A Mother’s Quest for Justice in a Lawless Mexican State

FEAR IS JUST A WORD: A Missing Daughter, a Violent Cartel, and a Mother’s Quest for Vengeance, by Azam Ahmed

According to “2666,” Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus, published posthumously in 2004, the “secret of the world” remained hidden in Santa Teresa, the alias he used for Ciudad Juárez, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border that first became notorious in the late 1990s for the serial killing of women. Had Bolaño read Azam Ahmed’s “Fear Is Just a Word: A Missing Daughter, a Violent Cartel, and a Mother’s Quest for Vengeance,” he might have included San Fernando, a small town in the state of Tamaulipas, as a subsidiary of Ciudad Juárez’s hell on earth.

Drawing on four years of meticulous archival and field research, as well as countless interviews, scholarly works and his own journalism, Ahmed, a former Mexico bureau chief (and current investigative correspondent) for The New York Times, lifts the veil on daily life in a war-torn zone. While people employ the phrase “war on drugs” to mean an effort to combat illegal trafficking, or, worse, as a euphemism for state-sanctioned violence, Ahmed sets out to prove that in Mexico cartels have behaved as occupying armies on newly gained territory, governing by force and submitting local communities to increasingly spectacular acts of cruelty. The so-called war on drugs shows its truest face here: as a war against the civilian population. Ahmed’s book is a study of how such a war touches every aspect of social life, tearing it to pieces, and how the impunity with which cartels operate perpetuates a never-ending cycle of evil.

Tamaulipas — an agrarian state and stronghold of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, since its inception in 1929 — figured discreetly in the tales of violence surrounding the first surge of drug cartels in northern Mexico. Beginning in the 1930s, Juan N. Guerra, the leader of the Gulf cartel (portrayed with finesse by the actor Jesús Ochoa in the recent Netflix series “Narcos”), managed to maintain a firm hold on the syndicate’s activities, before ceding control to his nephew Juan García Ábrego, who concentrated on cocaine smuggling. After Ábrego was sent to prison in 1996, Osiel Cárdenas, a Gulf foot soldier, eventually took command, recruiting members of the military to the cartel’s ranks to form a small army: the Zetas. Then, in 2007, Cárdenas’s arrest and extradition to the United States ended the alliance between the Gulf group and the Zetas and inaugurated a bloody turf war.

San Fernando first came into international view in August 2010, when the murder on the town’s outskirts of 72 migrants from Central America was headline news. By then, the Zeta cartel was fighting the Gulf cartel for territory and smuggling routes, San Fernando becoming a central battlefield. Obliged to grapple with unprecedented levels of brutality, many local citizens were paralyzed with terror, while others began organizing resistance. Miriam Rodríguez, Ahmed’s heroine — more than a character, she is a veritable force of nature — is a shining example of the latter.

After her 21-year-old daughter, Karen, was kidnapped by the Zeta cartel in 2014, Miriam at first fell into a depression, and then, admitting that Karen had likely been killed, was seized by an irrepressible thirst for justice. Like mothers of the forcibly disappeared in Mexico and abroad, Miriam turned her grief into resolve, becoming a full-time activist.

The Mexican justice system, plagued by inefficiency and corruption, has historically forced families of homicide victims to invest their own time and resources into pursuing criminals, and Miriam was no exception. Vowing revenge, she embarked on a methodical crusade to identify and have arrested every Zeta involved in Karen’s kidnapping, from mere lookouts to high-ranking leaders in the cartel’s often-changing hierarchy. She spent hours performing the most unglamorous investigative tasks: staking out suspects from behind the wheel of her car, scrolling through Facebook feeds, hiking through abandoned ranches, scrutinizing photographs, ingratiating herself into the familial worlds of her targets. She was willing to give up her life, and ultimately she did, but not before forcing at least five Zeta men into prison.

Ahmed’s portrait of Karen is a moving study in subtle contrast. The youngest of Rodríguez’s three kids, Karen grew up middle class, enjoying an economic stability her parents, who owned a small home goods shop, had worked hard to attain. But she found herself caught in San Fernando’s bloody state of emergency. Dispirited by her parents’ separation in 2011, she engaged in random partying, and befriended people dangerously close to the Zetas. Miriam uncovered the who and the how of Karen’s killing, casting painful light on the complex web of civic neglect, poverty and cruelty that has led to unchecked violence in San Fernando and, increasingly, throughout Mexico.

Ahmed traces the beginning of this surge of brutality to the 2000 election of President Vicente Fox, a member of the right-wing National Action Party, or PAN, who broke PRI’s 70-year hold on power. This event, Ahmed writes, left a “vacuum of power” that the cartels were ready to exploit. Six years later, Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderón, declared a war on drugs — nine days after he was sworn in as the second PAN politician to win the presidency. Ahmed describes Calderón’s war as “a Kabuki dance of special prosecutors, investigators, troops and promises,” but absent from his account is any discussion of the highly contested nature of Calderón’s election. Many contended that the war on drugs was merely a cynical attempt by Calderón to cement the legitimacy of his government. The war rapidly escalated, eventually coming to define Mexican life.

It is not easy to write about violence. Potential pitfalls lurk at every turn of phrase: the re-victimization of victims, the appropriation of other people’s suffering and pain, the rendering of real evil as banal, to name a few. Ahmed writes about violence in Mexico with insight and sobriety, avoiding the usual markers of journalistic prose (descriptions of the research process, references to site visits). Instead, he maintains a cautious, at times exhilarating, distance from his material, letting the story unfold at a rapid pace, as if on its own, interweaving the contextual and the intimate in a series of vivid juxtapositions.

He saves his commentary for the epilogue, when he joins Miriam’s son on a visit to the ranch where Karen was murdered. There he witnesses a chilling discovery, one that will serve only to perpetuate the violence and impunity. “Fear Is Just a Word” doesn’t let us forget that the commitment, courage and integrity of people like Miriam Rodríguez constitute our hope to end this cycle. But, as Ahmed is also painfully aware, that hope hinges on our organizing capacity, our care as a community and, ultimately, our stubbornness.

FEAR IS JUST A WORD: A Missing Daughter, a Violent Cartel, and a Mother’s Quest for Vengeance | By Azam Ahmed | 339 pp. | Random House | $28

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