NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — All is quiet now on Coahuila Street. But traces of the violence that destroyed the lives of two American brothers with businesses here linger.
A blackened structure is all that's left of Alan Gamboa's once-profitable radio communications business, after it was drenched in diesel and burned to the ground the night of Dec. 5. His brother, Ricardo Gamboa, is still missing — and feared dead — after being kidnapped by cartel gangsters on Coahuila Street the previous morning.
Violence and kidnappings have become almost commonplace in Mexico, as the country's civil drug war rages. Often, the murder and kidnap victims are American residents of border cities like Laredo, who are involved in the drug trade.
But the violence that upended the Gamboa brothers' lives is different. By all accounts, they were not drug dealers. Their only transgression, it seems, was to rent a house to the U.S. State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, which set up an anti-cartel intelligence operation with Mexican federal police in the rented space.
The brothers' tragic story offers a rare glimpse into a part of Mexico's drug war that gets little notice. The narrative of the conflict as a fight to the death between drug cartels and the Mexican government often excludes another player: the U.S. government. And as the Gamboa tale demonstrates, the American government's actions in Mexico can also lead to casualties.
Alan Gamboa blames all that has transpired — and what might yet — on his government. He believes the U.S. thoughtlessly placed the brothers in the cartel’s cross-hairs after they had spent years trying to walk a neutral line in violent times.
“It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” Gamboa lamented. “They (the DEA) put us into a very deep problem, very deep. They (the cartel) think I’m an informant, but I want them to understand that I don’t do that. If I knew that house was for an intelligence organization, I would never have rented it out. I never wanted any problems.”
For now, Gamboa feels he has no choice but to lay low with his wife and three children (ages 9 to 16) across the river in Laredo, Texas. Both brothers lived with their families on the U.S. side while running communications businesses on Coahuila Street across the river in Mexico.
"The cartel wants me dead," Gamboa said.
In an interview in their Laredo home, Gamboa's wife, Elsa, said, “What they’ll do is let you settle into your ways, and that’s when they’ll hit.”
The Gamboa family’s travails began early last year when several Americans driving armored vehicles bearing blue diplomatic consulate plates showed up for a tour of Alan Gamboa's empty house with several Mexican men, Gamboa said. A number of witnesses in Nuevo Laredo confirmed his story. Gamboa said he was led to believe the men were merely low-ranking consulate workers in need of a place to live. Ricardo Gamboa had no involvement in the transaction at all — in fact, the brothers had been estranged for years over past business disputes.
The realtor who handled the deal (who declined to be indentified for security reasons) told GlobalPost he sent the contract by courier to the American consulate, where it was signed and returned with eight months advance rent. Several Mexican men then moved in to the house, directly across from Alan Gamboa’s business.
American officials acknowledge the house was used as a “forward operating base” from which their Mexican counterparts were hunting cartel members, with DEA money, intelligence and other support.
The Nuevo Laredo operation was emblematic of countrywide U.S. law enforcement efforts to help Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government in the war against that nation's heavily armed drug trafficking organizations. Nuevo Laredo is one of the border's busiest trading corridors, making it one of the most fought-over trafficking routes.
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But as the Gamboa brothers would soon learn, the U.S. and Mexican governments aren't the only ones with intelligence operations. The trafficking organization that currently controls Nuevo Laredo, called the Gulf Cartel, has a sophisticated counter-intelligence network of its own.
A State Department official based in Mexico and a senior U.S. law enforcement official, who requested anonymity for personal security, confirmed that the U.S. government paid to rent the house for a Mexican intelligence operation. But they sought to deflect blame for the Gamboa family’s troubles, saying that the motives for moves against the brothers are unclear.
“It’s terrible when even one person is killed or kidnapped,” the state department official said. “But we’re talking thousands murdered. Understand that if, working with our Mexican counterparts, we don’t get smarter and stronger, it could get worse rather than better — that there’s really no choice” but to continue fighting the traffickers.
On Oct. 1, 2008, the violence began.
Former Mexican army special forces officers, who now work as cartel enforcers (known as Zetas), somehow captured one of the Mexican undercover agents living in the Gamboa house, American officials confirmed. Thirty gunmen — clad in mismatched camouflage uniforms — took part in a dramatic daylight raid on the house, according to eyewitnesses. The gunmen blocked off both ends of Coahuila Street while an SUV was used to batter down a garage door.
The gunmen smashed into the courtyard and house, breaking surveillance cameras and carting off desktop computers, as well as laptops and boxes of documents. The abducted agent, who was forced to attend the raid, was murdered later that day.
A ranking American law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the operation, who requested anonymity for personal security, said it was difficult to determine how damaging the breach was.
“We do not believe that any information about the DEA investigation was on those computers or in the materials,” the law enforcement official said. “We do not believe that anything was compromised that would enhance the risk beyond what we already have. However, we can’t say what the federal police had put on that computer or what. We just don’t know.”
Requests to the Mexican attorney general’s office for comment about the seized computers and documents went unanswered.
For two months after the raid, there was relative calm. Then, the cartel struck the Gamboa brothers without warning, apparently in the belief that they were collaborators.
The morning of Dec. 4 was the last time anyone saw Ricardo Gamboa — he was climbing into a gold SUV in front of his office.
Alan Gamboa said he was lucky to have been in Texas the next day when gunmen ransacked his business, stealing radio equipment, records and computers before dousing the place with diesel and torching it. His 16 employees were thrown out of work, and he lost $400,000 in equipment. He is out of business in Nuevo Laredo and tries to make ends meet running a cell phone franchise in Laredo.
Given that the Gamboa brothers’ estrangement from one another was widely known, both families are wondering why Ricardo was taken when it was Alan who rented the house.
For Veronica, Ricardo Gamboa's wife, days now revolve around phone conversations with an FBI agent. FBI officials would not discuss the case in detail other than to say agents are working it as an active kidnapping case.
The family also uses its own contacts in Nuevo Laredo. They haven't heard much, except for a rumor from FBI and family sources that Ricardo had been killed.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, may not have heard the last of the episode. The family has been pressing Texas congressmen for an investigation into whether the State Department erred, and whether it should change the way it conducts clandestine operations in Mexico. The family has hired a Houston lawyer.
As for word from the cartel that kidnapped Ricardo, only one demand has reached the family.
Through various street sources and snitch networks, the FBI picked up this: Alan Gamboa must turn himself in to the Zetas or Ricardo (who has a wife and two young daughters) will die.
Alan has refused to return to Nuevo Laredo.
Read more about Mexico's drug wars:
The cross-border bullet trade
Analysis: Mexico a failing state?
The danger of singing about drugs