NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Laredo businessman Alan Gamboa thought his rental property was being used to house rank-and-file workers from the U.S. Consulate.
But when drug cartel hit men raided the house in October, then last month torched his nearby communications and home-security shop and kidnapped his brother, Ricardo, Gamboa figured out that the tenants weren't who they seemed to be.
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Ricardo still is missing and feared dead, and the Gamboa family members worry they also may be targeted by narcotraffickers who bombarded the rental house, taking computers, documents and other materials.
Alan now blames all that has transpired — and what might yet — on American officials.
The U.S. Consulate rented the house, but it was being used for a clandestine anti-cartel intelligence operation run by Mexican federal agents and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
That likely put the brothers, both American citizens, in the cartel's cross hairs after they'd worked to walk a neutral line in violent times.
“It's not fair! It's not fair! It's not fair!” Alan 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.”
Today, that house stands vacant, its doors and windows sealed with government “building secure” sticker signs.
On the U.S. side of the Rio Grande in Laredo, the children and wives of the two brothers are living on the edge of panic that the cartel will extract more vengeance at any moment.
“Now the cartel wants me dead,” said Alan, who with his wife, Elsa, has three children, ages 9 to 16. But with the main family business in ruins, the couple can't afford to flee.
Added Alan's wife during an interview in their Laredo home, which now is for sale or lease: “What they'll do is let you settle into your ways, and that's when they'll hit.”
The family is contemplating a lawsuit and already has written U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar seeking an investigation “to find out whether the U.S. Consulate or the DEA did anything inappropriate to which they should be accountable for.”
But the DEA and Mexican federal police may have a more pressing problem from the episode: cartel gunmen seized all of the computers and file cabinets related to the secret operation, raising the specter of an intelligence breach that may have put agents and informants at risk on both sides of the border.
The San Antonio Express-News has independently confirmed that the consulate in Nuevo Laredo rented Alan Gamboa's Coahuila Street house last March and set up an anti-cartel operation involving DEA agents and Mexican undercover agents with the Department of Public Security, or SSP. American officials acknowledge the house was used as a “forward operating base” from which their Mexican counterparts were hunting cartel members, with DEA intelligence and support.
The Nuevo Laredo operation was emblematic of broader cooperative efforts in which American law enforcement is helping President Felipe Calderón's government in an all-out war against that nation's heavily armed drug trafficking organizations.
But those organizations field their own sophisticated counter-intelligence networks, as the Gamboa brothers' tragedy shows. The conflict claimed more than 5,400 people last year, including an estimated 600 officers and troops.
A State Department official based in Mexico, who isn't authorized to speak publicly, sought to deflect blame for the Gamboa family's troubles on grounds that drug war murders in Mexico are pervasive, the true motives for them often unknowable. Legitimate business owners in Nuevo Laredo often are forced to pay off the cartels or provide services, leading to voluntary or involuntary associations that can go mortally wrong.
“It's terrible when even one person is killed or kidnapped,” the State Department official said, adding that the secret operations with their Mexican counterparts are necessary to stop the murders of thousands of people, or worse.
Alan insists the Americans, responding to a house rental advertisement, misled him and needlessly put his family in harm's way. Although U.S. citizens, the Gamboa brothers lived most of their lives in Nuevo Laredo, building separate but similar communications businesses over 20 years.
As married fathers of young children, though, the Gamboas moved with their families to the U.S. side of the river three years ago to escape cartel violence wracking Nuevo Laredo.
The move left the house on Coahuila Street, which belongs to his wife's family, vacant.
Alan recounted how he was looking to rent the place last March when several Americans driving armored vehicles bearing blue diplomatic consulate plates showed up for a tour with several Mexican men.
He said he was led to believe the men merely were new low-ranking consulate workers in need of a place to live.
Ricardo had no involvement in the transaction. In fact, the two have been estranged for years over various past business disputes and only rarely spoke to one another.
There is some family dissention — anger and blame, actually — about whether Alan exercised good judgment in dealing with the Americans for any reason in times like these, even if he thought the tenants just were clerical or maintenance workers.
The Realtor who handled the deal said he sent the contract by courier to the U.S. Consulate, where it was signed and returned by a consulate courier with eight months advance rent.
Several Mexican men moved in to the house across from Alan's business, regular consulate workers he thought. Then, on Oct. 1, the neighborhood peace was shattered.
The cartel's enforcement wing in Nuevo Laredo, known as the Zetas, somehow captured one of the Mexican undercover agents living in the Gamboa house, American officials confirmed.
They sent 30 heavily armed gunmen wearing mismatched camouflage uniforms on a dramatic daylight raid on the house aboard a caravan of tint-windowed SUVs, according to eyewitnesses. The gunmen blocked off both ends of Coahuila Street while one of the vehicles was used to batter down a garage door.
The gunmen smashed into the back courtyard and house, breaking surveillance cameras along the way 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. A “threat assessment” was conducted to determine what kind of sensitive intelligence information the cartel might have gotten, the official said.
“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.”
A request to the Mexican attorney general's office for comment about the seized computers and documents went unanswered.
Some two months of relative calm after the raid, the cartel suddenly 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, getting into someone's gold-colored SUV in front of his own office a few blocks up the street.
Alan said he was lucky to have been on the U.S. side in Laredo the next day when gunmen ransacked his Coahuila Street 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 a $400,000 business went up in smoke.
Given that the brothers' estrangement from one another was widely known in the neighborhood, both families are wondering why Ricardo was taken if Alan was the one who rented the house.
Through various street sources and snitch networks, the FBI picked up the only cartel demand that has reached the family: Alan must turn himself in to the Zetas or Ricardo will die.
A father of three, Alan has refused to return to Nuevo Laredo.
Veronica Gamboa, Ricardo's wife of 13 years, sat in her dining room table one recent afternoon inside the couple's Laredo home. Photos of the couple's two young daughters, 11 and 8, who practically worship their father — and vice versa — are displayed on a nearby table.
A yellow ribbon was tied around her wrist, a large yellow bow set above the front door.
Tears streamed down her face as Veronica recalled how she became aware that Ricardo was gone.
She'd been with him that morning at the office in Nuevo Laredo. Ricardo said someone was about to pick him up and take him somewhere to give an estimate for a security system.
She went into a back room and that was the last time she saw him. It wasn't until a presentation of the “Nutcracker” the next night in which their children were performing that Veronica knew for certain Ricardo had fallen victim to foul play.
“He ... would never ... have missed that. Not that,” Veronica struggled to explain through tears.
Now her days revolve around phone conversations with an FBI case agent. The FBI is responsible for investigating kidnappings of American citizens on foreign soil. The family also works its own friends and contacts in Nuevo Laredo, trolling for any word about Ricardo's whereabouts.
Often in kidnapping cases, a ransom demand is extended. The absence of anything like that makes Veronica fear the worst.
FBI officials wouldn't discuss the case other than to say agents are working it as an active kidnapping case.
Still, until last week, Veronica was holding out hope that the cartel members had put Ricardo to work setting up communications systems somewhere — perhaps even putting together a system using the equipment stolen from Alan's shop. And that they'll release him when he finishes.
“Ricardo's a very, very intelligent man,” she said.
But last week, bad news came from both the FBI and family sources. It was that Ricardo never will be coming home, because he was murdered.
No one has reported seeing a body. Like everything else the family has heard, the information is unsubstantiated and still amounts to rumor.
So without more definitive proof, the family still holds out hope that Ricardo will return to his daughters.
By Todd Bensman
January 25, 2009
My San Antonio News