after a long night of questioning, Sama talked. Some of it was lies: that he only worked as a lookout for the cartel, for instance, or that he only heard secondhand what happened to Karen. He could not lie entirely, though. Miriam was present, and she could testify to the fact that Sama had personally demanded and then received bribes for Karen’s rescue. And as Sama pushed the blame onto others, he gave Miriam something she wanted: more names to work with, more people to track down and question.
Miriam, who was feeding investigators questions as they interrogated, took notes, trying to piece together what had happened to her daughter. Sama was explaining the details of who had done the actual kidnapping when he relayed what they had told him about Karen. It was then that she heard the words she both least and most wanted to hear.
“They told me they had killed her in an awful way but never gave me details of exactly how they had done it,” Sama said.
It took a moment to register — Karen was dead. Miriam’s deepest fear. Although she had assumed it — had even dared to say it aloud and operate as though it were a fact — there had still been a chance that Karen was alive, if only because Miriam had never directly heard otherwise, never held the proof.
To now know it, to have heard it directly from one of the Zetas involved, was devastating. The pain became physical in its intensity, as though her insides had been torn from her and left to fester in the sun. To lose a child was to lose a part of yourself, the part that gave everything else structure and purpose and order, the part where love flowed without reservation, the best part.
Miriam now knew what had happened to Karen, which, after nearly a year of desperate inquiry, was in some ways more a comfort than a distress. This was the cruelty of a disappearance. But it also strengthened her resolve: She would find the people responsible for Karen’s death, pry them from their anonymity and make them pay.
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.