ROMA—The brush-covered hills of Starr County have long been a place of struggle and conflict, where settlers fought off Comanche raiding parties and dealt with bandits, gunrunners and bootleggers. And the Wild West atmosphere persists in this remote ranching and commercial center on the Texas-Mexico border, where 57,000 residents are spread over 19 small, isolated towns.
Native American shamen still gather hallucinogenic peyote cactus in the hills for use in religious rituals, sharing the back roads with drug smugglers who have long used the county as a major transit point.
And today, as Mexican drug cartels battle for control of trafficking corridors across the river, Roma and Starr County are experiencing a dramatic increase in violence, officials say, including kidnapping for ransom. Rings of kidnappers have operated for years in Mexico and Latin America, preying not only on the wealthy but on middle-class workers as well.
Since the beginning of the year, local lawmen and FBI agents have been working to solve nine kidnappings by unknown assailants, as well as five violent home invasions by so-called “pseudo cops,” groups of armed bandits who pose as police, said Kennedy Salinas, an assistant Starr County district attorney.
Although police have developed several suspects, no arrests have been made in any of the nine kidnappings.
“What I’ve learned from these ongoing investigations is there’s been a border war with drug cartels vying for power between Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros,” Salinas said, “and this area is a place they want.”
The latest kidnapping took place this month at a Roma business, where a group of masked gunmen burst in during business hours and abducted a woman related to the store’s owners, county officials said. The woman was returned unharmed the next day, and law enforcement officials say a ransom—one source said $240,000—was paid.
While some of the kidnappings are believed to be drug-related, some are not.
Police in Rio Grande City say the June 15 kidnapping of Rosa Lopez, the wife of the owner of a local electric supply company, was not related to drug activity.
“In this case, it’s someone who is well-regarded in the community, a good family,” said Noe Castillo, assistant police chief in Rio Grande City. “It’s a scary thought this is going on, but there is no evidence to say this is drug-related.”
A number of armed, masked men knocked on the family residence late at night, and tackled business owner Leonel Lopez as he opened the door, Castillo said. The businessman was threatened, hit and bound with duct tape. His wife and her 2002 model Jaguar sports sedan were taken from the home.
Car was destroyed
The woman was released unharmed late the next night near the county line, and her car was found abandoned and burned in a local park, Castillo said.
“As far as we know, no ransom was paid,” Castillo said.
The kidnap victims are often reluctant to talk about their abductors, who have threatened retaliation if they report the crime.
And while there have been no arrests in the kidnapping cases, law enforcement officials in Starr County were heartened by a stiff sentence handed down earlier this month in a home invasion that took place last October.
In that case, 15 armed men, wearing masks and identifying themselves as FBI agents, kicked in the door of a home 12 miles outside of Rio Grande City. The “pseudo cops” terrorized a young housewife and her two children as they ransacked the home, looking for a cache of drugs and money.