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'Wolf Boys' Tells The Story Of Americans Lured To Join Mexican Drug Cartel


When Americans think of the drug cartels, we often think of the violence in Mexico, mayhem that from time to time spills over to the U.S. This election season, the drug trade and the reach of Mexico's criminal gangs has featured in Donald Trump's campaign for president. We don't think of American teenagers picking up arms, joining up and even killing for these criminal empires, but it happens.

Author Dan Slater tells the story of Gabriel Cardona and Bart Reta, two American teenagers who grew up in the border town of Laredo, Texas, seduced by power and money of Mexican drug cartels in a new book out next week, "Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers And Mexico's Most Dangerous Drug Cartel." I started out by asking Dan Slater to talk about the border between Mexico and Texas because it can seem ephemeral.

DAN SLATER: Well, I think the border is an ephemeral thing. I think there is a myth in the United States that there was a golden era at some point in our history where we had a secure border. That just simply has never been the case. For these boys, Gabriel and Bart, who are the two main wolf boys in the book, the boys who became assassins for the Zetas - they grew up in neighborhoods that were right on the border. And their entire childhoods - they were used to just passing freely back and forth.

SUAREZ: Well, let's talk more about Gabriel Cardona. He was a young man, handsome, charismatic, sharp good grades in math and English, star of his middle school football team, a promising immigrant family up from understory.


SUAREZ: How did things unravel for Gabriel?

SLATER: It started off with him becoming involved in the street gangs when he was a freshman in high school. That began with things like a little drug smuggling, a little weapons smuggling across the border. That led to stealing cars in Texas, driving them across. So we think of smuggling as a one-way street, but actually there's a vast underworld economy, and he had a hand in all aspects of it by the time he was about 16.

And there is a particular moment in the life of Gabriel Cardona that, I think, really transformed his fate. And that was - there was a night in the spring where he had stolen a truck with a friend, and they had driven it across to Mexico. And that was the first night that they met the leader of the Zetas, a man by the name of Miguel Trevino, who at that time was sort of a mid-level boss of the cartel. He was the one who recruited these American boys, sent them to the training camps and gave them a lot of their assassination orders.

SUAREZ: At the other pole across from Gabriel, the other main character in this story is Detective Robert Garcia. Now, Garcia's Mexican-born, a U.S. veteran, a naturalized American, like Gabriel, struggled with his identity, but in a way was his mirror image - a Mexican becoming American, rather than an American inexorably drawn to Mexico. Yet, he was conflicted all throughout the story, wasn't he?

SLATER: You're absolutely right. Robert was very conflicted in the sort of earlier days of his life as a cop. He had a lot of pride in being a drug cop, and that essentially changed when he was loaned out by the Laredo Police Department for six years to DEA. And that's when he got sort of the big-picture view on the drug war, and he saw how little was actually being accomplished by interdiction efforts and how many resources were being thrown away in the drug war. So he became very disillusioned in his early 30s. When he returned to Laredo PD, he decided to leave the drug investigations behind, and he became a homicide detective. And it was in that role that he pursued the wolf boys.

SUAREZ: How big a part of the story is this new army of what you call wolf boys, the lobos, the eles?

SLATER: They exist in multitudes, both in the States and in Mexico. You have essentially poor, desperate people - the children of very impoverished families with really very few options particularly in Mexico. I mean, arguably in the States it's a bit different. These vast populations of boys just become very cheap labor for the cartels. And, as, you know, Patrick Keefe wrote about the book in The New Yorker this week, a boy can be a very useful soldier because you can convince him to do almost anything for money.

SUAREZ: How about an American boy? There are some scenes in the book where Gabriel Cardona is talking to Robert Garcia about what he's done in Mexico - horrendous things, horrific things, knowing that Garcia can't lay a finger on him. It's almost surreal.

SLATER: I think it is surreal. And the reason that Gabriel felt OK just confessing to Robert Garcia and all these various interrogations about the things he'd done is because, as you say, he knew Garcia couldn't touch him. And there was no one across for Robert to call. There was no fellow cop in Mexico, who he could call and say, hey, I just interviewed this kid. He just admitted to doing X, Y and Z murders in Mexico. We should look into this. There's simply no one to call.

SUAREZ: Let me end with Gabriel Cardona since he carries us through so much of the story. He is doing life. What does he make of his own situation as he looks back on his life and looks forward to becoming an old man in prison?

SLATER: I think he's still conflicted. I think he is caught between two versions of himself. I think it's very hard for him to give up the old version, and I think he's still trying to evolve to that better person. And I applaud Gabriel for telling me his story not knowing what I was going to do with it, and I applaud him for having hope and having faith that there is a better person inside that he can one day become.

SUAREZ: That's Dan Slater, author of "Wolf Boys" the true story of two American teenagers recruited by one of Mexico's most dangerous drug cartels. Dan Slater, thanks a lot.

SLATER: Thank you so much, Ray. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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