The Disappeared, Part 1 - Parlor Games

The Disappeared, Part 1 - Parlor Games

In this two-part True Spies story, The New York Times’ Azam Ahmed tells the unbelievable tale of Miriam Rodriguez, a 56 year-old housekeeper turned rogue agent and thorn in the side of one of Mexico’s most feared gangs. In Part One, we meet Miriam as her world is turned upside down by news of her daughter’s kidnapping. Soon, she embarks on a quest for answers and for vengeance. It will bring her face to face with The Zetas - a powerful and dangerous criminal organization who terrorize Miriam’s native San Fernando with impunity. But in this grieving mother of three, they may have found their match.
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True Spies, Episode 201: The Disappeared, Part 1 - Parlor Games

+++Warning - this episode contains references to strong violence throughout.

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: In my time in Mexico I've talked to hundreds of victims' families, people who have been ‘disappeared’, and one of them described the most compelling reason for why these families are haunted by the search for remains. And it's ‘No tengo de donde llorar’, I don't even have anywhere to cry.

NARRATOR: The Disappeared, Part One - Parlor Games. January 24, 2014. McAllen, Texas. Positioned immediately north of the Rio Grande River, which demarcates the US-Mexico border, the town has long attracted migrants from its southern neighbor. And Mexican mother of three Miriam Rodriguez is one of them. Escaping a loveless marriage, Miriam had headed north seeking independence from her estranged husband. She found work as a housekeeper and nanny and reveled in her newfound existence. But at 4 am that January morning, her peace was shattered by a phone call. Seeing it was her daughter Azalea back in San Fernando, Mexico, she picked up. “What’s happened?” Miriam asked. “Something awful.‘Karen... She’s been kidnapped.” Shaken, Miriam packed her belongings together and wrote a note to her employers. She would not be coming back.

AZAM AHMED: She immediately jumps on a bus and heads straight back to San Fernando.

NARRATOR: A fellow passenger sees that Miriam is gripped by grief. After a few minutes, he leans over, asking: “What’s wrong?”

AZAM AHMED: Uncharacteristic for Miriam, she actually shares, and she tells him, Well, my daughter's been kidnapped.

NARRATOR: The old man nods. Then he scribbles a note on a piece of paper and hands it to Miriam. It’s a phone number. But no ordinary phone number.

AZAM AHMED: And he says, My son is a lieutenant in the Marines. Call him when you get back. He'll help you.

NARRATOR: Miriam quietly slips the note into her purse, barely registering it within her grief.

AZAM AHMED: And she continues on her way. 

NARRATOR: In the stark January morning light, Miriam looks out to see the lush flatlands of her home, the state of Tamaulipas, Northern Mexico. Arriving at her daughter Azalea’s, Miriam sees her estranged husband, Luis. He’s already had a call from the kidnappers. The ransom figure? One million pesos, some $77,000.

AZAM AHMED: And the negotiations begin.

NARRATOR: In this True Spies two-part special, you’ll hear how Miriam Rodriguez, a 56-year-old Mexican shopkeeper, took on one of the most violent cartels in the world: The Zetas.

AZAM AHMED: The Zetas were pioneering new ways to inflict cruelty on their enemies.

NARRATOR: In the process, becoming one of the most unlikely true spies of recent years.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam becomes like a super cop undercover agent, only she doesn't tell anybody what she's doing. She's sort of like a general contractor of her own justice, just an absolute ironclad resoluteness to do the unthinkable, to basically take on a suicide mission.

NARRATOR: And you’ll hear from the man who’s bringing her full story to light, New York Times journalist Azam Ahmed.

AZAM AHMED: It took me a long time to discover the truth because the family didn't even tell me. I had to piece it together through 20,000 pages of case files that I obtained through a source, classified information, but also chasing down the statements of people who have died and individuals who wouldn't speak to me.

NARRATOR: Back in the 1960s, San Fernando, Mexico was a peaceful place. Laden with sorghum crops, was known as the breadbasket of Mexico. Also devoid of crime, many instead called it the capital of happiness. But by the 1980s, that all changed. Seeing the profits on offer, the dominant criminal group in the region - The Gulf Cartel - pivoted from smuggling consumer goods across the border to an altogether different product. Cocaine. And in the 1990s, the Gulf Cartel pivoted again. Not with what they trafficked, but how they protected it.

AZAM AHMED: They'd managed to convince several Mexican special forces soldiers to join them and become like their praetorian guard at first.

NARRATOR: Seeing just how effective these special forces soldiers were, soon the cartel went even further.

AZAM AHMED: To turn them into an armed wing that they called the Zetas for the call sign that these soldiers had used when they were in the military. 

NARRATOR: For more than a decade, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas worked hand in glove.

AZAM AHMED: The Gulf cartel trafficking the drugs and sort of operating the business and the Zetas doing the Gulf Cartel’s bidding across the country, whether that was waging war against other cartels or taking over new territories or simply just imposing order on a new area that that they felt they needed to traffic through. 

NARRATOR: The Zetas became feared throughout the region. Soon, contorted and decapitated bodies were a common sight strung up along the freeway, a warning of what happened to those who dared to confront the cartel. Eventually, though, cracks in the business relationship started to emerge.

AZAM AHMED: The Zetas wanted more autonomy and the Gulf cartel wanted to keep them as a branch of their organization. [00:04:20][5.8]

NARRATOR: And in 2010, the relationship fell apart.

AZAM AHMED:  The two sides split, and it ignited a war that changed violence in Mexico. There had been mass graves uncovered with hundreds of bodies. There had been 72 migrants murdered in cold blood, ostensibly for refusing to join the Zetas.

NARRATOR: The Zetas had long been kidnapping civilians for extra cash. But now, fighting an expensive war against their former patrons, the group doubled down on its efforts. And the Zetas soon discovered that they didn’t always need to return their captives to earn their ransom. In Mexico, a new term was coined. To be ‘disappeared’.

AZAM AHMED: To disappear someone is to rob everyone in their life – mothers, fathers, loved ones – of closure. You disappear someone they never know. And the thing that hurts the most about not knowing is there's this hope. Maybe my brother's still alive. Maybe he's still out there. And it tortures these families because they continue to search. It's the facet that haunts and complicates the panorama in Mexico.

NARRATOR: As kidnappings skyrocketed in the 2000s, the reaction of Mexico’s banks reflected the misery now afflicting the country.

AZAM AHMED: They actually offered loans to cover the ransom payments. Sort of a grim indicator of how prevalent they were.

NARRATOR: For years, Miriam Rodriguez had largely brushed off the danger enveloping the region. A San Fernando native with both a cast-iron instinct for justice and a ferocious temper, her reaction to a burglary at the family home back in the late 80s was indicative of her character. Probing every secondhand goods store in San Fernando for resold loot, Miriam built a database of shops and likely perpetrators. One day, she happened upon a man wearing her husband Luis’s watch. Miriam informed the man he had bought stolen goods. Not wanting any trouble, the man handed the watch over, telling her the name of the shop he had bought it from. After tracking the store down, Miriam confronted its owner. Telling him that he didn’t want to get involved with the police, Miriam lied that she was working with them. And that they were frantically hunting down stolen goods. Sure enough, the shop owner handed the entire stash over. Miriam had managed to do this by sheer force of personality.

NARRATOR: When her youngest child, Karen, began to walk, Miriam soon noted a limp in her gait. A doctor declared she had an inoperable hip condition and would likely be unable to walk unaided for the rest of her life. ‘What the hell do you know?’ Miriam replied. And sure enough, within a few months, Karen had had her operation - Miriam having contacted the best hospital in Texas and convinced them to do the procedure pro bono. But her headstrong character inevitably led to conflict. Not least with Karen, who had inherited Miriam’s stubborn demeanor. But the two were close. Karen, the baby of the family, admired her mother. 

And when Miriam and her husband Luis split up, Karen took it hard.

AZAM AHMED: It created in her a rebellious and bitter streak and while Karen was suffering the loss of her parents’ marriage and stability at home, her friend had lost her mother to cancer. And the two of them, like young girls anywhere, began seeking a way out of their emotional state.

NARRATOR: Karen and her friend started staying out all night, telling Miriam and other family members nothing about the crowd they were mixing with.

AZAM AHMED: And they began spending time with people who under ordinary circumstances they might not have, people who didn't come from their world, so to speak. And that world was adjacent to the world of organized crime. It wasn't fully a part of it, but it floated in the same sort of arena.

NARRATOR: In January 2014, the domestic world of Miriam Rodriguez and her family collided head-on with the criminal underworld.

AZAM AHMED: The first person to find out about the kidnapping is Luis, Karen's father, and he and Karen are somewhat estranged, but he shows up at Azalea's house, the oldest daughter's house, to convey what's happened.

NARRATOR: That’s when, after getting the news, Miriam buses back across the border from McAllen, Texas to San Fernando; leaving her housekeeping job of only a few months.  In the meantime, Azalea calls her brother, Luis Hector, before going to Miriam and Karen’s house to see if she is in fact there. By now ‘virtual’ kidnappings are also prevalent across the state. Con artists are ringing people up, demanding a ransom there and then for fake hostages. Maybe the entire nightmare has simply been staged. But at the house, it’s clear this is no virtual kidnapping. 

AZAM AHMED: She sees cut telephone cables on the floor, the furniture in disarray, and papers everywhere. Karen's purse is somehow there, but other items of clothing are missing.

NARRATOR: A few hours later, Miriam arrives back in San Fernando, where Azalea is waiting. Immediately, she gets another phone call. 

AZAM AHMED: The Zetas are obviously monitoring the bus stations. They realize she's arrived. And tell her the same thing they had told her husband.

NARRATOR: The man says nothing of who he is. Only the ransom. One million pesos. $77,000. Far more than anything the family can afford. But before Miriam can say anything, the Zetas have put Karen on the line.

AZAM AHMED: Karen speaks as though she's been rehearsing the lines, as though she's been told what to say. She says, look, it's just about the money. If you pay them, everything will be fine.

NARRATOR: Miriam feels her insides turn. The caller hangs up. Miriam collapses in tears. Azalea had never seen her mother, the one who held the family together, fall apart. Returning to Azalea’s house, she reunites with the rest of the family. Luis takes out a kidnapping loan from the bank while Miriam compiles their life’s savings.

AZAM AHMED: It's about $10,000.

NARRATOR: Nowhere near the $77,000 demanded. But it’s all they can muster. The next day, the kidnappers ring again. San Fernando Health Centre. One hour.

AZAM AHMED: And Luis goes to the designated meeting point. He waits there for two hours. 

NARRATOR: Down the street, Miriam surveils the scene in another vehicle, watching a terrified Luis clutching their life savings.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam's not supposed to be there, but she wants to monitor. 

NARRATOR: Eventually, she spots a young man jump out of a red Ford Explorer and approach Luis.

AZAM AHMED: Honestly, a boy.

NARRATOR: Handing the bag over, Luis asks where his daughter is.

AZAM AHMED: He says, meet me in 20 minutes at the cemetery. She'll be there.

NARRATOR: Luis drives to the cemetery and waits. For hours.

AZAM AHMED: Karen never shows up.

NARRATOR: $10,000 down and with no sign of Karen, Miriam decides to ring the kidnappers herself.

AZAM AHMED: And the Zetas say listen, we had some bad weather. She's up in the mountains with us. We'll bring her back tomorrow.

NARRATOR: After returning to Azalea’s house, Miriam and Luis wait. The next day, no word. Nor the day after.

AZAM AHMED: They live in this state of suspended anxiety where every car that passes, every sound of footsteps on the sidewalk, they think might be Karen being returned. 

NARRATOR: But ultimately...

AZAM AHMED: No one comes back.

NARRATOR: Knowing that her own home was where Karen was kidnapped, Miriam had avoided going back. But now, she was desperate.

AZAM AHMED: She realizes she's been lied to, that she's paid this ransom for no reason... And she starts to investigate a bit.

NARRATOR: Miriam asks Azalea’s husband to drive her home, wondering if the scene might offer some clues. Before they get there, though, she screams at him to stop the car.

AZAM AHMED: She sees the same Ford Explorer that had gone for the pickup at the ransom.

NARRATOR: Miriam watches the car. Soon, two men approach the vehicle.

AZAM AHMED: And then as those two are wandering around outside of their car, they clock her. They see her watching them.

NARRATOR: Miriam’s son-in-law starts the car up again, taking her back to her and Karen’s home. That night, back at Azalea’s, there’s a knock on the door. Opening it, Miriam faintly recognizes the visitor. A woman in her 50s. “I’m Carlos’s mother,” the woman says.

AZAM AHMED: Carlos, who'd kind of been a family friend and grown up with Karen since they were children.

NARRATOR: “My Carlos has been kidnapped too,” his mother cries. Unlike Miriam, she had no money for the ransom. Miriam comforts the woman as best she can, sharing her grief as a bereft parent. Eventually, the woman returns home, saying she’ll stay in touch with any developments. The next day there is one, as Miriam spots the same red Ford Explorer once again.

AZAM AHMED: Only this time it's targeting her.

NARRATOR: The Explorer cuts her off in the middle of the street. A man jumps out and approaches her window.

AZAM AHMED: And tells her to meet him at a restaurant nearby in 10 minutes.

NARRATOR: Inside the restaurant, Miriam sits opposite the two men. I’m a Zeta commander, one of the men says, without giving his name. But...

AZAM AHMED: He keeps a radio on him. Of all the different people who work for him that contact him.

NARRATOR: Several men message in. Miriam hears the man respond to the same name.

AZAM AHMED: Sama or his nickname is Sama

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, the commander lays out his position to Miriam.

AZAM AHMED: He's like, listen, I know your daughter's been kidnapped. I didn't have anything to do with it, but I think I can help.

NARRATOR: Miriam is unsure whether she believes him.

AZAM AHMED: But he sounds convincing enough.

NARRATOR: The commander asks for $1,600.

AZAM AHMED: To go and "make things happen"'

NARRATOR: While still unconvinced, Miriam feels she has little choice. 

AZAM AHMED: Honestly, at a point like that where your child is missing, you'll do anything you can, you'll pay any amount, you go to any lengths if you think it just might help you recover them.

NARRATOR: She might be suspicious, but Miriam is also desperate. Borrowing the money from friends, she pays the $1,600.

AZAM AHMED: And waits. And waits and waits. 

NARRATOR: For weeks. Living at her daughter Azalea’s house, Miriam falls into despair.

AZAM AHMED: She's weeping. She's kind of just not leaving the sofa. And I think it's all the more painful for the hope that still remains that maybe Karen's coming back. And so she lives in this sort of tragic grief cycle of every time the phone rings, every time she hears, a message pop onto her phone or someone comes to the door, she wonders, Is this the moment my daughter's coming back to me?

NARRATOR: The days blur. Miriam rarely gets out of bed, endlessly scrolling her phone in her pajamas. Azalea begins to worry about her, the mother who had taken care of every problem growing up. But then, on the one-month anniversary of Karen’s disappearance, Miriam gets up and runs a bath. An hour later, immaculately dressed and made up, she appears in the living room. There she says...

AZAM AHMED: I don't think they're ever going to bring my daughter back because my daughter is dead. And I know this in my heart. I know this as a mother. Karen's not coming home, at least not the way that I'd ever hoped.

NARRATOR: Azalea begins to tear up. She can hardly believe what Miriam says next.

AZAM AHMED: With the rest of the life that I have left, I'm going to go after every single person who did this to us, and I'm going to make them pay.

NARRATOR: Miriam opens the front door and leaves. Azalea is stunned.

AZAM AHMED: She saw a woman's grief turn into resolve. She saw her mother with no self-pity, no quivering in her voice.

NARRATOR: Outside, Miriam is already making her move.

AZAM AHMED: She pulls out the number that the old man had given her on the bus and she calls Lieutenant Alex. 

NARRATOR: Alex, from the Mexican Marines...

AZAM AHMED: And so begins her quest to target the Zetas.

NARRATOR: A month after her daughter Karen’s disappearance, Miriam Rodriguez has pushed her grief aside, filling the void with a hunt for vengeance.

AZAM AHMED: She's been in touch with Lieutenant Alex. He's agreed to start working with her because for him at that point, the Marines are looking for Zetas.

NARRATOR: And Miriam’s made a list of her targets. 

AZAM AHMED: Miriam decides, I'm going to just start seeing what I can see... I'm going to start tracking and categorizing the different Zetas that work in San Fernando.

NARRATOR: One day, while driving around San Fernando on reconnaissance, Miriam spots two girls. Seated on a bench, the pair aren’t familiar to Miriam. But perched in front of them is a laptop, which is familiar.

AZAM AHMED: It's Karen's. 

NARRATOR: Miriam rings Marine Lieutenant Alex.

AZAM AHMED: This is her first real lead. She's got in her sights two women who, if they aren't directly responsible, are potentially involved with the people who are responsible.

NARRATOR: Alex arrives with a Marine unit.

AZAM AHMED: And they grab these two women and whisk them away.

NARRATOR: Named Margarita and Jessica, the two women admit they are involved with the Zetas.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam has convinced the Marines to question these women, and with whatever intelligence she gathers to find out where the Zetas operate. She's also convinced them to let her accompany them.

NARRATOR: Under Lieutenant Alex’s orders, Miriam waits at an abandoned farmhouse nearby until nightfall. Shortly after, a marine Humvee pulls up.

AZAM AHMED: She's handed a uniform of the Marines and then loads onto the Marine trucks as one of them. 

NARRATOR: Their captives, Margarita and Jessica, have talked. The Marines know the location of the Zetas’ base.

AZAM AHMED: And they all head to this place called the Basurero or dump.

NARRATOR: Jessica points out the way to the base - a dark, overgrown dirt track that leads to several small, semi-derelict buildings. To one side of the scene sits a rusted tractor below a large tree, a rope hanging ominously over one of its branches. Exiting the vehicles the marines head toward the buildings on foot, while Miriam stays put.

AZAM AHMED: Suddenly they hear gunfire.

NARRATOR: It’s coming from the buildings.

AZAM AHMED: The Zetas start laying down fire on the Marines.

NARRATOR: Seasoned professionals, the Marines click into action. In pincer movements they advance on the base, returning fire.

AZAM AHMED: They kill four of them on the spot.

NARRATOR: As the gunfire subsides, Miriam approaches the base while the marines search the buildings.

AZAM AHMED: And discover living kidnapping victims. One of them is babbling incoherently about how a woman was about to behead him, and the others are just so relieved to be rescued. They're sort of in a state of shell shock. 

NARRATOR: By now Miriam has caught up with them.

AZAM AHMED: Looking for signs of her daughter.

NARRATOR: And what she sees makes her blood run cold.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam's wandering around this house of horrors, like this slaughterhouse the Zetas have created on this farm, these small little huts each more grim than the next. In one she finds torture implements, and another their reddish stains on the floor. 

NARRATOR: Miriam can feel her perspective on life shifting, unmooring her from the humanity she once believed innate to the world. Who could do this? she cries.

AZAM AHMED: Who could dedicate an entire property to killing other humans?

NARRATOR: She begins to wonder whether Karen was ever even there. But then, wandering toward the tractor at the edge of the base...

AZAM AHMED: She spots a scarf and a seat cushion, both of which belong to Karen.

NARRATOR: Miriam stands motionless.

AZAM AHMED: She knows it's this moment of hope and desperation at once where she's like, Well, my daughter was here, but she's no longer here. It's a mystery resolved that kind of leads to more mysteries.

NARRATOR: But before she can process the sight, a commotion erupts back by one of the buildings.

AZAM AHMED: The Marines. start to find these decomposing bodies and they find three women, one of them pregnant. And the Marines are furious. They can't believe someone would have beheaded a pregnant woman.

NARRATOR: Dragging the two captive girls over, the Marines interrogate them about what happened.

AZAM AHMED: And they explain, well, these women were kidnapped from the highway and then they refuse to pay the ransom. So we killed them.

NARRATOR: Looking on, Miriam waits for the Marines’ reaction. Which is swift and uncompromising.

AZAM AHMED: The Marines in an instant grab Jessica, force her to the ground, on her knees, and kill her. 

NARRATOR: The Marines tell the second girl to run. Run to the tree line as fast as you can. If you make it, you live.

AZAM AHMED: It's a game they're playing. It's as cruel as anything the Zetas would have done. 

NARRATOR: The girl bolts. The Marines take aim.

AZAM AHMED: And they kill her.

NARRATOR: The next day, newspapers splash the raid on their front pages. Or at least, the government’s version of it. While rescuing three kidnap victims, a marine unit was engaged in a firefight. Six gang members were killed, while the kidnapping victims were saved, the papers declare.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam doesn't really say much about it.

NARRATOR: To her friends or family. But Azam Ahmed eventually found out the truth, years later, through some detective work of his own.

AZAM AHMED: I got access to the autopsies from the event. Only four individuals show signs of gunshot wounds to the chest. And the fifth and sixth, two women, one shows evidence of an execution, a gunshot wound that comes from the cavity through the clavicle and exits through the back as if the individual had been made to kneel. And then the only individual shot in the back is the sixth victim, a woman.

NARRATOR: The raid gave Miriam a modicum of satisfaction.

AZAM AHMED: Vengeance felt good, seeing these people pay for what they'd done, felt righteous and maybe of a type of justice that is perhaps only possible in Mexico or the only kind of justice rather possible in Mexico.

NARRATOR: But that soon rang hollow. Miriam needed real closure, which meant real answers.

AZAM AHMED: She realizes, if I want to know what happened to my daughter, if I want to really make these people pay and understand, these people can't just be killed, I can't just have them all slaughtered because I'll never know.]

NARRATOR: Ultimately, the raid had offered nothing about what had actually happened to Karen. If anything, it had just killed six potential witnesses. And the rest of these folks who might know have all gone to ground.

AZAM AHMED:  Have scattered in the wind. 

NARRATOR: Miriam realized she had to actually build a case, to collect intelligence and piece together evidence which meant working not with the Marines, but the police. 

AZAM AHMED: The only capable parties that can arrest, detain, and then question these individuals.

NARRATOR: While the marines were famed for their brutality, though, the police were famed for their corruption.

AZAM AHMED: If you went to the local police, it was essentially like going to organized crime. If you went to the state police, it was only modestly better. But what they lacked in corruption, they made up for with ineptitude. 

NARRATOR: But if Miriam could take her case up one level further, she might find some hope. Oftentimes where you had to go and even then it often wouldn't work would be at the federal level.

NARRATOR: But Miriam was hardly the only person grieving a lost loved one. By the mid-2010s, over 100,000 people had been ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. Undeterred, she started building her case. 

AZAM AHMED: She starts thinking, “What is the one thing that I know? I do know the name, or at least the nickname of one of them, this individual, Sama.” 

NARRATOR: The Zeta commander who took another $1,600 off her before vanishing.

AZAM AHMED: So Miriam begins this kind of deep dive on social media for the name Sama hoping that this name, this moniker, might pop up.

NARRATOR: For months, no luck. But one morning, Azalea hears her mother shriek on the sofa next to her.

AZAM AHMED: She sees it. The name Sama.

NARRATOR: And he’s not the only one in the picture.

AZAM AHMED: Beside him is a young woman who's wearing the uniform of an ice cream parlor that exists throughout the entire state of Tamaulipas.

NARRATOR: Miriam’s got a lead.

AZAM AHMED: She decides, I'm going to go to every single one of these chains, and there are dozens of them around Tamaulipas until I find this girl. And then once I find this girl, I'm going to wait until she leads me to Sama.

NARRATOR: So Miriam spends weeks staking out every single one of the ice cream parlors. Classic spycraft, but still.

AZAM AHMED: It's a pretty hopeless effort. It's the kind of investigative work that rarely pays off but takes so much time.

NARRATOR: Weeks in fact, as Miriam visited every single ice cream parlor.

AZAM AHMED: A two-hour drive each way.

NARRATOR: Eventually, though, she spots the girl from the picture.

AZAM AHMED: She figures out what her work schedule is and comes back.

NARRATOR: Every day.

AZAM AHMED: Until weeks later, one day, Sama turns up.

NARRATOR: Miriam follows Sama and his girlfriend.

AZAM AHMED: To the neighborhood where the two of them live and takes note of the address to plan her next sort of steps.

NARRATOR: Those next steps? Going to the police. At the station, she gets straight to the point. This Zeta was involved in my daughter’s kidnapping. Here is his nickname and address.

AZAM AHMED: And they tell her, Well, that's great, where this guy lives and you know his nickname, but we don't have a real name so we can issue an arrest warrant. And if we don't have an arrest warrant, we can't go to this address that you've given us. 

NARRATOR: Fine, Miriam replies. I’ll get his real name. Back home, she devises a plan.

AZAM AHMED: She says, Well, if I dye my hair bright red, maybe I can use that as a disguise if it's bright enough that it distracts my face. And she puts on a uniform for the health services of Mexico where she actually has worked. She goes to the neighborhood where Sama was with her uniform, her badge, and a notebook, and she goes house by house conducting a mock survey of all the residents and people living in the home asking for full names, ages, relationships, all in service of getting Sama’s name.

NARRATOR: Miriam knocks on Sama’s door. The girlfriend answers. The one from the ice cream parlor. Miriam acts out her role, asking for survey information. The young woman offers all the details she asks for, including Sama’s date of birth.

AZAM AHMED: And so she goes back now that she has this after this incredible feat of ingenuity and effort and she turns it over to the police.

NARRATOR: Who, again, do nothing.

AZAM AHMED: They sit on it.

NARRATOR: By now, Miriam and the rest of Karen’s family are numb.

AZAM AHMED: They're back in this state of despondency, wondering like, what are we going to do? We don't have a lead. The one lead we had, that we like prized from this impossible-to-reach corner of organized crime, the police just completely ignored.

NARRATOR: After months of pressure, Miriam eventually convinces the police to at least visit Sama’s house to confirm the address for a potential arrest warrant. But by the time they do, he’s gone.

AZAM AHMED: So she's back at square one.

NARRATOR: Sensing that the local and state police were a dead-end though, Miriam had been working on another avenue already.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam was someone who always had a lot of lines in the water. She begins casting around for individuals, people she might have a connection with, the people who she can convince to help her.

NARRATOR: And through one connection, she gets her first sit-down with a federal police officer.

AZAM AHMED: Who comes and meets her at the same restaurant where she'd actually met Sama.

NARRATOR: There, she lays out her case.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam has created this dossier, all these different Zeta criminals at varying levels of the hierarchy. And she tells her story to this man. She says, "I have been looking everywhere. I've been looking for help. I've been doing this all by myself. And this is the sum total of what I've collected." And she hands him this black computer bag.

NARRATOR: The federal police investigator can hardly believe what he’s seeing.

AZAM AHMED: There are dozens of papers, there are phone numbers in there, there are full names and relatives. And the amount of work she's done in these few months is it's amazing to him because the police don't even do that kind of work.

NARRATOR: I’ll help you, the police officer tells her. This is the best police work I’ve ever seen.

AZAM AHMED: Although I think most law enforcement authorities in Mexico have grown inured or numb to that kind of pain, this federal police officer was moved by it. It's hard to not be swayed by the story of someone whose daughter has been kidnapped, who is broken with love, searching for her.

NARRATOR: A month after Sama’s trail has gone cold, Miriam’s son Luis is at work as usual at the store he owns in the state capital, Ciudad, Victoria. But the day itself is a special occasion.

AZAM AHMED: It actually happens to be a Mexican holiday called El Grito, their Independence Day. 

NARRATOR: Like his mother, Luis has also fallen into despair over the futile search for his sister Karen.

AZAM AHMED: His family's broken now they've lost their daughter, his youngest sister. They have no clear idea of what steps are next. You know, insult to injury, the police aren't doing anything, aren't helping them. They're almost twice victimized.

NARRATOR: Just when he's about to shut the store to try to enjoy the Independence Day festivities, Luis spots a man trying on some of his wares.

AZAM AHMED: Somehow the person looks vaguely familiar like somebody's seen before

NARRATOR: The man turns to his girlfriend, saying he’ll come back tomorrow to buy her something. And then, it hits Luis.

AZAM AHMED: Holy crap, this is Sama. This is the Sama! It's him in the flesh. 

NARRATOR: Luis frantically dials his mother.

AZAM AHMED: I have him in my sight. 

NARRATOR: Next time on True Spies, the hunt is on.

AZAM AHMED: Miriam begins to not only find these people online but, using shoe leather, find out who they are. Find out where they live. Find out their familial networks. And then, under false pretenses, befriend their loved ones.

NARRATOR: And Miriam gets some intel that upends the entire case. I’m Rhiannon Neads. Join us next week for the second installment of The Disappeared.

Guest Bio

Azam Ahmed is a New York Times investigative correspondent and the author of Fear is Just a Word about a mother's determination to find her kidnapped daughter, even if it means facing down a violent Mexican cartel.

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