The Empathy Quest: Visiting Cartel Infected Cities by Driving North Mexico’s Trafficking Highways

Story Highlights

*Business Owner/Traveling Salesman drives most dangerous routes in Northern Mexico.

*Witnessed cartel operations on the highway and was tailed by them with nowhere to run.

*Interviews locals in Chihuahua, Torreon and Monterrey on video camera.

*Border Patrol searched truck for an hour at the border.


(************) – “Man I just speaked with my uncle and he said don’t even think about it by any motives. Do not drive through Chihuahua. Even in good times people didn’t do it, plus you’ll have American license plates which is a good chance you’ll get kidnapped.” Says my friend Marcelo.

“Really? What if I make it to Chihuahua safely…then to Torreon should be a breeze.” I reply.

“Torreon-Saltillo is extremely dangerous right now. Kidnappings and extortion. The real problem is Juarez-Chihuahua because there is nothing in between, plus when you arrive at Delicias, that town is horribly dangerous and Gomez Palacio. You’ll be going through some of the most polemic towns.” He says.

“Which is perfect.” I reply.

“No man, you need to watch some videos about that stuff. It’s pretty dense. Americans are kidnapped and extorted the most in those highways.” He says.

There was nothing Marcelo could do to convince me out of driving these cartel operated highways, so once he got onboard we skyped and set up checkpoints where I would contact him to let him know I was alive. I drove 740 miles in three days and my heart beat out of my chest for each of those miles. I had to feel and empathize with the immense fear that Mexicans live with every day.

The Mexican freeways going through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreon and Monterrey have been ruthless and violent for years. These highways cross the territories of the Juarez, Sinaloa and los Zetas cartels. They are extremely organized, multi-billion dollar cartels that have been in turf wars since their existence, but things started to really escalate when los Zetas began showing more interest in brutal crimes against citizens and tourists. The normal routine of extortion didn’t seem to be enough. At one of its peaks, 49 decapitated bodies were found by the border and los Zetas declared it as their work.

The people are exhausted by the cartel. They aren’t looking for solutions. They just want out.

It is 10:40am and only a few cars are driving on the 45 highway from Juarez to Chihuahua. It runs through the heart of the Mexican desert and authentic cowboys “vaqueros” linger here and there. This stretch of highway is fought over by the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, so for safety, I am tailing any car on the road so we become a group. There’s no significant town for 230 miles, so if they set up a road block they will get you, and if you try to run they will fearlessly gun you down in the middle of the desert.

I’m looking at the dirt roads off the highway for any vehicles because this is where cartel preys on drivers they want to run down. I look up and I see a Silverado tailing me but I can’t see inside because the windows are blacked out. I look down and there are no plates. It’s cartel.

(Plate-less cartel truck speeding away after tailing me…as you can see there’s nowhere to run)

Yesterday Marcelo told me, “If they tell you to pull over, just do it and cooperate with everything they say. Don’t tell them you are visiting a friend in Monterrey. Tell them you are filming a documentary in Chihuahua. Don’t tell them the truth.”

I pull my truck into the other lane and prepare for my demise, but the Silverado becomes disinterested and speeds away. Whatever reason, he left me alone. I could have lost everything like thousands of Mexicans have. I feel their fear and frustration.

Toward the end of 45, I watch 5 white F-250’s without plates, blacked out windows drive 100mph as a group. They’re flashing their high beams and everyone immediately gets out of their way. It is more than likely a cartel trafficking operation, but whatever they’re moving; they will not be stopped.

The next morning I ask a local about this incident over breakfast in Chihuahua and she says, “Many times in these trafficking cars there are high ranking officials inside. It is a very sophisticated operation. Does the government know you are driving and why you’re here with your camera?”

“No.” I said.

“Good and don’t trust them. You can’t trust anyone in Mexico, just tell them you are going to the next city and you are here for a wedding.”


(Many will never show their face in an interview in fear of the cartels, so I film my shoes to get his voice)

I’ve finally arrived in Monterrey after 740 miles and it is a huge, developed metropolitan area in the arms of the Sierra Nevada. It’s hard to believe that such a developed city would have cartel decapitating citizens, shootouts and buildings with grenade damage. I drive to Marcelo’s house in Cumbres sector 2 which is an upscale housing district. It feels normal and safe for the first time, but I was wrong.

“There was a guy that came up with a gun and wanted to rob us when we were drinking on the driveway of my friend’s house.” Says Marcelo.

His Mom Martha, tells me of a time her and her other son Miguel were driving home and the car ahead of them suddenly stopped. They held AK-47’s to their heads and drove off with their truck and everything inside.

“We turned the first corner we saw and walked home.” She says. And no, you shouldn’t call the police.

I’m at the University of Monterrey in San Pedro waiting for Marcelo to finish class. It is the richest most prestigious college with many high profile students like the daughter of the governor of Monterrey. After class we sit at a table and his friend talks about how in Mexico, education and freedom are the same thing. With a prestigious degree you have the chance to work in America, but if not at least you can have a high paying job in Mexico and take greater shelter from the cartels. Without an education, it means you have to get out of Mexico the hard way and end up as an illegal in the states. He tells me the situation in Mexico won’t get better with the cartels because,

“Everyone in Mexico has a price.”

This concept is why they’ve lost their will to fight. Even with a lifetime of perfect family and morals, it takes the cartel one moment with the right amount of money to wipe all of the ethics away. It seems like a fault of ethics, but it is not completely true. In a second world country, where people do not see that much money, the potential is striking. Money and dreams mean the same thing. Once they get involved and they want out the cartel threatens to kill their families and there’s no out once they know your face. The magnitude of the corruption is endless because they own you forever. Once they get involved the cartel threatens to kill their families and there’s no out once they know your face. There is no one to trust.

(Los Zetas burn down the casino with gasoline after the casino fails to pay them extortion)

After 5 days of driving Mexico I try to cross the Laredo border and they are incredibly suspicious that I drove from Juarez to Laredo through North Mexico’s highways. No one makes that drive so, they strip search my entire truck with 3 dogs and 5 officers. One dog in the cabin, one dog underneath the truck and the other in the bed. They are incredibly thorough and even inspect my daily disposable contacts. They take a full hour to read through all of my journals and quiz me about the contents.

After a full border patrol grill, I’m back on the highway and I think about how I get to leave Mexico, and how they’re still there. I think about what it would be like if I couldn’t leave and then I remember something Marcelo said.

There’s a saying they live by in Mexico,

“God protect me from my friends. I’ll take care of my enemies.”

It means, your friends are the most likely people to betray you because your enemies…they’ve already betrayed you.

Curse the cartels.

(Dia de Los Muertos in Chihuahua.)


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