E. Tavira and his wife were getting ready for bed when they heard the loud banging. It was the middle of the night, and as the noise grew louder and faster, Tavira realized that men were downstairs breaking through the security gate outside his home in Piedras Negras, the Mexican border city across from Eagle Pass.
Tavira’s children woke and came out of their rooms just as men, wearing bulletproof vests and armed with automatic rifles, stormed the house. Tavira would later recall how one of the gunmen covered his face with a mask made to look like a skull — “like you were looking at death.”
As a drug trafficker for the powerful Zetas cartel, Tavira recognized some of his captors. One was a friend of the family, someone whose kids played with Tavira’s own. The man ordered Tavira’s wife and children into the closet, shut the door, and then directed him down the hallway toward the staircase.
Marciano Millan Vasquez, whom Tavira knew as a cartel hitman who went by the nickname “Chano,” appeared to be one of the men in charge. “It’s time to go,” Chano told Tavira as he shuffled him out of the house and into a car. The man with the skeleton face trained his gun on Tavira and pinned him to the floorboard with his foot.
Tavira couldn’t see much, but what he heard was chaos — a wash of engines revving and frantic radio chatter. Wherever it was the Zetas were taking him, they were racing to get there.
When the car stopped, Millan re-emerged, grabbing Tavira and pulling him out of the vehicle. The captors walked him through an empty, walled-off lot on the western edge of the city. Trucks carrying sicarios, or cartel assassins, and other captives swarmed the place. Tavira says he walked past more than 30 people kneeling in the dirt with their hands bound.
During his testimony in a San Antonio federal courtroom last month, Tavira said that he was eventually taken to see Miguel Angel Treviño Morales and his brother, Omar Treviño Morales, top leaders of the cartel who went by the call signs “Z-40” and “Z-42,” aliases rooted in the Zetas’ origins as a military-trained hit squad. Tavira had already heard that a top cartel member, a man named Mario Alfonso “Poncho” Cuellar, had disappeared. The Zetas promptly suspected he’d fled to the United States to cut a deal with law enforcement officials. It appears they were right. Years later, Poncho Cuellar’s testimony would surface in a case that led to the conviction of a third Treviño brother for laundering massive amounts of drug money through the Texas quarter horse industry (with horses named “Fiery Cartel,” “Cartel Mischief,” “Big Daddy Cartel,” and “Breakoutthebullets,” among others).
Tavira was unlucky enough to have once worked as a drug runner for the assumed traitor. Miguel “Z-40” Treviño did most of interrogating, demanding that Tavira tell him how to find the defector. U.S. law enforcement officials suspect Tavira was one of hundreds questioned by cartel bosses in the days and weeks ahead. As one former cartel member testified in court, the Zetas were looking for “everything that smelled of Poncho Cuellar.”
Tavira’s abduction, sometime in March 2011, dovetails with what many have called one of the darkest periods in the modern history of northern Mexico, when the Zetas fought for and seized control of many of the region’s most lucrative drug smuggling routes, like Piedras Negras, into Texas. Witnesses who testified in a San Antonio federal courtroom last month said Poncho Cuellar’s defection in 2011 triggered a violent purge in northern Coahuila, including more than 300 dead in and around the city of Allende – a mass killing that only in recent years has become known as the Allende Massacre. Many of the victims, Tavira and others testified, had nothing to do with narco trafficking—they simply knew someone who had greatly angered the cartel.
In recent years, federal prosecutors in San Antonio have begun to outline a larger case that in many ways ties the wave of killings, abductions and disappearances that paralyzed Coahuila several years ago to an alleged corruption and money laundering scheme that reached the top levels of state government in Mexico. Last year, federal prosecutors here filed to seize a San Antonio house linked to former Coahuila state governor Humberto Moreira that they claim was bought with bribe money. According to the San Antonio Express-News, the feds are currently investigating whether Moreira and his former aide laundered millions more in kickbacks into the San Antonio area. At trial last month, the feds put forward a former cartel member who testified that he delivered bribes to Moreira’s personal aide while he was governor. (Moreira, who says his own son was killed by the Zetas, has vehemently denied the allegations.)
The resulting arrangement, local prosecutors say, effectively handed control of Coahuila over to what was quickly becoming one of Mexico’s most feared drug cartels with a growing reputation for shocking acts of violence. Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Leachman told jurors the bribes also made it possible for the Zetas to move “a ridiculous amount of narcotics” through Texas, all while maintaining control of cities like Piedras Negras by creating a steel river of guns that ran south from cities like Houston.
Prosecutors last month argued that such corruption allowed for not only the Allende Massacre but also the rise of people like Marciano Millan “Chano” Vasquez, one of the gunmen who kidnapped Tavira that night in 2011. During his trial, prosecutors said Chano worked his way up the Zetas’ ranks in Piedras Negras just as the organization’s blood thirst reached its apex.
At his trial this July, witnesses testified to seeing Millan, who was arrested at a West Side San Antonio home last year, covered in blood after he and other sicarios killed a phone company worker accused of listening in on cartel communications. Another former drug trafficker told jurors that he saw more than a dozen people murdered and dismembered with an ax, either at Millan’s own hands or on his orders — including the butchering of a 6-year-old girl in front of her parents and the dismembering of at least four boys who hawked newspapers on street corners in Piedras Negras.
After a two-week trial, on July 19, jurors took just three hours to convict Millan on all counts against him, including his involvement in the killing of at least 29 people in northern Mexico. Most of the counts against him carry a maximum life sentence. His sentencing is scheduled for October.
Kidnapped amid a wave of disappearances in 2011, Tavira actually turned out to be one of the lucky ones. After Millan whisked him across the killing field to be interrogated by cartel bosses, another Zetas leader called the Treviño brothers to vouch for Tavira just in time, saying the trafficker worked for him now and not the defector (prosecutors and a judge on the case have asked that media not use the full names of several witnesses who testified at trial out of fear of retaliation).
Still, Tavira wasn’t allowed to leave until the killing was over. He saw a friend named Victor Cruz on the ground with his wife, Brenda. The couple was joined by two of their boys and a friend unlucky enough to be hanging out with the Cruz family when the Zetas came calling. Tavira testified that Brenda was staring at him. He said she was mouthing something to him, pleading for help.
Tavira says he got back into one of the cars before the gunfire started. The Zetas finally took him away after they’d loaded the bodies into three or four truck beds.
Inside, however, the place was a decked-out safe haven for leaders of the Zetas cartel. There was the large room with a Jacuzzi and a bar with every kind of liquor imaginable, and a part of the house where the cartel kept pit bulls and prisoners.
Rodrigo Humberto Uribe Tapia, a former financial advisor to the Zetas, testified in court last month that he helped the cartel build what they called the “VIP.” A top Zetas commander known as “Z-100” insisted the place be Scarface themed. He even asked Uribe to hang a blown-up image of a scene from the movie when Tony Montana buries his face in cocaine mountain. The character, Uribe testified, “was kind of like an idol to him.”
On the stand last month, Uribe claimed he laundered some $50 million in drug proceeds as a frontman for the Zetas between 2007 and 2009, when he fled to the United States and began working with law enforcement as a confidential source. Uribe told jurors about two occasions in which he claims to have bribed a top state official in Coahuila. The first time, Uribe claims he packed about $2 million into briefcases and handed them off to a personal aide of former Coahuila Governor Humberto Moreira at a hotel in the capital city of Saltillo. The second time, Uribe testified, he took another $2 million packed into vacuum sealed bags to a Saltillo gas station, where he claims he gave them to someone with the state attorney general’s office.
Prosecutors seemed to use Uribe as a way to underscore the size and scale of the criminal enterprise the Zetas were able to build once state and local government had been paid off. Uribe claimed that as the bribe money flowed, the cartel began setting up checkpoints across the state. They’d store semi trailer-loads full of dope in warehouses where they stacked bricks of marijuana and cocaine into mounds as big as 25 feet tall and 60 feet deep.
Or the Zetas could keep their drugs in the local prison, known by the Spanish acronym CERESO (or the Center for Social Integration). Uribe testified that after Zetas bought near total control of the Piedras Negras lockup, cartel members there had access to anything they wanted—“liquor, drugs, women, parties.” He claimed that cartel members sometimes used the prison grounds as a shop to build secret compartments into vehicles that would traffic dope across the border.
The bribes, Uribe testified, also allowed the Zetas to get around construction permits and even assume control of a local coal mining company. He said the bribes even bought the cartel access to state vehicles and helicopters to avoid detection from the Mexican military as they moved drugs, cash and weapons throughout the region. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley with a forthcoming book on the Zetas, goes so far as to call the cartel a gang of “criminal entrepreneurs.” In court, federal prosecutor Michael Galdo called the Zetas a “drug army” that had turned Coahuila into a “drug state.”
At Millan’s trial, former Zetas members-turned federal witnesses claimed the cartel bribed not just Moreira, who was Coahuila’s governor from 2005 to 2011, but also his brother and current governor Rubén Moreira. Both men have strongly denied the allegations; Humberto in particular has scolded law enforcement and the media for connecting him to criminals he blames for murdering one of his sons in 2012.
Perhaps a sign of the impact the San Antonio prosecutions are having on current politics in the state, last month, as Millan’s trial was still underway, Armando Guadiana, a Mexican businessman who some expect will run for Coahuila governor, filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague against the government of Coahuila. In his petition, Guadiana accuses government officials of being complicit in horrific crimes perpetrated by the Zetas—who prosecutors say “brought hell on earth” to parts of Coahuila during their reign.
Not long after, Fernandez decided he wanted in. So he surprised his mother one day by walking out of the house while she was moving a load and matter-of-factly asking if she needed help.
A number of features in the area make the border region around Eagle Pass a difficult smuggling route to patrol. U.S. Custom and Border Protection agents and other law enforcement officials testified in court that traffickers often try to blend into the crowd coming and going from the Kickapoo’s Lucky Eagle Casino near the river on the southern edge of the city. Cane, brush and mesquite along the banks of the Rio Grande provide cover for smugglers and lookouts, one agent testified. Heading north, by Del Rio and the Amistad Reservoir, sharp bends in the river and treacherous terrain further complicate matters.
Piedras Negras became a critical city for the cartel because of two international bridges into Eagle Pass that made it an obvious main artery for drug smuggling. As the Zetas rose to power there, somewhere along the way, they realized how valuable American high school kids like Fernandez could be.
Fernandez testified that at first, all his supplier, who worked for the Zetas, asked was that he sell weed at his high school. When it became clear Fernandez could quickly offload pounds of the stuff in a short amount of time, the cartel asked that he start recruiting other high school kids who could help the Zetas move drugs through and around the Eagle Pass area. Some of the kids became drivers who moved the dope to safe houses after the bundles crossed the river. Others acted as scouts, either by car or on foot, who kept watch for Border Patrol agents or local law enforcement as smugglers working for the Zetas moved massive amounts of drugs across the Rio Grande.
Among other charges, last month a jury found Marciano “Chano” Millan Vasquez guilty of hiring minors as part of the Zetas’ drug trafficking conspiracy. One Texas Ranger who helped build the case against Millan testified that the Zetas were known to recruit kids on the cheap, telling them they’d get off easy if caught.
Which was kind of true. The Ranger estimated that between 2009 and 2010, some 75 juveniles were arrested for cartel activity in the Eagle Pass area. Since the feds rarely charge juveniles, those kids became a state and local problem, according to the Ranger. And down on the border, there were apparently few resources for juvenile justice departments. According to the Ranger’s testimony, that meant most kids were released on probation after being detained for at most 10 days.
Fernandez was eventually nabbed in 2009, but he testified that he fled to Piedras Negras the day authorities let him out on probation. In Mexico, the feds say Fernandez remained an important part of the Zetas' drug-running operations, leveraging his contacts in the United States to arrange shipments across the river. Prosecutors called Fernandez a “kid prodigy” who helped smuggle more than 60 tons of dope into Texas.
Soon enough, Fernandez testified, the Zetas bosses had an additional demand for their smugglers—that as they move drugs north, they also smuggle guns south. Fernandez estimated he moved more than 25 crates of automatic rifles or ammunition at Millan’s orders. By the time he was 16, Fernandez said he was moving about three shipments of guns each month for the Zetas.
Some witnesses who testified in court last month said that as the Zetas fought for control of the region in 2012, they went to the prison in Piedras Negras in search of more foot soldiers. Fernandez testified that in September of that year, the Zetas drove buses up to the prison entrance and walked more than 100 inmates out the front door.
Another witness painted an even darker picture of the prison, saying it sometimes served as a killing grounds where the Zetas destroyed human remains by “cooking” them in vats of acid or barrels of diesel fire.
J. Rodriguez accidentally stumbled into a front-row seat to the operation in March 2011, when he drove to Piedras Negras to pay Marciano “Chano” Millan Vasquez some $1 million in drug proceeds he owed him. Rodriguez, a former Zetas member now cooperating with federal law enforcement officials, testified that Chano forced him to come with as they rode around town for more than an hour. Chano’s boss was exchanging frantic texts with Miguel Treviño, then the cartel’s second in command.
The Zetas had recently learned that Mario Alfonso “Poncho” Cuellar was missing. Rodriguez testified that he was inside the car when Chano and his boss got orders from Treviño to round up anyone related in anyway to Cuellar. They were also supposed to find people who worked for Cuellar – and their relatives, too. Chano and his boss asked Rodriguez to point out any houses that he knew belonged to Cuellar.
Only in recent years have journalists, human rights groups, and U.S. law enforcement officials begun to piece together why more than 300 people disappeared from the region in March 2011 and never resurfaced, dead or alive. Critics say Mexican officials still haven’t acknowledged the full scale of the violence. Last year, in a report to state legislature, Coahuila’s attorney general concluded that the Zetas, with the help of local police, managed to kidnap 28 people around the time of the Allende Massacre. Testimony hitting the federal courts in Texas puts that number much, much higher. As assistant U.S. Attorney Leachman put it during Millan’s trial, “This is not something the government of Mexico has taken on until very recently.”
Federal agents who helped build the case against Millan testified to the difficulty of getting basic information from officials out of Mexico, even as witness statements taken in the United States began to reveal a picture of widespread killing. When one smuggler showed up on the Texas side of the border, claiming he witnessed barbaric acts of violence while held captive by the Zetas, federal agents brought in a laptop and asked him to point out where the killings took place. Authorities started to develop a list of locations as witnesses told them similar stories.
One federal agent testified that he sent the information to his counterpart in Mexico. They’d located some of the killing sites, he testified, “but police were not willing to go into that area.”
Rodriguez testified last month that more than 300 people were rounded up and disappeared after Poncho Cuellar and some of his associates fled the country.
Months later, Rodriguez said he was contacted out of the blue by an old coworker from Eagle Pass. As a teenager, Rodriguez worked with the man at the Eagle Grocery in town. The man said his son had disappeared along with his girlfriend. The response from Mexican law enforcement wasn’t encouraging. “They told me not to go around asking questions,” the father later testified in court.
Rodriguez said he’d already heard rumors that the Zetas suspected the man’s son of colluding with U.S. authorities. He testified that he called Millan to ask about the couple. He claims Millan handed the phone off to his boss. “Stop asking for him,” the boss told Rodriguez. “We just finished cooking him.”
The drug trafficker testified that joining the Zetas wasn’t a choice but rather the only way to survive. His work for the cartel began when sicarios rounded him up with six other men and asked them to start working for the gang. The first man who refused was shot dead; everyone else accepted the offer.
The trafficker testified that he got on the cartel’s bad side in February 2013 when one of his drug shipments failed to reach its final destination in the United States. He was on the hook for money he couldn’t pay. The messages from Marciano Millan Vasquez, or “Chano,” demanding cash were getting angrier. In court, prosecutors recited texts from Chano, one of which read: “I’ll tie you up and I won’t let you go until you pay me, fucker.”
Prosecutors say Chano had, by that point, risen to the rank of plaza boss, or regional commander, inside the Zetas. In some ways, prosecutors presented him at trial as a sort of cautionary tale, yet another cartel enforcer who symbolized the remarkable violence a narco state can breed.
The trafficker claims Chano abducted him and drove him around the outskirts of the city for days, bouncing him from car to car. Occasionally, his captors would remove his blindfold and give him a cell phone to try to scrounge up the money he owed the cartel. There wasn’t any fear he’d call the cops. In the past, he said, municipal police had provided him an escort when they found out he was running loads for Chano. Even if he called the police, he testified, he knew they wouldn’t do anything about it.
The trafficker got his hands on some $20,000 after his mother sold her house, but the Zetas said he still needed to find more. After a few days, the captors provided some additional incentive.
First, the trafficker said, they drove him to a pink-colored house. When they dragged him out of the car, he saw someone kneeling on the ground who was blindfolded with his hands bound behind his back. On Chano’s orders, he testified, one of the sicarios produced an ax. The first blow was to the man’s knee, then to his arms. One of the hitmen took a final swing at the neck. The remains were thrown into a barrel of fire. Days later, the sicarios forced him to watch as they did the same thing to two men and a woman.
Jurors inside the San Antonio courtroom were visibly distraught last month when Tavira testified about the third act of violence he witnessed while kidnapped by the Zetas. Chano had driven him to another house. When he removed his blindfold, the trafficker saw a family standing in front of him—a mother, father and their 6-year-old daughter—and a metal barrel with fire nearby. He testified that while other sicarios grabbed the parents by their hair, forcing them to watch, Chano personally began to dismember the girl while she was alive. Chano, he testified, laughed as he began to toss her remains into the fire before ordering the same be done to the parents.
The trafficker testified that on Chano’s orders, he twice saw the same done to boys who sold newspapers on street corners in Piedras Negras, kids the Zetas suspected of being spies for another cartel. He says Chano finally let him go after making him watch sicarios execute three more people he claimed were members of the Mexican military. The trafficker testified that he fled for the United States the day the Zetas let him go.
When federal agents searched the trafficker’s cell phone, they found messages that prosecutors say helped tie Millan to the Zetas. Among those messages was a text the trafficker sent to his wife while he was held captive.
It was about his son. “If I don’t come back, take him far away from this shit.”