Among the wolves

RUN­NING WITH MEX­ICO’S MOST DAN­GER­OUS DRUG CAR­TEL

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Casey Sanchez I For The New Mex­i­can

Run­ning with Mex­ico’s most dan­ger­ous drug car­tel

Be­fore he even turned eigh­teen, Gabriel Car­dona had al­ready become a fa­vored as­sas­sin of Los Ze­tas, a ruth­less Mex­i­can drug-traf­fick­ing syn­di­cate known for tor­tur­ing and be­head­ing their en­e­mies. The Com­pany, as the Ze­tas are also known, had long groomed Mex­i­can teens from Nuevo Léon and Ta­mauli­pas as hired killers. But Car­dona was an ex­cep­tion to the rule — he was an Amer­i­can.

In narco cir­cles, Car­dona and other young men like him are known as lo­bos, or what jour­nal­ist Dan Slater, us­ing a coinage of his own, calls “Wolf Boys.” It’s the ti­tle of his re­cently re­leased book, Wolf Boys: Two Amer­i­can Teenagers and Mex­ico’s Most Dan­ger­ous Drug Car­tel (Si­mon & Schus­ter), which piv­ots off Car­dona’s life story to ex­plain the car­tel wars of the 2000s and the crim­i­nal syn­di­cates’ prac­tices of groom­ing teen killers.

Raised in Laredo, with his fam­ily roots strad­dling the bor­der, Car­dona started high school as a foot­ball player, wowed by read­ing Buzz Bissinger’s Fri­day

Night Lights. He en­ter­tained dreams of be­com­ing a lawyer, but af­ter he was benched dur­ing his sopho­more year, he dropped out of school and made a dizzy­ing as­cent in the narco un­der­world that lay just across the river.

In 2004, Car­dona be­gan smug­gling guns and cars from the U.S. to Mex­ico un­der the tute­lage of a lo­cal gang leader. Within a year, he caught the eye of Ze­tas’ leader Miguel Tre­viño Morales. The bru­tal drug lord and co­man­dante, upon first meet­ing Car­dona, grilled the teenager over his al­le­giances, all while toy­ing with a live grenade. Im­pressed by Car­dona’s ex­treme poker face, Tre­viño Morales dis­patched him to a re­mote Ta­mauli­pas train­ing camp, where Is­raeli and Colom­bian mer­ce­nar­ies taught the young re­cruits how to kill with guns and hand-to-hand com­bat. Upon their grad­u­a­tion from the camp, these newly trained killers were paid $10,000 to $50,000 a mur­der, and tipped in ki­los of co­caine, all while be­ing housed in an up­scale sub­ur­ban home and paid a $500 weekly re­tainer.

Upon his re­turn from the camp to Nuevo Laredo, Car­dona had become a narco knight in the mak­ing. “Peo­ple felt safe in his pres­ence. His friends wanted to be around him. When ab­sent from a gather­ing, peo­ple asked af­ter his where­abouts. The re­spect was in­tox­i­cat­ing,” Slater writes. “He be­came known as a vato de huevos, some­one who had the balls to pull the trig­ger.”

“The ba­sic qual­i­fi­ca­tions for an ef­fec­tive Wolf Boy were univer­sal. Like Gabriel, the ideal Wolf Boy had no chil­dren or se­ri­ous amorous ties; like Gabriel, he could be in the streets at all times and go any­where. Un­bur­dened by con­science — whether be­cause of youth, en­vi­ron­ment, na­ture, nar­cotics, or a com­bi­na­tion — he was ruth­less and free, a heat-seek­ing mis­sile of black-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism to be de­ployed against any­one who ran afoul of the Com­pany, threat­ened its busi­nesses, de­graded its name, or chal­lenged its lead­ers. Over the next two years, as the Si­naloa Car­tel came east and bat­tled the Com­pany for the rights to the Nuevo Laredo-Laredo cross­ing, Wolf Boys would become plen­ti­ful, and life would grow cheap.”

Slater isn’t typ­i­cal of the crime or in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists who write books like these. A for­mer Wall Street Jour­nal re­porter, his last pub­lished book

was Love in the Time of Al­go­rithms: What Tech­nol­ogy Does to Meet­ing and Mat­ing (Cur­rent, 2013). But af­ter read­ing a 2009 New York Times ar­ti­cle, “Mex­i­can Car­tels Lure Amer­i­can Teens as Killers,” about Car­dona and his as­so­ciates, Slater be­came ob­sessed with the sub­ject and be­gan cor­re­spond­ing with Car­dona and his child­hood friend, Ros­alio Reta,

who were serv­ing life sen­tences in Amer­i­can pris­ons for tor­tur­ing and killing their ri­vals in Laredo.

“I started ex­chang­ing letters with them over the course of many, many months. I kept writ­ing and kept re­turn­ing to in­ter­view [Car­dona] in pri­son,” Slater told Pasatiempo. “He turned thirty the day the book came out. It’s hard to rec­on­cile that the per­son I got to know quite in­ti­mately over the course of these years is the same per­son who is de­scribed in de­tail in all these court briefs and po­lice doc­u­ments do­ing all these hor­rific acts. Frankly, I thought the story was too small, about a kid from this town that most peo­ple have never heard of,” Slater said. “The more time I spent in Laredo, the more letters I ex­changed, I started to see that this seem­ingly small nar­ra­tive of kids pur­sued by the car­tels could be an op­por­tu­nity to pivot be­tween their story and the larger nar­ra­tive of the global drug war.”

But Wolf Boys isn’t just the story of Car­dona and the Ze­tas. Told in al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters, it’s also the story of Det. Robert Gar­cia, the Laredo cop and ex-Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion agent who tracked and ap­pre­hended Car­dona for mur­ders he com­mit­ted in Texas. Gar­cia grew up up poor in Mex­ico in a home his fam­ily built one room at a time, mov­ing on to a ca­reer with the DEA and the Laredo po­lice that ul­ti­mately con­vinced him of the fu­til­ity of the drug war. The chap­ters from the viewpoint of Det. Gar­cia are less an in­verse mir­ror of Car­dona’s life than sim­ply an al­ter­nate path the teen might have taken.

There’s a chill­ing mo­ment in the book when Gar­cia comes face-to-face with Car­dona in Mex­ico. Un­able to ar­rest him in a for­eign coun­try, and un­able to con­nect with a Mex­i­can po­lice of­fi­cer who would sur­ren­der his life to ar­rest a high-rank­ing Zeta, Gar­cia has a long con­ver­sa­tion with Car­dona, who re­veals a gory list of de­tails about mur­ders he com­mit­ted. Why? He is both a mur­derer and a teenager — a young man op­er­at­ing above the law who knows his time on Earth, or at least as a free man, will likely be short.

With cin­e­matic mo­ments like these, it’s not hard to un­der­stand why the book was op­tioned for a film, even be­fore its pub­li­ca­tion, by di­rec­tor An­toine Fuqua (Train­ing

Day, South­paw). With Amer­i­can char­ac­ters at its cen­ter and Mex­ico’s drug car­tel wars as its sub­ject, Wolf Boys ex­plores how the two coun­tries’ in­ter­twined drug smug­gling his­to­ries pro­duces boys whose best hope for liv­ing the good life is to cut short the lives of oth­ers.

“With Hol­ly­wood, there’s been this ex­clu­sive fo­cus on the drug war story as a drug lord story — like Pablo Es­co­bar and El Chapo,” Slater said. “But the story of the drug war, at its ground level, is a story about boys mur­der­ing each other.”

“Wolf Boys: Two Amer­i­can Teenagers and Mex­ico’s Most Dan­ger­ous Drug Car­tel” by Dan Slater is pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter.

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