Among the wolves
RUNNING WITH MEXICO’S MOST DANGEROUS DRUG CARTEL
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.