ZAPATA, Texas—Just three miles from the Zapata County Courthouse, Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez steers his truck off the pavement onto a twisting dirt road lined with mesquite and thorny brush tall as a man. He points to Mexico, shimmering in the heat across a narrow spit of Lake Falcon.
“You can cross all day by boat, and no one’s going to see you. When the lake’s down, you can almost drive across,” Sheriff Gonzalez said. “Drug loads come through here all the time. If they can boat marijuana bales, they can bring terrorists across the lake.
“It’s no longer a question of when the violence is going to bleed over to Zapata. The narco-terrorist culture is already here. We’re just worried it’s going to get worse.”
The explosion of drug killings and kidnappings that has racked Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, 50 miles upriver resonates all too clearly in this sun-baked county of 16,000.
Zapata County residents who have lived all their lives in the shadow of Mexico now refuse to drive over to shop or see doctors because of the violence.
But for some, the threat of violence comes calling.
One Zapata businessman was threatened with kidnapping recently. And an influx of hundreds of Mexican citizens into Zapata over the last few years prompts Sheriff Gonzalez to fear that his town is becoming a haven for drug dealers and their hired guns, including members of the notorious Gulf cartel enforcers, the Zetas.
“We’ve seen a 35 percent increase in population over the past four or five years, and they’re all coming from Mexico,” Sheriff Gonzalez said. “They don’t have jobs here, but they’re building homes and buying new cars. They stay out of trouble, but you drive around and wonder who the hell they are and why they came to Zapata.”
In much-larger Laredo, the brutality of the drug gangs is already tangible. Mayor Betty Flores blamed two recent deaths—people gunned down in Laredo businesses in daylight—on spillover violence.
Mexican authorities account for 60 people killed by drug gangs in Nuevo Laredo since January. The FBI reports that drug gangs have kidnapped 32 Americans.
It’s a common theme of concern in Zapata, said Peggy Umphres-Moffett, executive director of the Zapata Chamber of Commerce.
“We still feel safer here than in Nuevo Laredo, but there have been some isolated incidents of rock hunters and fishermen encountering groups of men armed with machine guns,” she said.
“So this community has a growing sense of fear that the violence will spill over to us because we’re so close.”