texasmonthly.com: How did you find people such as Lydia who were willing to talk to you?
Cecilia Ballí: It was somewhat difficult. Many of the people who have been victims of crime in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo prefer anonymity out of a concern for their safety, or else they want to put their experiences behind them because it is painful to recount them. I was lucky that Lydia (for safety reasons, some names in the original story have been changed), whose story I had heard various times in Laredo, is related to a former FBI agent. When I interviewed the agent, who is now a private investigator, and asked him to connect me to some of the people he knew who’d experienced crime, he gave me several phone numbers, including Lydia’s. She was the only one from the group who was willing to talk.
Although she, too, fears for her safety, she is indignant about what happened to her and believes in the importance of publicizing the crimes. In turn, she referred me to Sylvia and to Priscilla Cisneros, who provided the other two main narratives in my story. I was amazed by how one could take a single person in Laredo and trace a whole network of people in their life who’d been victimized. Both Sylvia and Priscilla were first hesitant to discuss their experiences with me. But between those three women’s stories, I thought I had a good sampling of the different kinds of attacks that have been transpiring in Nuevo Laredo.
texasmonthly.com: When you first interviewed Alejandro Domínguez Coello, did you plan to write on violence in Nuevo Laredo?
CB: Yes, I was already reporting my story. I interviewed Mr. Domínguez because he was the president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce and had been very vocal with the government and with the press on the issue of crime. He was concerned that tourists and other visitors were turning away, making it difficult for Nuevo Laredo’s downtown businesses to survive. I found out that Mr. Domínguez had been named chief of police the same night that I found out he’d been killed, so I was doubly surprised. My story was already written then. I had to go back and make some changes.
texasmonthly.com: How did it change your story to have one of your subjects murdered?
CB: During our conversation, Mr. Domínguez was trying to downplay the level and reach of crime in Nuevo Laredo. Although he agreed that the problem of impunity was real, he argued that only those involved in shady enterprises were being hit by the violence. His murder seemed to indicate the opposite. It was also telling that within the four months it took to report and research this story, one of my sources became another victim of crime. I was shocked by the news.
texasmonthly.com: Since a significant amount of your article relies on first-hand accounts, did you ever worry your interviewees were embellishing their stories?
CB: The three crime narratives in my story are presented as testimonies of sorts, meaning they are my sources’ recollections and interpretations of what happened to them, with all of the gray areas and emotional charge that that entails. This is why I even decided to present one of the three narratives, Sylvia’s story, as a very long, word-for-word quote, just as she had narrated her story to me. There was no way I could track down the men who kidnapped her family member and ask them to verify the chain of events. So as I stated, I like to think of these as first-hand testimonies, and the article is partly about how people survive and remember crime.
But I do have to say that so much of what the three women told me resonates with what law enforcement agents had shared with me about how the cartel operates. I think it would be difficult for them to entirely make up some of the chilling details they shared. I think the most telling of these commonalities is the fact that police were present in all three of the crime stories, and they either refused to do anything to help the victims, or they participated directly in the crimes. This supports the news reports that are now emerging indicating that at least half of the Nuevo Laredo police force was on the cartel’s payroll. The rest of the article—everything that has to do with the history and evolution of the cartel—was verified through multiple human and news sources.
texasmonthly.com: Is Nuevo Laredo a safe place for an American tourist?
CB: I would hate to answer that question definitively and have someone prove me wrong. What I can say is that until now not one of the victims of crime in Nuevo Laredo has been an American tourist or a Mexican tourist, for that matter. I can also say that I and many other journalists still venture into Nuevo Laredo. You have to practice some common sense about where you can go and when. But we’ll have to see how things evolve.
texasmonthly.com: Popular tourist stops such as Señor Frog’s have shut down. Are these closings due to the drug violence?
CB: I’m not sure if anyone can attribute the closings 100 percent to the drug violence. But it’s true that residents of Laredo and even of Nuevo Laredo stopped frequenting those clubs, leaving them all but dead. Señor Frog’s was the last place where at least one kidnapping victim was seen, and various sources told me that some of the cartel’s runners socialized there.
texasmonthly.com: Who is to blame here? Corrupt Mexican cops? Indifferent border patrols on both sides?
CB: That is a big question. The issue of the drug trade is one of those subjects that we can debate until we’re blue in the face. I think there’s no denying that corruption among Mexican law enforcement and government agents is a very serious problem. It is impossible to have a rule of law when your