The Cartel (79 page)

And the FES, with the aid of U.S. intelligence, has been pounding the Zeta leadership, arresting gunmen, plaza bosses, and financial officers. Over eighty Zetas alone have been arrested in connection with the first San Fernando bus massacre. Six Zetas, including a character with the
aporto
“Tweety-Bird,” have been arrested in connection with the murder of Agent Jiménez, although if Keller had his way, none of the six would have made it into a cell.

A weeklong FES campaign against the Zetas in Veracruz resulted in twenty-one more arrests and the seizure of a payroll list for eighteen Veracruz police officers on the take—depending on rank, they received between $145 and $700 a month.

Two former navy admirals took over the police departments in Veracruz and Boca del Río.

Based on an “anonymous tip”—a euphemism for American intelligence—the FES captured the Zeta plaza boss for Veracruz, who confirmed that Ochoa had personally ordered Erika Valles’s killing.

“Why didn’t they kill Cisneros?” Keller asked.

“Z-1 said he wanted to do her last,” the plaza boss answered. “Let the big-mouth
chocha
watch her friend die first. But they fucked it up.”

“Where is Z-1 now?”

The man didn’t know. It turned out under enhanced interrogation techniques that he
really
didn’t know. Didn’t know where Forty was, either.

Maybe Monterrey.

Once the jewel of the PAN economic revival, the symbol of modern corporate Mexico with shiny skyscrapers, boulevards of exclusive stores, and trendy restaurants patronized by
regios
—the young up-and-coming—Monterrey has become a nightmare.

With police basically paralyzed, crime has gotten out of control.

Downtown stores and restaurants are regularly robbed. There’s open fighting in the streets—a man was chased down, shot, and then hanged from a bridge in front of a horrified crowd.

At a trendy restaurant that made the mistake of serving Sinaloan cuisine, about a hundred
regios
were enjoying beers and
aguachile
about midnight when seven Zeta gunmen came in, made everyone lie on the floor, collected wallets and cell phones, then separated the men from the women and systematically took the women into the restrooms and raped them.

The women were afraid to press charges because their assailants kept their identification cards for purposes of retaliation.

It got worse.

A Zeta cell in the city tried to extort a casino known for laundering narco money through its accounts. The casino owners refused to pay. Keller has seen the videotapes of two pickup trucks pulling up to a Pemex station and filling plastic barrels full of gasoline. Other security cameras caught the trucks pulling up to the Casino Royale on a Saturday afternoon at about two o’clock in the afternoon. Seven gunmen get out of the trucks. They walk into the casino lobby and start to shoot. They come out, and the other Zetas roll the barrels into the casino and set them on fire.

The emergency exits were padlocked and chained.

Fifty-three people died of flame, smoke, and toxins.

Five of the attackers arrested later in the week said that they didn’t mean to kill anyone, that they were just trying to scare the owners into paying the 130,000 pesos a week.

More critical than Monterrey, the Zetas are taking ground—literally taking ground—in Guatemala, especially in the north, in the Petén district bordering Mexico. Last year, the Zetas slaughtered twenty-seven campesinos in the province, terrifying countless others off their smallholdings, and now Ochoa is consolidating power there. If he controls Guatemala, he takes Barrera’s main cocaine route into Mexico.

And the weakened CDG is (barely) hanging on against the Zetas in Matamoros, Reynosa is once again under contention between the Zetas and the CDG, and the border towns are a howling wilderness.

Despite the FES and Sinaloa pressure, the Zetas control—
rule,
really—large swaths of Mexico. They dominate numerous state and municipal police forces, have effectively silenced the mainstream media, and have established a virtual reign of terror.

And now Barrera has taken the war right into the Zeta stronghold of Nuevo Laredo.

Again.

This poor city, Keller thinks as he walks away from the garbage truck display—that’s all you can call it, truly, a “display.”

First Sinaloa fights the Gulf and the Zetas for it.

Then the Gulf and the Zetas fight each other.

Now Sinaloa fights the Zetas.

Well, Sinaloa and us.

Me.

Me and my new best friend Adán Barrera.

Barrera has shifted his focus to Nuevo Laredo, so Keller has, too, taking up residence in a nondescript “long-stay” hotel across the bridge in Laredo. He moves between Laredo and Mexico City, with only occasional stops in Valverde to see Marisol.

There’s “light” as in the opposite of “dark,” Keller thinks as he gets back in his car for the trip back across the bridge, and “light” as in the opposite of “heavy,” and his relationship with Marisol now has aspects of dark weight.

The weight of guilt, for one—Marisol’s guilt for having let Erika take the dangerous job. Keller’s guilty for not having been there to protect her, for failing to have rescued her.

Add to that a sense of immutable loss.

“Let’s be honest,” Marisol said one night during one of her starkly darker moods. “We had this little faux family going here, didn’t we? Faux marriage, faux child? Then reality hit, didn’t it?”

“Let’s get married for real, then,” Keller suggested.

She stared at him incredulously. “Do you seriously think that’s going to help?”

“It could.”

“How?’

He didn’t have an answer for that.

The rest of their mutual ennui, he supposes, is simply cumulative. He had read that the Puritans used to execute heretics by placing stones on their chests until their rib cages were crushed or they suffocated. And that’s a little what he feels like—and he supposes that Marisol does as well—the sheer cumulative weight of death after death, sorrow after sorrow, crushing them, taking the air out of their lives.

But they don’t split up. They’re both too stubborn and honorable, he thinks, to go back on the unspoken vow, the silent understanding that they would see this through together, wherever it led.

So they stay together.

Well, sort of.

He spends more and more time in the Mexico City bunker, in Laredo, on raids with FES, or on whatever front of the Mexican drug war is especially hot at the moment. Marisol is kind enough to feign sadness when he leaves, but they’re both (guiltily) relieved for the breaks from the weight that they enforce on each other.

The painful truth is that they can’t look at each other without seeing Erika.

Despite his urgings, his imprecations, his angry arguments, Marisol has stayed in Valverde, and stayed in office. She forced herself to make a brilliant, defiant speech at Erika’s funeral, made herself go through a press conference in which she again openly defied both the government and the cartels while managing to imply that there was small, if any, difference between the two. She once again made herself a target, almost as if she could not tolerate living after so many have died.

“Survivor guilt,” Keller said to her one night.

“Just as you did not appreciate my amateur psychoanalysis,” Marisol answered, “I don’t appreciate yours.”

“I don’t care if you appreciate it—”

“Thank you.”

“—I care only that you don’t carry out this death wish.”

“I don’t have a death wish,” Marisol said.

“Prove it. Move to the States with me.”

“I’m a Mexican.”

“Then come to Mexico City.”

“No.”

He’d already sold his soul to the devil, so a bonus payment that bought security for Marisol didn’t matter. Keller put out word to Adán, who sent word back to the army in the valley that La Médica Hermosa was now a friend, the lady of an important ally, to be protected at all costs.

“Do you think I’m stupid?” Marisol asked a few days later. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice soldiers patrolling outside the house? The office? The clinic? They’ve never been there before. Nor have they ever followed my car except to harass me.”

“Are they harassing you now?” asked Keller, concerned that his demand hadn’t been met.

“In fact they’re elaborately polite,” Marisol said. “What did you do?”

“What I should have done sooner,” Keller said. Except I didn’t have the power then, the goddamn alliance with Adán.

“Such a powerful man,” Marisol said. “I don’t want them.”

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t care what I want?” Marisol asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Not in this case.” He hated arguing, but it was better than the long silences, the averted eyes, the sidelong glances, the lying in bed side by side wanting to touch or at least speak but not being able. “I’m trying to protect you.”

“You’re patronizing me.”

That’s exactly what I’m doing, Keller thinks now.

Being a
patrón
.

It’s what I do now.

Fourteen Zetas skinned alive.

And I provided the intelligence that located them.

He buys “dinner” at 7-Eleven before going back to his room.


The Zetas strike back less than two weeks later, killing twenty-three of Barrera’s people. Fourteen of them are decapitated and nine hang from a bridge next to a banner reading
FUCKING BARRERA WHORES, THIS IS HOW I

M GOING TO FINISH OFF EVERY FUCKER YOU SEND TO HEAT UP THE PLAZA. THESE GUYS CRIED AND BEGGED FOR MERCY. THE REST GOT AWAY BUT I

LL GET THEM SOONER OR LATER. SEE YOU AROUND, FUCKERS.

THE Z COMPANY
.

The Nuevo Laredo police quickly come out and deny that the Sinaloa cartel is in the city, prompting Barrera’s people to leave six severed heads in ice chests outside the Nuevo Laredo police station with the message
YOU WANT CREDIBILITY THAT I’M IN NL? WHAT WILL IT TAKE, THE HEADS OF THE ZETA LEADERS? KEEP IT UP AND I ASSURE YOU THAT HEADS WILL KEEP ROLLING. I DON’T KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE LIKE YOU DO, FORTY, ALL THE DEAD ARE PURE SCUM—IN OTHER WORDS—PURE ZETAS. SINCERELY, YOUR FATHER, ADÁN
.

Once again, the grisly images appear on
Esta Vida.

Once again, the Zetas vow that they will find Wild Child.


The problem, Keller thinks, is that we can’t get to Forty or Ochoa, and until we decapitate that two-headed snake, we won’t crush the Zetas. We can take down as many underbosses as we want, but until we get Forty and Ochoa, the Zetas just keep marching on.

Forty is apparently again in charge of defending Nuevo Laredo from Barrera, but he’s never spotted in the city. Barrera’s people are looking for him, the FES is looking for him, American intelligence is looking for him, but so far, he’s invisible. They just find his handiwork, hanging from bridges or dumped on the sides of roads.

And Ochoa is easily the most elusive cartel leader since, well, Adán Barrera. He moves from safe house to safe house, in Valle Hermoso, in Saltillo out in Coahuila. He’s said to meet with Forty once a month at ranches in Río Bravo, Sabinas, or Hidalgo. Or they go hunting zebras, gazelles, and other “exotics” at private game ranches in Coahuila or San Luis Potosí. Or they watch their horses race as they sit in armored cars near the track, surrounded by bodyguards.

In all the Zeta territories, they hire
ventanas
—lookouts.
Ambulantes,
store clerks, neighborhood kids, who watch for the police or the marines, and use whistles or cell phones to give warnings. Los Tapados—“the Hidden Ones”—are poor children hired to put up pro-Zeta banners, chant slogans, and protest the presence of the military and the
federales.

The government can’t find Ochoa, and he shoves the fact in their faces. Just three hundred yards from an army base in the 18th Military Zone, he endowed a church, where a plaque reads
CENTER OF EVANGELIZATION AND CATECHISM. DONATED BY HERIBERTO OCHOA
. He uses a Nextel phone once, and then throws it away. Like Barrera, Z-1 eschews the showy persona of other narcos
.
He doesn’t frequent clubs and restaurants, doesn’t show off his wealth.

He just kills.

It’s the hunt for Barrera redux, except this time the Mexican government is putting massive resources into the effort. MexSat, the national security system, operates two Boeing 702 HP satellite systems, costing over a billion dollars, from ground control stations in Mexico City and Hermosillo. It scans the country for signs of Forty and Ochoa and finds nothing.

American drones fly over the border area like hawks hunting for mice.

And find nothing.

“What if we’re looking on the wrong border?” Keller asks Orduña one day in Mexico City. “What if they’re not in Mexico at all? What if they’re in Guatemala?”

Ochoa has a grasp of military history. What if he’s adopted the classic guerrilla strategy of basing himself in an extraterritorial sanctuary across a border in a neutral country?

Where Barrera is relatively weak, and where the FES can’t get to him. Even Orduña won’t cross an international border. It makes sense—the Zetas have been increasingly active in Guatemala, and maybe Ochoa has decided to run his war from there.

“We’re still talking about eight hundred miles of border,” Orduña says. “Rain forest, jungle, hills.”

“Wasn’t there a mass killing in Guatemala recently?” Keller asks. “Twenty-seven people in a village? Where was that?”

The sort of thing that used to make headlines and is now considered just another day of business as usual. But Orduña goes back through the intelligence files and locates the site.

Dos Erres is a small village in the Petén district, in a heavily forested area not far from the border.

Orduña orders a satellite run.

Two days later, he and Keller look at the photographs.

The village itself looks pretty standard—a dirt road runs through a hamlet of small houses and huts, with a small church and what looks to be a school. But to the east of the village there’s a freshly cut rectangle with the outlines of what seem to be neatly ordered rows of tents.

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