The Mystery on Falcon Lake

What to make of the alleged murder of David Hartley while riding his jet ski on Falcon Lake? Last week, his wife Tiffany moved their things out of their McAllen home and drove back to Colorado. Mexican authorities suspended their search for Hartley’s body indefinitely. This followed the gruesome killing of one of the lead Mexican investigators on the case, presumably by the Zeta cartel.

The case is unsettling all around. There are many unanswered questions: If it’s robbery why not take his wife’s jet ski too? And why would a man who has worked in Reynosa for the last two years, which is under the control of the Gulf Cartel — where there are frequent gun battles — think it was safe to jet ski into a remote part of the Mexican border?  The security firm Stratfor posits that the two were mistaken for Gulf Cartel spies. But could a petite blond woman on a jet ski really be mistaken for a Gulf Cartel operative? And why would a cartel draw such attention to its smuggling operations at the beginning of Mexico’s marijuana harvest?

It’s been a puzzling mystery since Hartley disappeared September 30. The absence of reliable information is appalling but it’s not surprising. It’s something that thousands of Mexican families have to live with every day. Their loved ones disappear and nothing is heard from them again. No investigation, no follow up – no justice. It’s hard to fathom for Americans who have a functioning judicial system and law enforcement. No body, no investigation, no Mexican authorities who can comment on the record.  Into this black hole of information, we can only rely on conjecture. We scan Twitter for news from Mexico. We hear of theories from anonymous sources close to Mexican cartels or law enforcement. The Texas-based security firm Stratfor has become the ubiquitous talking head in the U.S. media on all things drug war-related. They fill the void with theories and reports based on anonymous sources because there isn’t any government source on either side of the Rio Grande who will speak with any depth or authority on Hartley’s disappearance.

We can also always count on Governor Rick Perry’s musings on border security to fill the void. This being an election cycle, Perry and Republican Congressman Ted Poe among others are on Fox News on an almost nightly basis. Perry, never one to miss a chance to flog the feds, was on Fox just last night using the Hartley tragedy to sling another barb at the Obama Administration.  “This administration and this Congress have a deaf ear when it comes to border security,” Perry said. Apparently, he doesn’t count Border Patrol, the U.S. consulate representative from Monterrey, more than $147 million in stimulus money for border security and the FBI as federal representatives. Perry also complained that there ought to be Predator drones flying the border. Apparently, he forgot that Predator drone flights along the border started in September. Oh well, who needs facts anyway.

Besides what kind of border security presence on the U.S. side would have made a difference in the Hartley case? The alleged shooting happened in Mexico. Perry is doing a great disservice to the border region because he continuously misrepresents the facts. He sells a false sense of security. Gee, if we just had enough soldiers, enough guns we’d all be safe. When in reality the problems causing the violence in Mexico are far more complicated and need serious consideration and a multi-faceted bi-national approach. Perry didn’t even bother to show up for the Border Governor’s meeting over the summer where he would have had a chance to meet with the governors from Mexico. He was too busy politicking over the Arizona “papers please” bill. We don’t need a John Wayne fantasy solution, we need real solutions to stopping the violence.

And the violence that killed Hartley may have been totally senseless. The most likely scenario I heard was floated by Zapata County Sheriff Siggy Gonalez that it was Zetillas, baby Zetas, who shot Hartley: “Some of them are 15, 16 and 17 years old that operate that area,” Gonzalez told the local media. These teenagers are the so called “pirates” who have been robbing fishermen on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake. This seems like the most plausible theory at the moment. As the fighting has escalated among the factions the cartels have become more desperate to fill their ranks. Increasingly, these cartel recruits are teenagers. Sometimes, they’re armed with high-caliber weapons. As the older cartel leaders have been killed or captured, Mexico is left with these bands of armed teenagers. There’s been much discussion in the Mexican media lately about “los ninis” (ni trabajan ni estudian ) children who neither go to school or work. Mexico has an estimated 7 million children who essentially don’t have anything to hope for when they grow up. The Mexican newspaper  El Milenio recently did a report on teenagers in Monterrey as young as 13 being recruited by the cartels. They start off as “halcones” lookouts then graduate to robbing cars, houses. Eventually they become hit men for the cartels. One of the kids interviewed tells El Milenio “…we’re going to die anyway. It’s better to die young with money, then end up old and poor.”  In recent photographs released by the Mexican military of captured Gulf Cartel members in Tamaulipas, the cartel members were 14, 15 year old boys. This is the dreaded Gulf Cartel?

At its heart, this is a socio-economic problem that guns, soldiers and fences won’t solve. But you’ll never hear that coming from Rick Perry’s lips. He’s never seen a problem that more “boots on the ground” can’t solve. On this side of the Rio Grande we struggle with the same problems of violence, disenfranchised youth and a growing poverty gap. Only, unlike Mexico, we have a vast prison-industry complex that keeps everyone under lock and key. Texas has the highest number of incarcerated people in the nation. That’s where we keep our disenfranchised youth.

The only thing certain about the tragedy on Falcon Lake is that we’ll probably never see David Hartley again, barring some unforeseen new twist. His widow Tiffany told the media yesterday she hoped her husband’s death could be a turning point in combating the violence in Mexico. Until politicians, Like Perry, stop playing with the facts and confront the real problems spurring the violence, we’ve got a long way to go.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

Published at 9:24 pm CST