On January 24, 2014, Miriam Rodriguez received a call at 4 a.m. from her eldest daughter Azalea—a call that would change her and her family’s lives forever. Miriam’s younger daughter, Karen, had been kidnapped by the Zeta drug cartel and was being held for $77,000 in ransom. Though Miriam paid the ransom immediately, and several others after, Karen was never returned. In the ensuing months, she would discover that her daughter had been murdered and then “disappeared”, joining the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of victims of Mexican cartel violence.
But unlike the vast majority of those other victims, Miriam refused to be silenced, or paralyzed by fear. In the face of grave danger, she transformed herself into an angel of vengeance. Where the inept police ignored her, Miriam did their jobs for them, identifying, tracking down and eventually arresting the individuals responsible for taking Karen. Alongside her efforts to track down the killers, she applied herself to finding the remains of her disappeared daughter.
By 2015, the Zetas were no longer the dominant force in Mexico, not the way they had been in 2010. The group had committed and inspired such horrendous brutality that the government had no choice but to break them, a classic Icarus tale. The Zetas that remained were the products of a community ravaged by violence, but they were no pioneers. Where life had been cheapened, they simply paid in pennies.
Miriam thought a lot of the others, families with whom she now shared the recurrent pain of a disappeared loved one. There were tens of thousands of such families nationwide, nearly all consigned to the margins of functional life, a mass of human ruin, doomed to wonder what had become of their lost ones. In Tamaulipas, Miriam ran across them in the local and state government offices, mothers and fathers with faces fixed in a state of spent anguish, past the point of tears but unable to move on. She had thought little of their plight until she shared it. Now she knew better and felt a connection forged by shared trauma.
The government remained loath to do much for the cause of the disappeared, and for much the same reason that Miriam had once dismissed them—there was a whiff of culpability to the victims’ tragedies. With resources stretched thin, no one in law enforcement wanted to spend money finding or helping people who were thought to have had only themselves to blame for their misery. The problem with that logic was that it was sometimes true—there were people among the ranks of the disappeared who had participated in organized crime. You could dismiss them, without a moral obligation to help. But it also wasn’t true of many of the victims. An untold number of the disappeared were innocents, targeted for the sin of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for looking a certain way, for stoking the ire or pettiness of individuals for whom murder was as casual as a glance.
But what did it matter? You didn’t solve crime because it targeted only innocents. You went after killers because a murder cheapened all lives. The righteousness of the cause was beside the point.
Still, with some ninety-eight percent of homicides unsolved in the country, what hope could the government offer that the cases of the disappeared might be resolved? Better to close the door on everyone, because in the end, with its near-perfect record of impunity, the nation was practically printing licenses to kill.
The leaders of the collectives understood that the Mexican authorities might respond to collective interests, or try to align with them, draw them into the fold or co-opt them. A movement was only something for the Mexican authorities to reckon with if it had size and influence. Slowly, collectives like Miriam’s began to coalesce across the country. Miriam began to build relationships with others like her, if for no other reason than to be understood. But for Miriam, building a community came second to avenging Karen, and to finding and burying Karen’s remains.
For many, burial serves as a ritual of finality, an act of closure to seal, if not contain, grief. Finding Karen’s body was Miriam’s effort to enact this natural rite, to have a place where she could mourn her loss, a physical space to anchor bereavement. Miriam’s efforts to find the remains of her youngest child were not simply the act of a desperate woman seeking justice, seeking to prove a point to an uncaring government. They were an effort to establish an element of normalcy to the gruesome thing that had happened to them all.
To go after the killers, Miriam could conduct an investigation on her own, roam into the far reaches of Tamaulipas to hunt down details without so much as a police escort. She could develop sources and befriend their families. She could wear disguises and trick unwitting associates into giving her details she could then verify and use to locate them. But finding the physical remains of her daughter was impossible without government help.
Forensics has been one of the great failures of Mexico’s law enforcement efforts, a shortcoming that even the deftest politicians struggle to obscure. Cases arise of lost remains, human corpses mislabeled or misplaced. Unidentified bodies are tossed into mass graves, one atop the next, making exhumation in the rare case of a DNA match all but impossible. Families find themselves in a spin cycle of hope and grief, submitting to DNA tests again and again because so many of the forensic offices responsible for maintaining a registry of their profiles allow the samples to spoil, or a new government comes in and fails to upload the records obtained by the previous administration. The government has had to call in outside experts to help, international specialists who have nearly all come away exasperated by the mix of incompetence and indifference they find at both the state and federal levels.
More than a hundred thousand people have disappeared in Mexico since the start of the War on Drugs; meanwhile, fifty-two thousand bodies in varying states of decomposition have been uncovered, many of them unearthed from mass graves like the ones in San Fernando. It seems logical that with modern science, one could draw a line from one group to the next, using the common tool of DNA collection, and in doing so identify the remains and grant closure to at least half of the families of the missing. Only that has not happened.
For the better part of a year, Miriam had badgered and begged and threatened the officials in charge of processing the DNA of human remains recovered in Tamaulipas, repeatedly reminding them that her case was among the simplest of all to resolve. Unlike the vast majority of disappeared victims, she knew where her daughter had been killed and then buried and had even witnessed some of the remains being collected from the Basurero.
She had been there with the marines in March 2014, when the Zeta cell had been decimated. She had been there again a few months later in July, when forensic specialists had discovered three ribs in the silty earth in front of the old red tractor. Suspecting the bones might belong to Karen, she had asked the government to assign a forensic analyst to the case. That process alone had taken months.
And so it came as something of a surprise when, on January 7, 2015, the state laboratory reported a positive match with Miriam’s and Luis’s DNA profiles of the three ribs collected in July 2014.
They were Karen’s.
While most families would rejoice at a match, Miriam remained skeptical. The state lied about these sorts of things, whether intentionally to ease external pressure or accidentally through sheer incompetence. She needed to be certain.If the toxic trauma of a disappearance was unending grief, the psychic hole left by a vanished body, then the antidote was finding and burying the missing loved one. And punishing those responsible.
Miriam might have let it go there, but the sort of person that stopped at the appropriate time, who knew when to ease off the gas, when to stop pushing and bullying and testing fate—that person rarely found their disappeared loved one. She decided to continue fighting. If the toxic trauma of a disappearance was unending grief, the psychic hole left by a vanished body, then the antidote was finding and burying the missing loved one. And punishing those responsible.
Miriam discovered a surprising avenue to corroborate the DNA evidence. In certain cases, the government entitled victims to seek DNA testing from outside providers. After a lengthy petition, Miriam arranged for Karen’s alleged remains, the three rib bones, to be sent to a prominent genetics lab near Washington, D.C.
Miriam had other reasons to push the state government for more. She knew of earlier searches at the ranch, dating all the way back to March. The site alone said as much: The location where they had discovered the ribs in July had already been dug up. Someone had been there first and had conducted at least a cursory collection of evidence.
If these ribs did in fact belong to Karen, then where was the rest of her? The human body contains 206 bones; what had happened to the other 203? She believed the government had at least some of them but was too disorganized to know and too apathetic to find out; she decided then that she would not stop until she was certain that every bit of Karen had been recovered, or at least the parts that could be recovered. If later testimony from the Florist was to be believed, it was possible that Karen had been dissolved in acid. Barbara had been. The idea of it was a reimagining of the horror of a disappeared child; the Zetas were not just disappearing people in the state, they were disappearing the disappeared, quite literally erasing their very physical existence.
The problem was that there was no centralized office for tracking when remains were collected, what had become of those remains, and whether they had been tested for DNA. To navigate the byzantine chain of custody, Miriam would need to reach out to each agency one by one. She sent formal letters to an array of state and federal agencies, asking whether any of them had ever conducted searches at the site of the Basurero. To avoid confusion about the location, she included its GPS coordinates. She then narrowed the time frame to searches conducted in the early months of 2014. Miriam knew someone had come to collect remains from the exact spot where they had found Karen’s ribs, and she wanted to be sure to give the government every chance to find Karen.
In March 2015, at her wits’ end, Miriam sent a letter to yet another Mexican agency whose title—The State Commission for Human Rights—belied its largely inconsequential standing within the government. On paper, the group’s remit was to protect and promote the rights of victims in Tamaulipas; in reality, the agency mostly served to record the serial violations of those rights. People like Miriam complained to the commission to create a record, a document to outline the corruption, intransigence, or injustice they endured at the hands of the government. While the commission rarely yielded concrete results, it offered victims a chance to set the record straight.
In her complaint, Miriam expressed a deep frustration with the government’s lack of response. She recounted each time she had asked investigators if they had any news about the remains collected at the Basurero.
She knew her daughter had been killed there, from Cristiano, from Carlos, from her own visit to the site, where she had found Karen’s scarf. And so she knew their incompetence was the only thing keeping her from burying her daughter properly. There had to be more than just three ribs, and the evidence that someone had collected remains earlier—and had done so in a sloppy enough way to leave those three ribs for the next group to find—was incontrovertible.
To know a thing and be denied its truth is an exercise in madness. Miriam had no faith in the government’s ability to manage DNA testing, and not necessarily because of some inherent malice or desire to inflict suffering but because the cruelty of ineptitude would prevail. But that only made it harder to accept; the hope for something better breathed more life into the desperation.
She demanded an inquiry.
From the book FEAR IS JUST A WORD: A Missing Daughter, a Violent Cartel, and a Mother’s Quest for Vengeance by Azam Ahmed. Copyright © 2023 by Azam Ahmed. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.