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In the early morning hours of May 1, Mexican authorities found two trucks smashed into each other along a federal highway, about 30 miles northwest of Monterrey in northern Mexico.
Inside one of the vehicles, a black Dodge pickup with Texas license plates, police found three dead bodies — two men and a teenage girl. Photos from the scene show the girl's bloody and bruised body, clad in a hot pink shirt and black skirt. She's lying across the truck's bench seat, and her face isn't visible; it's partly covered by her bleached blond hair. (The driver of the other truck wasn't hurt.)
In someplace other than Mexico, investigators might have wanted time to decide if the car collision or something else had killed the people inside. But here it was quickly determined that the girl and two men had been beaten to death.
Someone had placed rocks on the truck's accelerator to send the pickup speeding down the road. It crashed into a delivery truck from a business in the nearby town of Mina.
Mexican authorities from the Nuevo León Ministerio Público identified the men as Mexican, both middle-aged. The girl, however, seemed entirely out of place. She carried a passport that identified her as 18-year-old Elisabeth Mandala from Sugar Land.
"The experts mentioned there are no gunshot holes in the bodies of the victims, but their bodies are full of blood, indicating they were attacked with blows," reported El Porvenir, a Monterrey newspaper. "The bodies of the victims were on each other...so it is suspected that they were already dead before the big impact."
A few years ago, a triple murder involving an American teenager in Mexico might have been bigger news. Border towns, after all, have long been favorite destinations, considered fairly safe, for American youth looking for reckless fun.
But violence in Mexico is now part of daily life, and Americans are discouraged from straying too far from resort cities that line the country's southern coasts. And it's not just the frequency of crime along the border that's frightening. In one murder from January of this year, for example, a man's face was cut off and sewn to a soccer ball.
And when the victims appear somehow linked to crime — the two men with Elisabeth carried multiple forms of false identification and one had a lengthy criminal record — few people regard them as victims at all.
"When that's the case, it becomes very difficult to find out much of anything," says Jim Moritz, one of the few private investigators in Texas who will work in Mexico. "If you go there to, say, pick up drugs, you're doing that at your own peril."
In fact, last year the Texas Department of Public Safety warned parents that Mexican drug cartels are actively recruiting Texas youth.
"These violent organizations are luring teens with the prospect of cars, money and notoriety, promising them if they get caught, they will receive a minimal sentence," a DPS report states. "The Mexican cartels...are now using state-based gangs and our youth to support their operations on both sides of the border."
The warning came on the heels of the shocking arrest of two Texas teens who worked as assassins for the Gulf Cartel and started killing at ages 13 and 16. According to an article in Details magazine, the teens often bragged about money and girls, along with killing other boys their age.
"Along the border, this is all there is," one of the boys told the Details reporter. "You're either a cop, a federal agent, or a drug trafficker. For kids like me, there's only one path."
The benefit to cartels is that American citizens can move easily across the border. Especially young people, who have long crossed into Mexico for weekend trips, making them familiar faces to police.
Mandala's murder, initially, made a few small headlines at news agencies in Monterrey, and newspaper and television reports followed in Houston. Elisabeth's sister, 23-year-old Adriana Mandala, told the Houston Chronicle a few days after the crime that it was simply "a very sensitive situation."
But when news broke that Mandala, the high school student from suburban Houston, had worked as an "exotic dancer" and bragged about becoming a coyote, the story went national.
CBS News identified Mandala as "the teen stripper," and others called her a "student-turned-stripper." AOL News headlined its story, "Death in the Fast Lane..."
When NBC's Today Show reported the story, it brought on a former profiler from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to theorize how this could happen to a young woman. "It sounds like she was living life on the wild side a little bit. And again, at 18," the FBI profiler told reporter Ann Curry, "you think you're bulletproof."
At one point, when television news vans and reporters got so thick along the road in front of the small horse ranch where Elisabeth grew up, her mother closed and locked the gate to her property. She stopped talking.
But the basic narrative of Elisabeth's fate was already born: The attractive, privileged high school student living a double life wanted to smuggle people across the border, and she was murdered because of it.
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