SANTA MARIA ACUITLAPILCO, Mexico (AP) — A black ribbon has hung above the front door of Pablo Cote’s family home ever since his body was pulled from a mass grave more than two years ago. When the family sits down at the dining room table they make an offering to him, placing a plate of beefsteak with green sauce and fresh blue tortillas on the altar with his photo.
Cote was kidnapped while driving back from the U.S. border to the east-central state of Tlaxcala in March 2011. He was beaten to death, part of the mass killing of 193 bus passengers and other travelers by the Zetas in northeastern Tamaulipas state.
Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the man believed to have ordered those and countless other killings, was captured last week by Mexican marines who intercepted his pickup truck on a dirt road outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo. But his arrest has brought little comfort to the survivors haunted by the cruelty their loved ones suffered before they died.
“I’ve asked myself this question thousands of times: Does he have kids, does he have a mother, a sister, a wife? Would he feel a pain this strong if somebody does them harm?” asked Cote’s son, also named Pablo. “To this day, I can’t find an explanation. Why did this happen with such brutality?”
Often called the most ruthless of Mexico’s drug lords, Trevino set a new standard for grotesque killings that hit not only rival traffickers but innocents from Central American to the United States. His Zetas Cartel, a military-style gang, started as a wing of hit men for the more established Gulf Cartel. When they splintered to fight against them in 2010, the Zetas had already become synonymous with fear and carnage. Before Cote was pulled out of a mass grave, the Zetas had lined up and shot 72 migrants in 2010. After, they left the severed head of a blogger on her keyboard.
So far, he has only been charged in Mexico with money laundering and weapons possession, though he could face more charges in the future.
Trevino’s main operating area was Nuevo Laredo and surrounding Tamaulipas state, but the Zetas’ reign of terror emanated across Mexico. Fifty-two people perished when they set fire to a casino in the northern industrial hub of Monterrey, and journalists in the southern Gulf coast state of Veracruz were slain and dismembered, their body parts collected in garbage bags. Other cartels responded with progressively more shocking killings of their own.
His crimes also reached into the U.S., where Jorge Alfonso Aviles, 19, of Laredo, Texas, became a victim in 2006.
Trevino was still aligned with the Gulf Cartel then, and the Zetas were given the task of waging war in Nuevo Laredo against the Sinaloa Cartel for the lucrative crossing, the southern border’s busiest commercial port of entry.
Aviles’ family denies he was involved in drug trafficking, although a U.S. court indictment on Feb. 17, 2010, in the Southern District of Texas charges Trevino and others with his killing. The indictment says that as a result of the Zetas’ fight with Sinaloa, some men kidnapped Aviles and a 14-year-old boy from a nightclub on the Mexican side of the border and took them to a hideout, where they stabbed him to death.
They then used Avila’s blood to toast the Santa Muerte, a folk saint venerated by drug traffickers.
His aunt, Maria Angela Aviles, who helped raise him after his parents separated, has begged Mexican authorities to find out where his body is.
“We hope this man says something that helps us find their bodies,” she said of Trevino. “He left a lot of innocent people to suffer.”
Among them are relatives of Central American migrants, as the Zetas took over the trafficking routes and turned them deadly.
Delfino Cusanero left his family’s dirt-floor hut in the hills outside Guatemala City in March 2011 in hope of joining his brothers-in-law in the U.S. working in construction. The 32-year-old’s hope was to raise enough money to buy some land to grow corn and fix up the family’s concrete-block home.
Maria Isabela de Cusanero packed a small bag for her husband, including some shirts, a pair of pants and a plastic sheet to protect him from the rain.
Nine days later, she got a call from the “coyote,” the smuggler hired to get him to the United States, who said the Zetas had kidnapped her husband and other migrants near the U.S. border.
A second call came from a man demanding $4,500 for Cusanero’s safe release. His wife scraped together the funds with money wired from her brothers in the U.S. and borrowed from relatives in Guatemala.
All she got in return were her husband’s remains, sent home last year.
“They were only ashes,” she said. “It makes me wonder whether it really was him. I needed to see his body, have something to bury.”
She now supports two young daughters weaving traditional tunics known as huipiles with a backstrap loom. She may get $40 for one, which can take up to three months to make. When funds run out, her family brings her food and firewood.
She said more than anything, she misses the love of her life. “It’s hard for me. Although I get by, he is never coming back,” she said, sobbing.
Back in Santa Maria Acuitlapilco, Cote’s widow, Juana Teozol, also struggles.
Although her husband was from humble beginnings, built three successful businesses — a grocery stand, a glass shop and a used-car dealership — and educated his children, including one who became a doctor and another a dentist.
Cote was driving home in a minivan he purchased near the U.S. border to sell in his lot when he fell out of contact. A strange man who answered Cote’s cellphone said: “Stop bothering me. He doesn’t have this phone anymore. If you keep bothering me, you’ll see what happens.”
Teozol still runs the grocery stand, where one of her daughters smashed chicken parts on a wooden board earlier this week, and customers grabbed their favorite sweet bread. The family has closed the glass shop. Son Pablo took over the car dealership, but has stopped making trips north to bring back vehicles for sale.
She said the financial losses are nothing compared with her grief. She never saw her husband’s body, which was too decomposed for an open-casket funeral.
“I had to go to therapy, but it doesn’t help,” Teozol said. “When you have a pain as deep as mine, no therapy will help you.”
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon reported this story in Santa Maria Acuitlapilco, Mexico, and Sonia Perez D. reported from Pacoj, Guatemala. AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.