Join Fronteras Desk journalists as they travel into Mexico to report on the Mexican elections & the impact on the U.S.
The 90-mile drive south to San Fernando would take about two hours from Matamoros. About a year ago, almost 200 people were found in a mass grave outside the town.
The summer before, another 70 or so migrants were kidnapped and killed in the area.
Many of the victims were pulled off buses and slaughtered by the cartels fighting for dominance in the state of Tamaulipas. San Fernando is one of those places that gets a reputation back home, just like all of Mexico does.
The week before we left, dozens more bodies showed up along a highway in the state to the west of here. The thought of going to San Fernando caused my blood pressure to rise a little. But it's important to know if that feeling has merit. It's also important to know how a place like San Fernando will participate in the country's July 1 elections.
So we found ourselves on a bus. Alone.
Michel Marizco's sources told him traveling by bus on the highway - lined for miles by endless rows of sorghum crops - was safer now than driving a car. So we took off with no other passengers on board.
Since all of its troubles started, business to San Fernando has suffered, the driver told us.
As it often happens, this trip didn't surprise us in the ways we thought. I won't give away Michel's story before he has the chance to write it. But it's worth noting that San Fernando is a city now dominated by cops and the military.
The state police based in San Fernando gave us a 30-minute tour of town. I snapped pictures in the back of a fully equipped truck with gunners standing on either side. (I'll post a few here). Jill Replogle took video. Michel interviewed the commander in the truck. San Fernando looked like any other town in Mexico.
But the police never left our side. Once our tour was over the police shadowed every step we took through town. You'll find out where we went when Michel files his story.
Michel asked them to give us some space, but the police told him it was their duty to keep us safe until we left. And, to be fair, they did.
Journalistically, I'd never experienced anything like this. But it was the story we would be telling whether we liked it or not.
San Fernando, MX
View Matamoros to San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico in a larger map
The only real danger we felt came in the last few minutes of our time there.
The bus trip home had been delayed. One hour. Then two hours.
A checkpoint to the south had tangled up our driver. Michel and I walked - with police escort - to a second bus station where we hoped to find a different company with bus service to Matamoros.
We did. And we waited again. The second bus was also caught at the checkpoint.
Then, I saw a bus drive past the window.
[I'm telling the rest of the story through a chat conversation I had with my fiance, Katelyn, later that night. It's been edited just a bit for brevity and clarity]
Peter: So we go outside to track it down....and the police follow us of course. And we tell them that the bus that passed by a minute ago might have been ours. So they send a patrol truck screeching after it. And two minutes later...they come back and say....yes that was your bus.
Hop in? Yes, hop in.
So we jump in the back of the truck with these cops in full gear and this time we are going like a bat out of hell around corners....tires squealing…IN THE BACK OF THE TRUCK…and we realize the cops are going to track down this bus for us.
But the bus had made a lot of progress down the highway...and we are speeding down the street. I mean SPEEDING. You know latin american highways.
Katelyn: Oh yes. I know.
Katelyn: Oh God.
Peter: My cheeks were flapping in the wind.
Katelyn: Was everyone so scared?
Peter: About ten miles later, I thought we were going to die. I mean, seriously thought it was the end.
Katelyn: I am so glad you didn't.
Peter: So, we see the bus and it won't pull over for us. He's flashing the lights, pulling into the other lane to get his attention.
Katelyn: Oh God.
Peter: … trucks in and out everywhere in both directions. Finally, the cop pulls ahead and hits the brakes...HE PULLED OUR BUS OVER ON THE HIGHWAY. And we hopped out of the truck, and boarded the bus in the middle of nowhere.
Katelyn: Oh my god. Were there people on it? Did they stare at you? Was the driver upset? Is everyone OK?
Peter: There was ONE other passenger.
Katelyn: What did the driver say?
Peter: Nada. He took our ticket. And maybe I have never been so scared and exhilarated at the same time.
And the trip to San Fernando was over. Stay tuned for our Fronteras Desk series on the Mexican Elections.