Transcribe your podcast

From a New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro, this is The Daily. For the past three years, the city of San Fernando, Mexico, had experienced a temporary lull in the cartel violence that for years marked it as one of the country's most dangerous places.


My colleague Azam Ahmed went to San Fernando to piece together what happened there and found a remarkable story of one woman's implausible quest to bring the cartel to justice.


It's Wednesday, February 3rd. And where does the story of Miriam Rodriguez start for you? I first heard about Miriam Rodriguez in 2017. I've been in Mexico for a few years as the bureau chief here.


But it wasn't until I sat down with her son, Luis, and her daughter Zelaya. They really figured out what her story was about.


OK, I want to get in here back in twenty fourteen.


Miriam and her family were living in San Fernando. She had three children. The family were shopkeeper. She owned a store called Rodeo Boots and sold cowboy gear, hats, shirts, pants and boots. And her daughter, 20 year old Karen, her youngest, helped out in the shop while she was kind of figuring out school and what she was going to do next. In late January of 2014, Karen was driving home one day and a car blocked her path, armed gunmen jumped out and basically abducted her in her own car.


The family was very close. Azalea, the oldest sister, Louise, the middle brother, and Karen, the little sister, Lydia.


What was he demand in occultist?


Azalea was trying to call her sister, who always answered, Joe, MapQuest, don't get up in the middle for your dinner like this one. But now Karen wasn't picking up direct material. Bonamici was inevitable, familiar or responding to messages.


And she began to get more and more frantic, sending her messages, calling, calling anyone.


Does that give young people back? Yes. I saw what happened to the police and you did not do so by then.


The whole family had convened in the house. Louise had come in from Ciudad Victoria, which is about two and a half hours away. Azealia was there, mayor, who was also out of town, and they began to think through how to respond.


One, they received the amount.


Then hours later, they got a call from the kidnappers. Even if you don't see something, unless they pass the phone to Karen, there's a proof of life and quickly took the phone back, demanded a ransom. Family hung up and spent the night considering what to do and how to do it. And does the family have a sense of who these kidnappers are? The family had a very clear sense because the people that ran organized crime in the town of San Fernando were the Zetas.


They had absolute control. And anyone who lived there or even knew about San Fernando was very clear on who was calling the shots.


And what do we need to know about the Zetas? Zetas began as sort of the armed wing of one of the larger cartels, the Gulf Cartel. But a little bit before 2010, they split and formed their own cartel in Tamaulipas state where San Fernando was located, became a war zone. Tamaulipas borders Texas. And San Fernando has the misfortune of being located in a strategic crossing point for the entire state heading up to the border. These two cartels were fighting it out along the border and fighting it out in the actual areas of Tamaulipas.


And the Zeta cartel had taken over San Fernando. And in the course of their operations, whether it was drug smuggling, human trafficking, one of the ways they raised money was through kidnappings and kidnappings of locals. And so it was pretty clear the moment they hadn't heard from Karen what had happened, but they only confirmed it when the kidnappers actually called. And there was little doubt those kidnappers were members of the Zeta cartel. So what did Karen's family do and who do they turn to knowing how routine this kind of kidnapping is?


I think in ordinary circumstances, people would turn to the police, right. But that's not the case in a lot of Mexico and certainly not in San Fernando. The police are either corrupt, complicit or just completely incapable of doing anything. In fact, something like 95 percent of homicides go unsolved. Now, think about that for a minute. Five out of every hundred homicides, the police detectives, whomever is investigating, figure out who did it. And the other 95 out of that hundred, it just remains in total and utter impunity.


Look, Mexico is not a failed state. It's got one of the largest economies in the world, multinational companies. It's home to a remarkable culture, cuisine, art. But there are these places like San Fernando scattered throughout the country where people's lives are dictated by the whims of armed men, where life is circumscribed by violence, where there's literally no state coming to save or protect you. And I can't put a specific number on how many people that is.


But Mexico is at its most violent point in more than 20 years since they began collecting this kind of data. And I think that speaks volumes about how many people live under that vise grip of impunity. Most people who suffer kidnappings. Now, our best bet is to pay. They don't even go to the police at first. But in an interview, I'm going to say that I'm going to be giving me the family did the same.


In fact, the people they went to with the local bank and kidnappings were so common that banks were used to offering families these ransom loans and about a million might be owed me in the bank.


And I didn't to wonderful music.


I mean, the best of it, the kidnappers, they initially asked for a million pesos, which is about 50000 dollars in today's exchange rate. That's a lot of money for small shopkeepers. They settle on a lower amount, but the family still needed a loan to cover it.


Money is not the problem is will tell you that they filled a bag with the money and met the kidnappers at the appointed time outside the local hospital. And her father walked from there to the gates to the local cemetery where they promised she'd be returned and after a few hours waiting, he realized she wasn't coming.


So he has now paid this money and she's nowhere to be seen. Yeah, it's their their nightmare scenario. And so her family was sort of left with that and that void after having basically used their life savings and indebted themselves to a bank.


Hmm. So the family probably now assumes we're never going to Clarenbach families in these situations.


They start to look for glimmers of hope even when they don't exist. Louise told his family, hey, we shouldn't worry about this. There was a there was a shootout last night and maybe they got tied up and they couldn't return. Karen, I'm sure they'll bring her back. I'm sure they'll bring her back. But time passed and they continue to wait and nothing happened. The kidnappers stopped answering their phones, but it was a small community where everybody kind of knew each other.


So eventually Miriam asked one of her contacts to get her a meeting with the cartel, and they sent one of their young recruits to talk with her. And what happens, so she meets with this young man, you know, late teens, early 20s at a restaurant called Junior, one of Miriam's favorite restaurants in San Fernando, while they're sitting there, she hears his radio buzz on and off. A lot of lower level cartel guys have hand radios to communicate with each other in the street.


And she hears a name, Samah. She doesn't think anything of it and they continue with their conversation. Miriam begins to implore this young man, please give me back my daughter. I'll give you anything you want. We paid fifty thousand dollars will pay more. Just please give me back my daughter. And the young man looks at her and says, we don't have her. We never took her, you know, we don't know who took her.


It must have been someone else. Now, at the time, Miriam thinks that's strange. Why this cartel has absolute control. Nothing happens. No one would be kidnapped without either their explicit involvement or at least their knowledge. So it sounds strange that someone who works for them would suddenly say, well, we don't have her and we don't know who took her. But the young man said, listen, I understand what you're going through. If you give me some money, I can move some people around and we can start looking for I'll help you and Miriam, even though she knows deep down that it can't be true.


He doesn't know anything, even though she knows deep down he's probably lying to her. She paid the young man a few thousand dollars and they left it at that. And then weeks later, she called and she called and she called and he stopped answering. And then she finally realized she had been duped. Wow. So this young member of the cartel. We exploits the Rodriguez family and he just extracts a little more exactly, he uses that vulnerable position, which is often what organized crime does to extract more money.


In fact, it wasn't just them. Once it became known, a lot of people knew that Karen had been kidnapped. They would call Mirriam or someone in the family say, hey, we have Karen. If you spend another thousand dollars and you pay into this account at this particular location, we'll return her. And the family, of course, knew it wasn't true. And I think the most tragic part as they paid that anyway's.


At the time, the trauma of this kidnapping had created problems for Myriam's marriage, and she'd moved in with her daughter Azealia, where she sat and just obsessed over this, as you described it, as waking up and going to bed in tears, just utterly destroyed until one morning she woke up, came down the stairs and saw Zalian in the kitchen. And she looked at her and she had this almost peaceful look on her face. She said, you know what, they're never bringing my daughter back.


In fact, I believe my daughter's dead. But I'm going to spend the rest of my life chasing down every single one of these guys until I get justice. And she was a different Mirriam after that.


We'll be right back. This podcast is supported by Facebook 25 years ago, phones weren't smart yet and people still said, fax it to me. The Internet has changed a lot since 1996, but that's the last time comprehensive Internet regulations were passed. That's why Facebook wants updated Internet regulations to set clear guidelines for addressing today's toughest challenges protecting privacy, enabling safe and easy data portability between platforms and more. Learn more about why Facebook supports updated Internet regulations at about slash regulations.


As you said, that Miriam becomes a different person after realizing that her daughter isn't coming back. And what does that mean?


What does she start to do, you know, down in that space of helplessness? She found something in herself that basically allowed her to move forward by trying to hunt down these people. She began her campaign for justice, and it began with a memory from that lunch while she'd been sitting there. If you'll remember, she heard the name Osama. It was a nickname, of course, but it was a starting point. So she logged into Karen's social media account, her Facebook account, and began hunting for that name.


Days on end, Azalea recalls her all hours of the day into the late night. She would just be looking at her phone or computer, scrolling through social media, looking for the name Osama. And eventually, after a couple of weeks, she got a lucky break and she saw the name tag on a photograph. There was no other real identifying characteristics. There was no real name. There was no account associated link back to. But in that photograph was the young man she'd met with for lunch with presumably his girlfriend, but a young woman.


Now she was wearing a uniform of a restaurant called Illawarra's Fulton, which is an ice cream shop about two and a half hours away in the town where Louise lived, Ciudad Victoria Lewis being Miriam's son. And so she began staking out the ice cream shop, hoping that one day summer would show up. And sure enough, after weeks of that, one day summer did show up.


And she followed him and his girlfriend home if she was going to get the government to do anything. She not only needs to investigate and locate Osama, but she needed a government name to go on the arrest warrant. But to get that, she would have to talk to someone in that house who might know his actual name. And it dawned on Marium that someone would recognize her if she went knocking on the door. So she went home and she hatched a plan.


She dyed her hair, fire engine red. She cut it. She put on an old uniform for when she worked at the health ministry. She drove back to the neighborhood and conducted a poll and went through the entire block getting everyone's name, including OTL Ulises Elizondo Soto, the young man she knew. Asama Wow.


So what does she do with this information, with this real name for summer, so she takes this information and brings it back home and is trying to figure out what to do with it. And of course, in order to issue an arrest warrant, you not only need the name, you need the cooperation of the authorities. So she is looking for a police officer or some official who will take her seriously. And yet none of these people want to listen to her until one day she sits down with a police officer.


And I spoke to this police officer. And you remember sitting down with this desperate mother carrying a black computer bag and before they order, she slaps it on the table and she opens it up. And inside is this trove of information sama's real name. Other people involved pictures from Facebook numbers, addresses and his jaw drops. He's absolutely floored, said some of his own detectives don't do work like that. And he he vowed to take up the case and he did.


So the police went to the location where Sara had been. But by then he'd left. After all this work, after this amazing breakthrough, she did not get her man because the police had delayed and he'd moved on. It wasn't until September, which was a few months later, her son Luis was working in the cowboy shop of Ciudad Victoria. And it was the day before Mexican Independence Day, which is a big festive day in Mexico. And right as he's about to close, this is a young, slender man, walk into the shop, pick up a hat and look at it and browse, basically.


And he does a I can take and he realizes, oh, my God, it's. His mother had shared all of these Facebook photos with him. He knew exactly what he looked like, even though he'd never met him. And he immediately froze and he thought, I've got to call my mom. So he calls his mother and she's back in San Fernando, two and a half hours away. His mother says Miriam says, don't you lose him, don't leave him.


His mom, of course, knows exactly what to do. She calls this police officer and she says, hey, my son is in Ciudad Juarez. At this address. He has identified some of the person I told you about, the person you have an arrest warrant for. Can you get there? And the police officer races there. So Luis essentially surveils Samah for the next hour following him around the plaza. And there's all these celebrations and fireworks until the police arrive.


When they arrest Samah, they capture him in the plaza and he is kicking and screaming and claiming his innocence. But when they bring him back to the precinct, Salma starts to give some names. One of them isn't really a young guy. He's just turned 18. Name is Cristiano and the other is guy Jose Galey. Chappe Jose is a much more seasoned member of organized crime. He's a bit older. He's not from San Fernando. And he says nothing.


The police get nothing from him. But Cristiano is a bit younger, a bit more impressionable, a lot more fearful of the police. So under questioning, at one point he sort of stops and he looks at the officer and Miriam Miriam attended these these interrogations with Samir, who's involved in the interrogations. She's involved in the interrogations because she was the one feeding the police information. She'd be like, ask him this. And if he says he doesn't know that person, show him this Facebook photo that I've downloaded that proves that he has knowledge of this person.


Wow. At one point, Cristiano is so upset, he asked the police officer, he said, I'm sorry, can I please call my mom? I'm hungry. And Maryam hears this and it just strikes her. She realizes this. This is just a little boy. And so she pulled out of her purse a piece of fried chicken that she had wrapped and gives it to him and then goes to buy him a Coca-Cola. She brings the Coca-Cola back and the police officers just looking at her, he's like, what are you doing?


Do you know what this kid did? He killed your daughter. And Miriam looks at him and she says, Yeah, I know exactly what he did. I know what he did better than you do. But I'm still a mother and he's still a child. So after she feeds him, Cristiano becomes much more open and begins to tell her in the police what happened. And it begins to describe the location where the kidnapping victims are taken with her help.


They call it a security house.


And Miriam, you know, shows up at this place and it's like it's a horror show, she's just there by herself, she's just there by herself, and she begins going through these small adobe structures on the property, looking at soiled mattresses and bullet holes in the walls in control because no political control and no fun.


How's it going on the Internet this afternoon? But it does seem like the start of the National Fund, the American soccer and Goheen.


And the first thing she finds is a seat cushion that she recognizes from Karen's car. And, you know, our heart palpitations. And she continues to search and she finds her daughter's scarf, a scarf that she had given her. And it dawns on her that this is where her daughter was taken these months of searching this big question about what had happened. Now she's here in the physical location by herself where her daughter had most likely been killed.


And do the police find Karen's body there, lay up and down a little bit and from that area any time in.


So the authorities are taken there by Cristiana and he shows them this picture. He tells them the cartel had been dissolving bodies and assets and pouring the remains in this pit. And there are a lot of bodies.


Elumelu that Daniel's scenario was that Casey is now a martyr, a.k.a. estaba intracerebral. Guess the data saying, you know, I'm in Iraq and have him assassinated, I'm going to die.


And police find a bone fragment from the femur of Karen. Karen had been killed and buried there.


This is an absolutely horrifying sight, a mass grave. It's a mass grave. It's a mass grave in a in a community, in a state, in a country where there are no shortage of mass graves. It's so grim that the poor go into these open stretches of land with long metal spikes and they hammer them into the ground where they feel like the earth might be disturbed. And then they wrenched them out and they smell for death to see if there might be a mass grave.


That's how the poor search for their dead here.


So in a country where so few cases are solved, Miriam. Finally does now have an answer, and I wonder if that feels to her like a bit of closure, and is her work now done?


I think for a lot of people that would be finding the remains of your loved one, you would bury them and move on. But for me, this is the end of Chapter one and the beginning of Chapter two, because she has vowed to herself she's going to track down everyone responsible. And she knew there were a lot more than just a few people she'd found. So Miriam began the second chapter of going after those individuals, one of them, she talked to his grandmother, she located his grandmother in the small town in Tamaulipas, and she said, oh, my grandson, he's he's doing better now.


He's converted to Christianity and he's going to this church. So Miriam started going to the church. Now, she had pictures of him from his era in organized crime and identified him and eventually got the police to arrest him for another. She tracked him down to his job and then found out his wife was pregnant and showed up at her prenatal appointment where he was with her. A third one was selling used cars in another state entirely, but she had friends in the used car business and she gave them pictures and said, if you ever see this person, I think he's in this area, please tell me.


And ultimately, she found that person that way. It was a series of remarkable investigative, creative ways of finding the people responsible. I mean, she's a super hero, one by one by one, she is tracking these people down through inventive, homespun detective methods and she is getting people arrested who seem to be otherwise out of reach of Mexico's legal system completely.


She basically forced the police into doing their job by doing their job for them and making it hard for them to say no. She even tracked someone down to the international bridge between Mexico and Texas and held them down at gunpoint while she waited for the police to arrive and the police ultimately still came and arrested him. But if she hadn't, he would have disappeared. And who knows when or how she might have found him.


Is that the only time that she does this? The last person she physically assisted in the capture of was a woman who was working as a babysitter in Ciudad Victoria, and it was Alba Ruby said Soto Rodriguez and samarium began to spend night after night outside of the house where she had been told Alba was babysitting and she spent so long out there she would have to pee in cups because she didn't want to leave her car for fear of being seen. Her car died at one point because she would listen to the radio while she was waiting outside and her son Luis had to come and give her a jump the next day so she could leave.


But then eventually she did her and she got the police involved and orchestrated an arrest.


So how many people does Miriam end up getting arrested? She gets 10 people arrested through this wild three year campaign. Wow. She actually gets so good at this. She comes to represent others who have missing or dead relatives that the government's been ignoring. And she begins to petition the government on their behalf, forming a collective in San Fernando. For the first time ever, the collective became this much bigger thing than just Miriam. Suddenly, she was giving others the power to fight back as well, the power to demand answers about things they've remained quiet about for most of their lives.


And that brought even more attention to her. And what she was doing with that attention came more scrutiny.


And I assume that includes scrutiny from the cartel.


Yeah, and, you know, nobody had done this. Nobody had gone against the cartels in this kind of way. And she was standing up against them and not just her, but she was teaching others to do that as well and forcing the government to do something about it.


But in early twenty seventeen in Puerto Rico, the central issue that Victoria is a wonderful, ecstatic surprise.


And I mean, there was a prison break from the very same prison where she put Karen's kidnappers and killers. And at the time, Miriam had been receiving threats. Of course, she never told her children about it. She didn't want to scare them. She went to the government.


And there's a video recording of this responsibility that they took me negotiators and the other goes to the medical lab. What is the real game?


I saying she needs protection to the people who escaped from this prison. She has Intel through her network that they are coming after her. Right. And the government pseudo acknowledges and says, I have please pass by your house every now and then. But of course, that, like everything else they had done was insufficient. So following this prison break in March of twenty seventeen and following the government's inability to offer her the sort of round the clock protection she felt she needed, Miriam continued with her investigation, continued with her life.


And on Mother's Day in twenty seventeen, she had dinner with Azawi at her favorite restaurant. And then she went to a shop, Rodeo Boots, to do a final accounting of what she had in the store. She drove home from there. It's a ten minute drive from rodeo boots to her house, but she didn't notice there was a white Nissan truck trailing her filled with men, many of whom just escaped from prison, the same prison break she'd been fearful of.


She pulled up in front of her house almost 11:00 p.m., got out, began to walk to her door, and she hears a car pull up behind her and the men jump out and shoot 13 rounds at her and she dies on her lawn. In some ways, this feels inevitable and still heartbreaking after all this work, the cartel strikes back.


Yeah, I think they ultimately did a calculation that the cost of her staying alive and continuing her movement and it's spreading was greater to them than the cost of killing her and the blowback that might ensue from that. And they were right, at least to some degree.


And so what did happen and what were the repercussions for her killers?


A few people were arrested after pressure was placed on the government. But in Lewis's words, the intellectual authors, the people that actually planned that, they were never found. And a few years later, kidnappings were right back where they were before. And to me, it's it is the perfect metaphor for impunity. And it feels like the lesson is not just the impunity of the cartel. But that the cartel always wins. Yeah, I think if you ask me to tell you the story of impunity in Mexico, I will tell you the story of a mother whose daughter is kidnapped and killed by the cartel, who heartbroken does the extraordinary thing to track down all of these individuals responsible and get the police and the government to do their jobs and then winds up dead by the very same cartel as an act of revenge.


So what then is the legacy of Myriam Rodriguez? It's complicated.


I think it's a lot more complicated than we would like it to be. After Myriam's death, the town almost went dormant as if spent by its own tragic history. Yuming cartel violence actually quieted down in the wake of Myriam's death.


Yeah, until at least last year when a young 14 year old boy was kidnapped, Luciano Leal Garcia from a public park and his mother, like Miriam, decided to make it an issue. She had press conferences. She held marches, searches. She made it a public spectacle, forcing the government into a reaction. The government ultimately found some of the people responsible, and most importantly, they found Luciana's body buried in a shallow grave in an open field.


A few days later, the family held a funeral and Lewis and Azalea attended. And during the eulogy, the father said something that I think resonated with both of them and we said, we may not have you back the way that we wanted, but at least we have somewhere to mourn. So what is her legacy? Part of it is just that it's somewhere to mourn, and I think for Lewis and Azalea, if not the legacy, the impact of what their mother had done was shown a way for people to get there, to have closure, to find the bodies of their loved ones, which is no small feat in Mexico where 80000 people are missing.


Miriam's template, albeit a complicated one to template that says, you can ask, it's been done, you can push, but maybe not too far. It is both an inspiration and, sadly, a cautionary tale. Alison, thank you very much. We appreciate it. Well, thank you for having me. We'll be right back. This message comes from Tullio right now. Every company is rethinking the way they connect with their customers online. This makes the role of developers who build those digital experiences more important than ever.


Yet most business leaders don't know how to unlock the development team's full potential. Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson has written the book to show you how to ask. Your developer is an essential read for every business leader undergoing digital transformation. Get your copy and ask your developer, Dotcom. Here's what else you need to know today in his first formal answer to the impeachment charge against him. Lawyers for former President Trump denied that he was responsible for the riot at the Capitol or that he intended to interfere with a congressional certification of President Biden's victory in a pretrial brief.


The lawyers said that Trump's speech on January 6th, calling for his supporters to fight like hell, was not meant as a call to violent action and was protected speech under the First Amendment. The Senate impeachment trial is scheduled to begin next week.


And you were very familiar with the scenes today.


On Tuesday, a Russian court sentenced Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, to more than two years in prison for three months before the sentencing will silenced Navalny, but is likely to energize his supporters and harden their anger at Putin, which tens of thousands of Russians have expressed over the past two weeks in massive protests.


Today's episode was produced by Nina Puttock and Rachelle Banjar, it was edited by Mike Benowa and Lisa Tobin and engineered by Chris Wood.


Special thanks to Anna Soza. That's it for The Daily, I'm Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow. London Stock Exchange Group is now elshaug here to be your essential global markets, infrastructure and data partner, where open isn't just a platform, but a philosophy giving you access to the markets, data and analytics, liquidity and risk management you need, and a flexible partnership approach to help open up more opportunities for you, your customers and society. al-Sayegh Open makes more possible.