Crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico can be very risky
The recent Mexican cartel killing of two US citizens and kidnapping of two others in the border town of Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, was a grim reminder that the crossing “al otro lado‘ is a risky business.
As someone who lived and worked in Brownsville in the 1970’s and returns there frequently, I know very well that the frontier today is a very different world than it was back then. This reality is something even I forget sometimes.
For US citizens who are not Hispanic or who do not speak Spanish, crossing the border has not been safe for two decades. Long periods of silence suddenly give way to violence that can claim the lives of those caught in between. Rival cartels fighting for territory long ago killed the once-buoyant tourism industry along the border, though a trickle of Americans continue to cross the border for a good while to access more affordable pharmaceuticals or medical supplies, or on road trips to inland destinations such as San Miguel de Allende.
I took mine across from Brownsville to Matamoros exactly a month ago Ahijado, my godson Philip True Jr. and his Matamoros native mother Martha for Philip’s 24th birthday celebration and lunch. I also walked over a few months ago for dinner and drinks with Jerry McHale, a close friend and longtime resident of Brownsville who served as best man at my wedding over 41 years ago.
We both speak good Spanish and know how to fit in, but even that isn’t a guarantee.
Powerful drug cartels operate with relative impunity in the border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, or anywhere across the border from Brownsville to Laredo. They do not know their victims and tourists should not expect the police to keep the peace or come to their aid. Mexico’s law enforcement agencies are notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional, and the country’s judicial system exists in name only. Justice in Mexico, when it is available, is either bought or, on rare occasions, delivered under strong political pressure, usually from the United States government.
In the most recent case, a cartel delivered five bound and gagged lower-level gang members to local authorities and dropped them off along a public highway, where they were rounded up by police and swiftly charged as the murderers and kidnappers of the four US citizens from North Carolina . Welcome to Mexican justice. Who knows if they are scapegoats or really guilty? Mexican authorities rarely convict murderers in open criminal cases, but often pronounce cases solved and closed.
The cartels fund their activities primarily through drug cultivation, production, and smuggling, with sideline businesses such as kidnapping, robbery, and extortion. They generate large amounts of money to ransom politicians and cops and to pay for assault weapons, ammunition and handguns bought by Texans and smuggled south. The US also serves as a major consumer market for heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. It is a mutually destructive system.
Every few months I drive south to Brownsville, where my newspaper career began in 1977 and where I became bilingual and bicultural to visit the True family and longtime friends.
Philip never knew his father, Philip True, the Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News, who disappeared in 1998 while on a solo tour of upstate Mexico’s Sierra Madre. I was the editor of True and joined a military search party while his pregnant wife, Martha, waited at their home in the capital. We have found True’s hidden tomb deep in the bottom of the vast Chapalagana Canyon in the Huichol Indigenous Territory. Weeks later, authorities arrested two Huichol brothers-in-law who had confessed to the murder. It took four years to get a murder conviction and 20 years in prison, only for a corrupt judge to set her free before fleeing as well. Through three Mexican presidencies we have tried in vain to recapture it. That’s Mexican justice for you.
I wrote later trail of feathers, a book about the murder of True and our pursuit of his killers. The royalties from this book and the generous contributions of Hearst Corp. and the Express-News created an educational foundation that has taken care of Philip since birth and continues to pay for his education as a junior at the University of Texas Rio Grande Canyon.
We celebrated True’s high school graduation years ago in Matamoros, first with a mass at a Catholic monastery and then with his extended Mexican family at a restaurant in Matamoros. We’ve shared many other occasions, particularly birthdays, in Brownsville, but on occasions like last month we’re moving to Matamoros. Last month the word on the street was that the crossing was safe. Rival cartels were quiet.
This Sunday, voting was ongoing in the state elections, so the sale of alcohol was banned. We ate at La Catrina, a recently opened restaurant named after La Calavera Catrina, the face of death on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, in Mexico. My presence in the restaurant drew a few second glances so I was sure to wish everyone the best in Spanish as I walked by. Local families were relaxed as children raced around the tables. The food and the service were excellent. It was good to be back.
As we neared the bridge to return home, Martha’s phone lit up with text messages warning that cartel violence had broken out on the outskirts of town. With me in the car and traffic jammed at the Veterans International Bridge, it would be hours before we crossed it. Without me in the car, Martha’s global crossing permit would allow her to cross quickly on the freeway.
Martha turned around and dropped Philip and me off at the Gateway International Bridge, which we easily walked across in a traffic jam. Martha returned to the Veterans International Bridge and quickly crossed it as well without incident and we reconnected on the US side.
Text messaging is a common way for cross-border residents to stay alert to issues. They are a reminder that calm can quickly give way to chaos in a moment. Weeks later, that calm would give way to tragedy for four US citizens. For two of them there would be no turning back.
I plan to see Philip again in June. We’ve already decided that next time we’ll settle for a backyard cookout in Brownsville.