The numbers are staggering — as many as 120,000 people killed, tens of thousands disappeared, billions of dollars in illicit trade generated each year — but they can only tell you so much.
To fully grapple with the violence that has washed over Mexico in the last decade, and understand how the U.S. is implicated in that tragedy, requires going beyond the statistics. Behind every death, every disappearance, and every black-market deal is a human story. For nearly two decades, Melissa del Bosque, an award-winning investigative reporter with the Texas Observer, has made it her mission to bring those stories to light. In her new book, “Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty,” del Bosque delves into one of the most fascinating drug war cases in recent memory, detailing how key members of the Zetas cartel were brought down after a sprawling, multi-year federal investigation revealed the organization had laundered millions of dollars into the high-stakes — often shady — world of quarter horse racing.
Built on three years of reporting, “Bloodlines” tells multiple stories at once. The main character, Scott Lawson, is an FBI agent who, as a rookie, took on a hardship post in the border city of Laredo, Texas, in 2009. Following up on a tip regarding an unusual horse purchase at an Oklahoma auction, Lawson soon learns the record-setting buy is linked to Miguel Treviño, the head of the Zetas cartel, via Treviño’s U.S.-based brother, José. An outsider to the region, Lawson turns to agent Alma Perez, a Mexican-American woman who grew up with family on both sides of the Rio Grande, for help (Alma Perez is pseudonym granted to the agent, who still has family in Mexico). Capitalizing on her extraordinary access, del Bosque follows the two agents over multiple years as their investigation burrows deeper into the inner workings of the Zetas, the organization’s remarkable penetration of the horse-racing industry, and culminating in José Treviño’s conviction in Austin, Texas, courtroom along with several senior Zetas figures.
The city of Laredo, and its sister city on the Mexican side of the border, Nuevo Laredo, are the backdrop of “Bloodlines,” and with good reason. The Treviño brothers have deep ties to “los dos Laredos.” Not only that, the land port separating the two communities is the busiest in the country, making it prime real estate for organized crime and allowing the Zetas to evolve from the paramilitary wing of the Gulf Cartel into one of the most diversified and feared criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere. “The Zetas were a multibillion-dollar, transnational business just like General Motors or ExxonMobil,” del Bosque writes. “And there was no more lucrative and coveted territory for moving merchandise than their hometown.”
Reminiscent of a border version of “The Wire,” the acclaimed HBO show depicting the Baltimore drug trade, Bloodlines is perhaps most revelatory in its depiction of the U.S. agencies and offices ostensibly arrayed to oppose groups like the Zetas. Del Bosque takes readers inside a six-story building in Laredo that serves as both a home to the country’s top law enforcement agencies and as a frontline in bureaucratic drug-war infighting. The least respected agents in the building, del Bosque notes, belong to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, wing. The FBI, she adds, is “somewhere in the middle” of the pecking order, sharing a floor with HSI. At the top of the border-enforcement food chain is the Drug Enforcement Administration, occupying the building’s top two floors and described by some of the building’s occupants as the “cowboys of the DOJ.”
Throughout her book, del Bosque details turf wars between U.S. agencies, particularly those involving the DEA, routinely jeopardizing the overlapping investigations and interests of the nation’s massive, multi-pronged border security apparatus. “There was no more competitive environment than the border, where state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies were all vying for the same targets,” del Bosque writes. “There was only so much government money to go around, and arresting a high-level cartel operative would mean a promotion and more funding from Washington.”
With its rich characters, competing agendas, and inherently dramatic storyline, “Bloodlines” reads like a movie, and so it comes as little to surprise that it will be one — Universal Pictures optioned the book, with Channing Tatum slated to star as Scott Lawson. In an interview with The Intercept, del Bosque described her motivations for telling the story, her thoughts on the drug war, and her (half-serious) creation of a new journalistic genre.
You have reported on all sorts of dynamic stories from the border. When and how did you decide to tell this story as a book?
In writing about the border and Mexico for so long, my frustration is that most people in the U.S. don’t really pay that much attention to what’s happening — the violence, the drug war violence in Mexico. So increasingly I’ve been focusing on narratives and just telling really compelling stories that will pull people in to learn more about what’s happening, even if they’re not normally interested in something like that.
With this case, because it took place both in the United States and in Mexico, and involved racetracks all over the southwest and in California, I thought this is a way to really hook people into a story that they might not normally want to read about the drug war and what’s going on in Mexico. And I was sort of hooked on this detective story, and then getting to tell the larger story about how the violence came about in Mexico and the synthesis between organized crime and the cartels, and then the story of the Zetas, which was really a game changer for the violence in Mexico. They started at the beginning of the century and they were the first paramilitary cartel. And so they brought this whole new level of violence and paramilitary training to the conflict. The violence really took off once the Zetas got firmly entrenched in northern Mexico, in Veracruz and those areas.
And so we had the trial in Austin in 2013, and it lasted almost a month, and it was pretty fascinating because it was the first time that we got to hear founding members of the cartel actually testify publicly, and then we have the brother of one of the leaders of the cartel also on trial. And then we have this wealthy business owner from Veracruz, Poncho Colorado, who’s been funneling the Zetas money through his business to buy horses.
So, it’s kind of all of the ingredients of the conflict and what’s happening in Mexico present in that case.
And so you were going to court during the trial and filing stories at the time?
Yeah, I covered the sentencing phase of the trial. And then there was a retrial for Poncho Colorado, so I went to that, and then there was a bribery trial, too, because his business partner and his eldest son came up to Austin — his business partner came to testify about how upstanding their business was and that there had never been anything untoward or any kind of dirty money coming through it. They had been going out to the jail and communicating with Poncho Colorado on the phone there, and law enforcement was listening to all of their conversations and found out that they wanted to bribe the judge for $1.2 million. And so the FBI set up a sting, and they were actually arrested at the courthouse while we were all there. They were going to put a golf bag full of money into the trunk of the judge’s car. So the case just kept going on and on and on. It had a lot of twists and turns.
English language accounts of the border, the drug war, and Mexico often rely on a certain set of themes and sometimes cliches — cycles of violence, depravity, etc. — that can give a one-dimensional view of that deeply complex region of the world. In the acknowledgements at the end of your book, you write about growing up near the border and what Mexico means to you, and you seem to acknowledge the danger of those pitfalls. What did you do to avoid recreating those simplistic narratives?
That’s a good question. I guess I’m always trying to tell the human story, and I think what happens when you often see stories about the drug war or the border is that people often become kind of cartoon characters and you can’t connect with them on a human level. But we’re all just human beings, and money affects everybody, white or brown, in Mexico or the United States. You see these guys at the racetracks, these Anglo horse owners who are just taking the money, not asking any questions, and you see the same thing happening in Mexico. There are many common denominators, so I guess I look for that — the commonality in all of us. Because I’m not really interested in stereotypes, I try to stay away from that, and also these body count types of stories.
This book is based around a crime, but it’s more of a psychological detective story, because the investigators are also going through their own journeys as they’re unraveling the investigation. I was especially excited to learn that Scott Lawson’s partner was a Latina from Laredo who had family on both sides of the border. That, to me, was great, because then I could tell a much richer story.
Can you talk more about that — how the identities of these two agents impacted or informed the way they approached this case and the drug war in general?
Well, at first, with Scott Lawson, it’s like how many stories have we seen from the white male perspective about the border and about Mexico? We see it constantly. But the cool thing about him, coming from Tennessee, was that he immediately realized, “I’m in over my head here. I don’t speak the language. I’m not used to this culture, and I need help.” He recognized Alma’s expertise and her background and he asked her to help him. They ended up really hitting it off and using their strengths together in a partnership, which made them much better investigators, I think, because they could pool their various talents.
One the things that really comes across strongly with Alma is the personal stake for her in the case.
Yeah, it’s hard when you’re a professional, but it’s also personal. She’s seen it up close, and it’s affected her family and friends. A lot of the agents tend to be from another part of the country, they don’t have a connection with Mexico, so they’re not as invested, I think — a lot of them don’t even want to be there in the first place, it’s a hardship position. But for her, it’s her home. So, it’s much harder, I think, for her to navigate because it’s also personal, it’s not just professional, but she has to maintain that kind of tough law enforcement exterior all the time.
As a journalist, did you find it difficult to maintain distance from the law enforcement perspective? Was that something you worried about, being so close to these agents and their perspective on the case?
Yeah, I didn’t want to seem like I was this big rah-rah cheerleader, but at the same time you have to really get to know them pretty well to really be able to do justice to the story. I tried to remain evenhanded about it. I do get into the sort of friction between the various federal agencies, which I’ve always found really fascinating, all this infighting that goes on. There’s friction between the DEA and the FBI, and that whole story — I mean, that’s adding a more critical lens to the whole drug war-security apparatus that’s gotten so huge.
Absolutely. That was one of the most striking components of your book, and it’s a dynamic that’s often overlooked in how the drug war is actually executed. The way that federal law enforcement agencies are often at odds with one another, it’s almost as if the turf wars between these agencies pose as big a challenge to closing a case as anything else. So was that something you were aware of before you wrote the book or did you learn about it through the process of your reporting?
No, it’s something that I’m totally interested in. I’m creating my own genre, I’m calling it “bureaucracy noir.” I’m just going to put that out there, it’s my own genre now.
I did this story, Homeland Insecurity, about all the infighting within the Department of Homeland Security and how, even though all these different agencies are under the umbrella of DHS, they’re all fighting among each other. Just sort of these petty grievances and these strange office cultures that seem to get in the way of the larger mission of protecting the country, and how kind of fascinating office culture is and how quickly it can go awry with the wrong type of leadership.
I worked in state government for five years, so I have been in that kind of environment. So I guess I’m always curious about the office politics and the leadership, because so much of the energy people expend is just dealing with the crap that’s going on in the office and not really with the mission.
As much experience as you had going into writing this book, what did you learn about the drug war and the border that you didn’t know before?
I guess I was mostly curious about how the Zetas operated and how the money worked and how much money they were making — just massive amounts of money selling cocaine in the U.S., and how that money is distributed either back to Mexico or to various business associates in the U.S. Like, they sent $100,000 in a pressure cooker to New Mexico to pay off the starting gate guys at the racetrack — and just how much of a burden all that money can be, too. They have so much of it they have these full-time teams of accountants and lawyers who are trying to figure out how to invest it and how to launder it. The amount of money is so massive.
A number of these guys ended up in prison, but the drug war just rolls on. Do you think this will ever end, or is that the wrong question to be asking?
Well, I think we should just legalize drugs at this point. The entire span of my life we’ve been fighting this war against drugs and we’re never going to win it, and all we’ve ever done is built up this giant security and incarceration apparatus around it. And now Americans are getting a lot of their drugs from pharmaceutical companies, and they’re mixing them with the illicit drugs. I think we need to go back to treating drug abuse as an addiction and a health issue, and alleviating all the misery that makes people want to get high.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.