Fishy business

by Hamish McKenzie / 29 January, 2011
Drug cartels are running wild on the Texas-Mexico border, but Kiwi journalist Hamish McKenzie asks whether the story of a recent disappearance is too good to be true?

There's a murder mystery in the US border town of Zapata and everyone at its Longhorn Bar has a theory about what happened. Several drinkers are suspicious of the story the dead man's wife told. "She's a lying bitch!" calls out a man in a cowboy hat sitting at a table behind us, his hands cupped over his mouth in faux ­amplification.

The folks at the Longhorn this Tuesday night seem to agree the shooting on nearby Falcon Lake last September can be explained by one of three scenarios: the wife had him knocked off so she could claim the insurance money; it was all faked so the husband could "disappear" and the couple could live off the money; or it was a drug deal gone wrong.

This corner of Texas has been rubbing shoulders with one of the most violent wars in the world. Just across the border, the Mexican army has been engaged in a years-long struggle against the better-paid and more ruthless paramilitaries of the drug cartels. In the past five years alone, 30,000 people - including law enforcers, politicians and journalists - have been killed as President Felipe Calderón tries to squash the drugs trade.

The cartels are flush with cash from marijuana and cocaine sold on the American market. They are sophisticated and corporatised, with divisions set up for shipping, receiving, surveillance, ­counter-surveillance and finances. They have a presence in more than 100 US cities and kill to protect their trade in Mexico, sending a grim message to the public: "This is our territory."

The drinkers this evening are confident the violence won't spill over the border into the US. "They'll never come here," puffs one obese chap in a cowboy hat, leaning back on his bar-side stool and throwing his arms up. "You know why? Everyone's got guns! We're the best border patrol Texas has."

There are areas of Mexico that the corrupt police and the armed forces won't enter - cartel zones. One of them is right on Zapata's doorstep, on Falcon Lake, where the Zeta cartel has a stronghold. The man-made lake, formed by flooding the banks of the Rio Grande, straddles the border between Texas and Mexico. It's one of the best bass fishing spots in the country. American fishermen can move freely between Mexican and American waters to seek their sport.

In one corner of the lake - which reaches up to 8km wide - sits Old Guerrero, a Mexican village submerged when the lake was created in the 1950s to provide for irrigation. The town's old church is still half-visible above water and has proven a popular tourist attraction. It was here that 30-year-old Colorado man David Hartley was shot dead on September 30. His 29-year-old wife, Tiffany, managed to escape.

According to Tiffany, the Hartleys were visiting the church on their jetskis when they were approached by a Mexican fishing boat. The men aboard had guns, and when they got close, they started firing. David took a bullet in the head; Tiffany fled. When the shooters retreated, the 145cm-tall wife returned to try to retrieve her 208cm-tall husband. He was too heavy. As she tried to lift his body onto her jetski, the gunmen returned and she had to speed off.

Many of the locals in Zapata - population 5000 - doubt Tiffany's story. Those jetskis could easily outrun the quaint wooden fishing boats, they say, and there's no way the gunmen would have been able to get close enough to shoot him. It doesn't make sense that she would be able to get away alive. And why haven't they found a body?

The murder investigation has been slow. Because the crime happened on the Mexican side of the border, there's not a lot the Zapata County Sheriff's Office can do.

Hartley was killed in Mexico by Mexicans. It is Mexico's job to solve the case. That's a big ask. According to Mexico's human rights commission, only 1% of reported crimes in the country result in sentencing.

Within days of the Hartley murder, the chief investigator's head was delivered in a suitcase to the Mexican military.

Apart from the nearby oil and gas fields, tourism is the biggest contributor to Zapata's economy. Folk come from all over the country to fish the lake for its bounty of enormous largemouth bass, which grow up to 75cm long, weigh as much as 10kg and have an upper jaw that stretches back beyond their eyes. As well as smaller fish, they eat frogs, snakes, bats and even baby alligators.

To catch largemouth bass, you have be patient. They're good at hiding. You have to be cunning - switching baits, creeping into weedy areas, fishing just below the surface. Once hooked, a bass fights so hard for its life it gets airborne.

Since the Hartley shooting, few bass have been flying above the waters of Falcon Lake. Half a dozen fishing tournaments have been cancelled, and despite local protestations that the lake is safe - on the US side at least - fishermen seem reluctant to make the long trip south. To get here, close to the southeasternmost tip of Texas, visitors drive for days or fly to nearby border city Laredo, an hour's drive away.

"A lot of people are scared to come," says Tom Bendele, owner of Falcon Lake Tackle. There are two spots on the Mexican side where it would be unwise to fish, he says, but apart from that there's no trouble. Those spots are believed to be where the Zetas are protecting large drug stashes.

The local economy is hurting. Hotel bookings are down. Bendele says his business has halved since the shooting. Still, he holds hope for the future. "We have some tournaments still coming, and they have to get out there and show that there's no trouble any more. People will come back. There's some great fishing out there."

Ignacio de la Garza, president of Tamaulipas Sport Fishing Association, just happens to be in the store when I visit. He lives on the Mexican side of the lake and says the violence has settled for the time being. "Because of the presence of the military and the marines, the area is calm. We hope they stay there long enough to get rid of all the bad boys."

Down by the public boat ramp on Wednesday morning, it's windy and cold. Border patrol agent Narcizo Ramos, in shirt sleeves and wrap­around sunglasses, grits his teeth and shivers while discussing the challenges his colleagues face patrolling the lake. Zapata County is one of nine stations in the Laredo Sector, which arrests 30,000 people a year for illegal entry and drug smuggling. At Falcon Lake, which represents a quarter of the Zapata County team's beat, human smuggling isn't much of a problem. "Human smugglers through trial and error have realised this is not a good place to smuggle people," says Ramos, a former marine who has worked as a patrol agent in Zapata for 10 years. Drugs, on the other hand, cross regularly.

He points across the lake to the border marker posts near where the shooting happened. Marker post number 14 sits near Salado Island, likely home to a large stash. "The drug organisations are just protecting the areas they work out of," says Ramos.

Before the Hartley shooting, there had been four reported armed robberies of American fishing boats near the area. Some analysts have speculated the cartel is running low on money and has resorted to robbery to supplement its income. Faced with an expensive and destructive war against the Mexican army, the Zetas are possibly being stretched thin. Says Ramos: "Their routes are diminishing."

Drug "mules" import the loads in simple Mexican fishing boats - usually about 6m long and powered by outboard motors - which they hide in the brush around the lake's fringes. The cartels pay the mules anywhere between US$50 and US$200 a load, which can weigh up to 90kg. If the border patrol catches the boats in US waters, the occupants are arrested and jailed. The boats are abundant on the lake, especially at dawn and dusk, the best times for fishing. "We see them so often it's like blending in with the traffic."

Ramos spends a lot of time talking about how committed his men are to protecting the border, and how the sector recently increased its manpower and technology to help fight the smugglers. When asked how many drugs slip through the cracks, he asks, "How many do you think?", as if to emphasise the impossibility of knowing. "As far as I know, we are 100% ­effective."

Sheriff Sigi Gonzalez sees it differently. "The lake is wide open, the river is wide open. This border is not as protected as people think it is. It is very vulnerable."

Gonzalez, a candid and talkative man in possession of a Blackberry whose boisterous ringtone trills several times during our interview, has lived in Zapata for almost all his 54 years. He used to cross the border to Mexico regularly to visit the dentist or buy liquor, but the unrest has changed all that: he hasn't been across in 16 years. Meanwhile, he can never tell who his Mexican counterparts are, because they can change from day to day.

He says the Zetas are well-equipped and sophisticated and have spies all over the place - even in Zapata. "Here they're keeping a somewhat low profile, but they're very active." He has heard they are getting ready to use satellite technology to support their smuggling efforts. He reckons home invasions on the US side are up and has heard reports of extortion attempts in Zapata.

A few months ago, Gonzalez's department prevented a kidnapping of a Zapata resident and arrested three Mexican men for the crime. He says the incident is evidence that the troubles in Mexico are spilling over the border. "We used to never have kidnappings at all."

The Hartley investigation is on­going, he says, noting that authorities recently identified two suspects involved in the shooting. But the crime happened in Mexico, and that limits his power: Gonzalez can't fish those waters.

The sheriff believes Tiffany Hartley's story, despite the theories being spun around town. The reported robberies from earlier in the year meshed with what happened to the Hartleys, with only one difference - this time, someone got shot. He says witnesses on the lake that day corroborated her version of events.

The Hartleys recently lived in Reynosa, Mexico, where David was working in oil and gas. The escalating violence in the city finally spurred them to leave and set up home in McAllen, Texas, just across the border. David continued to work in Mexico until he learnt he would be transferred back to his home state, Colorado. Before the couple left, they took their jetskis out for one last spin on Falcon Lake. They planned to take photos of the sunken church.

Perhaps Zeta informants saw the Mexico licence plates on the couple's pick-up truck, parked at the Zapata boat ramp, and thought they were spies from the rival Gulf cartel. Perhaps the couple's jetskis got too close to the stash. Perhaps David's camera caused alarm among the Zetas stationed near the church. Or maybe, as some locals guess, it was a drug deal gone wrong. Perhaps Tiffany, who had David's blood splattered on her life jacket, faked the whole ordeal so he could escape and live a secret life. Or did she have him killed so she could claim the insurance money?

Those questions might never be answered. For now, the only thing ­Sheriff Gonzalez knows is that David Hartley is not coming back to the US. Contacts from within the Zeta cartel have told the sheriff his body will never be found. The remaining facts have wriggled off the line, the truth just another victim of a drug war beyond control.

Meanwhile, the bass of Falcon Lake will enjoy some respite.

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