THERE’S NO MISSING THE SIGNS that something unspeakable happened in Allende, a quiet ranching town of about 23,000, just a 40-minute drive from Eagle Pass, Texas. Entire blocks of some of the town’s busiest streets lie in ruins. Once garish mansions are now crumbling shells, with gaping holes in the walls, charred ceilings, cracked marble countertops, and toppled columns. Strewn among the rubble are tattered, mud-covered remnants of lives torn apart: shoes, wedding invitations, medications, television sets, toys.
In March 2011 gunmen from the Zetas cartel, one of the most violent drug-trafficking organizations in the world, swept through Allende and nearby towns like a flash flood, demolishing homes and businesses and kidnapping and killing dozens, possibly hundreds, of men, women, and children.
The destruction and disappearances went on in fits and starts for weeks. Only a few of the victims’ relatives—mostly those who didn’t live in Allende or had fled—dared to seek help. “I would like to make clear that Allende looks like a war zone,” reads one missing person report. “Most people who I questioned about my relatives responded that I shouldn’t go on looking for them because outsiders were not wanted, and were disappeared.”
But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cell phone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his brother Omar.