Interview | Dan Slater on American Youth in Mexican Drug Cartel

Photo: Sophie Slater.

"Wolf Boys" by Dan SlaterWhat do most boys want to be when they grow up? Pro athletes? Rock stars? Innovative entrepreneurs? In Laredo, Texas, the answer may very well be: cartel assassins. That was certainly the case for Rosalio “Bart” Reta and Gabriel Cardona, two American teens who became professional killers for the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel.

Lawyer-turned-reporter Dan Slater first learned about the two young men from a 2009 New York Times article. Years later, unable to forget the chilling descriptions of their crimes (for which both were incarcerated), Slater reached out to them; surprisingly, they were responsive and willing to share their stories. The subsequent letters, prison visits, and interviews with the young men, their friends and family formed the basis of Slater’s new book, Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel. The horrifying account of the boys’ descent into the hellish underbelly of the drug war, as well as their relentless pursuit by detective Robert Garcia, is as difficult to put down as it is to recover from.

Crave: How did you obtain such detailed information about Bart’s and Gabriel’s pasts? How did your relationship with them develop?

Dan Slater: In the summer of 2013, I saw that a man named Miguel Treviño had been apprehended in Mexico. He had been the leader of the Zetas, the person who had recruited Gabriel and Bart and had given them their assassination orders and, in a very real way, raised them to be like him. I thought that his apprehension might have a favorable impact on the willingness of these boys, who were now young men in their 20s, to open up to me about their lives. I visited them in prison, we started writing letters back and forth.

Through my law enforcement relationships with cops, agents, and U.S. attorneys, I was able to gather a lot of confidential reports about the operations of the cartels along the border, things like informant interviews, wire-tap transcripts of conversations, a lot of the Zetas-related trial transcripts in Texas. It was a combination of my letters and all the correspondence with the various boys and then the shoe leather work on the ground in Laredo.

What is it about young men that make them appealing to the cartels and vice versa?

Even though a teenage boy may not be as physically developed as a man or not have the fighting skills of someone older, the advantage of a teenager is they don’t have a fully developed conscience yet. The other allure of these particular teenagers who came from very poor, impoverished neighborhoods of Laredo is that they were desperate and belonging to a cartel became an aspiration of theirs. It was an aspiration that the kids around them also held. The allure for the boys was money, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and I think at some point, you feel there are no other alternatives.

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You spent time with Bart and Gabriel and got to know their families. Do you feel that these young men are criminals, victims, or some combination of the two?

I think a combination of the two. They’re serial murderers. I don’t want to mince words there. They were killing people on a regular basis for money. So that’s certainly criminal behavior. But I think they were very much victims of environment and of circumstance.

They’re both serving life sentences, correct?

Gabriel is certainly serving a life sentence. He’s serving 80 years in state prison and if he ever finishes that, that would be followed by a life sentence in federal prison. Bart is serving, I believe, 70 years in state prison. He may be getting out in his 50s or 60s.

Do you believe either of these boys can be rehabilitated? Is that even on the table?

I’m reluctant to answer because I don’t know. I really don’t know. If they were returned to Laredo, I think it would be very hard not to fall back into the lifestyle. I know it’s not on the table, though, because of their sentences.

So they’re pretty much being warehoused?

Yeah. That’s right.

Were you at all afraid to go into this dark world where people make careers out of murdering people and selling drugs?

It was terrifying at times. I think we tend to be particularly fearful of what we don’t know or understand. It became less scary as time went on, as I returned to Laredo again and again and met more and more people. I came to see that the violence isn’t as wanton as it is industrial and professional. It’s something that’s done for money, as a career. Not that that’s any less scary or chilling. But I never once felt in danger while I was working on this or while I was meeting with people who had worked for a cartel.

I think, as a writer, fear can be an engine. It’s an engine of curiosity. When I first saw that New York Times story about the boys back in 2009, part of what kept me thinking about them so much was how scary it was. I think I used that fear to my advantage when I was writing the book but I also overcame a little bit of that fear in the process.

Your tone in the book is neutral. How do you personally feel about the drug cartels?

I don’t like the drug cartels and I wish they didn’t exist. I see them partly as a creation of mainstream society, largely here in the States. There’s that old saying that every community or civilization gets the criminals it deserves. I think that over the years, we’ve gradually set in place a series of policies that have led to the creation of this world of cartels.

Do you have any ideas about a solution? How do we keep our young men from falling into this trap?

I think a lot of it begins at home with parenting, as cliché as that sounds. We need to do a better job at holding families together and we need to do a better job at combating poverty because that’s what this is about: broken families and the lack of parental oversight. Drugs are never going to go away. We can talk about legalization, but…I don’t know if that’s the answer. Certainly just legalizing marijuana alone isn’t going to de-fund the cartels to the extent that they’ll cease existing.

What is the biggest misconception U.S. society has about the drug cartels?

I think the biggest misconception people have about the drugs cartels is they imagine it being a problem of public corruption in Mexico. People don’t understand that even though there is public corruption here—and it certainly exists here, though it exists to a lesser extent in the States than in Mexico—it doesn’t mean that the drug war isn’t also a very attractive economic proposition here in the States. It just happens in a different way.

Asset seizures in the drug war finance a lot of drug agencies at the local, state, and federal level. A self-financing war is an attractive war. It’s not a war that many people are going to rush to give up. It flat-out creates a lot of jobs. And it’s not just law enforcement, it’s all the industries that are related to the drug wars: it’s defense lawyers, it’s prosecutors, it’s judges, it’s the whole bail-bond industry, it’s the prison industry. Down in Laredo, it’s people that own the truck yards, people that own the warehouses that are rented out by the federal government to store seized contraband. And on and on and on.

How does religion play into it?

It either plays into it too much or not enough. I know that’s not an entirely satisfying answer. My own opinion is that to the extent that religion can provide community, religion’s a good thing. Religion doesn’t really play much of a role in Laredo. The families are Catholic, they believe in God, but what they do is they turn religion into an explanation for virtually anything that happens, so that all fates are inevitable because it’s religion. It’s God.

The book is going to be made into a movie. Are you concerned at all about how your work will be interpreted or is it just an exciting thing?

It’s been optioned by Sony. Right now they just own the rights to try to make it. There’s an amazing director attached if the movie does go forward and he’s made a lot of films that I really admire. If I could have chosen any director to make this book into a movie, he certainly would have made the short list. I’m hoping for the best.

The one thing I would say is if I could say anything to the movie people is you’ve got to choose fresh actors. You can’t fall back on the Hispanic actors like John Leguizamo and Benjamin Bratt that we see over and over playing the thug-of-the-week Latino character. This is a project that is very fresh, very new, and it’s going to need fresh actors, fresh faces, to make these roles their own.

Is the director Antoine Fuqua?

Yes. He’s probably known best for his first movie that was called Training Day. That was a 2001 movie that Denzel Washington won the Oscar for.

That was a great movie. Hopefully, if yours gets made, it will be done in the same style.

I hope so.