May 27, 2010 -- Mexican drug cartel pirates have made their debut on Falcon Lake in Zapata County, Texas.
Texans have reported seeing armed boatmen on the lake, which hosts some of the largest bass fishing tournaments in the U.S. and shares a border with the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Not unlike the infamous Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, pirates on this lake have reportedly wielded high-powered rifles and automatic weapons.
After several incidents in the past month, including armed robbery and attempted armed robbery, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Zapata County Sheriff's Department are urging all boaters to stay out of Mexican waters. (The international border is in the middle of the lake.)
"It's piracy," said Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez. "It may not be on the high seas, but they are taking advantage of people on this lake by threatening and robbing them."
On April 30, five U.S. men on two separate boats ventured into the area of Old Guerrero, a colonial town that's now a ghost town, on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake, according to a press release from the Texas Department of Public safety (TDPS).
Tom Bendele, owner of Falcon Lake Tackle, in Texas, said he knew the victims involved in the incident.
Bendele said while his friends were taking photos of an old church during a fishing trip on the Mexican side of the lake, four heavily tattooed gunmen in an old bass boat approached them.
"They boarded the boat at gunpoint," Bendele recounted. "They were all wearing black and [my friends] told me one had Z's tattooed around his neck -- the others had Z's tattooed on their wrists."
The men had reportedly identified themselves as "Federales" (Mexican Federal Police), but they were not wearing uniforms. According to the TDPS, they demanded cash, asking, "Where are the drugs?"
The U.S. fishermen told them that they were just fishing and taking photos. They ended up giving the men $200 in cash before leaving the area.
Gonzalez said he believes the pirates may be working for the paramilitary drug cartel organization, the Zetas.
"They need money right now, they are broke," said Gonzalez. "They are not paying salary to them right now, so this is the only way they know how to get money. They don't know how to do anything else anymore."
According to Bendele, the confrontation lasted about a half hour.
"The [pirates] also told them, 'Tell all your men to stay away. We'll be checking everyone who comes this way,'" Bendele said.
Mexican Pirates Visit Falcon Lake
After hearing about his friends' ordeal, Bendele posted a warning to his Web site, alerting fisherman of the possible dangers on the lake: "I am not trying to alarm anybody here. But you need to know that there is a gang war going on just across the border. And until one side wins there is a possibility that you could end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you do fish Mexican waters, it is probably best to stay near the main lake, and if you see anything that makes you uncomfortable, leave."
TDPS also reported a May 6 incident involving three men who were fishing about a quarter-mile north of Saledo Island on the Mexican side of the lake. While fishing, a boat with two men quickly approached them and pointed AR-15's at the three fishermen. One of the men boarded the boat -- he was reportedly searching for drugs, cash and guns. During the incident, a gunman chambered a round into the rifle and told the fishermen he would shoot them if they did not give him money. The fishermen gave the gunmen all the money in their wallets.
U.S. authorities were also informed that five armed men had approached a boat on the U.S. side of the lake on May 16. Officials were unable to contact those boaters to determine whether any cash had been taken.
"It worries me," said Gonzalez. "There are fishermen out there that are coming face to face with pirates. Even if they resist a little, they may get shot and killed. When this happens on the Mexican side, we have no jurisdiction -- we can't even go get the bodies."
Outside their line of jurisdiction, Gonzalez and his deputies cannot protect fisherman who make the decision to cross into Mexican waters. He is urging all boaters to stay on the U.S. side of the lake.
"We've been fishing here for 30 years. We fish that area all the time" said Bendele. "I fish in Mexico more than I fish on the Texas side of the lake."
Piracy Worries Local Businesses
Falcon Lake is known as having the largest amount of bass in the nation. There are currently seven to eight fishing tournaments scheduled for the rest of the year.
"This is the top lake in the nation for black bass. This lake holds all the records for the Bassmaster's tournaments," said Bendele. "I've been fishing here for 30 years and never had any problems. I haven't even been stopped and checked for a license."
Dan Shoonveld, a fishing guide on Falcon Lake with more than 15 years of experience, worries that word of piracy on the lake may affect his business; since the Department of Public Safety released its reports, far fewer fishermen are venturing out.
"It's strange because just a month ago, there would be 30 to 40 boats out in the [Mexican] creek," said Shoonveld.
Shoonveld believes that the lake isn't dangerous if you fish smart. He said he often ventures into Mexican waters and has never been confronted.
"I was fishing in Mexican waters just three days ago. Nothing happened, but I wasn't seven miles into the river or five miles into the Mexican creek," said Shoonveld. "I only go about 100 to 200 yards into Mexico -- mainly because that's where the fish are."
"Some who go six or seven miles into the Mexican river area are just asking for it," he added.
Staying Safe on Falcon Lake
Bendele and Shoonveld, who consider themselves experts on the lake, know that there is danger, but believe it's relatively simple to avoid.
"You have to use your head," Shoonveld said. "If someone waves you down, just don't go over there. Be aware of what boats are Mexican boats. They are very recognizable because they are small, white and usually have a small outboard motor on them."
Two drug trafficking organizations, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, are currently engaged in a bloody turf war to supply Americans with illegal drugs. Residents who fish the lake believe this piracy may become a trend.
"The Zetas are pressing the local community. Once I hear through authorities that things are calming down over there, I'll start fishing back in Mexico," said Shoonveld.
"We are trying to get the Mexican military to fly helicopters over the area and patrol," said Gonzalez.
But out of his own jurisdiction, all he can do is warn the visitors and locals in his county to stay away from that side of the lake.
"It makes me nervous that these things are happening. It irritates me because we can try and do more if the federal government would provide more funding," said Gonzalez. "I dread having to even think of having a fisherman resist, shot in the head, and we can't even go retrieve the body."