Murder on Falcon Lake (Updated: Witness Corroborates Hartley)

September 30, 2010, is the date that may force the federal government to deal with the U.S.-Mexico border.  On that date, Texans David and Tiffany Hartley were jet skiing on Falcon Lake.  Only Tiffany would return alive.

Dispatcher: Hello? Ma'am? Yes. Okay. Are you sure that your husband got shot?

Tiffany: Yes. In his head.

Dispatcher: Okay. Yeah. Was he thrown out of the jet ski that he's in the water or something?

Tiffany: He was thrown off the jet ski and I couldn't pick him up to get him on mine. (sobbing)

Oh God.

Dispatcher: Ma'am? Were you shot at on the Mexican side or on the US side? So it was the Mexican Side. Okay, did you see anybody?

Tiffany: There were three boats.

Falcon Lake straddles the Texas-Mexico border in a remote area between Laredo, TX, and Nuevo Laredo to the north and McAllen, TX, to the south. The Hartleys had stopped on the Mexican side of the lake to see the mission at Old Guerrero. Three boats belonging to pirates from the violent Zetas drug gang appeared out of nowhere and opened fire.  The Zetas control the Mexican side of the lake and have turned it into something like a miniature version of the Somali coast, operating as pirates with near impunity. So far, Mexican authorities have questioned whether the shooting occurred, and have not allowed U.S. or Texas authorities in to search for Hartley's body.

Up to September 30, the Falcon Lake pirates had never murdered Americans. But over the past several months, the Zetas have posed as game wardens and seized the boats of Americans enjoying the lake's fishing. Having shaken down the fishermen for whatever valuables they had on board or on their persons, the pirates would let them go. And in June, authorities issued a very disturbing alert: The Zetas were plotting to destroy the Falcon Dam to strike out against a rival gang. That act had the potential to flood an area that is inhabited by about four million people.

But an uptick in violence was always inevitable: The Zetas are also involved in the civil war that has raged in Nuevo Laredo for the past several years. That war has seen everything from assassinations of public officials to bombings to beheadings to gun battles that leave neighborhoods looking like sections of Baghdad in the height of the Iraq war. I have cell phone video of the aftermath of a Nuevo Laredo gun battle that took place in July, but it's so graphic that YouTube won't host it. PJTV's Brandi Milloy has hosted a terrific series on the Arizona border. This story from Al Jazeera English, about the assassination of a leading political candidate this year, gives some hints as to just how violent the drug war there has become.