A Little Luck Never Hurts When Reporting On the Border
I'll chalk it up to luck, at least in part. I'll never the know the reason for sure, but in more than a decade of reporting on the ever-dangerous U.S.-Mexico border, I've been able to sidestep getting into trouble.
Mind you, I've seen my share of mayhem and the results of Mexico's brutal drug war. For example, last year I spent several days camped out in Matamoros, the Mexican border city opposite Brownsville, Texas. It was at the Matamoros morgue where dozens of dead bodies were brought in from San Fernando, a town roughly 90 miles south, where authorities had discovered mass graves. The stench emanating from the morgue is one I will never forget.
The most direct dangerous encounter I can remember is years ago while reporting in Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from Hidalgo, Texas and not far from the nearby larger hub, McAllen.
A photographer and I, along with a local journalist who was helping us out, scoped out a "lay-up" spot -- a staging area -- where would-be illegal border crossers converge at the banks of the Rio Grande before trying their luck navigating the waters trying to avoid being caught by U.S. border agents on the other side.
After an hour, a black SUV with dark-tinted windows rolled up and stopped near us. Nobody moved. The SUV just sat there, idling. After a couple of minutes, our Mexican colleague walked up to the car. We couldn't hear the discussion, but it was short. He turned around, quickly walked toward us and, starting to gather his gear, told us to also get our stuff and that we needed to get the hell out of there immediately.
It turned out to be members of the Zetas drug cartel, the former members of a Mexican elite military unit who broke out on their own to cash in on the growing and profitable cross-border drug trade.
We did get out mighty quickly. Our Mexican colleague said he saw armed men inside the SUV and that we were lucky they had let us go without killing us or at least kidnapping us.
I was reminded of that good luck streak last week, while working on a story in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico -- across from Laredo, Texas. It had been a couple of years since I had been in Nuevo Laredo. This Mexican city experienced the incessant, daily mayhem years ago that today we hear about in Ciudad Juárez. But the cartel turf wars had shifted and the Mexican federal government stepped up its fight against the cartels with increased deployment of soldiers to the city.
I was in Nuevo Laredo reporting for a series we're doing at Fronteras on the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. I'm focusing on the work of the North American Development Bank, or NADBANK, headquartered in San Antonio -- where I'm based for Fronteras -- and which finances infrastructure projects along the border region. I knew that weeks earlier Nuevo Laredo had gathered international headlines for the particularly gruesome work of cartel henchmen hanging decapitated bodies from city bridges.
Thankfully, again I was able to avoid any trouble. Perhaps the most tense point was when I was driving through some neighborhoods with city officials to interview local residents. After a few minutes walking around one neighborhood, a city official urged me to please hurry up so we could go.
Some "halcones," or hawks, were making rounds in ATVs -- lookouts for cartel bosses.
We went on our way without any altercation, though I did notice one ATV following us for several blocks.
Most eerie, though, was the news development I learned just a few days later back San Antonio -- more bodies had been found hanging from bridges in Nuevo Laredo.
I'll stick to my theory that it's good to keep having a bit of luck on your side.