He told them there was someone who could find the girl: an ex-cop.
He told them that if this individual was still alive after the trouble he’d had with his own team, he’d be just the man for the job. He’d survived assignments like this one—where a death wish was more of an asset than deductive skills—several times already. He told them that if this man was still alive, which wasn’t entirely unlikely, they might find him in one of the next states over, Veracruz or San Luis Potosí. Every so often an informant would claim to have seen him on the highway heading into La Eternidad. No one knows where he goes. Others say he’s always in and out of town and might be mixed up in smuggling, but I don’t think so, vouched consul Don Williams. He always kept on the right side of the law. You might even have hired him at some point, Mr. De León. In any event, if this guy does happen to still be alive, he’d be just the man for the job.
Mr. De León asked what the individual’s name was and the consul replied, “Carlos Treviño.”
De León turned to look at Treviño with his bloodshot eyes.
“All I ask is that you honor the agreement we made this morning and find my daughter Cristina. I’ll pay whatever you want, but please, get out there.”“All I ask is that you honor the agreement we made this morning and find my daughter Cristina.”
“Just tell me one thing,” Treviño looked fed up and exhausted. “There’s nothing else I need to know?”
“Treviño, Mr. De León just told you—”
“It’s my life on the line. Do you or do you not have direct dealings with anyone in the trade?”
“I don’t work for them or with them,” the businessman responded without hesitation. “I don’t know any of them personally.”
Skeptical, the detective got to his feet. “I’ll be back in five minutes,” he said and went out to the garden.
The consul and the businessman cut their conversation short when they saw him.
“Well?” asked Mr. De León.
“We have one lead left,” Treviño said, turning to the consul. “His family ranch, in the northern part of the state. El Zacate . . . no, El Zacatal, it’s called.”
“Find the title for every ranch called El Zacatal. If El Tiburón survived the firefight, and if he has Cristina with him, he might have gone there to lay low.” Meeting Mr. De León’s gaze, he added, “It’s all we’ve got.”
After an hour and some help from his contacts, the gringo had managed to find three ranches in the Gulf region registered as El Zacatal. The first was in Veracruz and belonged to a well-known leader of the CTM, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, named Ranulfo Higuera. The second was in the middle of Tamaulipas. It was on the small side and belonged to a Dr. Luis Blanco. The third was less than seventy miles northeast of La Eternidad, near Ciudad Miel and far from any major roads. The title was held by a man named Óscar García Osorio.
“That’s the one,” said Treviño. “That was El Tiburón’s father.”
The consul located the ranch on the map.
“It’s in one of the most dangerous parts of the state, right where two powerful organizations are fighting for control of the highway. It won’t be easy to get in there.”
“Who said anything about going in?”
“Please, Treviño,” said Mrs. De León from the doorway. “Go get her.”
“They haven’t arrested El Tiburón,” the informant said. “He’s still right there. Everyone knows who he really is. Anyway. I’ve already said too much.”
The last four governors of Tamaulipas were evading warrants from the DEA, and a few of them were wanted by Interpol. But they’d chipped in some of their state’s funds during the last round of presidential campaigning and their party had come out on top, so they still enjoyed total impunity. To this day, no governor of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, or Veracruz has ever been arrested.
“I have to find the girl,” Treviño insisted.
“Taking you to that ranch would be a death sentence. I suggest you drop it.”“Taking you to that ranch would be a death sentence. I suggest you drop it.”
“Don’t worry about me. Just tell me where it is.”
“You’re nuts, Carlitos. You know I can’t do that. The only way in to that place is to be brought in.”
Treviño pulled a second envelope from his jacket and passed it under the table to his informant, who looked inside, counted the money, and didn’t say a word. After a brief internal struggle, Ramiro dipped his finger in tequila and drew a fleeting map on the table.
“It’s pretty much a desert out there. A few pines near the entrance, right off the dirt road, but after that you won’t find a single tree for cover. Just a bunch of fucking cactus and shrubs. There’s no grass anywhere and no way you’re going to make it all the way to the first building on your belly. It’s fucking far and they’ll get you for sure. They’ve got dogs and patrol units. There’s no way in.”
Treviño’s neck started to cramp. The ranch was divided up by three concentric fences guarded by men in trucks or on horseback. The first circle was where the vehicles were kept. It was a first line of defense. Most of the troops lived and trained in the second circle, and the third was reserved for the commanders. The hacienda at El Zacatal was now where Los Nuevos’s kingpins would go to relax or hide out.
“El Tiburón lives in a small house, back in the woods. But they’ll be kicking him out soon.”
“There’s got to be a way,” said Treviño. His contact looked at him quizzically.
“Goddammit, Carlitos. People try to find ways out of that place, not into it. You know they’re grabbing people off buses not far from here? Ten miles or so before you get to the border, right there on the highway, they stop the buses passing through and take everyone. I don’t want to say what they do with the girls or how anyone who tries to stop them ends up. You’d have to be crazy to travel by bus at night. It’s worst along the Paso de Liebre route. The only ones who still use the Gulf Line are the coyotes and a few folks desperate to cross the border.”
“I’d like a ticket for the first bus to Paso de Liebre.”
“You crossing the border?” the man behind the counter asked, giving Treviño’s clothes a quick once-over.
“Yes, sir. Have to be there bright and early.”
“There’s one about to leave. You’ll be there in forty minutes.”
The clerk took Treviño’s money and handed back his change and a ticket. “Hurry up and get to gate five,” he urged. “The bus is about to leave.”
The detective walked through the back entrance and out to the parking lot. It wasn’t hard to spot the only clunker with its engine running.
“Come on, get in,” the driver hurried him along.
The first rows were filled by a group of teenagers dressed like basketball players who were passing around a bottle of alcohol poorly concealed by a brown paper bag. As he walked along the aisle he noticed a few of them looking at him with the professional interest of pickpockets. Several of them had tattooed arms. One pair of eyes, belonging to a sinewy, dark-skinned kid in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, bore into him like daggers. Behind that bunch: a woman nodding off with two little girls and a couple of old-timers. No one wanted to sit near seat thirteen, he realized, which meant he could have the row to himself. He took it and got comfortable.
“Paso de Liebre!” shouted the bus driver. The bus shook as he fired up the engine, and after slaloming past a few obstacles they were on the highway.
The bus swayed like a boat out at sea. Treviño rested his head on the window, crossed his legs, and decided he’d let himself close his eyes for five minutes. Just five minutes, he thought.
In his dream, a breeze caressed the fronds of a tall palm tree. He was on the beach with his wife, and it was that day they’d spent hours making love right after she’d moved into the hotel.
The sun was strong but pleasant and it lit the ocean a blazing blue. The light disappeared as the bus rattled to a stop.
While the rest of the passengers panicked, Treviño checked his watch. It was five in the morning.
“What’s going on?” moaned one of the old men. His accent suggested he was from Campeche. A moment later, he exclaimed, “Holy Mary!”
A group of men dressed in what looked like black military gear approached the bus. The leader of the pack had a gun tucked into the front of his pants.A group of men dressed in what looked like black military gear approached the bus.
“Don’t be alarmed,” the bus driver smiled. “They’re just keeping the highway safe.”
“Oh, God. Oh, dear God,” the mother of the two girls intoned.
The driver opened the door to the bus and two of the soldiers stepped inside.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” said a slim man with a broad smile. Treviño was immediately suspicious of him. “This is a checkpoint, for your own safety.”
What he didn’t say, though, was whether he was from the army or the marines, and the gun in his right hand was pointed straight up, contrary to military search protocols. Behind him, a man with a shaved head pointed an assault rifle at them. The man with the crocodile smile walked up the aisle and the detective noticed he was carrying a revolver—not exactly standard army issue.
Before reaching the rear of the bus, the man with the revolver turned, satisfied, and walked back to stand next to the driver.
“Close your curtains, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll be passing a military base.”
The driver started the bus and did his best to avoid a series of enormous potholes. The detective’s traveling companions were concerned.
“What’s he doing?” one of the old men said. “This isn’t the way.”
While his buzz wore off, Treviño tried to see through a slit in the curtains. The only thing he could make out in the five minutes or so they were on the road was a row of pine trees shrouded in the morning mist.
The next time the bus stopped he saw they were at an intersection: a dense forest and what looked to be an unwalled cemetery barely peeked through the fog.
“All the men get off here. The women stay on the bus,” ordered the man with the revolver.“All the men get off here. The women stay on the bus,” ordered the man with the revolver.
“Hey, what’s going on?” yelled the woman.
“Just do as you’re told, ma’am,” he said, silencing her. “It’s for your safety.”
The detective got off the bus behind the group of boys, who, young and foolish as they were, kept cracking jokes. Six armed men immediately surrounded the group. One ordered them to line up with their identification in hand.
“Forward, march!” came an order from somewhere in the fog.
“Forward, march!” the smiling man repeated, and the line started moving.
After twenty paces, Treviño was able to make out a group of men sitting around a table under an improvised tent made of tree trunks and palm fronds. The travelers approached, handed over their papers, and lined up with their backs to the inspectors. More armed men (impossible to say how many) oversaw the operation.
When it was their turn, a soldier escorted them over to the table, where the smiling man who had boarded the bus, the one the others called Captain, was waiting. The man standing beside him was huge. Treviño was used to people in the north of the country being tall, but this guy broke every record. His black hair had been shorn into a buzz cut and one of his ears was grotesquely swollen.
When they got to the table, the captain asked for their papers. He didn’t even bother examining the boys’ passports.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“A passe-port, sir,” said one boy in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt.
The officer shook his head.
“Yes, sir,” said the boy, with a marked Central American accent.
“Where are you from?”
“Then you can tell me where in the state Lake Pátzcuaro is.”
The boy hesitated a moment before answering, “In the north.”
While the soldiers behind him laughed, the officer replied, “North is right, boy. It’s all the way up in Michoacán. Inside, all of you. Fucking cholo punks. Chiapas . . .” Turning to the other soldiers he said, “Time they came up with a better line.”
As the officer compared Treviño’s face with the picture on his fake identification, the detective discreetly scanned his surroundings. They were on some kind of ranch made up of what looked like a main house, a barn, and a small stable with a horse inside.
“What are you doing so far from Veracruz?”
The address on Treviño’s papers indicated he was from there.
“I’m headed to the border for a business meeting.”
“That’s where you’re going?”
“Let’s see your wallet.”
Treviño handed it over, along with the two hundred dollars in small bills and the fake visa that were inside. Like his identification, it had all been provided by the consul. The soldier hesitated.
“What did you say you do, again? What’s your line of work?”
“Construction materials,” replied Treviño.
“All right,” said the man with the smile, tossing his wallet into the same sack that held the other travelers’ belongings. The colossus made sure he wasn’t carrying any weapons and gestured to him to get back in line.
When they’d finished interviewing all the men, they sent for the women and children and lined them up. The moment of truth had arrived.
The man with the crocodile smile called for their attention.
“Good morning, fellow citizens.”
“Good morning,” echoed the fake Chiapans, expectantly.
“You’re all headed north, and most of you don’t have papers. Which means you’re looking for work.”“You’re all headed north, and most of you don’t have papers. Which means you’re looking for work.”
In a speech he seemed to have delivered many times before, the man explained that the coyotes working the border would charge them somewhere between two and three grand to get them across. That they’d leave them in the desert to die of hunger and exposure. That they’d probably get shot by either the rangers or one of those vigilante lunatics, and for what? To make a sorry fifty bucks a week working like dogs and being humiliated by gringos?
“We’re offering you two thousand dollars per month, and you don’t even have to cross the border. We’re looking for a few brave men. A few real men.”
“Listen,” said one of the old men from Campeche. “We’re just passing through. We’re on our way to McAllen and were going to stop by Champotón on our way back.”
The officer in the wide-brimmed hat ignored his comment.
“Last call. Anyone who wants in should get in the bus. Whoever doesn’t, stay here.”
The cholo and the fake Chiapans were the first to climb on board. Treviño slid in among them. The only ones to stay behind were the old men from Campeche and a couple of Canadians.
“All right, you’ll stay with the women and children. Another bus will come pick you up.”
“You promise?” asked the woman.
The man smiled. “Of course.”
Treviño looked at the woman and her daughters with concern.
“Come on, keep your sorry ass moving,” said one of the soldiers, pushing him forward.
Before he had time to regret his choice, he was sitting in the back of the bus as it drove along a narrow road into the compound. He was riding the wave now. Would he be able to get out?
When the bus couldn’t go any farther, they were ordered off. The detective’s feet sank into the sticky yellow dirt. Almost immediately, they heard a burst of machine-gun fire. He looked at the soldiers escorting them, but they didn’t flinch. Terror was par for the course.
“Don’t be a little bitch. Keep it moving.”
They were ordered to climb a little hill. Slipping and stumbling, they reached a barbed-wire fence guarded by four armed men. Contrary to the gringo’s intel, there were no cameras or alarm systems to be seen. There were even a few gaps in the perimeter.
He couldn’t believe what he saw next. After that first fence, the plateau dipped into a depression the size of a football stadium. The space was divided into four camps of about fifty people each. He’d been hearing about this kind of thing for months, but had always thought the accounts were exaggerated. As the smell of gunpowder and burning rubber reached him, he realized how wrong he’d been. This wasn’t just some little ranch. It was the size of a military base.
His heart leapt for a moment at the sight of what he thought was a row of electrical poles in the distance, which would have meant that the highway—and salvation—was within reach. But it was just a few cables strung between the trees for mountaineering practice. A voice inside him told him to give up hope. A man on horseback rode up to the other side of the fence, an assault rifle strapped to his back.
There was another fence when they got to the bottom of the slope; on the other side, fifty or so men dressed in tattered clothes, most of them shirtless, took turns shooting weapons of different calibers, first into a brick wall, then into a dummy or the dirt slope. Two pillars of dark smoke rose off to one side. One came from a tree, the other, from what seemed to be a pile of burning clothes. It took Treviño a minute to make out the charred human remains underneath.
A bald man in military attire stood in front of two dozen ragtag trainees, who hung on his every word. After aiming his assault rifle at a target and showing them how to shoot it, he handed the weapon to the guy closest to him: a leathery-skinned teenager with a strip of fabric tied around his forehead. The man in military attire pointed toward two dozen soda cans hanging in front of what remained of a house, and the teenager aimed, then fired four times. The man examined the results and passed the weapon to the next in line. As Treviño made his way down the hill, he felt his blood run cold: the bald man was the guy he’d had trouble with down at the beach. The Colonel, himself.
A skirmish suddenly broke out. In one of the other groups, the colossus with the cauliflower ear was kicking a man who was already flat on the ground. No one dared step in to separate them, and the giant didn’t stop until the man was unconscious. Only then did he calm down.
The soldiers who’d piled them onto the bus walked them to the middle of the camp, where they met their instructor for the day: a man around fifty years old, whom the other men called the lieutenant. He’d been expecting them. A few yards farther in, yet another instructor was showing a different group of shirtless men how to make Molotov cocktails. Treviño was struck by the fact that they were using Coca-Cola bottles.
When it was his turn to shoot, Treviño made sure his aim was impeccable. He hit three bottles set at different spots on a tree trunk.
“All right, let’s see that again,” said the instructor.
Treviño repeated the feat, which wasn’t really all that hard. It was a good rifle and just needed a little adjustment to the sight. The lieutenant asked if he’d had any military training.
“I used to be a cop,” he confessed. Just as he and the consul had agreed beforehand, he went on to explain that he’d been on the force in Veracruz, where one of the gringo’s contacts could vouch for him.
“Why’d you quit?”
“Wasn’t enough for me.”
“Who’d you report to?”
The instructor nodded and asked him to wait to the side until they’d finished this round. Treviño walked over to the row of pine trees, where the cholo was already sitting with the fake Chiapans. He breathed a sigh of relief.
They smoked in silence. Treviño looked the kid over from time to time. At around two in the afternoon, something like an alarm sounded over the loudspeakers and the newcomers had to line up. To Treviño’s concern, the Colonel walked over to say a few words to them. He thought he saw the man recoil when he saw him, so he tried to make himself invisible in the crowd.
“You have three weeks to prove your worth, and that worth will be measured by your participation in real operations. You will be judged on the basis of your resourcefulness, teamwork, obedience, and loyalty. You will not question orders. An infraction will get you corporal punishment. Traitors will be executed on the spot. At the end, the best will be invited to join the organization; the rest will join the staff. Desertion is not an option: whoever sets foot in here is in here for good.”
Excerpted from DON’T SEND FLOWERS copyright © 2015 by Martín Solares, English translation copyright © 2018 by Heather Cleary. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.