Mark Smith, special to ProPublica

How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico

The inside story of a cartel’s deadly assault on a Mexican town near the Texas border — and the U.S. drug operation that sparked it.

This story was co-published with National Geographic.

We have testimony from people who say they participated in the crime. They described some 50 trucks arriving in Allende, carrying people connected to the cartel. They broke into houses, they looted them and burned them. Afterward, they kidnapped the people who lived in those houses and took them to a ranch just outside of Allende.

First they killed them. They put them inside a storage shed filled with hay. They doused them with fuel and lit them on fire, feeding the flames for hours and hours.

José Juan Morales Investigative director for the disappeared in the Coahuila State Prosecutor’s Office

There’s no missing the signs that something unspeakable happened in Allende, a quiet ranching town of about 23,000, just a 40-minute drive from Eagle Pass, Texas. Entire blocks of some of the town’s busiest streets lie in ruins. Once garish mansions are now crumbling shells, with gaping holes in the walls, charred ceilings, cracked marble countertops and toppled columns. Strewn among the rubble are tattered, mud-covered remnants of lives torn apart: shoes, wedding invitations, medications, television sets, toys.

In March 2011 gunmen from the Zetas cartel, one of the most violent drug trafficking organizations in the world, swept through Allende and nearby towns like a flash flood, demolishing homes and businesses and kidnapping and killing dozens, possibly hundreds, of men, women and children.

The destruction and disappearances went on in fits and starts for weeks. Only a few of the victims’ relatives — mostly those who didn’t live in Allende or had fled — dared to seek help. “I would like to make clear that Allende looks like a war zone,” reads one missing person report. “Most people who I questioned about my relatives responded that I shouldn’t go on looking for them because outsiders were not wanted, and were disappeared.”

But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.

Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.

Their savagery in Allende was particularly surprising because the Treviños not only did business there — moving tens of millions of dollars in drugs and guns through the area each month — they’d also made it their home.

For years after the massacre, Mexican authorities made only desultory efforts to investigate. They erected a monument in Allende to honor the victims without fully determining their fates or punishing those responsible. American authorities eventually helped Mexico capture the Treviños but never acknowledged the devastating cost. In Allende, people suffered mostly in silence, too afraid to talk publicly.

A year ago ProPublica and National Geographic set out to piece together what happened in this town in the state of Coahuila — to let those who bore the brunt of the attack, and those who played roles in triggering it, tell the story in their own words. They did so often at great personal risk. Voices like these have rarely been heard during the drug war: Local officials who abandoned their posts; families preyed upon by both the cartel and their own neighbors; cartel operatives who cooperated with the DEA and saw their friends and families slaughtered; the U.S. prosecutor who oversaw the case; and the DEA agent who led the investigation and who, like most people in this story, has family ties on both sides of the border.

When pressed about his role, the agent, Richard Martinez slumped in his chair, his eyes welling with tears. “How did I feel about the information being compromised? I’d rather not say, to be honest with you. I’d kind of like to leave it at that. I’d rather not say.”

The Massacre

As sundown approached on Friday, March 18, 2011, gunmen from the Zetas cartel began pouring into Allende.

Guadalupe García Retired government worker

We were eating at Los Compadres, and two guys came in. We could tell they weren’t from here. They looked different. They were kids — 18 to 20 years old. They ordered 50 hamburgers to go. That’s when we figured something was going on, and we decided we’d better get home.

Martín Márquez Hot dog vendor

Things began happening in the evening. Armed men began arriving. They were going house to house, looking for the people who had done them wrong. At 11 at night there was no traffic on the streets. There was no movement of any kind.

Etelvina Rodríguez Middle school teacher and wife of victim Everardo Elizondo

My husband, Everardo, usually came home between 7 and 7:30 at night. I was waiting for him. Time passed — 7, 7:30, 8, 9. I began calling him. The phone was not in service. I thought maybe he was at his mother’s house and his battery had died. I called his mother. She told me that she hadn’t seen him and that maybe he was out with friends. But that didn’t make sense to me. He would have called. So I went out looking for him.

The atmosphere felt tense. It was nine at night, which was not very late, not on a Friday. The town was completely deserted.

A few miles outside of town, the gunmen descended on several neighboring ranches along a dimly lit two-lane highway. The properties belonged to one of Allende’s oldest clans, the Garzas. The family mostly raised livestock and did odd contracting jobs, including coal mining. But according to family members, some of them also worked for the cartel.

Now those connections were proving deadly. Among those the Zetas suspected of being a snitch — wrongly it turns out — was José Luis Garza, Jr., a relatively low-level cartel operative, whose father, Luis, owned one of the ranches. It was payday, and several workers had gone to the ranch to pick up their money. When the gunmen showed up, they rounded up everyone they could find and took them hostage. After nightfall, flames began rising from one of the ranch’s large cinder-block storage sheds. The Zetas had begun burning the bodies of some of those they’d killed.

Sarah Angelita Lira Pharmacist and wife of victim Rodolfo Garza, Jr.

My husband, Rodolfo, arrived. He told me, ‘My head is killing me. I’m going to take a shower.’ He was completely covered in soot because he was opening a new coal mine. After a while his phone started ringing. I thought he had gone to lie down, but he came out of the bedroom, fully dressed, and he looked me in the eye in a way I had never seen before. ‘Don’t leave the house,’ he told me. ‘There’s something going on. I don’t know what it is. But don’t leave the house. I’ll be back.’

After a while, Rodolfo called me. ‘Get out of the house,’ he said. ‘And don’t go in our truck.’ He told me to ask my cousin to take our daughter, Sofía, and me to my mother’s house.

His uncle Luis’s ranch was on fire. And there were a lot of armed men standing outside the gate. His sister wasn’t answering her phone. His father wasn’t answering either. He sent one of his workers, Pilo, to the gate to see what was going on. Pilo had been in the military. The gunmen opened the gate. Pilo went in. But he never came out.

Rodolfo was inconsolable. He couldn’t find his parents. He couldn’t find his sister. And now his best worker was gone. He told me he was going to try to sneak onto the ranch through the back.

A few minutes later, he called again. He was speaking so softly I could barely hear him. He told me to get out of Allende. ‘Tell your cousin to take you to Eagle Pass. Don’t pack. Just go.’

Evaristo Treviño Former fire chief, no relation to Zetas leaders

Officers under my command responded to reports of a fire at one of the Garza ranches. We’re talking about less than three kilometers away from Allende. It appeared that the Garza family was having some kind of gathering. Among the first responders was a group of firefighters with a backup engine. They noticed there were certain people connected to criminal organizations, who told them, in vulgar terms and at gunpoint, to withdraw. They said there were going to be numerous incidents. We were going to get numerous emergency calls about gunshots, fires and things like that. They told us we were not authorized to respond.

In my capacity as fire chief, what I did was to advise my boss, who in this case was the mayor. I told him that we were facing an impossible situation and that the only thing we could do was to stand down, out of fear of the threats we faced. There were too many armed men. We were afraid for our lives. We couldn’t fight bullets with water.

From Allende the gunmen moved north along the dry, flat landscape, rounding up people as they covered the 35 miles to the city of Piedras Negras, a grimy sprawl of assembly factories on the Rio Grande. The attackers drove many of their victims to one of the Garza ranches, including Gerardo Heath, a 15-year-old high school football player, and Edgar Ávila, a 36-year-old factory engineer. Neither had anything to do with the cartel or with those the cartel believed were working with the DEA. They just happened to be in the way.

Claudia Sánchez Cultural affairs director and mother of victim Gerardo Heath

I was packing because we were leaving for San Antonio at 5 the next morning to go to a football game. Gerardo was playing, so we needed to be there early. Gerardo and his sister were horsing around outside. I looked out the window and saw two of Gerardo’s friends drive up. They were our neighbors.

Gerardo came inside and asked if he could go out with his friends. I said, ‘No, Gerardo. We’ve got to pack.’ Next thing I knew, Gerardo had on the clothes we had bought him for his birthday. He had just turned 15. The shirt was blue, and it matched his eyes. He told me, ‘Come on, Mom. I won’t be late.’

I said, ‘Fine, Gerardo, don’t be late.’

At around 10 that night, my husband called Gerardo’s cellphone to see what time he’d be coming home. Gerardo didn’t answer. My husband called again. No answer. A while later someone knocked on our door. It was a couple of friends of Gerardo’s from school. They looked terrified. I asked them, ‘What’s the matter? Where’s Gerardo?’

The boys said, ‘They took him.’

I asked, ‘What are you talking about? Who took him?’

The boys said they saw Gerardo and our neighbors in front of the neighbors’ house. A truck came, carrying a lot of men with guns. The men forced the neighbors and Gerardo into the truck and drove away. The boys told me they didn’t recognize the men. And since they had weapons, the boys didn’t dare say anything.

Within minutes, we called the mayor of Piedras Negras. He was at a wedding. He said that he felt terrible about what had happened to us, but there wasn’t anything he could do. Not a single police car came.

Gerardo Heath, a 15-year-old high school football player from Piedras Negras, was one of the victims. He was hanging out with friends when the Zetas took him, two friends, and their parents away. They are presumed dead. The number Heath wore on his team jersey, 55, is plastered on business windows and car bumpers around his hometown, a symbol of outrage over his killing. Like many of those killed during the rampage, Heath had nothing to do with the drug trade.
María Eugenia Vela Lawyer and wife of victim Edgar Ávila

I was at work, waiting for the judge to sign off on two sentencing reports I had written, when Edgar called to say his friend Toño had invited him over to watch a soccer match. I was pregnant, and by the time I got home, I was super tired. Edgar had fed our daughter and given her a bath. I asked him to pick up some empanadas for me before he went out. He brought them to me and gave me a kiss.

It wasn’t until I woke up at two in the morning that I noticed Edgar wasn’t home. None of my calls went through. I said to myself, ‘How strange that he hasn’t called.’ Edgar always called.

I sat in an armchair the rest of the night and waited for him until about 6:30 a.m. Then I called my sister. I told her he hadn’t come home. So she came over, and wearing my pajamas, I went with her and my brother-in-law to Toño’s house. There was no one there, but there were signs of a struggle. Everything had been thrown around.

The next morning, Saturday, March 19, the gunmen summoned several heavy-equipment operators and ordered them to tear down dozens of houses and businesses across the region. Many of the properties were in busy, well-to-do neighborhoods within sight or earshot not only of passersby but also of government offices, police stations and military outposts. The gunmen invited townspeople to take whatever they wanted, triggering a free-for-all of looting.

Government records obtained by ProPublica and National Geographic indicate that state emergency response authorities were deluged that Saturday with some 250 calls from people reporting general disorder, fires, fights and home invasions throughout the region. But numerous people interviewed said no one came to help.

Rodríguez Victim’s wife


Saturday is when everything began. Houses began exploding. People began breaking in and looting, and all I could think about was where Everardo might be. All day Saturday I spent searching and calling people to ask, ‘What have you heard?’

One person told me, ‘I saw armed men.’ Another told me, ‘The warehouses are still on fire. The smoke is really black, as if someone’s burning tires. It’s black, scary smoke.’

I got a call from a man who worked with my husband. My husband raised fighting cocks. In this region cockfighting is very popular. He worked for José Luis Garza, but not full time. In the mornings and in the afternoons, he would go to the ranch to feed the animals.

The man told me, ‘There’s something bad going on at the ranch. We don’t know what’s happened to all the people.’ I asked, ‘What do you mean? What people?’

He said that several of the men who worked with my husband had not arrived home the previous night. One was a tractor driver. Another watered the fields. None had arrived home.

I asked him, ‘OK, what do we do? Let’s go look for them.’ He said, ‘Don’t go anywhere near there, or else they’ll take you too.’

The image of one thing that happened is still with me: people breaking into supply stores and carrying away sacks of animal feed, parrots and cages. They were taking lamps and dining room sets.

The image that sticks with me most is of a tiny motorcycle with a woman riding on the back. She had turned a bedsheet into a sack. She had stuffed it full of things and was carrying it like Santa Claus, with one hand. And with the other she was holding a lamp. The motorcycle looked like it was going to tip over, but they looked happy with all the stuff they had taken.

Márquez Hot dog vendor


I had two friends who collected and sold junk. They heard that the ranch was burning and that the owners had left, so they went — a father and son — to see if there was anything worth taking. They said they saw a freezer off the highway, a big one. And they wanted to take it. But it was really heavy. So the father told the son, ‘Let’s dump what’s inside.’ They opened it and saw two bodies. They ran away.

Evaristo Rodríguez A veterinarian and Allende’s deputy mayor at the time

All the members of the town council met, not in formal session, but we all gathered — the council members, the public security director. There were a lot of questions. The main one was, ‘What’s happening?’ But what everyone really wanted to know was why. We already knew there had been gunfire and that there were cases of disappearances and deaths.

There were a lot of questions about what we should do, but no one wanted to take charge. One of the council members even said, ‘Let’s just get out of here, before something happens to us.’

I didn’t want to be a hero, but I thought at the very least we should stay in our offices so that people would see that we had not abandoned them. But all the staff wanted to leave. Everyone was focused on their own families.

With all that we were going through, we distrusted everyone. We realized that there was a two-sided government, the official one and the criminal one that was in charge. We knew that the police were controlled by criminals.

The director of public security told us, ‘These are their affairs.’ He didn’t say any more. He didn’t need to. I understood: ‘Don’t investigate or intervene, or else.’

Within view of passersby and not far from the police station, the fire department and a military outpost, the Zetas demolished houses and businesses in Allende. The man who was mayor during the massacre still lives across the street from this house. He initially reported that he hadn’t seen any evidence of violence.
Lira Victim’s wife

The last phone call with Rodolfo was at a quarter to noon. He sounded exhausted. He still hadn’t heard anything from his parents. I told him he had done everything he could for them, and now it was time to think about Sofía and me. I begged him to come meet us in Eagle Pass. He said, ‘OK. I’m on my way.’

I never heard from him again.

Sánchez Victim’s mother

There’s no playbook to tell you what to do when someone steals your child. There is no first step. You go crazy. You want to run, but you don’t know where. You want to scream, but you don’t know whether anyone is listening. One of my cousins suggested I put it on Facebook. So I wrote, ‘Give me back my son. If anyone knows where he is, bring him back to me.’

Vela Victim’s wife

How can I explain how I felt? It was as if they had kidnapped me that day too. In some ways I died. They killed the future we had, the plans, the dreams, the illusions, the peace, everything. At that time I had lived longer with Edgar than I had lived without him. Just think about that. On top of that I was pregnant, so I couldn’t even think of taking any kind of sedative. I had to try to stay composed, very calm, but I’d come home and feel like the house was caving in on me. I couldn’t find a place to sit down without feeling like the walls were falling. I couldn’t make sense of this. Despite being a lawyer, I couldn’t make sense of what had happened.

Many victims were brought to a ranch outside Allende, owned by the Garza family. The cartel allegedly turned this storage shed, which held equipment and animal feed, into an incinerator for the bodies. Ashes, a rosary, and what appear to be belt buckles lie on the charred concrete floor.

The Operation

Several months earlier, in the Dallas suburbs, the DEA had launched Operation Too Legit to Quit after some surprising busts. In one, police had found $802,000, vacuum-packed and hidden in the gas tank of a pickup. The driver said he worked for a guy he knew only as “El Diablo,” the Devil.

After more arrests, DEA Agent Richard Martinez and Assistant U.S. Attorney Ernest Gonzalez determined that El Diablo was 30-year-old Jose Vasquez, Jr., a Dallas native who’d started selling drugs in high school and was now the leading Zetas cocaine distributor in east Texas, moving truckloads of drugs, guns and money each month.

As they prepared to arrest him, Vasquez slipped across the border to Allende, where he sought protection from members of the cartel’s inner circle.

But Martinez and Gonzalez saw an opportunity in his escape. If they could persuade Vasquez to cooperate, it would give them rare access to the senior ranks of the notoriously impenetrable cartel and a chance to capture its leaders, particularly the Treviño brothers, who had killed their way onto the list of the DEA’s top targets. Miguel Ángel Treviño was known as Z-40, Omar as Z-42.

What Martinez wanted were the trackable PINs, or personal identification numbers, of the Treviños’ BlackBerry phones. Vasquez had left the agent plenty of leverage. His wife and mother were still living in Texas.

Jose Vasquez, Jr. Convicted Zetas operative

My wife calls me at like 6 o’clock in the morning. She tells me, ‘Hey, the house is surrounded.’

I said, ‘What do you mean, it’s surrounded?’

She said, ‘Yeah, there’s a lot of cops outside.’

I said, ‘Well, listen, they’re probably going to arrest you. Let me call [my lawyer]. Just make sure you don’t tell them nothing. Just try to relax. We’ll get you out on bond.’

I told her, ‘Break the phones.’ We had toilets in the house that flush real strong, so she broke them and flushed the phones down the toilet.

Then Richard [Martinez] called me from there. He put me on speakerphone, so my wife could hear.

He told me he was going to arrest her. I thought he was bluffing, so I said, ‘Do what you got to do.’

Ernest Gonzalez Assistant U.S. attorney

At the beginning all we wanted was for Jose to turn himself in and cooperate, so that he could tell us the structure of the Zetas organization. I think that would have appeased us at that point because we really didn’t know how close — how near — he was to Miguel and Omar. We didn’t know — until he started saying who he was talking to, who he was seeing — what they were doing. That’s when our perspective of what we could do, and how, began to change. We started to try to come up with ideas about how to capture them.

When Jose didn’t turn himself in, and we saw that he was willing to sacrifice his wife, we knew we needed to turn the screws even harder, or put more leverage on him.

Richard tells him, ‘Your mom’s going to be charged.’

Vasquez Convicted Zetas operative

I told him, ‘Man, listen, man, I’ll go to the border right now, walk over and turn myself in. I won’t fight you for nothing. I’ll sign all your seizure papers. Give me a life sentence. Throw away the key. I don’t care. But leave my wife alone. Leave my mother alone.’

He’s like, ‘Listen, the only way your wife doesn’t do no jail time or your mom doesn’t do no jail time is if you cooperate with us.’

I said, ‘Richard, I don’t want to cooperate, man. There’s going to be a lot of murders that come behind this.’

He was like, ‘All I have to tell you is if you don’t cooperate, they’re going to do time with you.’

I asked Richard, ‘What do you want?’

The military helps local police patrol Piedras Negras, keeping watch on the periphery so that officers can question suspected drug users or gang members. The current mayor of Piegras Negras, Fernando Purón, said that the soldiers not only provide additional firepower but also keep the police from falling under the control of the drug cartels — as has happened in the past.
Richard Martinez DEA agent


I wanted the numbers. Our hope was to get the Zetas leadership. I figured that those numbers gave us the best chance to get them. I knew Jose was in a position to help us.

When it comes down to it, a lot of these guys flee the United States. But if you grew up here, it’s still America, the best country in the world. You still want to eventually come back to America. If your family is here, you still want to be around them. I thought that once Jose realized that the jig was up, he was going to do whatever he had to do to help us. I was going to push him to do that while I had the opportunity.

This is kind of getting off subject, but I remember going to Mexico as a kid. My mother is from Mexico — Monterrey. I’ve been to Coahuila. I’ve got family in Coahuila. You can’t go back there right now. It’s sad to say. But you can’t go down these rural roads. I would love for my family to go back there, but they can’t.

I saw these numbers as a key. They’re very significant. I saw it as an opportunity to stop the Miguel and Omar Treviño reign.

Gonzalez Assistant U.S. attorney

It was something personal, absolutely. It was important because of my background, because of my own personal heritage, and of knowing what [the Zetas] were doing to Mexico. I spent my summers with my grandparents in Mexico. They had farms and ranches. I enjoyed my youth in Mexico. This organization was destroying all that with their greed and their violence.

To avoid capture, the Zetas had their closest lieutenant in Coahuila, Mario Alfonso “Poncho” Cuéllar, provide them new cellphones every three or four weeks. Cuéllar assigned the job of buying the phones to his right-hand man, Héctor Moreno.

Under pressure to get the phones’ PINs, Vasquez turned to Moreno, using a little leverage of his own. It was Moreno’s brother, Gilberto, who had been caught driving the truck with $802,000 in the gas tank. Facing 20 years in prison, Gilberto had confessed that he was working for the Zetas and that the cash belonged to the Treviño brothers.

Vasquez arranged for his lawyer in Dallas to represent Gilberto and promised not to let anyone else in the cartel know about Gilberto’s incriminating statements. Moreno repaid the favor by agreeing to get Vasquez the numbers. But when the time came, Moreno had second thoughts.

Héctor Moreno Former Zetas operative

The Zetas controlled everything. They did whatever they wanted. When soldiers were going to come to the area, someone from the military would notify us in advance.

Sometimes planeloads of federal police would arrive, with 200 officers. But we’d get a call a week ahead of time: ‘Are you stashing anything in such and such a house?’

We’d say, ‘No, there’s nothing there.’

They’d say, ‘Good, because there is a search warrant for that location, and agents are going to arrive on Thursday.’

The government told us everything. So I knew that if the government got those numbers, the Zetas would find out.

Vasquez Convicted Zetas operative


The day Héctor was supposed to give me the numbers, I called him. He said, ‘I got the numbers, but I threw them out.’

I said, ‘What happened? You said you were going to give them to me.’

He told me, ‘These numbers could get us in a lot of trouble, so I threw them out the window.’

I told him, ‘I have these guys waiting for me. I told them I was going to give them the numbers. What about my family?’

After a while, I talked him into driving back to the road where he threw the numbers out. We drove up and down that road for like an hour or two, until we found the slip of paper.

I got all the numbers — for 40, and 42, and all of them. I didn’t know what they were going to do with them. I thought they were going to try to wiretap them or something like that. I never thought they were going to send the numbers back to Mexico. I told them not to do that, because it was going to get a lot of people killed. Not only that, I was still there. I was still hanging around those people. They said they wouldn’t. Richard told me I had to trust him.

The Takeover

Lawlessness was not unfamiliar to people in Allende. Because of its proximity to the U.S. border — residents do their weekend shopping in Texas — there had long been families engaged in smuggling who lived quietly within their communities. But by 2007 the Zetas moved in with the money and muscle of a hostile occupation. They vanquished rivals, took control of critical government agencies, turned local police into their henchmen and transformed the region into a haven for all kinds of criminality.

Then the traffickers embedded themselves in society — buying businesses, staging galas, recruiting from or marrying into local families.

Carlos Osuna Retired businessman and organizer for the National Action Party

The violence that exploded here in 2011 didn’t just happen from one day to the next. There had already been drug trafficking for a long time. And for a long time, there was only one boss, named Vicente Lafuente Guereca. Everyone knew who he was and what he did for a living. But there was mutual respect. He respected society, and society respected him. And in that spirit, life carried on with a certain normalcy. Drugs passed through, but society didn’t intervene. And Lafuente didn’t interfere with the government or with civil society. There were no kidnappings. There was nothing like that.

But that peaceful coexistence ended when Lafuente was murdered.

Moreno Former Zetas operative

When the Zetas arrived, they recruited everyone to work for them. All the narcos in the area had to work for the Zetas. There were no more independent groups. Before they came, Coahuila had been a kind of free market. Anyone who wanted to could operate there. The Tejas [a gang based in Nuevo Laredo] were there. Chapo [Joaquín Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel] was there. It was wide open. But the Zetas arrived, and they killed Omar Rubio, of the Tejas. They killed Vicente Lafuente. They killed a few other important people. And everyone who was left joined them.

My family had been in the area for a long time. On my mother’s side, I had relatives who ran funeral homes and hardware stores. On my father’s side, they owned ranches. But the truth is, none of that offered as much money as drug trafficking. That’s why I got involved.

Above: Youth league football practice in Allende. American football is popular due to the proximity to Texas. Below: A family celebrates a quinceañera, an elaborate birthday thrown for Mexican girls when they turn 15. The birthday girl grew up outside Fort Worth, Texas. But her father is originally from the Allende area, and he took the family back there for the occasion. Many families in Allende have relatives on both side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ángel Humberto García Medical doctor and former legislator

When I was a member of Congress, ranchers and farmers from Allende began coming to see me. They were terrified because their lives were being threatened. They said that criminals were taking over their properties. Some of them told me that the only way they could get onto their own land was if they asked for permission from the criminals.

One of them was José Piña. He told me he had gone to the police for help, and they told him there was nothing they could do. There was a military checkpoint a few meters away from his property, so I asked him, ‘What about the soldiers?’ He told me, ‘I’ve told the soldiers, and — nothing.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, nothing?’ He said, ‘They won’t do anything.’

He said [the Zetas] had offered him money for his ranch, but he wouldn’t take it. He had complained to the mayor and the governor, but he couldn’t get anyone to listen. So he came to me, and he gave me a handwritten letter for the president.

Two days later, Mr. Piña was dead.

The Mexican newspaper El Universal published a story about the 2009 murder. It reported that Piña’s body, found behind a Catholic elementary school, had been “riddled with bullets.” The story said the rancher’s tongue had been cut out, his fingers cut off and one of them was stuffed inside his mouth. The killers attached a written missive: “We don’t mess with you. Don’t mess with us.”

Moreno Former Zetas operative

The Zetas killed Piña because his ranch was set on the Río Bravo [Rio Grande]. 40 and 42 used to pass through there every day. They would leave his gates open, so his cattle would escape. He complained about it to the military. The soldiers told the Zetas. And because of that they went and killed him.

Ricardo Treviño Guevara A former mayor of Allende

One night, [the Zetas] beat my son. It was really bad. He had bruises all over his body. His face was swollen. They had put a machine gun to his head and threatened to shoot him. He had been drinking with his friends. They stopped at a gas station. [The Zetas] beat him there, in front of the police.

I went to the police and asked, ‘Why in the hell did you let those assholes beat my son?’ I took the keys to their patrol cars. I told them, ‘What good is it to have officers on the streets who won’t protect people?’

They told me, ‘They’d have killed us if we’d tried to stop them.’

Later I went out and had too much to drink. As I walked to my car, I saw some police officers nearby. I shouted at them, ‘Tell the [Zetas] boss I want to see him.’

The next day, I was running errands in town, and I saw a line of cars heading toward me. The cars pulled in front of me and stopped. ‘The boss wants to speak with you.’ They walked me over to one of the cars. I got in, next to the driver. It was 42.

He said, ‘What can I do for you, Mr. Mayor?’

I told him, ‘Listen, how would you feel if someone beat the shit out of your kid? Wouldn’t that piss you off?’

‘Of course it would,’ he said.

‘Well I’m pissed,’ I said. ‘You guys think that you’re so tough because you’ve got weapons, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. You might be right. But as for my family, if you want to touch anyone, you come to me. If you want to kill someone, kill me.’

He said, ‘I’m not going to kill you. You are not my enemy, as long as you mind your affairs and let us handle ours. But please keep your son home at night. If he wants to drink with his friends, let them do that at home. The night belongs to us.’

Fernando Purón mayor of Piedras Negras


There was a point at which we started to see signs that [the Zetas] had begun a kind of hegemonic takeover of all commercial activities. In addition to trafficking drugs and weapons, they began to start companies and businesses in the service sector, in real estate, in construction.

For example, they began operating money exchange houses at the border, to exchange dollars for pesos. They staged concerts and dances. They opened restaurants, bars and red-light districts. They got into buying and selling used cars. Then they turned to bigger businesses. They began building shopping malls, hotels and casinos.

And they began living here. After a while, their children began attending schools with your children.

Don’t think they were living on the outskirts in some ranch. They lived right here in front of city hall. In fact, from this balcony I can point to one of the houses where they lived.

Everyone was afraid of them. The Zetas were stronger than the government. You understand? They were economically stronger. They were better organized. They were better armed. Everyone was afraid of them, and those who weren’t afraid had been bought by them.

Osuna Retired businessman

The biggest impact on society was on our sense of freedom. I could no longer go out to my ranch, or even to the corner without fear that someone would mistake me for someone else, and beat me, or worse. That loss was what we felt most.

And then, even if we weren’t involved with [the cartel], they would establish ties to our families. One of them would marry a cousin, or the daughter of a close friend, and suddenly they’re at the same parties, or holiday dinners.

At the beginning we simply kept quiet out of fear. But unfortunately, drug trafficking brings a lot of money with it. And we all like money. So these guys show up with it, and they start spreading it around, and before you know it they’re members of the Lions Club.

It wasn’t hard to spot. We are a small community. Everyone knows one another’s income levels. So when someone is living on a thousand pesos one day, and 3 million pesos the next, you have to say, wait a minute, something’s going on there. Unfortunately, we all accepted it.

In October 2015 Mexican authorities erected a monument to honor the victims of the massacre. Some residents said they saw it as an affront, particularly because the government hadn’t made any real effort to investigate the massacre for years. Although the concrete obelisk sits on a busy traffic circle at the entrance of Allende, few people stop to visit.

The Leak

About three weeks after Vasquez provided the PIN numbers to the DEA, the cartel’s leaders got word that one of their own had betrayed them and launched a frenzy of retribution.

Law enforcement sources close to the case said that after Martinez gave the intelligence to his superior, it was passed to a DEA supervisor in Mexico City. He, in turn, shared it with a Mexican federal police unit that had been specially created to conduct operations under the DEA’s direction.

Most members of the Sensitive Investigative Unit receive mandatory training and vetting by the DEA. But several current and former DEA agents said despite that vetting, the unit has long had a poor record of keeping information out of the hands of criminals. Among the most glaring problems, they say, is that Mexico doesn’t allow the DEA to scrutinize the unit’s supervisors in the same way as it does the unit’s members. Two law enforcement officials close to the Zetas case said their own inquiries revealed that a supervisor in the SIU was responsible. Former senior members of the Mexican Federal Police who worked closely with the unit did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.

Earlier this year, one of the unit’s supervisors, Iván Reyes Arzate, turned himself in to U.S. federal authorities to face charges of sharing information about the DEA’s investigations with drug traffickers. It’s unclear if Reyes was the source of the leak in the Allende case.

As for the Zetas, it wasn’t hard for them to identify who within the cartel may have betrayed them since very few people had access to their PIN numbers.

Mario Alfonso “Poncho” Cuéllar Convicted Zetas operative


How did I know there was trouble? Because I was holding 596 kilos of cocaine for the cartel, and 40 sent a guy to take it back from me. That’s something I had seen them do many times before. Every time 40 planned to kill someone in the organization, he would first make sure he had taken back their merchandise.

He sent me a photo of himself, with drawings of frogs all over it. At the bottom of the photo he wrote, ‘Look, the damned frogs had me shot.’ ‘Frogs’ is their word for snitches.

I called 40 and asked him, ‘Hey, what’s this about?’ He didn’t answer. All he said was, ‘I need to see you. Where are you going to be later?’

I told him I was going to be at the horse track. But I didn’t go. I called a couple of my guys, and I told them to go see what was going on. After they got there, they called me and said, ‘You’re screwed.’ One of 40’s guys was there, cursing my name because I hadn’t shown up. That’s when I knew I had to leave.

I began calling my friends, warning them to get out too. Unfortunately, none of them listened to me. When 40 couldn’t find me, he went after them.

Vasquez Convicted Zetas operative

Héctor [Moreno] called me and told me that all hell was breaking loose. He asked me what I had done with the numbers. I told him that I had turned them in to the DEA. He told me, ‘Well something’s going on. Somehow the Zetas found out.’

I called Richard [Martinez] and said, ‘What’d you do with the numbers?’ He said, ‘Man, they went to Mexico.’

I said, ‘Man, how did you let that happen? I told you what would happen if those numbers came to Mexico.’

Richard said, ‘Man, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my call. It was above me. The boss did it. They sent the numbers to Mexico, thinking they had a friend over there they could trust.’

Gonzalez Assistant U.S. attorney

Richard called and said we got the numbers, but they’ve been sent to Mexico. I said, ‘What?’ We hadn’t had a meeting to discuss how to handle them. I got angry. I think Richard was of the same mindset. He didn’t want it done that way either, but it was out of his hands. He said, ‘It’s the bosses. It’s management.’

I knew well that there were issues with secrecy in Mexico. When information was passed on previous occasions, it always seemed that something would happen.

We had been trying forever to find the best way to locate the Treviños. What would be the best mechanism where we could definitively say, ‘This is where they are at this time.’ We knew they moved around a lot. This was one of those opportunities where you could do that. It was something we had struggled for a long time to achieve. We had put pressure on people to cooperate. We had arrested wives and mothers, and had all these great seizures.

It was a great opportunity. But it was squandered because it wasn’t done correctly, and it got compromised.

Vasquez, Moreno, Cuéllar and Garza, whose family’s ranch was the scene of many of the killings, fled to the United States when the massacre began and agreed to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement in exchange for leniency. Their horrifying accounts of what was going on in Allende made American authorities aware of what they had unleashed.

Six years after the massacre, almost no effort has been made to clean up the scenes of the crimes. Entire blocks still lie in ruins. Strewn in the rubble are remnants of lives that came to a violent end.
Cuéllar Convicted Zetas operative

I remember my first meeting with the DEA. I was telling them what was happening in Coahuila, about all the violence. I remember Ernest [Gonzalez] getting up from the table, going outside and confronting one of the DEA bosses. He started shouting at him. He said something like, ‘Did you hear what’s going on? All this because you sent those numbers to Mexico.’

Gonzalez Assistant U.S. attorney

I told him this was bullshit. Things should have never happened this way. We had information that could have helped us capture these guys, but because of the way it was handled, the whole thing had unraveled. And now it was a goddamned mess.

The Aftermath

For years state and federal authorities in Mexico didn’t appear to make a real effort to delve into the attack. Mexican federal authorities said their predecessors didn’t investigate because the killings couldn’t be linked to organized crime, but acknowledged that they also have not investigated.

Estimates of the number of dead and missing vary wildly between the official count, 28, and the one from victims associations, about 300. ProPublica and National Geographic have identified about 60 people whose deaths or disappearances have been linked by relatives, friends, victims’ support groups, court files or news reports to the Zetas siege that year.

Relatives were left on their own to try to piece together what had happened and to rebuild their lives.

In May 2011 Héctor Reynaldo Pérez filed a missing person report with state authorities. His sister, who had married a Garza, had disappeared along with her entire family. Less than a year later, Pérez himself disappeared. A report by independent human rights investigators at the Colegio de México found evidence that Pérez was last seen in the custody of Allende police officers.

After that, few victims’ relatives dared to turn to authorities for help, much less talk publicly about their ordeal. Several moved to the United States.

No family lost more members than the Garzas. Nearly 20 are believed dead, including 81-year-old Olivia Martínez de la Torre and her 7-month-old great-grandson, Mauricio Espinoza. The baby’s siblings, Andrea and Arturo Espinoza, 5 and 3 at the time, turned up at a Piedras Negras orphanage after their parents had been killed.

Their paternal grandmother, Elvira Espinoza, a hotel housekeeper in San Antonio, went with her husband to fetch them.

Elvira Espinoza Hotel housekeeper and grandmother of the Espinoza children

Andrea says they drove to a place where the houses didn’t have roofs. She said the men took her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother out of the car. They told the children, ‘Stay here. We’re just going to talk.’

The men kept them there and told them to stay quiet. No crying. Andrea said she changed the baby’s diapers and made his bottles.

She doesn’t remember how many days they were there before the men took her, Arturo and Mauricio to Piedras Negras. Andrea said the men dropped her and Arturo in a park, but they took Mauricio with them.

She said that she begged them to leave the baby with her. But the men told her that the baby was too little and cried too much to leave him there with them.

Andrea blames herself for what happened to him. She says, ‘If I had been stronger, Mauricio would still be with us.’

Lira Victim’s wife

I filed a missing person report. The investigator told me it would be confidential. He promised to keep my identity anonymous. Then a few days later I received a threat. Someone called my cellphone and told me that if I went forward with the complaint, the same thing that happened to my husband would happen to the rest of my family. My mother and father still lived in Allende. I would have never forgiven myself if something had happened to them.

I called the investigator that same day. I told him he had lied to me about keeping my name a secret, and that I wanted to withdraw my complaint.

I also went to the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio. You won’t believe what they said. They blamed me. They said, ‘Ah, you come crying now that your husband is missing. All this time, you knew what kind of business your relatives were in. But you didn’t seem to mind until you were personally affected.’

I never asked the government for anything again.

Three years after the Zetas’ rampage, Coahuila’s governor, Rubén Moreira, announced that state officials would investigate what happened in Allende. With great fanfare, officials launched a “mega-operation” to collect evidence and find the truth. Victims’ families and Allende residents say it has been little more than a publicity stunt. The inquiry has produced no conclusive DNA results, nor a final tally of the dead and missing.

Claudia Sánchez visits the crypt that memorializes her 15-year-old son, Gerardo Heath, who was kidnapped and killed in the attack. Authorities never recovered his remains. Instead they provided Sánchez with an urn filled with dirt and ashes from the Luis Garza ranch.

Fewer than a dozen suspects have been arrested — most of them former local police and cartel grunts who followed orders. No one has been charged with murder. In 2015 the Coahuila State Prosecutors’ Office began a series of meetings with relatives of those victims whom investigators believed — based on confessions — were dead. They handed out death certificates, despite having no bodies, that listed such causes of death as “neurogenic shock” and “total combustion due to direct exposure to fire.”

Sánchez Victim’s mother


When they gave me the news, my body went limp. They told me Gerardo had been taken to a ranch and killed. Something inside told me that it was true. But I asked, ‘Are you sure it was him?’

They told me that the witnesses had said that among the victims there was a family with three boys, and that one of the boys was my son. They said he had started to cry. It was stressing them out, so they killed him. That’s when I lost it. How could anyone kill a 15-year-old boy who’s afraid, and crying?

The officials asked me what I wanted. I told them I wanted his remains. They said that would be difficult, since my son was incinerated along with a lot of other people. Instead they brought me ashes and dirt from the place where he died. I asked them if I could go there. They told me it wasn’t safe. I told them I wanted to go anyway. So they escorted us in a caravan.

I was struck by how close it was. I thought to myself, Gerardo was so strong that if only he could have gotten away and made it to the highway, he would have easily managed to make it home.

Rodríguez Victim’s wife

The prosecutor and his team were supposed to arrive in the afternoon, but they didn’t arrive until that night. We waited more than five hours for them. And when they finally got there, all they offered were symbolic gestures. They told us they were going to hand out death certificates, with information based on the statements that had come from the people who had been arrested. And they had small boxes of dirt for any relatives who wanted them. That was it.

I told them, ‘Hold on. I didn’t wait here for six hours to have you come and offer me a death certificate and this box. We’re human. How can you possibly think this is the right way to help bring us closure? I want to know what you learned and where you learned it. Where is the person who killed [my husband]? How did they kill him?’

They said that the answers might be hard to hear. They didn’t want to be cruel. I told them nothing could be worse than the 20,000 things I had already imagined on my own.

How would the suspects know my husband’s name, if they weren’t from here? We had believed all this time that the people who did this had been brought from another state.

In the end we learned they were people from here. The monsters we thought had come from who knows where were monsters who had lived among us, and who were supposed to protect us.

Vela Victim’s wife

They gave me a death certificate dated the 19th of March 2011 — the day after he disappeared. The only thing I asked them was whether they were certain they were right. They told me that the forensic specialists had not been able to test the fragments that had been recovered, so they couldn’t be 100 percent sure. But they told me they were confident that Edgar was there at the time of the massacre. I think it’s because they had witness statements.

I still don’t know what to believe. I hadn’t heard anything from them in five years; then, out of nowhere, they ask me to believe the case is solved.

I bet that if you were able to get a look at my husband’s case file, you’d see it’s empty.

Still, with the death certificate I began to make the changes that were long overdue. I moved out of our house. I left with only our clothes and [my daughter’s] bedroom furniture. All of Edgar’s clothes are still back there, hanging in the closet, exactly as he left them.

I could finally speak openly with my daughter about what had happened. I hadn’t been able to tell her that her father was dead, because, what if he returned? I think in some ways she had already figured it out.

The Treviño brothers were eventually captured, Miguel in 2013 and Omar in 2015, in operations led by Mexican marines. Since then, the cartel’s hold on Coahuila has weakened, and nightlife has returned to Allende, though many residents remain emotionally scarred and leery of strangers. They fixate on reports of drug-related violence, worrying that the Treviños are exerting control over the drug trade from prison.

The Zetas’ hold on the state of Coahuila has been weakened, and nightlife has returned to Allende. Hundreds of people gathered last fall for the cabalgata, a festive cowboy parade that goes on for two to three days, stops at several ranches across the area, and ends with an evening rodeo.

The DEA takes credit for the captures but won’t say what, if anything, it did to investigate how the information about the PIN numbers wound up in the hands of the Zetas. Terrance Cole, Martinez’s supervisor in Dallas, and Paul Knierim, then a DEA supervisor in Mexico City who served as a liaison with the DEA-trained Mexican federal police unit, declined to be interviewed.

Knierim has since been promoted and is now the agency’s deputy chief of operations in Washington.

But Martinez agreed to speak, briefly choking up when asked about his role in the massacre. Named agent of the year in 2011, he is now battling kidney cancer, and so far aggressive treatment has failed. Russ Baer, a DEA spokesman, twice flew from Washington, D.C., to Texas to monitor interviews with Martinez and another agent there. As Martinez spoke, Baer interrupted to stress that the top Zetas were in prison and the agency’s investigation was ultimately a success.

Gonzalez Assistant U.S. attorney:

Obviously I’m devastated by it. You know that in this line of work, there are going to be consequences. The potential for someone to get killed is always there. But to actually be involved in something like that and not being able to do anything is devastating.

The goal was an honorable goal: to try to get these guys arrested and put in jail so that they would stop killing people. But at that point in the investigation, it had the opposite effect.

I had heard about the brutality of Miguel and Omar Treviño and the senseless violence they had perpetrated in the past, but it didn’t register with me that it could be that way; that anybody that was even remotely linked to you, even if it was outside the drug trade, would be picked up and killed. That just didn’t seem possible. It probably should have. But it didn’t, until it was happening, until it happened.

Martinez DEA agent

I got the numbers. I passed them to our people. As far as that, I don’t have anything to do with anything else.

We all knew the numbers were dangerous. If I just sat on a number — what am I going to do with them here in Dallas? The wiretap is not as easy as people say it is. I have to have probable cause.

To me, I got the numbers, and I passed them on. That’s my job.

I can’t speak for the agency, other than I just know what I did. I did all I could do.

I gave it a shot. That’s the way I felt. I did the best I could do that day. I had the opportunity to get the intelligence and pass it on. I got it. I can’t very well go into Mexico and try to handle it myself.

Russ Baer DEA spokesman

Listen to this guy. He’s got family that’s from Mexico. He talked about health problems. He’s talking about this almost tearing up at times because he’s so emotionally invested in this. This is a guy who started by watching the glamour of ‘Miami Vice,’ dedicated his life as a public servant to work for DEA and ultimately took down the Zetas cartel. That personal story, it doesn’t get much better than that. It sends chills up my spine.

As far as what happened in Mexico and the aftermath of the compromise, the DEA’s official position is: That’s squarely on Omar and Miguel Treviño. They were killing people before that happened, and they killed people after the numbers were passed. DEA did our job to target them and to try to focus and dedicate our resources to put them out of business. We were eventually successful in that regard.

Our hearts go out to those families. They’re victims, unfortunately, of the violence perpetrated by the Treviño brothers and the Zetas. But this is not a story where the DEA has blood on its hands.

Residents of Allende, their faces painted to look like skeletons, participate in Day of the Dead celebrations. The tradition, in which families pay tribute to relatives who have died, is not as common in northern Mexico as it is elsewhere. A couple of years ago, authorities in Allende began organizing public events to mark the occasion. Dozens of people now converge on cemeteries to clean and decorate their relatives’ graves and wish them well in the afterlife.

Interviews for this story have been condensed and edited for space and clarity.

Ginger Thompson is a senior reporter for ProPublica. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Thompson was previously a national and foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

Alejandra Xanic, a freelance reporter in Mexico City, contributed research and reporting for this story.

Photos by Kirsten Luce, special to National Geographic and ProPublica. Audio production by Adriana Gallardo. Design and production by David Sleight, Rob Weychert and Jillian Kumagai.

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