The Disappeared, Part 2 - Mother's Day

The Disappeared, Part 2 - Mother's Day

No one takes on the cartel and comes away unscathed. Miriam Rodriguez understood that from the start. In the second and final part of this extraordinary True Spies story, The New York Times’ Azam Ahmed picks up the story of the housekeeper who sought revenge on Mexico’s notorious Zetas. Having discovered the grim truth of what happened to her kidnapped daughter, Miriam Rodriguez makes it her life’s mission to bring down the criminals responsible for her murder, becoming increasingly adept at high-wire deep cover work in the process. She will not rest until the Zetas have been made to pay but her bold quest comes with an enormous personal price tag.
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True Spies, Episode 202 - The Disappeared, Part 2

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Rhiannon Neads, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

AZAM AHMED: Three years after her daughter's been kidnapped, Miriam has established herself as the pre-eminent investigator for the cause of the missing and the 'disappeared'. And the more she knows, the more she realizes the specific danger she's in, and yet... She knows she's not going to stop.

NARRATOR: The Disappeared, Part 2 - Mother’s Day. September 15, 2014. Cuidad Victoria, Mexico. Amidst the crowds celebrating El Grito, Mexico’s Independence Day, Miriam Rodriguez’s son Luis is doing anything but. Fixated on a man a few yards ahead, he follows him further into the masses.

AZAM AHMED: He calls his mom. He says, “I have him in my sight.” 

NARRATOR: Miriam makes a call of her own to a federal police contact.

AZAM AHMED: She decides, “All right, it's time to see whether this guy means what he said, time to see whether he's going to help me.”

NARRATOR: “I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” the police officer says. Rushing to the scene, he links up with Luis, who points out their mark - Zeta commander Sama. The officer and his two deputies walk on, telling Luis to stay put. After a few seconds, Luis sees Sama turn to face them. Not able to hear through the din of the festival, the conversation seems casual, almost friendly. Within a minute Sama and the three officers are headed for the barrier fencing. They cross through, then march on and out of sight. Luis wonders if they’re simply tipping Sama off, getting him out of there. But then Miriam gets a call. “Meet me at the State Attorney General’s office,” the officer says. “Sama has been arrested.”

AZAM AHMED: And so begins their first formal interview with one of the people involved in the kidnapping.

NARRATOR: Last week, we heard how Mexican shopkeeper Miriam Rodriguez decided to take on her daughter’s kidnappers, The Zetas. In this, the second episode of True Spies’ two-part special on the hunt, you’ll hear how Miriam tightened the net around her targets despite the dangers involved.

AZAM AHMED: She's on this madcap campaign to go after The Zetas, which is unthinkable. Hard men, people who have dedicated their lives to organized crime. The kind of people who could kill 72 migrants or bury hundreds of bodies in mass graves.

NARRATOR: Such was the ubiquity of kidnapping in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas that the Attorney General had established an office to deal specifically with the phenomenon. And now, Miriam Rodriguez was inside that very office with someone involved in her daughter’s abduction.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam had managed to do this by sheer force of personality because in some ways there's a hierarchy of need that isn't necessarily based on what you've been through. There are certainly people who have been through worse than Miriam but she just wanted it more. 

NARRATOR: Sama was led into an interrogation room and began to testify. Miriam stood watching through the two-way glass.

AZAM AHMED: And it's clear from the evidence - and from pictures I've seen - that it wasn't a friendly, entirely hands-off questioning. 

NARRATOR: This is Azam Ahmed, The New York Times investigative journalist who has reported on Miriam’s story for years. He notes that, in Mexican police parlance, heavy-handed interrogations are called ‘therapy’.

AZAM AHMED: We would more commonly know it as torture.

NARRATOR: After some ‘therapy’, Sama confirmed that Karen was kidnapped but denied that he had anything to do with it.

AZAM AHMED: There were rumors she was working for a rival cartel, i.e. the Gulf Cartel.

NARRATOR: That’s why she was taken, Sama explained. “That’s not possible,” Miriam thought. “Yes, she had gone off the rails, but she was no narco.” Sama continued, adding that…

AZAM AHMED: He only heard secondhand what happened to her and that was that she'd been killed.

NARRATOR: Standing behind the two-way glass to the side of the room, Miriam freezes.

AZAM AHMED: It's the first time she confronts the reality that her daughter - in spite of what she's told herself, which is that she's dead - might actually be dead.

NARRATOR: But not only that. Sama says…

AZAM AHMED: “They told me they killed her in an awful way.” 

NARRATOR: Miriam starts to feel faint but Sama continues.

AZAM AHMED: And also begins to tell the names of other people involved.

NARRATOR: Miriam takes out her notebook and writes down the names. One was already dead. Another in prison for another crime. But then Sama says another name, Cristiano. Hearing his physical description, Miriam looks up.

AZAM AHMED: And Miriam remembers Cristiano quite clearly because Cristiano had been with Sama on the day that they asked for the second ransom when she was stopped in traffic by this Ford Explorer. 

NARRATOR: Sama tells the officers where they can find Cristiano. He peddles weed on the street corner in the Horacio Terán neighborhood.

AZAM AHMED: And the next day, the same federal police officer arrests Cristiano. And so Cristiano comes in for questioning. Cristiano’s a young boy playing at [being a] gangster, not even 17 at the time.

NARRATOR: But the fact that their suspect is just a kid makes no difference to the federal police officers in the room.

AZAM AHMED: They start to conduct their “therapy”.

NARRATOR: Cristiano cries out for his mother. Miriam is watching the scene through the two-way glass.

AZAM AHMED: And Miriam feels this deep pang of sympathy, something feral, almost.

NARRATOR: Then he says he’s hungry. Miriam’s resolve crumbles.

AZAM AHMED: And she has food with her. And she goes in and gives it to him, and the boy eats.

NARRATOR: Then Cristiano starts to talk.

AZAM AHMED: He just tells her everything. 

NARRATOR: The picture of what happened that night and who was involved starts to sharpen. Sama is the right-hand man to the big boss in San Fernando, Cristiano tells Miriam. Sama was there the night of Karen’s kidnapping, as was another Zeta called Cuitol. But he’s now dead, Cristiano says. The Zetas checked Karen’s phone after the kidnapping. There were pictures of armed men riding in her truck. Cristiano says: “We didn’t know who they were. We assumed the Gulf Cartel. That was why she was killed.” Cristiano even tells her where Karen is buried. Shortly after, the officers throw Cristiano into the back of a police car. Directing them to the site, eventually Cristiano points out a dirt track. Miriam sees she has been there before. It’s the Basurero.

AZAM AHMED: And she finally connects like, “Okay. Not only was my daughter here, she was killed here.”

NARRATOR: Getting out of the car, Cristiano walks over to a patch of dirt.

AZAM AHMED: And he says Karen's remains were buried here.

NARRATOR: Miriam freezes. While now finally standing where her daughter is buried, she felt numb, the remnants of the edifice of her life collapsing around her.

AZAM AHMED: Even more so than she had with Sama, it dawns on her that her daughter is dead.

NARRATOR: The officers call in a forensics team. Digging the area up, they find bone fragments. But soon, Miriam discovers that Mexican forensics is no better than Mexican policing.

AZAM AHMED: They have state-of-the-art technologies at their disposal and yet they have utter and complete incompetence in managing samples, evidence collection, and then matching those things up with the DNA of families.

NARRATOR: Months go by without any word of a match from the DNA samples. But by now, Miriam is a close associate of the federal police officer who caught Sama along with several other members of the authorities she’s come across on her journey. After applying constant pressure, she finally gets a result.

AZAM AHMED: After forcing them to send these samples to Washington in the United States to get tested and then returned back, she confirms that the few small bones that they've discovered are her daughter's.

NARRATOR: And so, a year after she was kidnapped, Karen’s family finally held her funeral.

AZAM AHMED: To explain why this matters so much… A gravestone is where you go to mourn your loved one. It’s a physical anchor that tethers you to their loss. It is the embodiment of closure. And if you don't have that again, you're stuck in this liminal, ethereal space of perpetual mourning and perpetual hope in this toxic cycle. 

NARRATOR: After the service’s conclusion, Miriam and her daughter Azalea stood motionless by the casket. Azalea turned to her mother and asked…

AZAM AHMED: When does this end? When are you going to stop this mad quest?

NARRATOR: Miriam lifted the casket and pulled out the bag of bones. She replied: “This is what they left me of my daughter. You think I’m going to stop?” Leaving the church, Miriam pulled out her notebook and turned to a list of names. 

AZAM AHMED: She has Cristiano. She has Sama.

NARRATOR: But there were now other names on the list. Many others. Including one that’s her priority.

AZAM AHMED: It turns out that through some extraordinary miracle of mercy, someone who was kidnapped alongside Karen was allowed to live. And that someone was actually a friend of the family. 

NARRATOR: Carlos, a mechanic who lived nearby. Miriam is desperate to make a connection.

AZAM AHMED: She needs to know what he saw. She needs to know what he heard. There's more. He's the only living witness who can actually tell her honestly what happened, what transpired.

NARRATOR: And now, Miriam has managed to get hold of him online.

AZAM AHMED: Carlos refused to meet with her, tell her where he was. He's obviously traumatized. He's seen people murdered in front of him. He barely escaped with his life on the promise that if he ever spoke, they'd come for him and they'd kill him. And it's a promise you knew they would keep.

NARRATOR: But after Miriam tells him that Sama and Cristiano are now in jail, he relents. And not only that.

AZAM AHMED: She convinces Carlos to give a declaration or statement to the prosecutorial authorities.

NARRATOR: At the prosecutor’s office in Cuidad Victoria, Carlos sits down with several officers and Miriam.

AZAM AHMED: She's, by now, so close to the prosecutors and police and so central to their investigation that she's often allowed to sit in on their interrogations and feed them questions, provide them with evidence that she's collected to contradict, to refute testimony from whoever is speaking.

NARRATOR: Carlos begins.

AZAM AHMED: This is the first time she gets the grim, dark narrative of what's happened to her daughter.

NARRATOR: On the night of January 24, 2014, Carlos and his cousin go to Karen’s house to fix her car. Upon arriving, two men walk out of the front door to greet them. “Karen’s not here, but you can wait inside until she gets here,” they say. Walking into the house, Carlos sees Karen tied up on the floor, her face bloodied and swollen. Before he can make a run for it, he’s already on the floor himself. Knocked down by one of The Zetas. Then, tied up, Carlos and his cousin are moved to a back room. They and Karen are beaten intermittently for hours, Carlos tells Miriam.

AZAM AHMED: He then tells her about their transport to the Basurero and these agonizing days of beatings and ransoms and calls to their families demanding money. 

NARRATOR: And then.

AZAM AHMED: He tells her what happened to Karen.

NARRATOR: They thought she was involved with the Gulf Cartel, Carlos says.

AZAM AHMED: Carlos, he at this point is almost purging himself of all of this dark matter he's held ever since Karen's kidnapping, What he saw, what he witnessed.

NARRATOR: Two men dragged Karen to a tree near one of the buildings. One threw a rope over one of the branches, while the other tied a noose around Karen’s neck. Then, they lifted her into the air. After a few minutes, one of The Zetas turned to Carlos and his cousin. “You two have seen enough.” Expecting a bullet, Carlos closed his eyes. After a few seconds, though, he heard not a gunshot, but The Zeta’s voice again. “You can go.”

AZAM AHMED: He was let go with a warning that if he ever said anything, he was done. 

NARRATOR: Carlos could not believe it. His family had not even paid a ransom. But sitting there at the prosecutor’s kidnapping unit, having heard the whole unthinkable incident, Miriam isn’t done. She presses Carlos for names. And he remembers plenty.

AZAM AHMED: Carlos tells her about someone named Comandante Cherokee. Another person named Ulises. A different person blamed La Machorra, which is a very crude name for a female Zeta, and then another female who had been involved. 

NARRATOR: Miriam notes down each name. In all, there were now 10 on her list.

AZAM AHMED: So Miriam begins to arm up the second chapter of her hunt.

NARRATOR: In the autumn of 2016, at an evangelical church tucked away on one of Cuidad Victoria’s side streets, a sermon is underway. The priest is imploring those before him to give themselves to God but one of the parishioners sitting in the pews is paying no notice. She’s staring at the assistant to his left, a tall dark man in his early 30s. A few minutes into the service, the chapel doors burst open.

AZAM AHMED: The police come in.

NARRATOR: Stunned, the priest asks what is going on. But the police pay him no notice either, walking straight past and putting the altar boy in handcuffs.

AZAM AHMED: And the pastor is stunned. He knows this young man to be a born-again Christian trying to get his life together.

NARRATOR: The officers march the altar boy outside, bundle him into a police van, and, after conferring briefly with the woman in the pews, drive off. The priest walks over to the woman.

AZAM AHMED: And he says, “Have you no mercy arresting him?” 

NARRATOR: But this is Miriam Rodriguez he’s talking to.

AZAM AHMED: And she just stops and deadpan asks the priest, “And where was his mercy when they killed my daughter?”

NARRATOR: What the priest doesn’t know is that this man is a former Zeta. And not only that, he’s the one who pulled the rope that hung Miriam’s daughter Karen.

AZAM AHMED: And for Miriam, that lodged quite deep. And so she began a massive search for him.

NARRATOR: After finding the man via his nickname on a social media deep-dive, Miriam had seen the profiles of his family members and where some of them lived. Posing as a newcomer to the area, Miriam introduced herself to her new ‘neighbor’, The Zeta’s grandmother.

AZAM AHMED: And so begins spending time with her as casual friends.

NARRATOR: After a few weeks, she enquires about the grandmother’s family. What about the man whose picture is on the mantelpiece?

AZAM AHMED: And his grandmother says, “Oh, he's doing really well. Finally, he's a born-again Christian, and he's actually involved with this evangelical church in Ciudad Victoria. It's located here.”

NARRATOR: Miriam starts attending the church every day. After a couple of weeks, she’s sure. The altar boy. That’s him.

AZAM AHMED: And she orchestrates the arrests.

NARRATOR: Miriam Rodriguez is mastering the art of being a spy.

AZAM AHMED: She slowly arms this remarkable and diffused campaign. And what she comes to realize is, that investigations are no magic endeavor. They are just about effort. It's about showing up at the ice cream store day after day after day. It is about calling numbers until you find the person willing to admit they are the relative of so-and-so and then concocting a ruse that allows you to get close to them.

NARRATOR: But while espionage is often a monotonous process, Miriam knows it also requires moments of creativity.

AZAM AHMED: By pretending to be someone else, she finds where these Zetas are located.

NARRATOR: Including one who has now also gone clean, got a formal job. But she doesn’t know where.

AZAM AHMED: So she cleverly goes to the Social Security Agency of Mexico. And because she knows this person has a formal job, formal employment, she knows he'll be in there. 

NARRATOR: At the agency, Miriam befriends one of the clerks.

AZAM AHMED: She helps Miriam look up the person's information, gives her his birth certificate, gives her his address.

NARRATOR: After Miriam hands all the information over to her police contacts, this target is also arrested. Now four Zetas are behind bars. All because of Miriam.

AZAM AHMED: She is the wizard pulling all the strings, the person with the master plan who is feeding information and strategically placing information in the hands of the police.

NARRATOR: Eventually, Miriam becomes so knowledgeable about The Zetas’ operation that the authorities are turning to her for intel on the group - who the key players are, how they operate.

AZAM AHMED: She becomes an incredibly valuable asset, having real deep relationships with the police and with prosecutors.

NARRATOR: Befriending his relatives, Miriam learns that one Zeta has become a used-car salesman in another state.

AZAM AHMED: She forces the police to do an arrest warrant and she gathers intelligence through this network of used-car salespeople to find out exactly where he is. And she actually hand draws a map so that the police can't possibly screw it up to show where he precisely is located. 

NARRATOR: But it’s not just The Zetas Miriam’s building intelligence against. She’s also developing legal expertise to ensure they stay behind bars.

AZAM AHMED: She reads all the victims-rights laws. She begins taking courses to understand how the law is meant to work so that she can use it against the authorities, denying her justice like, “No, no, no. When someone breaks into a home and something is stolen, that elevates the level of crime they've committed. Therefore, when we arrest this person, we need to charge them like this because that will mean more time in prison when they're convicted.”

NARRATOR: Miriam even sets up an advocacy group for the relatives of kidnapping victims - Colectivo de Desaparecidos de San Fernando - the collective for the disappeared of San Fernando.

AZAM AHMED: Because she's also realized that one of the most effective ways to leverage government resources is pressure. One of the most effective ways to build that pressure is by speaking in numbers. So if there's just one of you, no matter how loud you are, you can be ignored. But when there are hundreds or thousands, it becomes a much more complicated scenario. That's a voting bloc. That is a constituency. So she creates this constituency which she guides as their ringleader toward using the government systems for their benefit. 

NARRATOR: Soon, Miriam Rodriguez is known across Tamaulipas and beyond.

AZAM AHMED: She has established herself as the pre-eminent investigator for the cause of the missing and the disappeared.

NARRATOR: But there was one Zeta that even Miriam was struggling to gather any intel on.

AZAM AHMED: Someone that she referred to as El Florero. 

NARRATOR: A relatively recent recruit, El Florero’s whereabouts had proven elusive. That is, until Miriam finally discovered who the man’s closest friend was in the group. While the friend was now dead, his wife was not. So Miriam posed as an old friend of her husband’s, wanting to get back in touch. Building a rapport with the widow, she asks about her husband’s friends. "Whatever happened to El Florero?" Miriam asks. The widow, sure enough, gives her his location.

AZAM AHMED: On a bridge in Matamoros selling sunglasses.

NARRATOR: Miriam heads for the bridge. Alone. Spotting her mark, she pulls a pistol from her purse. Approaching from behind, she inches up to him.

AZAM AHMED: And holds him at gunpoint.

NARRATOR: Only then does she call in police backup, wanting to confront the man herself first. After that, Miriam and the authorities working by her side go on a spree of arrests.

AZAM AHMED: It becomes this wild, almost chaotic scheme to capture all of these people.

NARRATOR: But after three years of hunting down her daughter’s killers, Miriam’s campaign meets catastrophe.

AZAM AHMED: There's a prison break at the main prison in Ciudad Victoria.

NARRATOR: Designated specifically to house Zeta inmates.

AZAM AHMED: And among those Zetas are many of the people that Miriam has put in prison. 

NARRATOR: Including the altar boy Miriam had seen arrested at church. For the first time, Miriam feels a sense of panic. Throughout her life she’s dismissed the notion of fear, branding it “just a word”. But now, fear is taking hold of her.

AZAM AHMED: She begins to act a bit more erratically and she begins to confess to people that she sees the end near and that she believes she's going to be killed.

NARRATOR: But while she knows The Zetas may come after her, she is sure of something else too.

AZAM AHMED: She's not going to stop.

NARRATOR: She does ask for police protection.

AZAM AHMED: But the people who are meant to protect her never answer the phone. 

NARRATOR: The protection never shows. The situation seems hopeless.

AZAM AHMED: You couldn't script something more perfectly concocted to show the ineptitude and the almost cruel inefficiency of this government than to have a girl kidnapped and killed and a mother have to singlehandedly find those responsible and put them in prison - and then have those individuals escape from prison.

NARRATOR: Miriam saw no option but to continue living her life, however.

AZAM AHMED: Her son and her daughter see her for the first time nervous about her safety. But she's also quite guarded about these things. She doesn't want to scare her children. 

NARRATOR: As Mother’s Day rolls around, on May 10, 2017, Miriam arranges to have lunch with Azalea in San Fernando.

AZAM AHMED: And plans to see her son later in the week because he's got to stay in Ciudad Victoria, where he's working.

NARRATOR: After finishing lunch, Miriam heads to the small store she owns.

AZAM AHMED: To check receipts and make sure that everything checks out.

NARRATOR: As night approaches, she locks up.

AZAM AHMED: And on the way home she is followed by a car full of men who follow her to her house where she parks.

NARRATOR: Miriam spots two men approaching. Before she can reach for her gun…

AZAM AHMED: The men shoot her multiple times. 

NARRATOR: Hearing gunfire, Miriam’s husband rushes out of the house to her side. Azalea and her husband arrive a few minutes later and rush Miriam to the hospital but it’s too late. She’s already gone.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam dies on Mother's Day, a metaphor so perfect to epitomize what The Zetas were trying to convey to everyone else that would dare to do what Miriam had done - which is don't. Don't do this because anyone can be touched, even this now-famous activist who has come after us because we killed her daughter. We're going to kill her on Mother's Day out in front of her home, even though she has been granted protection by the very government that has failed to enact any justice on her behalf.

NARRATOR: The fallout from Miriam’s murder sweeps the entire state of Tamaulipas. Thousands attend the funeral, including many of the region’s top authorities. For Miriam’s son Luis, the scene confirms just what a force his mother had become in the area.

AZAM AHMED: Luis begins talking to individuals and realizes this incredible network that his mother has built. This curated, bespoke network of incredibly powerful and useful people in finding and getting to the bottom of the scourge of Mexican Mexico's drug war, which is disappearances. 

NARRATOR: But for many in this network, the funeral is an embarrassment.

AZAM AHMED: It's a scene because they think they need to be there because this activist has died and they have to show ‘face’ because it doesn't look good for them. 

NARRATOR: And soon, it leaks that the state was meant to have Miriam under armed protection. The authorities begin to panic.

AZAM AHMED: “Oh, crap, we have just had an activist murdered for seeking justice that we could not bring to her on Mother's Day in front of her home.” It's hard to concoct or fabricate a better metaphor for a failed state than the narrative of a mother who is forced to seek justice for her murdered daughter. And there's all this crazy, chaotic effort to both protect themselves from the blame that's inevitably coming their way by making false statements about how she actually had government protection, and at the same time cast the blame on others and make it seem as though they're doing something.

NARRATOR: Only then does the decaying machinery of the state click into gear.

AZAM AHMED: This blitzkrieg response in San Fernando and across Tamaulipas happens where they're just trying to arrest anyone who might be responsible for the murder of Miriam.

NARRATOR: By now though, a lot of those people were dead. And the ones Miriam had effectively put behind bars herself? They had escaped and gone to ground. But there was one who the police knew was out there. La Machorra, the woman Carlos mentioned. The state police open the file Miriam had handed them months before on La Machorra, for the first time. An entire folder - it has everything from her height and weight to her address and occupation. Along with tens of photos. It takes the police only a few hours to track down and arrest La Machorra. An exercise even Miriam hadn’t managed to convince them of doing before. But even then, the Rodriguez family was one step ahead. It had already gleaned more of its own intel. Amid the throng at his mother’s funeral, Luis had spotted someone he recognized from school. Approaching him, the man asks…

AZAM AHMED: “Hey, can you come outside with me? There's someone who wants to talk to you.”

NARRATOR: Reluctantly Luis follows.

AZAM AHMED: He walks with him to a truck. And inside the truck is someone Luis knows to be a member of organized crime. 

NARRATOR: But the man has a strained look on his face, almost one of sadness.

AZAM AHMED: And he says, “Look, I'm sorry about what's happened to your mom. I always admired her. And even when she was doing what she did, I admired what she did.”

NARRATOR: Luis is about to turn and head back inside but the man continues.

AZAM AHMED: “I just want to give you a name.”

NARRATOR: “What?” Luis says.

AZAM AHMED: “I can't explain anything. I can't give you any details. But you need this name. If you're going to figure out what happened.”

NARRATOR: “El Aluche. That’s the name you need,” he says.

AZAM AHMED: And the guy, in addition to giving him his name, gave him a phone number. 

NARRATOR: “And who is that?” Luis asks.

AZAM AHMED: And the guy says, “I can't say anything else. I've already said too much. I need to leave.” And he pulls off. 

NARRATOR: But it’s a lead.

AZAM AHMED: So Luis starts to do his homework. 

NARRATOR: Following in his mother’s footsteps.

AZAM AHMED: Luis, in some ways, has replaced his mother as the investigator of her murder. It's just this unexpected inheritance.

NARRATOR: And he tries some of the same tradecraft Miriam mastered.

AZAM AHMED: Luis is taking to Facebook to look at anonymous posts about the structure of organized crime. And, through his own sources and through reading, he finds out El Aluche is the leader of this band of criminals that belong to The Zetas that operate in San Fernando. 

NARRATOR: Tapping up some of Miriam’s other contacts, he gets an address. Then he convinces the police to raid the house, taking him along with them.

AZAM AHMED: They break into this place and after an initial surrender, El Aluche reaches for a gun. 

NARRATOR: The police shoot him dead, along with another man in the house, a co-conspirator. But he survives, just long enough for them to extract a confession. The man says…

AZAM AHMED: A narco named Pata de Queso killed your mother. He organized the hit, and the person who paid for it is this man El Hugo. And that's it. They can't question him any more. The man goes to the hospital and eventually succumbs to his wounds. 

NARRATOR: Luis steps up his search which he has help for - and much more than Miriam ever had, at least formally.

AZAM AHMED: Now that Miriam is dead, her murder investigation is taken to the federal level.

NARRATOR: A federal police officer had helped Miriam catch Sama but that was just one individual. Now the entire case has reached the top.

AZAM AHMED: So he's got people who are capable and with resources to help him investigate his mother's murder. 

NARRATOR: They set up a wiretap on the phone number Luis was given at the funeral which offers up a trove of information. Within a few weeks, the federal police have mapped out known Zetas and their associates across San Fernando including Pata de Queso, Miriam’s assassin.

AZAM AHMED: They begin to track his movements and realize he's very sick. They don't know what it is but the chatter on the phone is always that something's wrong with him.

NARRATOR: Eventually, they hear that The Zetas are moving him to a hospital. One of Luis’s closest federal police contacts jumps into his car. Alone.

AZAM AHMED: He realizes this might be the only chance to find this guy. 

NARRATOR: But he doesn’t know which hospital. The wiretapped phone calls don’t make it clear so the officer improvises.

AZAM AHMED: He’s randomly stopping ambulances in the street and being like, “Have you taken a patient who's very sick, who matches this description?” 

NARRATOR: Each ambulance crew says no.

AZAM AHMED: Finally, on the cusp of giving up, he asks one last ambulance driver, “Have you taken anybody that fits the description to the hospital?” He's like, “Yeah, actually I just dropped him off at the emergency room at the Hospital General, in the center of Cuidad Victoria.”

NARRATOR: The officer floors it.

AZAM AHMED: He figures, “I've got no backup. Backup is going to take hours. I need to do something if I'm going to get this guy.”

NARRATOR: But although he’s working alone, the officer has some valuable intel on the men around Pata de Queso.

AZAM AHMED: Because he's been listening to the wiretaps

NARRATOR: Including some of the names of Pata de Queso’s bodyguards.

AZAM AHMED: So he goes up to the person who's guarding him and he acts like he knows him. He acts like he's a Zeta. He says, “Hey, you're the only one guarding the boss, right?” He’s like, “Don't worry, I got reinforcements coming” and goes into the room.

NARRATOR: At first a little confused, The Zeta then relaxes. Backup is coming. Meanwhile, the officer approaches the patient’s bedside.

AZAM AHMED: And he asks Pata de Queso if he knows who he is. 

NARRATOR: He shakes his head.

AZAM AHMED: And he says, “Well, I know who you are. I'm part of the Federal Police and you're under arrest. And we have the entire hospital surrounded.”

NARRATOR: While accompanying Pata de Queso to a maximum security prison in Mexico City, the officer rings Luis. “Is there anything you’d like to ask him?” the officer asks. “Yes,” Luis replies. “Why did he kill my mother?” Pata de Queso responds immediately.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam had become too much of a problem. “The risk of killing her was less than the risk of her continuing to dismantle our network.”

NARRATOR: Luis had already guessed as much. But he wanted to hear it from the author of his mother’s murder himself. But what about El Hugo, Pata de Queso’s right-hand man? The man who had made the actual payment to El Aluche to kill Miriam? Well, within a few days, he had taken Pata de Queso’s place at the apex of the Zeta network.

AZAM AHMED: it turns out Pata de Queso was actually quite sick. He had liver failure and he was going for dialysis. But when he was transferred in the process, he actually died.

NARRATOR: El Hugo was untouchable. The police had nothing on him except the testimonies of two now-dead witnesses. For Luis, it felt like the end of the road. Luis pressured the federal authorities to arrest El Hugo one final time but heard nothing back. Tired of the danger, the death, and the dead-ends that punctuated his daily life, he gave up the hunt.

AZAM AHMED: He realizes he's not his mother. He described it to me once as that motor, that motor that drives everything of a lost child. He's lost a sister and he's lost a mother. And it's almost destroyed any internal mechanism he has. And even as he wants justice - and even as he goes for it - he also just doesn't want any more problems. He doesn't want this. He doesn't want to live the life of someone waiting to die as his mother had.

NARRATOR: But then a few months later he turns on the news and is shocked by what he sees. The police have raided El Hugo’s house.

AZAM AHMED: They go and try to arrest El Hugo, and they're successful.

NARRATOR: But only for a few hours.

AZAM AHMED: Because it turns out that once they raid El Hugo's house, they don't find anything more than a few baggies of marijuana, which isn't enough to keep him arrested. Again, according to the baroque and archaic system of Mexican law, they need to have found something, what they call in flagrancia, like an automatic weapon or something that would mean an immediate crime because they haven't built up a big enough case to actually charge him with anything.

NARRATOR: That same night, El Hugo walks free. Luis is devastated

AZAM AHMED: The pursuit of those responsible for Miriam's death ends with grabbing the man who paid for her murder and then having to release him the same night. 

NARRATOR: There simply wasn’t enough hard evidence. By this time Azam Ahmed had gotten to know Luis. The two spent several years discussing Miriam’s life, and the plight of civilians in Mexico’s Zeta heartlands. About to publish an article on the story, Azam wants first to see the Basurero with his own eyes - the Zeta base where Karen was murdered. Luis hadn’t been there either but he too wanted to go.

AZAM AHMED: And we drive back around these sort of back roads, these sandy roads for a for ages because we're looking for an abandoned ranch. And we realized later that like we'd been passing it and we just hadn't recognized it because it's being farmed. The gate is brand new. The entire apparatus looks completely functioning and Luis's face changes.

NARRATOR: “I don’t understand,” he says.

AZAM AHMED: And so we go on to the property. Luis opens the gate and we drive in and it's just a long sort of arcane driveway with a windmill. And then we spot the red tractor, which is where the graveyard was. And as we're wandering around, it's clear that someone is farming this place. The farmland, far from being followed, is being plowed. The buildings that are there are being reconstructed. There are new tractor implements. I mean, everything looks like it's being refreshed. 

NARRATOR: “How can this now be a farm?” Luis asks. “The government said they would keep it as a graveyard.”

AZAM AHMED: And again, for Luis, this is this extraordinarily traumatic moment where he's not only at the place, the site, the origin of everything that's been done to them, but it's now being reborn as something else.

NARRATOR: Then, a truck appears in the distance.

AZAM AHMED: And [it] starts to trundle up to us. And the photographer I was working with and I were like, “Oh man, that's not good.”

NARRATOR: Pulling up, the driver gets out.

AZAM AHMED: A heavyset guy with a baseball cap.

NARRATOR: But the scene plays out differently from how Azam first envisioned it.

AZAM AHMED: And he and Luis wave to each other. They salute one another and give each other a hug. And I'm like, “What?”

NARRATOR: Azam goes over and joins in the conversation.

AZAM AHMED: And Luis is explaining the nature of the ranch and why we're there and what happened. And the guy kind of grimaces and he says, “Yeah, I bought this place not too long ago. I'm trying to turn it into a working farm. I'm sorry about what happened to you. I obviously didn't know the history of this place.”

NARRATOR: After a little more small talk, Luis says his goodbyes. He and Azam head back to their car and drive off.

AZAM AHMED: As we're driving off Luis just keeps his eyes trained on the rearview, and I'm talking to him like, “Wow, that's some crazy. You know this guy. How is that possible? What a strange coincidence. He's your friend.”

NARRATOR: But Luis ignores him.

AZAM AHMED: He just won't take his eyes off the mirror and he kind of speeds up.

NARRATOR: Azam tries again.

AZAM AHMED: I'm like, “He's your friend. Isn't that weird?” 

NARRATOR: Then Luis turns to him.

AZAM AHMED: And he looks at me and he says, “Azam, he's not my fucking friend.”

NARRATOR: Bewildered, Azam keeps quiet. Eventually, the car reaches the main road.

AZAM AHMED: And he's waving his phone around like a madman looking for a signal.

NARRATOR: Luis turns to Azam again. “You remember how I told you about El Hugo?” Luis says.

AZAM AHMED: And I'm like, “Yeah, of course, I know who El Hugo is. He's the guy who paid for your mom's death. He's the guy that we’re still waiting to get arrested.”

NARRATOR: Luis says, “That was El Hugo’s money man....”

AZAM AHMED: It was almost like this realigning of the facts happening in real-time. Like I could feel things clicking in place.

NARRATOR: Azam is stunned. Luis explains that he met him once many years ago at a party, and had seen him pop up in his research on El Hugo.

AZAM AHMED: And suddenly I'm like, “Wait a minute. The person who paid for the murder of your mother now owns the ranch that sparked her campaign because it was the site where your sister and her daughter, Karen, were killed.”

NARRATOR: Luis nods.

AZAM AHMED: And it's this incredible parable of impunity. That that individual could actually buy this desecrated land where Karen had been tortured and kidnapped all these years after Miriam had put these people in prison for that very act, for having operated in that specific location, just seemed harder to stomach than even fiction. The nature of what true impunity looks like.

NARRATOR: Today, Luis has largely left the world of his mother, San Fernando’s true spy, behind.

AZAM AHMED: Because he's got a life to live and that life can't be spent chasing ghosts.

NARRATOR: Azalea, Miriam’s other child, has also tried to move forward.

AZAM AHMED: She's married. She's got an older son who's now working in the United States.

NARRATOR: For Azam, Miriam’s legacy is still a marvel. An ordinary mother standing up to the cartels, bringing at least some of them down in the process. And also giving herself, and many others, somewhere to cry.

AZAM AHMED: To explain why this matters so much. In my time in Mexico, I've talked to hundreds of victims’ families, people who have been ‘disappeared’, and one of them described it to me in Spanish as the most compelling way or the most compelling reason why these families are haunted by the search for remains. And he said, No Tengo de donde Llorara. “I don't even have anywhere to cry.” A gravestone is where you go to mourn. Your loved one is a physical anchor that tethers you to their loss. It is the embodiment of closure. 

NARRATOR: He recently told the full story in a new book.

AZAM AHMED: One of the reasons I wanted to do this book - and I wrote it in the way that I did and I focused on her case - is because it is such a representative example of what justice looks like. Maybe the only kind of justice possible in Mexico.

NARRATOR: El Hugo, the man who paid for Miriam’s murder, is now behind bars. Albeit for a different crime.

AZAM AHMED: He was charged with a different murder that they were able to obtain evidence for. Not for Miriam's because they didn't have evidence for that. And he's in prison awaiting trial. 

NARRATOR: Azam’s book telling Miriam’s story, Fear is Just a Word, is out now. I’m Rhiannon Neads. Next time, a deep dive into the life of a man bold enough to take on three American intelligence agencies that had long been thought untouchable. But at what cost?

Guest Bio

Azam Ahmed is a New York Times investigative reporter and author of Fear is Just a Word.

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