by Peter Gorman, Fort Worth Weekly
The drug war raging along the US-Mexico border might seem distant to many in North Texas, but it landed squarely in one Fort Worth woman’s living room in late February, when her grown son, a US citizen, was kidnapped by armed gunman in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas.
Two months later, she still has not heard a word from the kidnappers regarding a ransom and believes that her 19-year-old son and two other relatives may have been taken to serve as slave labor in some drug boss’ operation. It’s a better outcome to imagine than believing her son has been killed.
Unfortunately, she’s not alone in her worries: A recent US State Department travel alert notes that “In recent years, dozens of U.S. citizens have been kidnapped in Mexico,” in crimes believed to be the work of drug gangs. Some have been heard from, and others haven’t. The travel alert noted that many of the cases remain unresolved. In fact, such kidnappings by drug gangs are epidemic in Mexico. Sylvia, who is being identified only by her first name, said other members of her own family in Mexico have already disappeared in similar incidents.
Names are withheld to protect Sylvia and her son from retaliation. Rather than give either of her son’s names, he is referred to in this story as Julio.
“In my heart I don’t believe my son is dead,” Sylvia said. “I believe he is being forced to work for the cartels. Those who are not dead must work to earn their food, and as no one has asked the family there or sent word to me for a ransom, that’s what I’m praying has happened.”
Julio, she said, was visiting relatives in the small village of Sombrerete when a caravan of late-model vehicles roared up to the ranch house. The armed men who emerged ordered everyone inside to get in the cars. In addition to Julio, two of his male cousins, ages 15 and 21, three women from the family, and one infant were taken.
The kidnappers are believed to be members of the Zetas, the US-trained Mexican drug war soldiers who years ago changed their allegiance, became notoriously violent enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, and now in some areas are believed to have broken off and formed their own cartel.
“The Zetas just move into the town, and they take whatever they want,” said Sylvia. “They just tell people to move out if they want a house or tell farmers to give them a cow if they want one. And no one will stand up to them, because if they do the men will come and kill them. It’s very bad there now.”
An official in an investigative agency of the Zacatecas government, who would not give his name, said that, until about a year ago, Sombrerete was out of the range of the drug war. But with Mexico’s push to clamp down on the cartels, the town, like many others in rural Mexico, was essentially invaded by young gang members looking for a place where the military and other gangs wouldn’t search for them. “The disruption caused by the drug war is causing all sorts of movement through the country,” said the official. “We’re seeing cartel members cropping up in places we never have before.”
The description of the kidnapping came from one of the women who were abducted. After driving through the hillsides for more than two hours, she said, she, the other women, and the baby were released. The woman told Sylvia that she counted 15 cars in the caravan. She said the men were dressed in military-looking uniforms and carrying automatic weapons.
It’s not the first time the Zetas have preyed on her family, Sylvia said. “Last summer the father of the family [in Sombrerete] was kidnapped, and his oldest son brought a ransom. Neither of them has been seen since. And now they’ve taken that family’s two other sons and my son as well. I don’t know how the word does not get out about what’s happening in Zacatecas, but maybe it’s because the people who write the news are afraid to report about it because they’ll be killed if they do.”
Sylvia said she begged Julio not to visit his cousins. “After he graduated high school last year in Oakland, California, I decided we should move here to Fort Worth. It’s just three of us: Julio, his eight-year-old brother, and me. And Julio found work building houses and saved money. But when they stopped building houses here, he got restless and wanted to go. I told him not to, that it wasn’t safe.”
She said Julio promised her that nothing would happen to him because he doesn’t do the things that would get him in trouble. “He doesn’t fight or even drink beer,” she said. “I told him if he had to go, then to make it a short visit. But then he found a girlfriend and decided to stay a little longer, and then this happened.”
After learning of her son’s abduction, Sylvia got in touch with a community activist on Fort Worth’s East Side. Together they contacted authorities in Mexico to report what had happened. Mexico responded by sending the equivalent of an assistant district attorney to Fort Worth to talk with them.
“The woman who came was very nice, but I don’t think she’ll do anything,” said the activist, who also asked not to be named. “The situation is so bad in some places that the government really can’t do anything.”
Andy Laney, a spokesman for the State Department, said his agency has known about the incident since shortly after it happened. “I am told that the FBI office in Dallas has been involved in the case, and the FBI takes the lead on cases involving kidnapping of American citizens in Mexico,” he said. But the Washington, DC-based official said he had no knowledge of what had happened to the young men in Sombrerete.
Typically, kidnappings are followed by ransom demands, often after the abductees have been tortured into telling their kidnappers about relatives in the United States who might be able to raise ransom money.
In other cases, however, no ransom demand is ever delivered, either because the victims have been killed or because they are being forced to work for the drug lords. The forced-labor movement is well known in Mexico but has not received much coverage in this country.
One kidnapping that did make the US news occurred on Nov. 10, 2008, when 27 farm workers were abducted in Sinaloa state just outside the capital of Culiacán. According to a New York Times report, the men were thought to have been taken to work under duress on marijuana plantations.
The anonymous Zacatecan investigative official acknowledged that forced labor is becoming more common throughout certain areas of Mexico. But he added, “We have had no confirmed cases of it happening here in Zacatecas.”
Author and freelance investigative journalist Bill Weinberg, whose specialty is Latin America, said that while it’s often difficult to prove, “There is strong reason to believe” that some people are being kidnapped to work in marijuana or opium fields. Others are used to move drugs for the cartels or as inductees into groups like the Zetas and others, he said.
“There is a history of forced labor in Mexico since colonial times,” he said. “Recently, where drugs are concerned, it’s mostly gone on in remote areas where the indigenous are held in semi-feudalism to the local bosses. But now, with Mexico spinning out of control and with drug-war kidnapping at epic proportions all over the country, it simply stands to reason that this is happening.”
A spokesperson for the FBI in Washington DC said that the kidnapping of US citizens in Mexico, particularly along the border, is a frequent problem, but she could not confirm any cases of US citizens kidnapped into forced labor in Mexico. She confirmed that the agency is investigating dozens of kidnap-for-ransom cases but said she had no statistics to show how many other cases might involve family squabbles or child custody, for instance, versus drug cartel activity.
“We cannot be under the illusion that the war in Mexico is not crossing the border,” said the Fort Worth activist who is helping Sylvia. “It is affecting the United States. This is just one case, but there are hundreds more around the country.”
This story first appeared April 29 in the Fort Worth Weekly.
From our Daily Report:
Mexico: shake-up in wake of Zacatecas jailbreak
World War 4 Report, May 23, 2009
Mexico: gunmen kill reporter, kidnap farmworkers
World War 4 Report, Nov. 15, 2008
Marcos: forced labor camps in Sonora
World War 4 Report, Oct. 26, 2006
Reprinted by World War 4 Report, June 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution