Fear Is Just a Word: When Míriam Rodríguez invented a trench


On March 9, 2014, Míriam Rodríguez changed her usual wardrobe for camouflage clothing. Navy agents lent him clothes, he had to look like one of them. That night, Rodríguez, mother of a missing girl, would accompany a Navy convoy in an operation on the outskirts of San Fernando, in Tamaulipas. By then, the image of San Fernando suffered the stigma of the indiscriminate massacre of migrants, nationals and foreigners, as well as neighbors, perpetrated by criminals years before. But crime continued to do its thing. Rodríguez knew it well.

It had all started in the morning that day, when Rodríguez saw two women in the square in the center of San Fernando, with the computer of his missing daughter, Karen. Criminals had kidnapped the young woman two months earlier and Rodríguez had begun a crusade to try to find her, an experience shared with tens of thousands of families in Mexico these years. The kidnappers had demanded ransoms for Karen in the first weeks and Rodríguez had agreed, but as time went by, the woman realized that the captors were not going to return her daughter.

The rage, the helplessness, the feeling of injustice, provoked an extraordinary reaction in Rodríguez, who set out to hunt down the kidnappers, one by one, in an exercise rarely seen in the country. Now, a book newly released in the United States, Fear Is Just a Wordremembers his journey and sheds light on that San Fernando at the beginning of the Enrique Peña Nieto Government (2012-2018), where the criminal group Los Zetas, which had subdued the population years before, broke up into small groups of kidnappers and extortionists, after the arrest of the original leaders.

Fear Is Just a Word is the work of American journalist Azam Ahmed, international investigations correspondent for The New York Times, who was in charge of the newspaper’s office in Mexico for years. “In this country there are thousands of missing people, you could fill buildings with the missing. In general, their families and loved ones never know what happened to them,” explains Ahmed in an interview. “What makes Míriam’s case so special is his reaction to it. Fear paralyzes people, but not her. What she did was iconic,” he defends.

Ahmed refers to the hunt, to Rodríguez’s tireless search that, that night in March 2014, took her to an old garbage dump in San Fernando, surrounded by sailors armed to the teeth. Rodríguez thought that if those two women had her daughter’s computer, they should know what had become of her. They had to be connected to the group of kidnappers. By then, Rodríguez had already tracked down some of them, but she had not achieved anything concrete. This was the first real lead since Karen’s disappearance.

The life and search for Míriam Rodríguez have filled hundreds of newspaper pages and minutes of television and radio, but her participation in that Navy operation was unknown, beyond family intimacy. Ahmed reveals what happened in the operation that night, which ended with six people dead, all alleged members of Los Zetas. Based on documents that appear in investigations by the old Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office, in addition to interviews with various sources, the author points out that two of the six killed that night were executed. Two women.

“It took me months and months to track down that part of the story,” Ahmed explains. “No one knew about this case, except for a small group of people in San Fernando. The only thing that was written on the subject was a press release, I think from the Navy, which was replicated by various media, which basically said that a convoy of sailors was patrolling through San Fernando, when they were attacked from a vehicle; that then there was a chase, a shootout and as a result six people died. Well, that was fundamentally false,” he adds.

Míriam Rodríguez, Mexican activist
The Mexican activist Miriam Rodríguez, in an archive image.COLLECTIVES OF RELATIVES OF THE DISAPPEARED

What happened was quite different. Ahmed reconstructs it in the second part of the book. When Rodríguez saw the two women with his daughter’s computer, he called a sailor he knew, Lieutenant Alex. The sailor and his men arrived at the Plaza de San Fernando that March 9 and took the girls. They went to Margarita Rentería’s father’s house, one of them. They searched her while the girl and her friend were detained in the military vehicle. Since they didn’t find anything, they left. Somehow, the sailors extracted information from the women about their group’s field of operations, the place where Karen was or had been. When they did, they went to look for Rodríguez and they all headed there together.

Ahmed recounts his arrival at the garbage dump that night, the shooting by Los Zetas, and the response of the sailors. When they enter, the criminals have fled, except for four, who are lying on the ground, apparently already dead from gunshots. What they see are the remains of an extermination camp, clothing, identification, corpses of their victims, even that of a pregnant woman. The sailors ask Margarita Rentería and her accomplice, whom Ahmed calls Jésica, for explanations. Women talk about the pregnant woman. They say they kidnapped her on the road and killed her, because no one paid a ransom for her. Immediately afterwards, the sailors kill them.

survival gangsters

This extraordinary story is one of many that appear in the book, perhaps the most shocking for what it reveals. The interest in detail dominates, the exhaustive nature of the reconstruction. That night, Míriam Rodríguez began to learn the truth about what happened to her daughter. There she found a scarf that had belonged to her and other belongings. There, as he later learned, she had been killed. The reason? Ahmed reconstructs it anyway, as prosaic as everything the Zetas did: Karen had befriended a woman who the criminals, in her paranoia, thought was collaborating with the enemy.

The book covers a little more than three years, from the disappearance of Karen until shortly after the murder of Rodríguez, in 2017. It is heartbreaking to see how the woman is shot to death at the door of her house, due to the apathy of some authorities embarrassed by their constant accusations. Thanks to the clues that she herself collects, the woman has put the kidnappers and murderers of her daughter in jail. They decide to take revenge and organize their own murder from prison. Then there is an escape from that same prison and the rest is history.

Ahmed shows the terrible daily life of the Mexican justice system, an old and apathetic dinosaur that only moves when those at the top see that the glass of indignation is in danger of spilling over. Rodríguez is killed because no one protects her, because the State’s capabilities are exceeded, because her own logic ignores the well-being of the people. When a problem – Los Zetas, for example – becomes too big, the State crushes one of the heads of the hydra. Nothing else.

“The Zetas became public enemy number one in 2010 and 2011,” says the author, referring to the San Fernando massacres in those years. “Their crimes embarrass governments. After that, the State killed about 2,000 Zetas. But that did not mean that the problem was over,” he adds. Proof of this are the small groups that squeeze the residents of San Fernando and the travelers who pass through there in the following years, violence administered without the State doing much to prevent it. More than a State, in fact, its managers actually seem like the owners of a supermarket, who can take on an annual number of thefts without it mattering too much. The problem is that robberies here are people’s lives.

The cover of the book 'Fear Is Just a Word'.
The cover of the book ‘Fear Is Just a Word’.

“As long as these organizations do not commit atrocities that generate scandal at the national level, things that make the Government look bad, they can continue to function,” says Ahmed. “In the end, I think of all these young people who kill, who kidnap, they are survival gangsters. They do not earn large amounts of money, they do not live luxuriously, on the contrary, they live one step above poverty,” he adds. “All this tells us about a deep well of despair, in which violence is so normalized and it does not matter if the business of kidnapping is prohibited or not, because the Government will not have the capacity to stop it,” he concludes.

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