The four South Carolinians had spent two hours in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, when a truck slammed into their minivan and bullets shattered their windows. What happened next, in broad daylight on the morning of March 3, made national news: The attackers, at gunpoint, tossed the passengers into their pickup truck and drove away. Two of them were later found dead. On the street, Areli Pablo Servando, a 33-year-old Mexican woman, lay in a pool of blood. She had been killed by a stray bullet.
A large crowd of onlookers watched in stunned silence. “There were so many people all around, but you could have heard a pin drop,” said an American woman who drove past the scene, not far from the border crossing to Brownsville. “We didn’t know what we were looking at. No one was moving. It was just awful.”
As in many border towns, the residents of Matamoros stay informed through a pulsing network of citizen journalists. Within minutes, a video of the attack spread via WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts. As they watched the video, locals tried to understand what was going on: Was there a fresh outbreak of street battles? Or worse, were gang members rampaging, killing random civilians the way they had in the border city of Reynosa, fifty miles to the west, in 2021? By late afternoon, a different narrative had taken hold: the assault was a freak one-off (a case of mistaken identity, investigators would later report). By evening, the restaurants and bars were full.
On the other side of the border, the incident proved more nerve-racking, as residents scrambled to understand what it meant for them. In Brownsville, thousands of Texans, almost all of them Mexican American, cross the bridge into Matamoros every day. After more than a decade of narco turf wars across northern Mexico, these fronterizos have developed a sort of sixth sense regarding danger to the south. In the days after the attack, Brownsville residents worked to metabolize this new reality. Were U.S. citizens being targeted? Was Matamoros entering a new chapter in the narco wars?
It wasn’t just this latest attack. For more than fifteen years now, countless South Texans who once regularly crossed the border have stopped going altogether. On reporting trips and on visits to see family in the area, I’ve heard the same thing over and over: “We don’t go to Mexico anymore.”
Not so long ago, South Texans grew up visiting family and friends in Mexico weekly, and sometimes daily. But many in a new generation have come of age with no real knowledge of the place. Even for many older Tejanos who still speak with deep nostalgia of their childhoods in Mexico, crossing is no longer worth the risk.
A couple of weeks after the attack in Matamoros, I traveled to the same corner where the South Carolinians were kidnapped and killed. I wanted to understand how violence in Mexico was affecting life in the borderlands. As with all matters along the border, the reality on the ground is complicated. Many residents I spoke to on the Texas side had already moved on—they continued to cross into Mexico regularly. Even within the same family, there are those who are too scared to cross and those who cross weekly just to grab a beer.
But I spoke to dozens who told me they no longer visit Mexico at all. I discovered that a significant portion of the population is now estranged from a home country that was once as close as their backyard. This has transformed not just their relationship to Mexico but their culture, politics, and sense of self.
Like many kids of my generation with family in South Texas, I grew up with two different stories of Mexico. My grandma and dad both talked wistfully about driving from San Antonio to visit cousins in Monterrey and nearby Saltillo, crossing the border at Laredo. A few times, they road-tripped all the way down through Mexico City and south to Acapulco, seven hundred miles from the Texas border. In the nineties, when my mom was trying to get pregnant and couldn’t afford fertility treatments in the U.S., my grandfather Guillermo went to Nuevo Laredo and got her the medication she needed.
By the time I was old enough to ask about making my own drive to Monterrey, the stories had changed. Around 2006, the state of Tamaulipas, which cradles South Texas from Laredo all the way to the coast, had descended into a bloody and prolonged civil conflict. Cartels battled one another and the Mexican military, and Tamaulipas became ground zero for perhaps the most horrific violence North America has seen this century. During my teenage years, I heard tales of farmers discovering mass graves, men’s faces sewn onto soccer balls, and bodies being hung from bridges. Some of the accounts took on a sort of dark magical realism. My dad’s friend Mario had a stray bullet slam into a wooden column inches from his head as he ate lunch in Nuevo Laredo. While angling from a small motorboat on Falcon Lake—the famous bass-fishing spot on the Rio Grande south of Laredo—my uncle was noticed by a boatful of drug traffickers. As he tried to motor away, the traffickers sped over and blocked him, with machine guns raised. An armed man with rolling eyes jumped onboard and searched my uncle’s boat. When he found only fishing tackle, the men let my uncle go, but not before one of them explained, “Oye—this part of the lake? Es mía.”
The widespread violence had begun when the rising Sinaloa cartel challenged the Gulf cartel for control of Nuevo Laredo, a city prized for its access to Interstate 35, a vital commercial artery that runs through Texas and all the way to Minnesota. To fight back, the Gulf cartel enlisted Los Zetas, an elite squad of drug enforcers made up partly of former Mexican special-operations soldiers. The war turned into outright chaos by 2010, when the Zetas broke their pact with the Gulf cartel and began their own operation. Tamaulipas descended into a hellish quagmire.
The worst of the violence, like a fever, finally broke by the end of that decade. The reason for this relative peace was perverse: a single faction of the Gulf cartel firmed up its control of Matamoros, and a faction of Los Zetas did the same in Nuevo Laredo, ushering in a sort of Pax Narcana. The ongoing skirmishes are mostly low-level clashes that today form the white noise of violence in Tamaulipas.
For most residents along the Mexican side of the border, there has been little they could do to avoid the bloodshed. For those on the Texas side, it was another matter.
In late March of this year, I met Esequiel Silva, whose downtown Brownsville shop is just a couple of blocks from the border crossing. It was a warm day, and a dry wind whipped through the narrow, nineteenth-century streets. Silva is 54, old enough to remember the days when the border between Brownsville and Matamoros was little more than a river easily crossed by a lightly guarded bridge. There was no razor wire, no wall. Each year in February, during Charro Days—a multiday festival that both cities celebrate with music and horse processions—the parade used to go right over the bridge, with no one stopped for passports, much less customs. Born and raised in Brownsville, Silva used to go to Matamoros frequently. “Everyone crossed all the time—it was nothing,” he said.
Times have changed. Silva hasn’t crossed in twelve years. “You could be a target,” he says. “So if you don’t have a purpose to go over there, why go?”
Silva, though, bristled when I asked him if the attack on the South Carolinians had made him worry that the killing might spread across the Rio Grande. “No, it doesn’t make me fearful,” he said. He gestured out his shop window, where we could see border crossers walking to the bridge. “Here in Brownsville, we’re not worried about spillover violence.”
Like many fronterizos, Silva thinks northerners overstate things when they talk about threats along the border. For years, South Texans have had to push back against fearmongering political campaigns and at dog-whistle racism that seeks to portray Mexican American border communities as hostile and lawless. On the contrary, border cities such as Brownsville are some of the safest in the country, according to SmartAsset, a financial advice firm that tracks FBI crime data to advise home buyers.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the violence on the Mexico side hasn’t affected U.S. border residents. Just a few weeks before the Matamoros attack, two women from Peñitas, a town near McAllen, went missing while visiting a flea market in Nuevo León. The women—sisters Marina Perez Rios and Maritza Trinidad Perez Rios, along with a friend based in Mexico, Dora Alicia Cervantes Saenz—have not been heard from since.
When asked, many border residents can name a person who went missing while traveling in Mexico. Since January 2021 Tamaulipas and its neighboring state to the west, Nuevo León, have accounted for nearly one third of all the Americans who have gone missing in Mexico’s 32 states, according to data kept by the Mexican government. The head of a private-
security company in northern Mexico told me that that’s no coincidence. “Americans of Mexican heritage are the most exposed people ever” when they travel to Mexico, he said. (To protect his relationship with the country’s government, he asked to remain anonymous.) “They’re perceived as those who got away to the land of milk and honey. There’s the perception of unlimited wealth.” Because Mexican Americans often have family on both sides of the border, they attract kidnappers, who can extort money from family members on the U.S. side and threaten family members on the Mexican side. And they can do it all in Spanish.
The fear of kidnapping looms large. Many fronterizos I talked to mourned the era when Tamaulipas was a place they could travel to freely—a place to visit family, play in the mountain pines, explore the coast. This has resulted in a sort of persistent, low-grade grief.
Ryan Cantu, a 36-year-old who grew up in Laredo, has fond memories of clubbing in Nuevo Laredo with his high school friends. The drinking age in Mexico, eighteen, wasn’t strictly enforced, and teenagers in Laredo would cross in the evenings to visit a onetime youth mecca: Señor Frog’s, a club right across the international bridge. But as cartel turf wars gripped Nuevo Laredo, “we all just stopped going,” Cantu says. “Part of it was all these clubs and restaurants shut down. But also, of the few friends who still went for family or business, most had a horror story of something crazy that had happened there.”
Today Cantu laments that younger generations won’t have the same experience. For some, Mexico has become more of an idea than an actual place. And it’s easy to start conjuring fears in that dark, opaque space.
In November 2020 South Texas became the epicenter of a seismic political shock. Then-president Donald Trump more than doubled Republican turnout compared with the previous presidential election in multiple Hispanic-dominant counties. Many national pundits, having expected Latinos to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, were befuddled. As I traveled along the Rio Grande in the days after the 2020 election, I heard many reasons why Trump had done so well. Many Tejanos told me they were angry about COVID-19 lockdowns, worried about losing oil and gas jobs, and opposed to Black Lives Matter protests. But at some point in what felt like every conversation I had with Trump supporters, they would suddenly point south.
In Rio Grande City, the former head of the Starr County Republican Party, a onetime colonel in the U.S. Army named Ross Barrera, gestured toward his backyard, where a trail led down to the river. “If you stay late, you’re often going to hear the shots fired on the other side of the border, where the [cartels] are fighting,” he said.
Barrera explained that the perception that “elite, educated Democrats” were weak on border security and anti–law enforcement bred fear in local residents. “A lot of people heard ‘defund the police’ and they said, ‘Well, we live in a corridor where there’s cartel wars,’ ” he said.
It’s not just in Rio Grande City that residents hear gunshots at night. In Laredo and Brownsville you can sometimes hear the same. Those eerie cracks in the darkness, along with all the horror stories of the cartel wars, had made fronterizos more amenable to one of Trump’s primary political messages: “Build the wall.” “The thing that the media doesn’t understand is that Hispanics here, we want the wall,” Silva had told me at one point when I talked to him in his downtown Brownsville shop.
The shifting political winds are evident in other ways. In 2022 a far-right candidate named Mayra Flores became the first Republican elected to represent the Rio Grande Valley in Congress since Reconstruction, when she won a special election for the Thirty-fourth district, anchored in Brownsville. A political newcomer with impressive digital savvy (she has more than 500,000 Twitter followers), Flores built a reputation as a pro-wall border hawk with a very specific claim to authority: she was born in Burgos, Tamaulipas, a small town eighty miles south of McAllen, and her family moved north in the nineties when she was six years old.
When I met Flores during the early days of her long shot campaign, in 2022, she spoke fondly of her childhood memories of Tamaulipas. But during her campaign she lamented that she no longer felt safe enough to see her family there, and she told me stories of her uncle getting kidnapped and her father being beaten when he traveled back to the state. These experiences, she also said, catalyzed her belief that the U.S. needed to militarize the border with federal troops—despite the data demonstrating the region’s dearth of violent crime. “I just don’t want any American to feel that way, where they can’t even visit their loved ones because of criminal organizations,” Flores said.
Of course, thousands still cross. There are those who visit family on el otro lado, those who need to cross for cheaper health care, and those who have looked at the violence with a sort of bravado, born out of a love for Mexico: no matter how hairy things get, some will always cross simply because they see Tamaulipas as la patria, their homeland. “We’ve seen a lot of things the rest of the world hasn’t seen,” Alexandra Pelaez, a Brownsville artist and designer, told me. But she said nothing will stop her from going.
One evening I met up with a young business owner who was born in Brownsville and grew up crossing back and forth into Matamoros. Today he drives almost daily into the Mexican city, where his company is based. He was aware of the risks—in fact, he requested anonymity so we could talk freely without causing his enterprise any headaches—yet he insisted that fears are overblown. “It’s fine, man, really,” he told me.
Even in the massive factory city of Reynosa, where multiple factions are once again vying for supremacy, life carries on. When I traveled there a few days later, I walked through Aquiles—the notorious northern neighborhood controlled by the shady organizations locals refer to vaguely as “the groups”—and most seemed at ease. At a shelter for asylum seekers within sight of the Rio Grande, one lifelong Reynosa resident was coaching soccer for a group of migrant children. “People in the U.S. don’t need to be afraid,” he told me. “If they were here in Reynosa, they’d know it’s fine.”
I considered that many talked about safety in Mexico the way one might talk about safety on Texas highways. Do drivers die all the time, in scary, gruesome ways? Yes. Can you die on a highway even if you wear a seat belt and do everything right? Absolutely yes. But does that mean you shouldn’t drive on the highway? No mames. Just do it. You’ll probably be fine.
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “We Don’t Go to Mexico Anymore.” Subscribe today.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Nuevo León was located to the east, not the west, of Tamaulipas. The story has been updated.
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