20-year-old Karen Rodriguez was kidnapped and murdered by the Zetas Cartel. Her mother, Miriam, investigated the case on her own and hunted down every person that was involved. Some of the men that were in prison for killing her daughter ended up escaping and Miriam was murdered as well.
This is a story of a woman named Miriam Rodriguez Martinez who became an activist and vigilante after her 20 year old daughter, Karen Alejandra Salinas Rodriguez, was abducted on January 23rd, 2014, by the Zetas drug cartel. Los Zetas is one of the most dangerous Mexican drug cartels. They are well known for engaging in brutally violent tactics such as beheadings, torture, and murder. They are primarily in the drug trafficking business, but they also do sex trafficking. There's an unspoken rule among the residents. You don't speak out against organized crime because it's unlikely that the police will do anything about it, but the cartel will certainly seek revenge.
On January 23rd, 2012, in broad daylight, Karen was kidnapped on her way home from working in her mother's small apparel shop in San Fernando, Mexico. As she was attempting to merge into traffic, a group of armed men cornered her pickup truck, hopped in, and drove away with Karen still inside. The men drove Karen to her home, but no one was there at the time. She was held there for awhile and there was a knock on the door. The family's mechanic had shown up to work on a vehicle. The kidnappers decided to grab Karen and the mechanic and they fled. The Zetas were responsible for many shootouts in the area and in 2012, it was so frequent, that it barely made the headlines if less than 20 bodies were discovered. The Zetas were taking people for ransom and they would do organized death matches. They were kidnapping people and making them fight to the death for sport. Miriam's older son had actually moved away from the area to escape the Zetas, but her daughter, Karen decided to stay with her so she could finish school and help run her mother's small cowboy apparel shop called Rodeo Boots.
After the kidnapping, Miriam received calls, threats, and false promises. To pay the first ransom, her family had to take a loan from a bank that offered credit for this kind of payment. They followed every instruction they were given. Karen's father had to drop off a bag of cash near the health clinic, then waited at the local cemetery for the kidnappers to set her free. Miriam asked the Zetas Cartel if they could have a meeting and surprisingly, they said yes. She sat down with a man at a local restaurant and begged them to release her daughter, but he claimed that the cartel didn't have her, but he could help find her. He said he would need $2k, so she paid him. While they were together, the man's radio kept crackling and someone was talking to him. Miriam heard someone say the man's name, Sama. Once he got the money, Sama stopped answering Miriam's calls.
Even though Sama claimed he had nothing to do with Karen's disappearance, Miriam already knew that wasn't true. When the Zetas took the family mechanic, they realized that they didn't need him, so they let him go and the mechanic confirmed that Sama was involved. Miriam started getting other calls from people demanding a ransom and she gave them the money. At first, it was $500. Then, someone would call and say they had her daughter and they needed more money. Every call gave Miriam a glimmer of hope. After giving so many payments to the kidnappers, Miriam couldn't afford to live on her own, so she moved in with her daughter Azalea and she told her that Karen is never coming back and is most likely killed. She promised her daughter that she wouldn't rest until she found the people who killed Karen. She was going to hunt every single one of them down until the day she died.
Miriam began her journey by doing some online sleuthing. She spent hours scrolling through her daughter, Karen's profile to find clues. One morning, while she was scrolling online, she saw a photo tagged with the name Sama and she recognized the man immediately. This is the guy she met up with that took money from her. In the photo, there was a young woman next to him wearing an ice cream shop uniform and the ice cream shop was just two hours away from her home. She started driving out to the shop and she spent weeks watching, learning the woman's schedule and waiting for Sama to show up. He did show up and she followed the two home so she could get his address.
Just getting the address wasn't going to be enough though. The police wouldn't do anything until they had confirmation of a name as well and to get that, Miriam would need to get creative. She dyed her hair bright red and wore a uniform that she had from her old job at the Health Ministry. She pretended to conduct a fake neighborhood poll to get the information she needed and she brought this to the police. It actually took awhile for Miriam to find an officer that was willing to help her. By the time an arrest warrant was issued, Sama had left town. In September of 2014, Miriam's son Luis was working in his shop and a customer walked in, it was Sama. He called his mother and the police followed him and Sama was arrested. In the NY Times article, they said he kicked and screamed, claiming he had a heart condition. He eventually provided details about Karen's murder and gave the names and locations of his accomplices. One of the accomplices on his list was 18 year old Jose Zapata Gonzalez.
Jose was brought in for questioning and Miriam sat outside the interrogation room. She heard him ask if he could see his mother because he was hungry. Miriam walked in the room and gave Jose her own lunch. She had fried chicken for herself and gave it to someone that was involved in murdering her daughter. She left briefly to buy him a
Coke. An officer asked why she did that and she said,
“He's still a child, no matter what he did, and I am still a mother. When I heard him just now it was like my own child.”
It ended up working though. Jose told the officers, “I'm willing to take you to the ranch where they killed them and where their bodies should still be buried.” This statement is referring to the victims of the kidnapping ring. There's an old tractor that marks the grave at the abandoned ranch, at the end of a dirt road. Bullet holes are all over the walls of the house. There's debris and bones strewn about and a nose hung from the branch of a tree. Miriam saw a stack of belongings tossed in a pile and scarf that belonged to her Karen along with a seat cushion from her truck was lying near the top.
There were dozens of bodies discovered at the ranch, but forensic agents claimed that Karen wasn't among them. Miriam fought the government on this and the following year, a group of scientists found a piece of femur that belonged to Karen. Some people felt that Miriam used foul language and maybe came off too abrasive, like she was picking fights, but they respected her mission. As the group headed back from the ranch, they passed a BBQ restaurant that was near the entrance of the dirt road and Miriam remembered eating their with her daughter, Azalea just two days after Karen's kidnapping. When she was there, a friend from the neighborhood, Elvia Yuliza Betanacourt (Bay-tan-coor), was sitting at a table by herself. Miriam greeted her and asked if she heard about Karen. Everyone had at this point, but Elvia said she hadn't heard anything. As they passed the restaurant, Miriam thought back to that moment and wondered if her friend was in on the disappearance. What if she was able to keep an eye on the ranch and contact the Zetas if police were coming?
Miriam hated thinking about this. She had known Elvia since she was a child and she used to give her Karen's old clothes. Either way, it was something that she would need to look into. As soon as she got home, she began her online sleuthing and discovered that Elvia was dating one of Karen's kidnappers, who was in prison for an unrelated crime. She started showing up at the prison for weeks during their visitation hours and Elvia finally showed up. The police arrested Elvia and realized that some of the ransom calls had come from her house.
Miriam used many disguises, cut and dyed her hair, posed as a health care worker, and an election official and was able to obtain names and addresses of the people she was hunting down. She made up excuses to meet their families and got details from grandmothers or cousins who had no idea what she was up to. She wrote everything down and kept it in her black computer bag and slowly moved down the list, one by one.
She built her lists and began learning their habits, friends, hometowns, and information about their childhoods. Some of the criminals she was after were trying to start new lives as a born-again Christian, a taxi driver, a car salesman, a babysitter, and the florist.
The next person Miriam was after was Enrique Yoel Rubio Flores, the born-again Christian. She went to his hometown to visit his grandma. The woman told her that her grandson had always been trouble, but he was going to church now. So, Miriam started attending his church and she found him. Police arrested Enrique inside the chapel and everyone was quite shocked. One of the parishioners asked Miriam to have mercy and she replied, “Where was his compassion when they killed my daughter?”
Miriam ended up helping the police capture 10 criminals. She used various disguises, a fake handgun and false identification to locate and interrogate several members of the Zetas cartel. One of her targets was a florist who she was chasing around for a year. She tracked him down online after finding out the man had sold flowers on the street before joining the cartel. She received a call from a tipster providing the florists location and she interrogated people he worked with and befriended some of his relatives to get information. She armed herself with a gun, threw a trench coat over her pajamas, put on a baseball cap, and located the man in a group of vendors near the Mexican-US border, selling sunglasses. The man recognized her and took off running, but she was able to catch and tackle him. Miriam detained this man for almost an hour until police showed up to arrest him. She held her gun to his back and told him she would shoot if he moved.
Local gang members took notice of Miriam's work to get criminals locked up and they were threatened by her. Miriam's friends and family worried that she may have taken things too far. She said, “I don't care if they kill me, I died that day they killed my daughter. I want to end this. I'm going to take out the people who hurt my daughter, and they can do whatever they want to me.”
In 2017, nearly two dozen prisoners escaped in Ciudad (see-you-dod) Victoria....this is where Miriam had put her daughter's killers. She did begin to worry that they would come after her and she asked for government protection. The police said they could send some patrols by her home and apparel shop periodically. Her family wasn't ecstatic about this arrangement and they wanted someone to stay with her and protect her. The police say that security needs had been met and police officers made rounds three times a day, but her family says this isn't true.
When Miriam was chasing down one of her last targets on the list, she broke her foot. A young woman left town and was working as a live-in nanny for a family. Miriam spent days parked near the family's home and waited for the woman to come out. She was actually urinated in cups and was sitting outside day and night...patiently waiting. She even drained her car battery and her son had to sneak over to jump it. When the police finally got the woman and arrested her outside the home, Miriam tripped and fractured her foot, so she was in a cast, using crutches, and the cartel got her.
She had moved back home with her husband, she had previously been staying with her daughter. So, she headed home at 10:21 PM and she parked her car on the street. She was moving slowly because of her injury.
Miriam Rodriguez was murdered on May 10th, 2017, which is Mexico's Mother's Day. A white Nissan truck carrying the men who escaped prison pulled up behind her and fired 13 rounds. It was one week after she had chased down her final target. Her husband found her body on the street and her hand was inside her purse, next to her pistol. Within a few months, two of the culprits were arrested and another was killed in a gunfight. No one knows who ordered the hit on Miriam. Her son Luis is obsessed with finding the truth, but he has learned the lesson that you can only push so far for justice. He says he won't make the same mistakes as his mom.
Nearly a month after Miriam's death, police were able to use the information she provided to arrest another suspect in Karen's murder. The woman had beaten and tortured Karen during the kidnapping. This is brutal, they hung her and beat her like a punching bag. After this happened, the woman fled the area and became a taxi driver.
The officer that help Miriam with her mission said that he viewed the files of her independent investigation and it was unlike anything he had ever seen. This officer chose to remain anonymous and he said, “The details and information gathered by this woman, working all alone, were incredible.” This officer stepped in to help her after every single level of the government slammed the door in her face. This is an area where crime goes unchecked. Miriam not only hunted down some of the worst criminals on her own, but she started a non-governmental group of 600 families working to find their missing relatives and this is now run by her son Luis. This is a group of people that are frustrated by the lack of government help. They began their own searches and are taking courses in forensic anthropology, archaeology and law. They have purchased their own equipment and are becoming experts in identifying graves and bones. The movement did fade in Miriam's absence and some people left to form their
There's another story that was discussed in the NY Times article and it really parallels Karen's story and they're both intertwined. 14 year old Luciano Leal Garza was kidnapped in the very same way as Karen. Luciano was kidnapped in his family's truck and the family had to pay two ransoms for him. The people in town marched and demanded justice, but Luciano's parents were worried that if they pushed too far, they would wind up dead like Miriam. Over the years, kidnappers had already taken several people from Luciano's family and held them for ransom. In fact, his father had been held for 33 days in 2012. That's how common this is. You have to intensely keep an eye on everyone. The kidnappers spent weeks trying to bait Luciano and they were sending him messages with a fake Facebook account, claiming to be a young girl. They were telling him he was handsome and they should meet up.
On July 8th, 2020, he agreed to meet up at a park, but said he was watching one of his sisters, so it couldn't be long. He got in his family's truck and within seconds, armed men jumped inside and drove off with him, just like they had done to Karen 6 years prior. Luciano's sister opened his Facebook account and found the messages, that's when they realized what happened. Miriam's son, Luis, couldn't help but see how similar this story was to his sister Karen's kidnapping. Luis offered to help the family and wanted to introduce them to the police officer that his mother had been working with. When he suggested that they do searches with dogs to smell for corpses, the family shut it down. It wasn't their fault, They just didn't want to believe their son could be dead, they still had hope.
The kidnappers called his father and put his son on the phone. Luciano asked if his two little sisters were safe. Luciano's father followed the kidnappers instructions and left a bag of money on an abandoned dirt road that was perpendicular to the highway that Karen's father had to leave money on for her. The next day, the kidnappers told Luciano's father that they needed more money and they had him drive two hours to leave a bag of money between two tires at an abandoned gas station. As he drove home, the kidnappers called to say they would bring Luciano home that night, but they never did.
The kidnappers stopped answering the families calls and they knew what that meant. The family had to really think about things and contemplated the consequences of going to the police, but they had to try. They gave news conferences, organized search parties, and Luciano's mother recorded herself pleading with the kidnappers to return her son. Drivers were circling around town playing her plea over loudspeakers for everyone to hear. The family really pressured the government and they finally dispatched soldiers,
police officers, and investigators to start searching. Police were able to figure out the masterminds behind the kidnapping and confirmed what the family already knew. It was their own family members.
Luciano's mother had suspected for a long time that some of her cousins were involved in organized crime and had teamed up with the cartel to extort the family, but the cousins were long gone by this time. The family was receiving threats, anonymous calls, and messages warning them to stop searching. They ignored the calls and asked for security from the government.
Luciano's body was discovered in October in a shallow grave on the northern edge of San Fernando. The murderers covered the site with trash and that's why the volunteers had missed it when they searched weeks prior. The police found the cousin who was responsible for Luciano's abduction, in a hospital with a gunshot wound to the leg and he has been charged with the kidnapping and murder. On the day of Luciano's funeral, his father said, “I want to thank you for being the perfect son, for bringing joy to all of us every day you were here. You are taking our hearts with you.”
His mother thanked everyone who risked their own safety to search for Luciano. She said, “You have all taught my family that together we can fight back. We must rid ourselves of the fear to stand up and speak out.”
San Fernando is along a route north through Tamaulipas (Tah-ma-lee-pahs) that leads to the US. There are dirt roads all around it that make it an ideal area for nefarious activities. Authorities discovered the bodies of 72 migrants on the city's outskirts in 2010. In 2011, abductions of bus passengers led to the discovery of almost 200 bodies that had been dumped in mass graves. The death of Miriam Rodriguez wasn't just another statistic. She lead her own searches and chased her daughter's murderers until she caught them. She taught people to be brave and fight back and she paved the way for many families, including Luciano's. This case has been compared to a movie in many articles and you'll see why. If you have ever seen the movie Taken, Liam Neeson says a very famous line after they took his daughter: “I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let me daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”