The Mexican cartel’s recent killing of two American citizens and kidnapping of two others in the border town of Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, was a grim reminder that the transition “on the other side“It’s a dangerous business.
As someone who lived and worked in Brownsville in the 1970s and returns there often, I know all too well that the border today is a much different world than the border was then. That reality is something that even I choose to forget sometimes.
For US citizens who are not of Latino origin or who do not speak Spanish, crossing the border has not been safe for two decades. Long periods of calm suddenly give way to violence that can claim the lives of those caught in the middle. Rival cartels fighting for turf long ago killed the once-vibrant tourism industry along the border, even as a stream of Americans continue to pass through for a good time, to access pharmaceuticals or more affordable medical care, or on road trips to domestic destinations such as San Miguel de Allende.
I moved from Brownsville to Matamoros exactly a month ago with me godmother, my son, Philip True Jr., and his Matamoros-born mother, Marta, for Philip’s 24th birthday celebration and luncheon. I also walked over a few months ago with Jerry McHale, a close friend and longtime Brownsville resident who served as best man at my wedding 41 plus years ago, for dinner and drinks.
We both speak good Spanish and know how to mingle, but even that is no guarantee.
Powerful drug cartels operate with relative impunity in the border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, or anywhere across the border from Brownsville to Laredo. They show no mercy to their victims and tourists should not expect the police to keep calm or come to their aid. Mexico’s law enforcement agencies are highly corrupt and dysfunctional, and the country’s judicial system exists in name only. Justice in Mexico, when it can be had, is either bought, or in rare cases, given under strong political pressure, usually from the United States government.
In the latest case, a cartel handed over five low-level gang members to local authorities, dumping them along a public road where they were picked up by police and quickly charged as the murderers and kidnappers of four North American citizens. Carolina. Welcome to justice, Mexican style. Who knows if they are fall guys or really guilty? Mexican authorities rarely convict murderers in open criminal trials, but often declare cases solved and closed.
The cartels finance their activities mainly through the cultivation, production and smuggling of drugs, with side businesses of kidnapping, robbery and extortion. They generate a lot of money to buy off politicians, cops, and pay for assault weapons, ammunition, and handguns bought from Texas and smuggled into the South. The US also serves as the main consumer market for heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. It is a mutually destructive system.
Every few months I go south to Brownsville, where my newspaper career began in 1977, and where I became bilingual and bicultural, to visit real family and old friends.
Philip never knew his father, Philip True, the Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News, who disappeared on a solo trip home in Mexico’s Sierra Madre in 1998. I was True’s editor and joined a military search party while his pregnant wife Martha waited at their home in the capital. We found True’s hidden grave deep at the bottom of the wide Chapalagana Canyon in Huichol indigenous territory. Weeks later, authorities arrested two Huichol brothers-in-law, who confessed to the murder. It took four years to win a manslaughter conviction and 20 years in prison, only for a corrupt judge to free them before he too could escape. Through three Mexican presidencies we sought their recovery, to no avail. That’s Mexican justice for you.
Later I wrote The trail of feathers, a book about True’s murder and our pursuit of his killers. Rights from that book and generous contributions from Hearst Corp. and the Express-News created an educational trust that has cared for Philip since his birth and continues to cover the cost of his education as a junior at the University of Texas Rio Grande. The valley.
We celebrated True’s high school graduation years ago in Matamoros, first with a Mass at a Catholic convent and then with his extended Mexican family at a Matamoros restaurant. We have shared many other occasions, especially birthdays, in Brownsville, but on occasions like last month, we switch to Matamoros. Word on the street last month signaled it was safe to pass. The rival cartels were quiet.
Voting in the state elections was taking place on a particular Sunday, so the sale of alcohol was prohibited. We dined at La Catrina, a recently opened restaurant named La Calavera Catrina, the face of death on Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, in Mexico. My presence in the restaurant drew a few second glances, so I was sure to wish everyone well in Spanish as I walked by. Local families were relaxed as children ran around the tables. Food and service were excellent. It was good to be back.
As we approached the bridge to head home, Martha’s phone lit up with messages warning that cartel violence had broken out on the outskirts of town. With me in the car and traffic backed up on the International Veterans Bridge, it would take hours to get across. Without me in the car, Martha’s global pass would allow her to move quickly into the express lane.
Marta turned around and dropped Philip and I off at the International Gateway Bridge, which we easily walked through the backed-up traffic. Marta went back to the International Veterans Bridge and it also went quickly without incident and we rejoined the US side.
Texting is a common way for cross-border residents to stay alert for trouble. They are a reminder that calm can quickly give way to chaos at a moment’s notice. Weeks later, this calm would give way to tragedy for four American citizens. For two of them there would be no return.
I have plans to go back to see Philip again in June. We’ve already booked this the next time we indulge in a backyard cookout in Brownsville.
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