Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jan 2009
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2009 San Antonio Express-News
Author: Todd Bensman, Express-News
Bookmark: (Mexico)
Bookmark: (Youth)


Laredo businessman Alan Gamboa thought his rental property was being used
to house rank-and-file workers from the U.S. Consulate.

But when drug cartel hit men raided the house in October, then last month
torched his nearby communications and home-security shop and kidnapped his
brother, Ricardo, Gamboa figured out that the tenants weren't who they
seemed to be.

Ricardo still is missing and feared dead, and the Gamboa family members
worry they also may be targeted by narcotraffickers who bombarded the
rental house, taking computers, documents and other materials.

Alan now blames all that has transpired -- and what might yet -- on
American officials.

The U.S. Consulate rented the house, but it was being used for a
clandestine anti-cartel intelligence operation run by Mexican federal
agents and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

That likely put the brothers, both American citizens, in the cartel's
cross hairs after they'd worked to walk a neutral line in violent times.

"It's not fair! It's not fair! It's not fair!" Alan lamented. "They (the
DEA) put us into a very deep problem, very deep. They (the cartel) think
I'm an informant, but I want them to understand that I don't do that. If I
knew that house was for an intelligence organization, I would never have
rented it out. I never wanted any problems."

Today, that house stands vacant, its doors and windows sealed with
government "building secure" sticker signs.

On the U.S. side of the Rio Grande in Laredo, the children and wives of
the two brothers are living on the edge of panic that the cartel will
extract more vengeance at any moment.

"Now the cartel wants me dead," said Alan, who with his wife, Elsa, has
three children, ages 9 to 16. But with the main family business in ruins,
the couple can't afford to flee.

Added Alan's wife during an interview in their Laredo home, which now is
for sale or lease: "What they'll do is let you settle into your ways, and
that's when they'll hit."

The family is contemplating a lawsuit and already has written U.S. Rep.
Henry Cuellar seeking an investigation "to find out whether the U.S.
Consulate or the DEA did anything inappropriate to which they should be
accountable for."

But the DEA and Mexican federal police may have a more pressing problem
from the episode: cartel gunmen seized all of the computers and file
cabinets related to the secret operation, raising the specter of an
intelligence breach that may have put agents and informants at risk on
both sides of the border.

Dangerous Tenants

The San Antonio Express-News has independently confirmed that the
consulate in Nuevo Laredo rented Alan Gamboa's Coahuila Street house last
March and set up an anti-cartel operation involving DEA agents and Mexican
undercover agents with the Department of Public Security, or SSP. American
officials acknowledge the house was used as a "forward operating base"
from which their Mexican counterparts were hunting cartel members, with
DEA intelligence and support.

The Nuevo Laredo operation was emblematic of broader cooperative efforts
in which American law enforcement is helping President Felipe Calderon's
government in an all-out war against that nation's heavily armed drug
trafficking organizations.

But those organizations field their own sophisticated counter-intelligence
networks, as the Gamboa brothers' tragedy shows. The conflict claimed more
than 5,400 people last year, including an estimated 600 officers and

A State Department official based in Mexico, who isn't authorized to speak
publicly, sought to deflect blame for the Gamboa family's troubles on
grounds that drug war murders in Mexico are pervasive, the true motives
for them often unknowable. Legitimate business owners in Nuevo Laredo
often are forced to pay off the cartels or provide services, leading to
voluntary or involuntary associations that can go mortally wrong.

"It's terrible when even one person is killed or kidnapped," the State
Department official said, adding that the secret operations with their
Mexican counterparts are necessary to stop the murders of thousands of
people, or worse.

Alan insists the Americans, responding to a house rental advertisement,
misled him and needlessly put his family in harm's way. Although U.S.
citizens, the Gamboa brothers lived most of their lives in Nuevo Laredo,
building separate but similar communications businesses over 20 years.

As married fathers of young children, though, the Gamboas moved with their
families to the U.S. side of the river three years ago to escape cartel
violence wracking Nuevo Laredo.

The move left the house on Coahuila Street, which belongs to his wife's
family, vacant.

Intelligence Breach

Alan recounted how he was looking to rent the place last March when
several Americans driving armored vehicles bearing blue diplomatic
consulate plates showed up for a tour with several Mexican men.

He said he was led to believe the men merely were new low-ranking
consulate workers in need of a place to live.

Ricardo had no involvement in the transaction. In fact, the two have been
estranged for years over various past business disputes and only rarely
spoke to one another.

There is some family dissention -- anger and blame, actually -- about
whether Alan exercised good judgment in dealing with the Americans for any
reason in times like these, even if he thought the tenants just were
clerical or maintenance workers.

The Realtor who handled the deal said he sent the contract by courier to
the U.S. Consulate, where it was signed and returned by a consulate
courier with eight months advance rent.

Several Mexican men moved in to the house across from Alan's business,
regular consulate workers he thought. Then, on Oct. 1, the neighborhood
peace was shattered.

The cartel's enforcement wing in Nuevo Laredo, known as the Zetas, somehow
captured one of the Mexican undercover agents living in the Gamboa house,
American officials confirmed.

They sent 30 heavily armed gunmen wearing mismatched camouflage uniforms
on a dramatic daylight raid on the house aboard a caravan of tint-windowed
SUVs, according to eyewitnesses. The gunmen blocked off both ends of
Coahuila Street while one of the vehicles was used to batter down a garage

The gunmen smashed into the back courtyard and house, breaking
surveillance cameras along the way and carting off desktop computers, as
well as laptops and boxes of documents.

The abducted agent, who was forced to attend the raid, was murdered later
that day.

A ranking American law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the
operation, who requested anonymity for personal security, said it was
difficult to determine how damaging the breach was. A "threat assessment"
was conducted to determine what kind of sensitive intelligence information
the cartel might have gotten, the official said.

"We do not believe that any information about the DEA investigation was on
those computers or in the materials," the law enforcement official said.
"We do not believe that anything was compromised that would enhance the
risk beyond what we already have. However, we can't say what the federal
police had put on that computer or what. We just don't know."

A request to the Mexican attorney general's office for comment about the
seized computers and documents went unanswered.

Some two months of relative calm after the raid, the cartel suddenly
struck the Gamboa brothers without warning, apparently in the belief that
they were collaborators.

The morning of Dec. 4 was the last time anyone saw Ricardo, getting into
someone's gold-colored SUV in front of his own office a few blocks up the

Alan said he was lucky to have been on the U.S. side in Laredo the next
day when gunmen ransacked his Coahuila Street business, stealing radio
equipment, records and computers before dousing the place with diesel and
torching it. His 16 employees were thrown out of work, and a $400,000
business went up in smoke.

Given that the brothers' estrangement from one another was widely known in
the neighborhood, both families are wondering why Ricardo was taken if
Alan was the one who rented the house.

Through various street sources and snitch networks, the FBI picked up the
only cartel demand that has reached the family: Alan must turn himself in
to the Zetas or Ricardo will die.

A father of three, Alan has refused to return to Nuevo Laredo.

Collateral Damage

Veronica Gamboa, Ricardo's wife of 13 years, sat in her dining room table
one recent afternoon inside the couple's Laredo home. Photos of the
couple's two young daughters, 11 and 8, who practically worship their
father -- and vice versa -- are displayed on a nearby table.

A yellow ribbon was tied around her wrist, a large yellow bow set above
the front door.

Tears streamed down her face as Veronica recalled how she became aware
that Ricardo was gone.

She'd been with him that morning at the office in Nuevo Laredo. Ricardo
said someone was about to pick him up and take him somewhere to give an
estimate for a security system.

She went into a back room and that was the last time she saw him. It
wasn't until a presentation of the "Nutcracker" the next night in which
their children were performing that Veronica knew for certain Ricardo had
fallen victim to foul play.

"He ... would never ... have missed that. Not that," Veronica struggled to
explain through tears.

Now her days revolve around phone conversations with an FBI case agent.
The FBI is responsible for investigating kidnappings of American citizens
on foreign soil. The family also works its own friends and contacts in
Nuevo Laredo, trolling for any word about Ricardo's whereabouts.

Often in kidnapping cases, a ransom demand is extended. The absence of
anything like that makes Veronica fear the worst.

FBI officials wouldn't discuss the case other than to say agents are
working it as an active kidnapping case.

Still, until last week, Veronica was holding out hope that the cartel
members had put Ricardo to work setting up communications systems
somewhere -- perhaps even putting together a system using the equipment
stolen from Alan's shop. And that they'll release him when he finishes.

"Ricardo's a very, very intelligent man," she said.

But last week, bad news came from both the FBI and family sources. It was
that Ricardo never will be coming home, because he was murdered.

No one has reported seeing a body. Like everything else the family has
heard, the information is unsubstantiated and still amounts to rumor.

So without more definitive proof, the family still holds out hope that
Ricardo will return to his daughters.
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