The Woman Who Hunted Her Daughter’s Killers
Armed with disguises and a gun, Miriam Rodríguez was an unstoppable force.
Miriam Rodríguez via thesun.co.uk
Picking through the dirt at an abandoned ranch outside of San Fernando, Tamaulipas in Mexico, Miriam Rodríguez found her daughter’s scarf. It was a devastating discovery that would later uncover part of Karen’s femur, among the dozens of bodies buried in the area.
However, Miriam would not be deterred from her mission; she would find the people who abducted and killed her daughter.
In 2014, San Fernando was still recovering from the 2011 massacre. A few years earlier, Los Zetas, a wing of the Gulf Cartel, had murdered almost 200 people. Found in mass graves around the area, the majority were kidnap victims from bus hijackings. Many of them had been abducted to fund the cartel war, and thousands had fled the area in fear of being another target.
Karen’s brother, Luis, had already moved away to escape the danger of San Fernando, but Karen was just 20 years old. She wanted to finish her education and help her mother at their shop, Rodeo Boots, a cowboy store.
Karen was driving when two vehicles surrounded her truck. Men with guns pulled her from the car and into theirs, abducting her. They took her to the Rodríguez’s family home and tied her up, ready to continue with their ransom plan. But, instead, a family friend dropped by to work on a car and startled the kidnappers.
They took both of their captives and left the house.
Miriam and her husband borrowed the ransom money from the bank. The area had seen so many kidnappings that the bank offered loans specifically for ransom payments.
Miriam and the family did exactly what the gang demanded of them. They dropped the ransom money near the health clinic as they were told and went to a nearby cemetery to await further instructions. They were never contacted.
Miriam asked for a meeting with Los Zetas, and they agreed, meeting at a local restaurant, El Junior. She pleaded with the man who showed up, asking him to free her daughter, but he told Miriam that they didn’t have Karen. However, he said he could help Miriam find her, for a fee. Through the constant voices coming from the cheap plastic radio attached to his belt, Miriam believed this man’s name to be Sama.
After she paid the gang $2,000, Miriam’s calls went unanswered. Finally, however, the kidnappers did call her, asking for just a bit more money; $500.
The family waited for Karen to be returned to them, never giving up hope. Until one day when Miriam, who was now separated from her husband and living with her older daughter, Azalea, proclaimed that she knew Karen wasn’t coming home. She also told her daughter that she wouldn’t stop until she found the people who took her. She started with Sama.
Trapping the mice
The family friend who was captured with Karen was released soon after his abduction. He wasn’t worth money to the gang, but his memories of the men who took him were worth everything to a desperate mother.
Miriam probed him for information, which confirmed that Sama was involved in Karen’s abduction. From there, she began trawling social media, trying to find the face of the man who sat across from her in the restaurant, claiming not to have taken her child.
She found Sama on Facebook. In his photograph, he was standing next to a woman wearing an ice-cream shop uniform. The store was based in Ciudad, Victoria, two hours away.
Miriam waited outside the store for weeks, waiting for Sama to appear to meet his partner. When he finally showed up, Miriam followed them back to their home.
She changed her appearance and put on the uniform she’d kept from her days working at the Health Ministry many years before. She spent the next day knocking on Sama’s neighbours’ doors, asking them to participate in a local survey.
She didn’t want to kill him; she wanted justice. Her mission was to find as much information as possible about the man, to take to the authorities. Then, with the friend’s memory of his abduction and her gathered intel on Sama, they would be able to arrest him.
Once Miriam had tapped the well dry, she began visiting local authorities to share her information with them. The problem Miriam was up against was that over 70,000 people had gone missing in Mexico, and the country’s homicide rate had doubled; no one cared.
She eventually found one federal policeman who was willing to help her.
“She had gone to every single level of government, and they had slammed the door in her face. So to help her hunt down the people who took her daughter — it was the greatest privilege of my career.”
A warrant was issued for Sama’s arrest, but he had already vanished.
It was Miriam’s son who eventually found Sama. Luis was closing up his store in Ciudad Victoria when he spotted the man he’d seen so many photographs of. Sama was arrested on Mexican Independence Day and quickly began to give police the names of the others involved in Karen’s abduction.
From this new information, 18-year-old Zapata Gonzalez was picked up. His young age surprised Miriam, who felt for the boy, and her kindness helped draw further information from him, including her daughter’s location.
The ranch was no longer a home, and the house was full of bullet holes. There was also a noose hanging from an old tree. After Miriam found Karen’s scarf, dozens of bodies were found scattered around the property. Part of Karen’s femur was identified after a second investigation, demanded by Miriam.
Miriam and Azalea had eaten at a restaurant near the abandoned ranch recently, and she recalled speaking to Elvia Yuliza, while they ordered. She’d known Elvia for years and had found it strange at the time how elusive she’d been, but now Miriam wondered if she knew what had happened to Karen.
Some quick research found that Elvia had been in a relationship with one of the kidnappers already in prison and untouchable to Miriam. So, Miriam waited for Elvia to slip up, and she did. The kidnap calls had been made from Elvia’s home, and she was soon arrested.
The born-again Christian
Miriam had a few clues pointing to Enrique Flores and visited his grandmother to see if the old woman would give her any information about her grandson. She was told that he’d started going to church, so Miriam attended the mass to watch Flores in more detail.
Miriam told the police of her findings and handed over her research on the man. He was arrested inside the church, much to the horror of his family.
Miriam had tracked the florist to the border, where he was selling flowers on the Texas bridge. She’d been looking for him for over a year, and she’d been given a tip about where she could find him.
By this point, 56-year-old Miriam had been looking for her daughter’s killers for several years. She’d started a support group for parents of kidnapped children called Colectivo de Desaparecidos de San Fernando (The Vanished Collective), which had quickly grown to 600 members.
She received countless death threats from gangs and family members of the people she’d help put away, but it didn’t deter her.
The day she found the florist he recognised her immediately and ran. She managed to catch up with him and held him at gunpoint for an hour, waiting for police to arrive.
It took Miriam three years to track down almost all of the living gang members who kidnapped and killed her daughter. She found 10 in total.
She dyed and cut her hair, purchased fake IDs, changed her clothes and masqueraded as health workers and election officials, which helped her get close to the gang’s family members. She spoke to grandmothers and neighbours, cousins and employers. They gave her snippets of information which helped her build a story about the men she hunted.
Her investigation brought her fame in Mexico, and with that came exposure. She was a woman in her 50s, fighting a notorious gang. She was bringing openness to their crimes and was showing other families who had missing children that they should be fighting back, not hiding in the shadows, hoping their children would be returned alive.
The exposure she got from her mission made her vulnerable. People didn’t go after the cartels, and she eventually asked the Mexican government for armed guards to protect her.
She was hunting murderers who had concealed themselves as upstanding members of the community, and they would do anything to keep their secrets.
In May 2017, Miriam was shot dead outside her home on Mother’s Day. Just weeks before, she’d handed over another gang member to police. Finally, she’d got one step closer to finding all of her daughter’s killers.
Some of the men put away by Miriam had escaped, and she was concerned that they’d go after her and her family. Despite her protection from the police, she was still killed.
San Fernando grew quiet for a while. The community was mourning the loss of their vigilante, and her death affected many. Even Francisco Javier García Cabeza de Vaca, the state’s governor, tweeted about Miriam’s death;
“The government of Tamaulipas will not allow the death of Miriam Rodríguez to turn into yet another statistic #NoToImpunity.”
Authorities vowed to catch her killers, and a plaque was placed in town in her honour.
Continuing the cause
Miriam’s son, Luis, took over her support group, but it quickly waned as the members were now fearful. Miriam’s murder had sent them a strong message.
A month after Miriam’s death, police arrested a woman in Veracruz, 500 miles from San Fernando. The tip had come from Miriam herself, who believed the woman was a suspect in her daughter’s murder. She had fled San Fernando to Veracruz with her son and was driving a taxi. The woman had been Karen’s torturer and had beaten her as she hanged from her wrists. Miriam Rodríguez had tracked down another.
Since 2017, crime has accelerated rapidly in Mexico. On the 7th of June 2020, 117 murders were reported in 24 hours.
The cartel gangs have even targeted political figures in very public attacks. Last year, one of the gangs dressed as construction workers to get close to the police chief, Omar García. He survived the three gunshots wounds he endured and blamed the attack on the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. They were also responsible for killing 26 people in a massacre at a drug rehabilitation centre in Guanajuato.
While Miriam Rodríguez is considered a hero in her hometown, no one has been passed the baton to continue her plight. Until the country is safe from internal drug wars, kidnapping, murder and trafficking, the parents of these missing children have no hope of seeing their loved ones alive again.