Fear Is Just a Word: A Missing Daughter, a Violent Cartel, and a Mother's Quest for Vengeance
“This is a compelling, well-crafted exploration of a world turned culturally upside down by what might well be characterized as a civil war in which the abnormal becomes normal, and people live in a fog of endemic fear, threat, and danger.”
The Mexican State embarked on a disastrous drug war in 2006. The objective was to reign in drug cartels and reduce violence. It had the opposite effect: propelling many parts of Mexico into deepening and endemic violence and chaos. The reasons for this are complex. In short form, the dominant strategy of taking out top leadership resulted in a fragmentation of cartels into smaller and lethally competitive groups. Add to this that all levels and branches of government were either on the cartel dole and/or interpenetrated by cartel members. In this way, the power of the state became yet another resource used by diverse cartels against one another.
Azam Ahmed animates this grim story by focusing on the kidnapping and murder of a young woman, Karen Rodríguez, by members of the Zetas Cartel in 2014. She was abducted in a small, seemingly mundane rural town, San Fernando, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. On closer inspection, the town is midway between the state capital, Cuidad Victoria, and the border town of Matamoros, directly adjacent to Brownsville, Texas. In Mexican parlance, it is a “plaza”—lucrative but contested turf that can be won or lost. For all manner of contraband must pass through and, thus, falling subject to cartel control.
Because cartels control local and regional security and political dynamics, they operate with impunity. As a side hustle they sell drugs locally, shake down local farmers and businesses, and kidnap. Though a ransom was paid and assurances were made, Karen was never returned.
The story of the growth and evolution of cartel power in this town is told through Karen’s mother, Miriam, who immerses herself in the pursuit of Karen’s abductors and killers. The story takes us through a phalanx of shady cartel characters: Sama, Cristiano, El Flaco, The Florist, El Mario, El Kike, La Chaparra, La Guera Soto, and La Machorra to name just a few.
Ahmed deftly counterbalances the tight focus on Miriam’s search for justice with broader discussions outlining the broader political history that spawned the local branch of the Gulf Cartel and its rival, the Zetas. We are introduced to charismatic figures who forge political networks in support of what today would be seen as small-time smuggling. The key, however, is the tightknit relationship between emerging cartels in the 1940s and Mexican political culture that spiraled upward to the president. For the president appointed customs officials who control the flow of legal and illicit goods in and out of Tamaulipas and beyond. Early on smuggling became a key part of the regional economy. Political/military/security protection follows the money.
Small-time smuggling graduated to big-time drug trafficking and other illicit activities by the 1990s into the 2000s. The Gulf Cartel, and its Zetas military wing became a rapidly metastasizing cancer on society. The modern class of cartel entrepreneurs ushered in new forms of consumerism (perhaps a movie theater and a major grocery chain). But that quickly transformed into a full-blown takeover: curfews, blockades and checkpoints, disappearances, kidnappings, murders, and extortion of businesses, large and small. San Fernando became a resonating chamber of fear and paranoia.
Violence worsened as the Zetas broke with their former bosses in the Gulf Cartel in 2010 and ruled San Fernando with a vengeful zeal. It’s useful to remember that this is the place where 72 Central American migrants were summarily executed in a farm outside of town. Terror and impunity reigned.
Finally, the Mexican military reoccupied the town, killing or displacing most of the old Zetas. Life returned to some semblance of normalcy. But not for long. As the military presence receded a diminished, younger group of Zetas re-embedded themselves back into town—one might think that this would lead to some sort of equilibrium between the Zetas and everyday townsfolk.
In actuality, a damaged organization run by less experienced, more hot-headed leaders resulted in organizational dysfunction and unpredictable decision making. Life, in other words, became even more dangerous, threatening, and violent.
Throughout, Miriam remains a relentless pursuer of her daughter’s murderers: sleuthing out networks of leads. At once she navigates Mexico’s byzantine bureaucratic culture, tracks down the culprits, informs the police, and one-by-one gets them arrested.
And why murder Karen? The Zetas thought she was connected to the Gulf Cartel, now their rival. A case of mistaken identity got her brutally murdered at a nearby narco-ranch.
This is a compelling, well-crafted exploration of a world turned culturally upside down by what might well be characterized as a civil war in which the abnormal becomes normal, and people live in a fog of endemic fear, threat, and danger. It is a world of mimetic fragments in which the large and small details of life’s scenes are constantly askew. Violence is now part of daily life with casualties on all sides, including the innocent like Karen. The death toll mounts.
The book ends with a return visit to the ranch where Karen was killed. In a perverse, but all too predictable twist, the new owner is a low-level Zeta operative. It’s a strong reminder that while the players may change, the cycles of cartel control get produced and reproduced in a manner that the Mexican government seems unable (or unwilling) to eradicate.