A Starr County mother filed reports with U.S. and Mexico law enforcement when her teenage son went missing in Miguel Aleman on Dec. 29. Emboldened by a growing desperation, the mother crossed the border and went straight to the cartel. 

Zujey Garza, 41, from Starr County, and her son, Elizandro Peña Jr., 19, born in Iowa, moved to Starr County last month from Houston after Peña’s fragile mental health deteriorated and struggled with drug addiction during the pandemic.

Garza believed a closer proximity to family, including Peña’s father, would help improve his outlook on life. On Dec. 30 around 1 a.m., Peña walked across the Roma–Ciudad Miguel Alemán International Bridge to visit his father residing in Mexico. U.S. cameras confirmed he reached Mexico, but he never returned.

People who cross into Mexico after dark are often victims of sudden questioning by the operating cartel groups suspicious of infiltrating rivals. The Gulf Cartel claims smuggling routes across Starr County, but the Cartel del Noreste, or CDN, pushes in from the west. 

Two weeks after he disappeared, Garza crossed by foot into Mexico. 

“I kind of knew what I was looking for. I was looking for a group of guys and somebody with a two-way radio,” she said describing low-rung cartel members known as an halcón

Garza said she served six years in federal prison after smuggling drugs 10 years ago — a decision she made while raising her children alone. Prior to her arrest, she evaded law enforcement in Mexico. 

Now, when she returned to the same region in which she absconded years ago, she dug into knowledge from her past life to reach out to those in organized crime. 

When she arrived, Garza found a man who identified as a Gulf Cartel member. He escorted her to a cantina, or bar, where a well-dressed man met with them in a backroom. Garza pulled out Peña’s picture.

“This is my baby,” she told the man and described the tattoos her son has of the Houston skyline on his neck and his relatives’ names on his arms. 

“He didn’t give me an answer. He said, ‘We’ll see,’” Garza recalled.

Zujey Garza and her son Elizandro Peña Jr. of Starr County are seen in photos. (Monitor Photo)

They traveled to talk to other halcones and she continued pleading for information. Some of them had started a fire to keep warm as the night set in. 

Garza’s claims are not independently verified, but she said the man who she first met escorted her to a residence and allowed her stay overnight. She stayed indoors until the darkness lifted the next morning. 

“Call your boss. Tell them I’m looking for my kid,” Garza told the halcones she sought out that day. 

One guard responded, “You can wait here. It’s payday today. Somebody has to show up.” 

In the afternoon, a speeding truck drove toward them. When the driver pulled over, he reportedly told Garza in Spanish, “I’m here. What do you want?” Garza cited the location and details of her son’s disappearance. “Since when did he go missing?,” the driver asked Garza. 

“Since the 29th,” Garza replied. 

“No. He’s dead,” he said, adding, “Go home.” 

Then, he said something that contradicted this, and gave Garza hope: “Go home and wait for him, but don’t ever come back.” 

The driver asked for her number. Then she followed instructions and started walking home.

A different armed man who saw her crying on the road back home stopped and questioned her. She left her son’s picture with him hoping he could circulate it among his clan.

Since his disappearance, Garza filed a missing person’s report with Mexican authorities, Roma Police Department, Starr County’s Special Crimes Unit, and the FBI. 

Brenda Lee with the Starr County’s Special Crimes Unit said, “The family asked us to get involved. We’re certain that Elizandro Peña crossed over into Mexico at the Roma port of entry through Miguel Aleman and we believe that he’s still there.” 

“Because there isn’t a whole lot that we can do,” she said referring to jurisdiction, “other than cooperating with other agencies that may be able to help. We are aware of the information gathered by family members but unfortunately we can’t act on that. If it were on our side, we would take action. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.”

A request for comment from the FBI has not been furnished as of press time.

As Garza walked back home from Mexico, she was thinking of the future. She and Peña moved to Starr County to gain back some lost time. 

“I’m not ready to let him go.”