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Jet ski killing rattles rustic Texas border town

Hardened locals in Zapata say little has changed, but the sheriff sees drug cartel trouble. The body still hasn't been found.

October 31, 2010|By Paul Meyer, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Zapata, Texas — Most days, Zapata appears a town unchanged as the four lanes of U.S. Highway 83 tick past the Lone Star Western Store, Robert's Fish N' Tackle and Tacos Tio Beto before running into the south Texas scrub where fishing camps emerge at the end of dirt and gravel roads.

It is a place where men are divided between Stetsons and sweat-stained ball caps.

Where old tales of border banditry are told alongside those of roughnecks drawn here for the natural-gas boom on ranchland studded with mesquite and Mexican olive trees.

Where big news used to consist of the occasional marijuana bust or record haul of largemouth bass on Falcon Lake.

But today, weeks since the suspected drug cartel killing of a vacationing jet skier, Zapata has become the latest flashpoint of violence, fear and politics on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Across the country, it also poses the question of what David Hartley's death says about the threat of violence from northern Mexico and how deep it will resonate in calls for additional federal resources. For the 6,000 residents here — a number that swells with weekend fishing tournaments and the arrival of winter Texans in RVs — a more immediate concern looms:

Has the area forever lost its peace?

"If we don't do something now, there will be total infiltration of the border by Mexican drug trafficking organizations," said Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr.

Others in Zapata, the county seat on the northern end of the 25-mile-long lake, bristle at the suggestion that theirs is a town under siege from pirates and the Zetas drug cartel. They point out that violence has largely been contained to the Mexican side of the lake, where Hartley was killed.

"It's ridiculous," said Norma Amaya, who owns Robert's Fish N' Tackle with her husband. "They're making us look like we're dodging bullets on a daily basis, and we're not. We're a peaceful town."

Down the road at a parking lot taco stand, Rosa Maria Melgoza recalls how she once crossed routinely into Mexico to visit relatives 30 miles south at the Falcon Lake dam, built in the 1950s on the Rio Grande for shared electricity and water.

But last spring, Melgoza stopped crossing the border to see her 76-year-old mother. She has a nephew who is missing in Mexico.

"You can't go look for him because then you'll disappear too," she said.

Gonzalez, 54, said he started to see drug smuggling increase a few years ago.

The lake, however, remained peaceful until April, when Mexican pirates armed with AK-47 and AR-15 rifles began robbing boaters who ventured across the border in search of bigger fish. The sheriff said at the time that he feared a fisherman would be shot, and that he would be unable to recover the body.

Five months later, 30-year-old David Hartley was killed. It is a story told again and again by his wife, Tiffany, that began Sept. 30 when the couple ventured into the Mexican side to take pictures of an old church and ended with her unable to hoist his limp body onto her jet ski.

"We've been telling people, telling our government, for the last five years that these things are happening, and they're going to get worse, and they don't believe us until this thing happens," Gonzalez said.

Since the killing, a Mexican investigator on the case has been beheaded, though officials say there may have been other motivations for his death. Politicians and journalists, meanwhile, have come in droves.

"There are two important parts of this. One is that we have a heated gubernatorial campaign in Texas where both sides are raising the rhetorical level on border security," said Josiah Heyman, a border expert and chairman of the sociology and anthropology department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

"The second part of it is there's this sheriff in Zapata County … who likes to have big scary things happen to the border because he thinks he can get grant money."

Gonzalez knows the criticism well.

"America doesn't believe me," he said in his office while looking at pictures of a weapons cache Mexican authorities confiscated from cartels across the border.

The sheriff's office, like Zapata, retains a small-town Texas sense of security even amid fears of growing violence from Mexico. Gonzalez, who is known as Sigi, lists his home phone number on his business card. His captain's cellphone rings with the song "A Little More Country Than That."

A recent Thursday patrol is a journey through the county's two faces. In the late afternoon, near the start of his shift, Sgt. Israel Alaniz gathers with Border Patrol agents and game wardens on a dusty ranch north of Zapata to look at a corpse on the U.S. side of the lake. It is badly decomposed, mostly just bones, they report. They make plans to pick it up the next day.

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