Mexican pirates attack Texas fishermen on Falcon Lake, which straddles border

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

ZAPATA, TEX. -- Falcon Lake is famous for its monster bass and for the maniacal obsession of the fishermen who come from all over Texas -- and the world -- to stalk them. Now this remote reservoir that straddles the international boundary is known for something else: pirates.

In the past month, crews of outlaws in a small armada of banged-up skiffs and high-powered bass boats launched from the Mexican shore have ambushed bass anglers from the Texas side innocently casting their plastic worms over favorite spots. The buccaneers have struck in Mexican waters but within sight of the Texas shore.

Dressed in black, the pirates brandish automatic weapons, carry radio cellphones and board the anglers' boats. They demand weapons or drugs from their captives, but finding neither, seem satisfied with taking $400 or $500 as booty, according to law enforcement officials and victims' accounts.

There is a saying about not messing with Texas, and the idea that criminals are preying on American anglers is raising already-high temperatures along the southwest border. Answering calls for help, President Obama last week ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the region.

The pirates claim to be "federales," or police, but instead are brigands -- with the letter "Z" tattooed on their necks and arms -- from the notorious drug cartel Los Zetas. The Zetas are on a rampage of killing and extortion along the Mexican border as they fight gun and grenade battles against the military and the rival Gulf Cartel.

"Within the last month, with all the feuding going on over there, the dope smuggling has dropped off and it is starving them. This water is Zeta central. They controlled the whole lake. They distributed everything. Now they're desperate and diversifying," said Jose E. Gonzalez, the second in command of the Border Patrol's Zapata station, which operates an around-the-clock maritime patrol.

At least three armed robberies have been reported in Mexican waters. The Texas Department of Public Safety put out a warning for people to stay on the U.S. side. On Memorial Day weekend, when 200 bass boats would usually be in town, only two dozen were seen at county ramps Friday afternoon.

One group of pirates was savvy enough to demand the memory chip from an angler's camera, lest they be identified. Another fisherman told authorities that armed men came roaring toward him. "I saw 'em, and I saw they were machine guns. They were that close, they were 15 yards away from me," San Antonio bass chaser Richard Drake told a local television station. "I was scared."

'Some bad boys out there'

Last week, Border Patrol agents tried to follow a Mexican boat filled with men wearing ski masks, but it was too fast for the agents and entered Mexican waters, where U.S. law enforcement is forbidden.

Olga Juliana Elizondo, the mayor of Nueva Guerrero, Mexico, said ranchers are harassed on their land, motorboats have disappeared, vehicles have been stolen and tourists have fled. "We hope this ends soon," she said.

"We've all heard about the pirates, and we're all sticking to the American side of the lake, because those are some bad boys out there," said Dwayne Deets, a fisherman from Houston who was sliding $50,000 worth of cream-colored bass boat, bristling with sonar and GPS electronics, down a ramp in Zapata.

Deets said Texans loved fishing the Mexican side. It is legal to carry a loaded firearm in a boat in Texas, but it is illegal to bring ammunition or weapons into Mexico. "I just pray no one gets killed out there," he said.

The International Falcon Reservoir was born in the early 1950s, when engineers erected a dam on the Rio Grande, flooding the banks and inundating towns on both sides. The 98,960-surface-acre impoundment stretches 60 miles and provides for irrigation, power, flood control and recreation in the area.

"Until this started, we fished everywhere, and we never cared about the border, Texas to Mexico. But now? No. Hardly anybody is fishing the Mexico side of the lake," said Tom Bendele, who with his brother owns the Falcon Lake Tackle shop in Zapata, now serving as the de facto intel center on all things piratical.

Out on the water, with a reporter in tow, Tom Bendele pointed out the picket line of 14 large concrete beacons that mark the international boundary. Some are swimming distance from the Texas shore; others are miles out in the middle of the lake.

Bendele ventured up the Rio Salado cove on the Mexican side, where two of the acts of piracy occurred. Around the bend, the steeple of the church in Old Guerrero is now mostly underwater. The shoreline is lonely mesquite brush, dotted by rough fish camps used by Mexicans who string gill nets along their side of the lake, hauling up tilapia, carp and bass.

Though illegal in the United States, the Mexican netters often cross into the Texas side to fish, playing an endless hide-and-seek with Texas game wardens.

Bendele cut off his engine, and the boat rocked in the cove. "You could see how it would be easy to get jumped in here," he said. "Notice you don't see any Americans."

'They watch us'

Out on the water with the U.S. Border Patrol, roaring right down the international boundary line but careful never to cross into Mexico, Gonzalez and a crew pointed out spot after spot where they have intercepted tons of marijuana crossing the lake.

The Border Patrol seized 18,000 pounds of marijuana in the lake region last year, worth about $14 million at $800 a pound; it will likely confiscate even more this year.

"But, man, they are so good at counter-surveillance," Gonzalez said, describing the lake as kind of a Wild West on the water. "They watch us, they watch our boats, our cars, our homes. The smugglers, they know every move we make."

The traffickers cross day and night, driving boats with bales of marijuana right into the backyards of homes along the lake. They rent cabins at the lakeside state park and stash dope there. The border agents point to a three-story house built like a watchtower on the Mexican shore. The officers frequently see observers with binoculars on the roof. Up and down the lake, netting boats are idled. Nobody waves.

"We're telling folks that right now, Mexico is not safe. Don't cross, because we can't go over and help you. It's just an imaginary line, but it's a line I can't cross," said Jake Cawthon, a Texas game warden. He said that anyone fishing the Mexican side these days has "got to have one hand on their fishing pole and the other on their boat keys, ready to haul back home."

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