The recent Mexican cartel murder of two U.S. citizens and the kidnapping of two others in the border city of Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, was a grim reminder that crossing “al otro lado” is risky business.

As someone who lived and worked in Brownsville in the 1970s and returns there frequently, I know very well that the border today is a far different world than the border back then. That reality is something that even I choose to forget at times.

For U.S. citizens who are not of Latino origin or who do not speak Spanish, crossing the border has not been safe for two decades. Long periods of calm suddenly give way to violence that can claim the lives of those caught in the middle. Rival cartels battling for turf long ago killed the once-vibrant tourism industry along the border, even as a trickle of Americans continue to cross for a good time, to access more affordable pharmaceuticals or medical care, or on road trips to interior destinations such as San Miguel de Allende.

I crossed from Brownsville into Matamoros exactly one month ago with my ahijado, my godson Philip True Jr., and his Matamoros-born mother, Martha, for Philip’s 24th birthday celebration and luncheon. I also crossed on foot a few months ago with Jerry McHale, a close friend and longtime Brownsville resident who served as best man at my wedding 41-plus years ago, for dinner and drinks.

We both speak good Spanish and know how to blend in, but even that is no guarantee.

Powerful drug cartels operate with relative impunity in the border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, or everywhere across the border from Brownsville to Laredo. They show no mercy to their victims, and tourists should not expect the police to keep the peace or come to their rescue. Mexico’s law enforcement agencies are notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional, and the country’s judicial system exists in name only. Justice in Mexico, when it can be had, is either bought, or on rare occasion, delivered under intense political pressure, usually from the United States government.

In the most recent instance, a cartel delivered five bound and gagged low-level gang members to the local authorities, dumping them along a public road where they were collected by police and quickly indicted as the killers and kidnappers of the four U.S. citizens from North Carolina. Welcome to justice, Mexican-style. Who knows if they are fall guys or truly guilty? Mexican authorities seldom convict murderers in open criminal trials, yet often pronounce cases solved and closed.

The cartels finance their activities principally through drug cultivation, production and smuggling, with side businesses of kidnappings, robbery and extortion. They generate plenty of cash to buy off politicians, cops, and to pay for assault weapons, ammunition and handguns bought by Texans and smuggled south. The U.S. also serves as the primary consumer market for heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. It’s a mutually destructive system. 

Every few months I head south to Brownsville, where my newspaper career began in 1977, and where I became bilingual and bicultural, to visit the True family and longtime friends.

Philip never knew his father, Philip True, the Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News, who disappeared on a solo backcountry trek in Mexico’s Sierra Madre in 1998. I was True’s editor and joined a military search party while his pregnant wife Martha waited at their home in the capitol. We found True’s hidden grave deep in the bottom of the vast Chapalagana Canyon in indigenous Huichol territory. Weeks later, authorities arrested two Huichol brothers-in-law who confessed to the killing. It took four years to win a homicide conviction and 20-year prison terms, only for a corrupt judge to set them free before he also fled. Through three Mexican presidencies we sought their recapture, to no avail. That’s Mexican justice for you.

I later wrote Trail of Feathers, a book about True’s murder and our pursuit of his killers. The royalties from that book and generous contributions from the Hearst Corp. and the Express-News created an education trust that has taken care of Philip since his birth and continues to cover the cost of his education as a junior at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

We celebrated True’s high school graduation years ago in Matamoros, first with a mass at a Catholic convent and then with his extended Mexican family at a Matamoros restaurant. We’ve shared many other occasions, especially birthdays, in Brownsville, but on occasions such as last month, we cross over to Matamoros. Word on the street last month signaled it was safe to cross. Rival cartels were quiet. 

Yellow tape signals no alcohol sales at our restaurant and elsewhere in Matamoros as voters went to the polls in state elections.
Yellow tape signals no alcohol sales at our restaurant and elsewhere in Matamoros as voters went to the polls in state elections. Credit: Courtesy / Robert Rivard

Voting in state elections was underway on that particular Sunday, so alcohol sales were prohibited. We dined at La Catrina, a recently opened restaurant named for La Calavera Catrina, the face of death on Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, in Mexico. My presence in the restaurant drew some second looks, so I was sure to wish everyone well in Spanish as I passed by. Local families were relaxed as children raced around the tables. The food and service was superb. It was good to be back.

As we neared the bridge to return home, Martha’s phone lit up with text messages warning that cartel violence had broken out on the city’s outskirts. With me in the car and traffic backed up at the Veterans International Bridge, it would take hours for us to cross. Without me in the car, Martha’s global crossing permit would allow her to quickly cross in the express lane. 

Martha turned around and dropped off Philip and me at the Gateway International Bridge, which we easily crossed on foot amid backed-up traffic. Martha returned to the Veterans International Bridge and also crossed quickly without incident and we reconnected on the U.S. side.

Philip True Jr., left, and Robert Rivard cross the International Bridge returning from Matamoros to Brownsville.
Philip True Jr., left, and Robert Rivard cross the International Bridge returning from Matamoros to Brownsville. Credit: Courtesy / Robert Rivard

The text messages are a common way for cross-border residents to remain alert to trouble. They are a reminder that calm can quickly give way to chaos in a moment. Weeks later, that calm would give way to tragedy for four U.S. citizens. For two of them, there would be no going back.

I have plans to return to see Philip again in June. We’ve already decided this next time we will content ourselves with a backyard cookout in Brownsville.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.