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A tale of two Laredos

How the Gamboa family's woes are linked to US-backed law enforcement operation.

Shattered peace

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