Brave Mexican woman stalked her daughter’s killers across Mexico, one by one
When Miriam Rodríguez’s 20-year-old daughter, Karen Alejandra Salinas Rodriguez, went missing in 2014, she began tracking the people responsible for the kidnapping and murder. In the three years that followed her daughter’s disappearance until her own death at the hands of the cartel, Rodríguez hunted down at least 10 people, completely on her own.
Miriam Rodríguez clutched a pistol in her purse as she ran past the morning crowds on the bridge to Texas. She stopped every few minutes to catch her breath and study the photo of her next target: the florist.
Credit: NYT NATIONAL & WORLD NEWS| Dec 25, 2020 By Azam Ahmed, The New York TimesAmazing story of vigilante justice emerges amid cartel violence south of Texas border
She had been hunting the florist for a year, stalking him online, interrogating the criminals he worked with, even befriending unwitting relatives for tips on his whereabouts. Now she finally had one — a widow called to tell her that he was peddling flowers on the border.
Ever since 2014, she had been tracking the people responsible for the kidnapping and murder of her 20-year-old daughter, Karen. Half of them were already in prison, not because authorities had cracked the case, but because she had pursued them on her own, with a meticulous abandon.
She cut her hair, dyed it and disguised herself as a pollster, a health worker, and an election official to get their names and addresses. She invented excuses to meet their families, unsuspecting grandmothers and cousins who gave her details, however small. She wrote everything down and stuffed it into her black computer bag, building her investigation and tracking them down, one by one.
She knew their habits, friends, hometowns, childhoods. She knew the florist had sold flowers on the street before joining the Zeta cartel and getting involved in her daughter’s kidnapping. Now he was on the run and back to what he knew, selling roses to make ends meet.
Without showering, she threw a trench coat over her pajamas, a baseball cap over her fire-engine-red hair, and a gun in her purse, heading for the border to find the florist. On the bridge, she scoured the vendors for flower carts, but that day he was selling sunglasses instead. When she finally found him, she got too excited, and too close. He recognized her and ran.
He sprinted along the narrow pedestrian pass, hoping to get away. Rodríguez, 56 at the time, grabbed him by the shirt and wrestled him to the rails. She jammed her handgun into his back.
“If you move, I’ll shoot you,” she told him, according to family members involved in her scramble to capture the florist that day. She held him there for nearly an hour, awaiting police to make the arrest.
In three years, Rodríguez captured nearly every living member of the crew that had abducted her daughter for ransom, a rogues’ gallery of criminals who tried to start new lives — as a born-again Christian, a taxi driver, a car salesman, a babysitter.
In all, she was instrumental in taking down 10 people, a mad campaign for justice that made her famous, but vulnerable. No one challenged organized crime, never mind put its members in prison.
She asked the government for armed guards, fearing the cartel had finally had enough.
On Mother’s Day, 2017, weeks after she had chased down one of her last targets, she was shot in front of her home and killed. Her husband, inside watching television, found her face down on the street, hand tucked inside her purse, next to her pistol.
For many in the northern city of San Fernando, her story represents so much of what is wrong in Mexico — and so remarkable about its people, their perseverance in the face of government indifference.
The country is so torn apart by violence and impunity that a grieving mother had to solve the disappearance of her daughter largely on her own, and died violently because of it.
Her stunning campaign — recounted in case files, witness testimony, confessions from the criminals she tracked down and dozens of interviews with relatives, police officers, friends, officials and local residents — changed San Fernando, for a while at least. People took heart at her fight, and found indignation in her death. The city placed a bronze plaque honoring her in the central plaza. Her son, Luis, took over the group she had started, a collective of the many local families whose loved ones had disappeared. Authorities pledged to capture her killers.
A mother’s hunt for her daughter
The walkie-talkie hanging from the kidnapper’s belt buzzed repeatedly, interrupting Rodríguez as she begged him to return her daughter.
The weeks after Karen’s abduction had become knotted into a single, nauseating progression of calls, threats and false promises. To pay the first ransom, Rodríguez’s family took out a loan from a bank that offered lines of credit for such payments.
The family followed every instruction to the letter. Karen’s father dropped off a bag of cash near the health clinic, then waited in vain at the local cemetery for the kidnappers to free her.
With little to lose, Rodríguez asked for a meeting with members of the local cartel, the Zetas, and to her surprise, they agreed. She sat down with a slender young man at El Junior, a restaurant in town.
Luis, Karen’s older brother, had moved away to escape the danger. But Karen stayed, to finish school and help run her mom’s small cowboy apparel shop, Rodeo Boots.
On Jan. 23, as Karen prepared to merge into traffic, two trucks pulled up on either side, stopping her. Armed men forced their way into her pickup truck and took off, with her in it.
They drove her to the family home, where Karen lived during the week while Rodríguez, who also worked as a nanny in Texas, was away. As Karen lay on the living room floor, bound and gagged, a knock came at the door: her uncle’s unsuspecting mechanic, who had come to work on the family truck.
The kidnappers panicked and grabbed him, too, then fled.
Now Rodríguez was sitting down with one of them, imploring him to release Karen as his radio squawked sporadically. He insisted that the cartel did not have her daughter but offered to help find her for a fee of $2,000 USD, and Rodríguez paid. Through the static, she heard someone call him by name: Sama.
After a week, he stopped answering the phone. Others called, claiming to be the kidnappers. They needed a bit more money, they said, just $500. The family doubted it would bring Karen home, but they sent the money anyway.
With every payment, a new hope sparkled for Rodríguez. And with every failed bid to reclaim Karen, she fell further into despair.
Rodríguez, already separated from her husband, moved in with her older daughter, Azalea. One morning, a few weeks after the last payment, she came downstairs and told Azalea that she knew Karen was never coming back, that she was most likely dead. She said it matter-of-factly, as though describing her sleep.
She told her daughter that she would not rest until she found the people who had taken Karen. She would hunt them down, one by one, until the day she died. Azalea watched as her mother’s sadness hardened into resolve and her hope gave way to revenge.
Her mother was a different person after that.
Everyone posts photos on social media, even small-time gangsters. Rodríguez just needed Sama to slip up.
She had already confirmed his involvement in Karen’s kidnapping, thanks to the mechanic abducted along with her daughter that night. The cartel never had intended to keep him, and after they let him go Rodríguez mined his memory for everything he had heard or seen.
She became a social media sleuth, spending countless hours trawling Karen’s Facebook profile, looking for clues.
One morning, while stretched across the sofa, she discovered a Facebook photograph tagged with the name Sama. She recognized him immediately from their lunch, the same slender frame and clean-shaven face.
Standing beside him in the photo was a young woman, wearing the uniform of an ice cream shop two hours away in Ciudad Victoria.
Rodríguez stalked the store for weeks until she knew the woman’s hours by heart, and waited outside each shift until Sama showed. When he finally did, she followed the couple home and marked their address.
But to force the police into action, she needed more than a location. She needed a name. And to get it, she needed to get close.
She cut her hair and dyed it bright red so Sama would not recognize her. Then she donned a government uniform she had kept from an old, low-level job at the Health Ministry. With an official-looking ID in hand, she spent the better part of a day conducting a fake poll of the neighborhood until she got basic details on one of her daughter’s captors.
By the time the government issued an arrest warrant, Sama had already skipped town. Frustrated, Rodríguez redoubled her efforts to identify the rest of the crew, and before long had a stack of photos of Sama posing with others.
And then, by pure chance, Sama turned up.
It was Sept. 15, 2014, Mexican Independence Day. Rodríguez’s son, Luis, was closing down his own shop in Ciudad Victoria to attend the festivities. He had one last customer, a young, slender man browsing hats. Luis dropped what he was doing to take a closer look. It was Sama.
He called his mother and followed him, careful not to lose him before police arrived. When they arrested him in the central plaza, Sama kicked and screamed, claiming he had a heart condition.
In custody, he filled in details missing from Rodríguez’s investigation, coughing up the names and locations of some accomplices. One, Cristian Jose Zapata Gonzalez, was barely 18 when police grabbed him, young even by cartel standards.
He was frightened during questioning. As Rodríguez sat outside the interrogation room, the teenager asked whether he could see his mother.
“I’m hungry,” he told the officer.
Touched, Rodríguez entered the room and gave the teenager her lunch, a piece of fried chicken, then went to buy him a Coke. When she returned, the officer asked her what she had been thinking.
“He’s still a child, no matter what he did, and I am still a mother,” Rodríguez said, according to her friend, Idalia Saldivar Villavicencio, who was with her at the interrogation. “When I heard him just now it was like my own child.”
Perhaps softened by her kindness, Cristian told them everything.
“I’m willing to take you to the ranch where they killed them and where their bodies should still be buried,” he said in his statement to police, referring to the victims of the kidnapping ring.
A decrepit tractor marked the grave at the abandoned ranch, at the end of a dirt road. Bullet holes pockmarked the outer walls of the adobe house, remnants of a gunfight months earlier. Mexican marines had killed six of the accomplices, Cristian said in his statement.
Rodríguez picked through the debris left by the kidnappers: grisly stains on soiled tabletops, bones of varying sizes, some mere shards. A noose hung from the branch of a gnarled tree.
She froze when she found a stack of personal belongings tossed in a pile. A scarf that belonged to Karen and a seat cushion from her truck lay near the top.
Forensic agents claimed that Karen was not among the dozens of bodies they had identified at the ranch. But Rodríguez fought the government on its analysis, and rightly so. The following year, the family said, a group of scientists found a piece of femur belonging to her daughter.
On the drive back from the ranch, Rodríguez passed a barbecue restaurant near the entrance of the dirt road to the ranch. She had eaten there with Azalea only two days after Karen’s kidnapping.
At the time, a neighborhood resident she knew well, Elvia Yuliza Betancourt, had been seated at a table by herself, sipping a soda. Rodríguez had said hello and asked whether she had heard about Karen. By then, everyone had. But Betancourt played dumb, which Rodríguez had thought was odd.
Now, after driving by the restaurant again, it dawned on her: Maybe the young woman knew something. Perhaps she had even been watching the ranch in case the police came.
Rodríguez raced home and dove back into her research, discovering that Betancourt was involved romantically with one of Karen’s kidnappers, who was in prison for an unrelated crime.
Just as she had with the ice cream shop, Rodríguez waited for weeks outside of the prison during visiting hours until Betancourt finally showed. Police came and arrested her, later discovering that some of the ransom calls had come from her house.
As the months passed, Rodríguez continued to fill her bag with clues she wrung from the case files. But with each passing day, the trails grew more faint.
Some of the culprits were dead, others in jail. Those still on the street tried to forge new lives as taxi drivers, gas delivery men or, in the case of Enrique Yoel Rubio Flores, a born-again Christian.
Rodríguez went to Aldama, his small hometown of about 13,000 people, and paid a visit to his grandmother. With a heavy sigh, the elderly woman told her that the boy had always been trouble, but at least now he was going to church.
Naturally, Rodríguez began attending service. Sure enough, she found him there.
When police came and arrested him, inside the chapel, the parishioners could hardly believe it, her family recounted. One asked Rodríguez for mercy. She scoffed.
“Where was his compassion when they killed my daughter?” her family said she had replied.
A death on Mother’s Day
A month before she was killed, Rodríguez broke her foot chasing down one of the last targets on her list, a young woman who had left town and begun working as a live-in nanny for a family in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas.
True to form, Rodríguez spent days parked near the family’s home, waiting for the young woman to emerge.
When the police finally arrested the young woman outside the home, Rodríguez tripped as she ran toward them, fracturing her foot. She was still wearing her cast, and using crutches, on Mother’s Day.
At 10:21 p.m., she headed home; she was once again living with her husband in the small, orange house where Karen once stayed. She parked on the street and lumbered out of the car.
A white Nissan truck quietly pulled up behind her, according to the police report. They fired 13 rounds.
Her death gave shape to the impunity that twists everyday life in Mexico, and the government scrambled to react. Within a few months, it arrested two of the culprits, and killed another in a gunfight.
As for the people who ordered the hit, who feared her activism more than they feared the repercussions of killing her, they remain shrouded in secrecy.
Luis obsessed over who they were. But even he had learned the lesson his mother’s murder had been meant to impart: only push so far for justice.
“I won’t make the same mistakes as my mom,” he said.
Though he assumed leadership of his mother’s collective, the movement faded in her absence.
In June of that year, nearly a month after Rodríguez’s death, officials in the state of Veracruz, acting with information she had provided, arrested yet another suspect in Karen’s case. The woman had beaten and tortured Karen during the kidnapping, hanging her up like a boxing bag and punching her.
Rodríguez had found her, too.