Editor’s note: The following contains graphic language and subject matter.
A caravan of black Suburbans arrived on the side of the road, police lights flickering. These people didn’t look like cops. They wore all black. Gabriel and Wences were blindfolded and put in the back of an SUV.
“What are you doing here?” the man who looked like Rambo asked again. He took a grenade off his chest belt, tossed it from hand to hand like a tennis ball.
“Nothing,” Gabriel said, his jaw sore; his eyes hard, glazed.
“Where are you from?”
“We go to college in Texas,” Gabriel said. “We work at McDonald’s.”
“Oh yeah? What do you study?”
“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir.”
He stepped closer to Gabriel. “Te miras tranquilo. Demasiado tranquilo. ¿Por qué? ” You look calm. Too calm. Why?
“No sé.” I don’t know.
“Hijo de tu pinche madre. Te crees bien verga.” Son of a fucking bitch. You think you’re all that. “¿Con quién jalas? ¿A quién le andabas vendiendo la troca? ” Who do you work with? Who were you selling that car to?
Earlier that night, Gabriel Cardona and his friend Wences Tovar had taken a Jeep Cherokee across the river and into Nuevo Laredo. They were not law students, this was true. Though Gabriel had once excelled at English and math, he’d given up on school after a truant officer at Martin High had discovered rolling papers and a bullet in his pocket as a sophomore. After several stints in alternative classes and a military boot camp, he’d reached the conclusion that his education lay elsewhere. Growing up in El Azteca—or Lazteca, as it was known—a neighborhood overlooking the Rio Grande, he had seen the kind of money there was to be made from drugs going north.
But it wasn’t until he’d met Meme Flores, a guy in Nuevo Laredo who was friends with a Lazteca family, that he’d realized what needs existed south of the border. Meme had shown him the other side: the demand for cars and weapons in Mexico. With a growing drug habit of his own—some girls at school had introduced him to Rohypnol, party pills they called roches—Gabriel had fallen easily into stealing cars and trucks around town, then driving them across the border to sell to Meme. He’d even persuaded Wences to go in with him. It was criminal, yes, but Gabriel was meeting new people and making money, enough to dream about one day leaving his mother’s ramshackle house on Lincoln Street.
It was Wences who had proposed taking the Jeep Cherokee that day. He’d told Gabriel he had a new connection, a Mexican cop who would pay a little more than the standard rate of $1,000 per SUV. Sure, Gabriel had said, always game to expand his network. So they’d driven to the Nuevo Laredo police barracks and asked for the cop. They’d been met with blank stares. So they’d left. It was dark. As they headed back to Vicente Guerrero Avenue, which would return them to the international bridge, a Mexican police truck pulled them over. Gabriel and Wences were handcuffed, led into the brush, and told to stand still. The cops made a call.
It was early 2004, and Gabriel had heard the rumors swirling about a new group taking over in Nuevo Laredo. La gente nueva, people called them. They were cleaning town, wiping out dealers and putting a halt to all local drug selling. If you possessed drugs, and these new people didn’t know you, it meant that someone had sold the drugs to you, or that you were selling them, without authority. You’d be tortured until you spilled your source. Gabriel hurried to step through his handcuffs so he could reach inside his jeans for the pills he’d hidden. He’d been about to throw the baggie into the brush but thought better of it and swallowed all five roches instead.
A caravan of black Suburbans arrived on the side of the road, police lights flashing. These people didn’t look like cops. They wore all black. Gabriel and Wences were blindfolded and put in the back of an SUV. Ten minutes later, they arrived at another location, got out, and were escorted into some kind of structure. The blindfolds removed, their eyes adjusted to a narrow, windowless room. It looked like a caballeriza, a horse stall made of brick. Beyond the open door was a circular driveway and what appeared to be a large ranch, an ejido with a bunch of small houses on it. They were left alone. More Suburbans arrived.
Gabriel and Wences had been searched for guns, but Gabriel still had his cellphone. He dialed his older brother.
“¿Qué onda, güey?” his brother answered. What’s up, dude?
“They picked us up across,” Gabriel said. “Now we’re at some finca and I don’t know whether . . .” Gabriel tried to spit out the words but couldn’t accelerate his speech.
More men were getting out of the Suburbans. In the illumination of headlights, a cloud of dust rose and hung in the air, moved forward, then dissolved. “¿Qué?” Gabriel heard his brother say before snapping the phone shut. A phalanx of men emerged from the shadows, led by an individual wearing a gun holstered on one thigh and a knife on the other, the man who was now interrogating them: Miguel Treviño.
“Who were you just calling?” Miguel asked.
“Don’t bullshit me.” Miguel threw his head back, flexed his neck, and looked down his nose with penetrating eyes. “Are you fucked up?”
“No, sir,” Gabriel said, then glanced at Wences for confirmation. Terrified, and without roches to steel his confidence, Wences stared back; his sober eyes looked to Gabriel as if they had a conscience of their own and wanted to jump out of their sockets. Gabriel pursed his lips but couldn’t stop himself: he erupted in laughter.
Miguel, surprised, knocked Gabriel down with a powerful hook. Gabriel fell, was helped up. More questions, more bullshit answers.
The grenade came out. Miguel left the horse stall.
Gabriel told Wences that he loved him and that it was good to have been friends. Wences, heart beating wildly, couldn’t understand how Gabriel was so calm. He didn’t want to die! Gabriel continued: it was a shame to go like this, but there were worse ways. They watched Miguel confer with the others outside, holding the grenade against his hip like a pitcher cups a baseball.
A thought popped into Gabriel’s mind: Meme.
“I work for Cero Dos!” Gabriel shouted, using the code name for Meme Flores: 02.
Miguel turned around. “What?”
“I bring him cars and trucks. I also cross juguetes”—toys, meaning guns.
Miguel laughed. “Why the fuck didn’t you say something?”
“I didn’t know who we were dealing with. I didn’t want to be saying something to the wrong people. Nuevo Laredo is still mixed.”
“It’s not mixed anymore. We’re the only dominant ones.”
Gabriel nodded. Miguel explained that the cop the boys had tried to sell the troca to was a contra, an enemy, and had been borrado del mapa the previous day. Erased from the map.
Thirty minutes passed, then Meme arrived.
“Yeah, he’s my guy,” Meme said. “Get him off.”
Meme introduced Miguel to the boys as a comandante for Los Zetas. Meme had never met Wences, but he told Miguel that he could vouch for anyone whom Gabriel called a pareja, a partner. Gabriel, Meme explained, was a stellar worker, a firme vato who supplied him with vehicles and guns from Texas.
Gabriel now made the connection: all those stolen trucks and smuggled guns were going, ultimately, to la gente nueva. The Zetas. Neither Gabriel nor Wences had heard of Miguel Treviño until this evening, but they now understood him to be a high-ranking member of the new cartel.
“You can call me Cuarenta,” Miguel told the boys, referring to his Zeta call sign, Z-40. He slapped Gabriel on the back. No hard feelings, eh?
That night, Miguel, Gabriel, Wences, and Meme drove around Nuevo Laredo in a caravan. Miguel’s driver called ahead to a restaurant, and by the time the group arrived, it was empty.
Over dinner, Miguel elicited a sense of Gabriel’s work with Meme. Wences, still sober and recovering from their near-death experience, didn’t speak much. But Gabriel sensed an opportunity. Perhaps his connection to Meme could be converted into something bigger. Speaking confidently, as if he and Miguel were equals, he offered what details he could and unfurled a litany of his transgressions, like bullet points on a résumé: drugs, weapons, assaults.
Miguel listened. Boys like these could be useful.
A year earlier, in 2003, the Gulf cartel leader and founder of the Zetas, Osiel Cárdenas, had been apprehended in Mexico. The manhunt for Osiel, which was led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and lasted several years, entailed tracking Osiel’s girlfriends and working with producers of the TV show America’s Most Wanted during what DEA reports referred to as the “media blitz” part of the operation. The Zetas, former members of Mexico’s military elite recruited by Osiel to be his cartel’s army, tried to break Osiel out of prison with a squad of helicopters, but the plan was scrapped when the weather turned bad and a pilot backed out.
If Osiel thought it was going to be easy to escape, it might have been because his cross-country rival, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, had escaped one of Mexico’s most secure prisons in 2001. Now, with Osiel in prison and El Chapo roaming free again, the Gulf cartel and the Zetas—known collectively as the Company—faced their first real threat: El Chapo wanted to expand his organization’s reach east to the most lucrative border crossing of them all, Nuevo Laredo.
When Miguel met Gabriel and Wences, he would have been aware of El Chapo’s ambitions. He would have also been aware of an American smuggler from Laredo who’d recently spurned the Zetas and sided with the Sinaloa cartel instead.
In the eighties and nineties Edgar Valdez Villareal had grown up on Laredo’s wealthy north side and played linebacker for United High. Known as La Barbie for his fair hair and eyes, he’d fallen in with a dope-dealing gang of rich kids called the Mexican Connection. La Barbie passed up college and joined a group of smugglers, shipping marijuana and then cocaine to Georgia and beyond. Indicted for drug trafficking in 1998, La Barbie had relocated to Nuevo Laredo, where he’d continued smuggling under a local boss. In 2002, when the Company began its takeover of Nuevo Laredo and killed La Barbie’s boss to seize control of his drug routes, La Barbie staged a revolt.
From a DEA report:
Edgar Valdez Villareal was advanced (“adelantado” or “fronted”) 100 kilos of cocaine by the Gulf Cartel for which Valdez Villareal later paid. Valdez Villareal was then advanced 300 kilos of cocaine by the Gulf Cartel and later paid for those in full. Valdez Villareal was then advanced 500 kilos by the Gulf Cartel and only paid for 250. Valdez Villareal then convinced the Gulf Cartel to advance 1000 kilos. Valdez Villareal failed to make any payment for this shipment. The resulting debt, considered a theft, led to the initiation of hostilities.
After killing a Zeta operative that had been sent to kill him, La Barbie fled to Acapulco and joined a family of Sinaloa-affiliated smugglers—the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, who imported forty tons of coke per month through the southern Mexican port at Zihuatanejo. A Beltrán-Leyva underboss owned a marble business in San Antonio, which the organization used to smuggle coke to buyers in Atlanta and New York. La Barbie, together with El Chapo and the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, had decided to fight for Nuevo Laredo.
La Barbie, Miguel knew, was organizing soldiers with the backing of the Beltrán-Leyvas and the Sinaloa cartel, and a battle was coming.
Now, in the restaurant, Miguel asked who Gabriel knew in Laredo, and by his tone it was clear that he meant high-profile people in the underworld. Gabriel thought back to his Sunday-night cruises as a kid on San Bernardo Avenue, when he used to ask the older boys which ride belonged to which smuggler. He nodded and threw out some names. Moises Garcia. Chuy Resendez. Richard Jasso.
Impressed, Miguel mentioned a training camp for recruits in southern Mexico. Gabriel was interested; Wences remained largely silent. As dinner wound down and the teenagers prepared to return to Laredo, Miguel told them that Meme would be in touch about the camp. La gente nueva were not the kind to take no for an answer.
“Bienvenidos, cabrones,” Meme told the recruits. “Esta es la compañía, la mera paipa de Mexico.” Welcome, brothers. This is the Company, the true shit in Mexico.
The seventy or so young men, ranging in age from fifteen to thirty but dressed identically in jeans and T-shirts, sat on wooden benches and listened. For the recruits, getting accepted into the Company, making good on promises to family, traveling with respected men, returning home to parents and wives as a somebody—whatever they fantasized about, it all seemed possible on this day.
A month had passed since the meeting with Miguel. Wences had not been invited to the camp in the end, so it was Gabriel who got into the caravan of Suburbans heading south through Mexico. Known as the adiestramiento, or the diestra, the training camp, located near Monterrey, was staffed with Mexicans, Israelis, and Colombians. Hundreds of contras—Sinaloan enemies rounded up in raids—had also been brought to the camp as prisoners. Gabriel wore jeans and a white T-shirt, as instructed, and left everything else behind, including his cellphone and wallet.
The reclutas, recruits, slept on hard cots, 25 to a compound, and were given a loaf of bread and a banana every morning. They swam and negotiated obstacles: mud, tunnels, ropes, and walls. Twice a week, in the middle of the night, camp leaders roused them to pull weeds for new soccer fields. On the morning run, whoever came in last owed one hundred push-ups. In the afternoon, they played soccer, and then everyone took turns boxing. There was no shame in not knowing how to fight. You were there to learn.
They learned about weapons: how to work the double grip of the MP5 submachine gun, made by Heckler & Koch; how to shoot the Glock, the 38, and the FN Herstal; and how to reload the magazine on an AR-15 assault rifle without losing ground to the enemy. The Colombian mercenaries taught combat skills: how to trap a car in an intersection; how to jump between moving cars; how to shoot through armored vehicles by unloading a clip beneath the door handle; how to walk and shoot accurately at the same time, minimizing your profile. On the basis of these drills, more than half the recruits were chosen for noncombat training, to be lookouts and patrols. The twenty or so who remained were to be trained as sicarios, assassins.
One of these was Gabriel. He was chosen to demonstrate the first live exercise: take an AR-15 assault rifle, run into a house, and kill the contra inside. The other recruits who’d been designated as killers were invited into the house to observe from an adjoining room. Meme told the contra that if he survived, he’d be set free.
Gabriel, outside, breathed deeply, tightened his fists around the rifle, and charged in. When he came through the door, Meme jumped out and slapped the rifle from his hands, then kicked the weapon toward the contra. Gabriel wrestled the contra for the rifle. Meme separated them and addressed the recruits.
“If you fall down or lose your rifle in a raid, never fight for the weapon. In a raid, you don’t know the surroundings. You don’t know the position of the contras in the house. In the moment of entry, all you know is that one guy knocked you out. He might be the only one you need to neutralize, or there might be others. You don’t know, but that’s okay, because your brothers are charging in behind you.” Meme shouted. “Listen up! Never wrestle for a loose gun. Instead, pull your cuchillo and put the contra out by hand.”
Of those recruits who proved they could kill, each was assigned a cuas, a partner. Walking, shooting, eating, shitting—you and your cuas, short for cuate, pal, watched over each other at all times. Gabriel’s cuas was a boy named Israel, whom he remembered going to church with as a child in Nuevo Laredo, when the Cardonas used to go across on weekends to see extended family.
The sicarios gathered near the edge of a forest, thirty feet behind a line chalked on the ground. Beyond, in the woods, two contras were tied to each other at the waist and told that if they made it through the first round, successfully outrunning the gunshots, they’d be let go.
With his cuas, Gabriel ran up to the line, eyes focused on the scattering targets. He stopped, put his left foot in front, as taught, twisted slightly at the waist, put his left hand on the barrel grip, raised his left elbow to heart level, aimed the AR-15, and released thirty rounds. Prrrrrt.
In early jobs, when asked to accompany Meme or others on hits or raids in Mexico, Gabriel was nervous. His jaw tightened; an AR-15 rifle felt no heavier than a paperback book. To take his mind off a mission, he’d focus on the function and assembly of the weapon. He’d rub his sweaty hands against his pants until it was time to rush in. For commission missions—those solo jobs assigned outside the operativo, the normal patrol—the local Mexican cops often assisted Gabriel by setting up targets and clearing out locations. In one job, the cops patrolled the territory around a restaurant as Gabriel walked in and shot a contra in the head.
The money, of course, was good. For sicarios, the weekly salary—or aguinaldo, literally, “bonus”—was $500. Commission missions were usually compensated at $10,000 each, sometimes more depending on the importance of the target. Gabriel learned how to pay off Nuevo Laredo cops, get information he could use against Sinaloa enemies, and interact with the Company’s command-and-intelligence center.
“You don’t enjoy what you’re doing,” he’d tell his older brother about killing people. But he did love the continuous action. As he tracked targets and kept in close touch with Meme, he liked having others rely on him. More than anything, he enjoyed giving money to his mother and his brothers and wasting money on entertainment for his friends, a growing circle of hoodies—old partners in small-time crime from Lazteca.
Now that he was connected to the most respected men from the border underworld, the hoodies were at Gabriel’s beck and call, available to run errands and provide rides whenever he asked. When Gabriel took friends to La Siberia, their favorite lunch spot in Nuevo Laredo, he’d leave the car in the middle of the street. “I’m Meme’s people,” Gabriel would tell the guy at the door. Traffic came to a halt while they ate lunch, but no one honked or complained. A cop simply told drivers to reverse their cars and go around a different way.
In Nuevo Laredo, during Gabriel’s first months of membership in the Company, he didn’t perceive much of a war. The Company appeared to control the area. But the following year, in the spring of 2005, as the Company and the Sinaloans expanded their ranks, more-intense conflict visited the border, and the Company’s grip on Nuevo Laredo was no longer assured. Gabriel discovered that the impunity he’d once enjoyed diminished a little. In April, after being picked up for driving a stolen car and possessing cocaine, he landed in a Nuevo Laredo jail for ten days.
A month later, Meme had a request. “Call Wences,” he said. “Tell him to come across.” Though Wences had not been considered for training camp, by this time he had become a low-level Company man in his own right.
“I don’t want to come,” said Wences when Gabriel called his phone.
“Why not? You don’t have a choice.”
A load of weapons he was supposed to cross to Mexico had gone missing, Wences explained, and he feared the consequences.
“Don’t worry,” Gabriel said. “I’ll be there.”
Later, as the two drove with Meme toward the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo, Meme explained that they were going to meet “the men of Nuevo Laredo.” Be serious, he said. There was a mission to do, money to make. “Take advantage of this. Ask for everything you want: ARs, vests, cash, cars. They’ll give it to you.”
Ten minutes later, Gabriel and Wences stood on a patio behind a nice house. A black Suburban backed into the driveway and parked, nose out. Two men got out; one faced the road, the other circled the car. Two others emerged from the truck and walked to the patio. They wore military fatigues and camouflage hats. Gabriel was impressed: the all-black look had become a trend around the hood, but these guys were soldiers.
As the men approached, Gabriel recognized Comandante Cuarenta—Forty—Miguel Treviño. Gabriel had known that he worked for Miguel, even if orders came from Meme. But he’d hardly seen the man since that night when he and Wences had tried to sell the Jeep Cherokee to the wrong cop.
“Saludos, señor,” the boys said.
“¡Mis gabachos!” Miguel said, using his slang for Americans. He threw his head back and sighted the boys down his nose. “No me llamen ‘señor.’ Señor is for the one in heaven. Call me comandante.” He asked which of them would be his “man.”
When Wences was silent, Gabriel jumped in and said, “Yo mero.” I’m the true one.
Miguel touched Gabriel’s chest and smiled. “Eres como yo, güey. Tú sí eres frío.” You’re just as cold as me, dude. Then he touched Wences’s chest. “¿Tienes miedo?” You scared?
“Me acabo de echar un pase,” Wences stuttered, explaining that he’d snorted a line of coke on the drive over. He confessed that he thought he was going to get smoked for the load of lost weapons.
“¿Cómo crees, güey?” Miguel said and laughed. “Eso pasa siempre.” Don’t worry, dude. Shit happens all the time. Miguel turned to Gabriel. “So, you think you’re a badass?”
“How many people have you killed?”
“I don’t know.”
“So many that you don’t know? Do you know how many I’ve killed?”
“I’ve killed more than eight hundred people.”
Gabriel and Wences followed Miguel and Meme into the house for a meeting of Zeta comandantes.
After some talk, the men agreed that the war with their Sinaloa rivals needed to be fought in the States as well as Mexico. Sinaloan contras were jacking Company loads in Mexico, sneaking across the border, and establishing themselves in Texas, where they assumed that the law-and-order culture of America would protect them, or at least make retribution less attractive. And by flooding South Texas with money, the Sinaloans were getting Company smugglers to flip sides. All contras and defectors in Texas had to be eliminated, the group decided. And it could be done only with a strong presence on the U.S. side.
The comandantes looked at Gabriel and Wences and asked them to find eight gabachos de huevos, Americans with balls, who could attend a training camp and then join them in the plaza, or turf.
Which plaza? Gabriel wondered. Until now, the only plaza he’d known was Nuevo Laredo. He and Wences just nodded. But as the boys walked out, the meaning grew clear. Miguel gave them $10,000, told them to buy a couple of used cars, and assigned them two commission jobs for $10,000 apiece—in Laredo.
Laredo? As in Texas?
Doing missions in a place where the authorities took homicide seriously was not the most appealing prospect. But it was Forty asking, and Gabriel understood the implication. To climb the ladder, he had to work in the States.
They would do it, Gabriel told Miguel. They would do the two jobs, and they would recruit more firme vatos.
Who’s my man?
I’m the true one.
Gabriel was part of something now, and a Zeta sicario never said no.
Copyright © 2016 by Dan Slater. From the forthcoming book Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel, by Dan Slater, to be published by Simon & Schuster. Printed by permission.