Last night, I kissed my twin daughters on their foreheads as they lay in their beds, something I do every night. After I kiss them, I always silently ask God to protect them as they sleep. Sometimes, if I remember before they drift off, we all hold their dreamcatcher asking for a peaceful sleep, void of monsters. These moments are so precious that my heart feels like it could burst. I can’t imagine losing one of them — or any of my three kids — for any reason.
When I first read Miriam and Karen Rodríguez’s story in The New York Times, my heart broke for their family and the thousands of other families who will never again have their lost loved ones sit with them around their dinner table. Miriam’s story is one no parent ever wants to experience: her daughter, Karen, was kidnapped and murdered by real-life monsters working in the Mexican cartel.
Unfortunately, what happened to the Rodríguez family isn’t just something that happens (and stays) in Mexico. According to the Global Missing Kids organization, over 460,000 kids are missing in the United States alone. These are 460,000 families, and that’s just here in the U.S., reeling from the uncertainty of whether their child will ever come home again. With podcasts like In the Dark bringing the real life experiences of grieving parents and communities living in fear into our own homes, our eyes can open a little wider to the struggles families across the world face: the experience of losing a child, one who may never return at all … or if they do, they will never be the same.
In broad daylight on January 23, 2012, 20-year-old Karen Rodríguez was kidnapped on her way home from working in her mother’s small apparel shop in San Fernando, Mexico. As she tried to merge into traffic, the pickup truck she was driving was cornered by armed men, who jumped into her truck and drove off — with Karen still inside. She was never seen alive again.
In the weeks and years which followed her abduction, multiple ransom requests were made, money was dropped off at random places, often far from the Rodríguez’s home — $2000 here, $500 there — all with a fading hope that Karen would be returned alive. But in 2014, some of Karen’s remains and belongings were found, scattered in an open field along with other missing people, at an abandoned ranch in Mexico.
The confession of an 18-year-old Los Zetas gang member named Cristian did not bring Miriam any closer to feeling any sense of resolve. Her daughter would never return, a fact confirmed when Karen’s femur was found on the ranch that fateful day. Miriam walked the ranch with police officers who would not take on the Los Zetas on their own — perhaps too afraid, or perhaps they were on their payroll. Whatever the reason, Miriam took matters into her own hands.
Dating back to the 1980s, the Mexican cartels have scared people into silence, tortured and murdered, sold drugs within Mexico and smuggled them into the United States, terrorized communities, held people for ransom (often murdering them) and held politics in the palm of their hands by menacing the entire country.
Four main cartels hold control across Mexico, with territory lines breaking up the country evenly: Sinaloa holding control of much of the northwest, The Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) in the Tierra Caliente in the west, The Gulf Cartel, and the Los Zetas with a stronghold in the northeast.
The group who took Miriam Rodriguez’s daughter, Karen, are known for their extreme violence; for victimizing, torturing, and decapitating their victims. The Los Zetas hold communities in their clutches with fear and intimidation. In 2012, Los Zetas overtook the Sinaloa group and became the biggest drug gang, controlling more than half of the Mexican states in Mexico — like San Fernando where Miriam and her family lived. Over the years, Los Zetas expanded to include human trafficking and cigarette smuggling. Due to the killing of one of their leaders in a shootout, the cartel has weakened, but is still considered one of the most violent criminal groups in Mexico.
Despite the very real and very ominous threat it presented, Miriam was determined to do what any parent would do: hold the people accountable for her child’s death. But when she tried to go about it in the way that would yield prison time for the cartel members, she was turned away by the police.
So Miriam Rodríguez hunted them all down herself. One by one.
Between 2012 and 2017, Miriam relentlessly stalked the parties responsible for the kidnap, torture, and murder of her young daughter Karen. It was her keen investigational skills and lone stakeouts which led the police to the ranch where her daughter’s body lay for two years before it was found. She used disguises and excuses to meet with the gang members’ family members, mining seemingly-harmless bits of information about each one, like their hometowns and closest friends, that she could use to eventually track them down. Over the span of those three years, she would bring 10 people to the front doorstep of the police.
Her ingenuity was astonishing, but her resolve was the kind only a mother seeking justice can have. Miriam is a mom who could not rest until she knew who killed her daughter until they were held, even if in some small way, accountable. She took on — and took down — some of the most violent members of the Los Zetas cartel, with nothing more than a small pistol in her coat pocket and a will that would never rest until Karen’s abductors were behind bars.
But cartels are in the business of silencing people, especially those who dare to challenge them; on Mother’s Day in 2017, Miriam was shot and killed in front of her home.
Miriam’s legacy not only lies in what she did for Karen, but what she did for other parents and families who were victims of the cartels. She started a collective of parents of abducted children called The San Fernando Collective for the Disappeared, a group which lives on today.
One of the worst feelings a parent can have is feeling helpless at protecting their own kids, and this must be exactly how Miriam felt when she went to the police for help. We all have the same fight for our children within us that Miriam had for her daughter. Let’s hope we never need it in the same ways Miriam did.
I am inspired by Miriam’s story, but saddened beyond belief. No one ever wants to live a nightmare like this. And when I kiss my kids goodnight, I’ll say a prayer that the only monsters my daughters will ever encounter are the ones in their dreams … not the ones who exist in real life.
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