Over the Line

As Mexican drug cartels increasingly recruit American teens as runners, a Sugar Land teen goes across the border and ends up dead.

According to people interviewed by the Houston Press, however, that narrative isn't entirely true. Worse yet, Mandala's family is losing hope that police will ever deliver answers about what happened. U.S. authorities say they don't have jurisdiction; it is a Mexican matter. The Mexican authorities, busy at war with the cartels, rarely pursue murder cases involving a possible trafficker or human smuggler. Those victims, after all, are the same people they're fighting against.

Still, Paula Mandala says, "[Elisabeth] was an American. They have to care about an American."

When a U.S. citizen is killed in Mexico, there is surprisingly little that can be done by authorities here. In fact, when the U.S. Department of State publishes travel warnings about Mexico — the latest was renewed in May — it's sure to mention that the low rate of arrest and conviction is a major cause of crime.

Eighteen-year-old Elisabeth Mandala was a few weeks away from graduation at Sugar Land's Kempner High School before her murder in Mexico.
Photos courtesy Adriana Mandala
Eighteen-year-old Elisabeth Mandala was a few weeks away from graduation at Sugar Land's Kempner High School before her murder in Mexico.

According to FBI guidelines, which date back to the mid-1980s, American involvement in foreign crimes is usually reserved for hostage and kidnapping situations.

"Our jurisdiction doesn't extend to non-terrorism related homicides, robberies, rapes, and muggings of Americans — these are usually handled by local authorities," says the FBI report, "What Happens When an American Is Harmed Overseas." "But we can — and sometimes do — offer investigative or forensics assistance in these cases if asked."

When Natalee Holloway, the teenager from Alabama, disappeared in Aruba in 2005, for example, finding her became an international effort in what was one of the most publicized crimes of the last decade. But if she had simply been found murdered on the beach, it's possible that the FBI never would have been involved.

"Because we know [Elisabeth's] murder happened on Mexican soil, there's not much we can do," says Shauna Dunlap, who works in the FBI's Houston field office. "Until we get a call requesting our services, we don't have any jurisdiction."

Families who want more information are left to pursue it on their own, or hire a private investigator. And when it comes to Mexico, there aren't many to call.

"The last several years have changed the tenor of what's going on in Mexico dramatically," Moritz says. "You better know what you're doing if you think you're going to come back out unscathed."

He adds, "It really takes somebody that has contacts down there, has worked down there, knows somebody down there, that sort of thing. I know the investigators [in Houston], and there's only one or two of us that have ever done any work in Mexico."

Moritz says he handles about eight cases a year across the border. He's currently trying to track down a fugitive for a corporation that hired him. But he also works drug cases and murders, which usually lead him, he says, to Juárez.

"A lot of people disappear down there from a lot of different backgrounds," Moritz says. "Sometimes they want to, and, obviously, sometimes not."

During the last four years, since Mexico's President Felipe Calderón announced his war on the country's drug cartels, violence has exploded along the border. During that time, more than 22,000 murders have been linked to the cartels, according to reports from the State Department.

The latest trend is that more and more innocent bystanders from America are being killed, such as the school board member from California who was shot in a case of mistaken identity while visiting his wife in Mexico.

A story published in the Houston Chronicle from January of this year mentioned an Austin priest who was killed and dumped in Nuevo Laredo, along with a 26-year-old Air Force medic killed while helping a gunshot victim in a Juárez bar. And "four young adults aged 19 to 23" were killed in their van after "partying with the wrong people."

In recent years, the U.S. Consulate General has worked to keep its own people out of the popular entertainment districts, according to reports from the State Department. For instance, "Boys Town," the famous spot in Nuevo Laredo and once a favorite of Texas frat boys, is now strictly off limits to government employees. It's become too dangerous.

"I work a lot of these types of cases, and a lot of it has to do with what someone's activities were here before they go to Mexico," Moritz says. "People just don't get on a plane or drive to Mexico one day to pick up drugs, or whatever it is they're after."

He adds, "But they're almost impossible cases to work."

When Paula Mandala left Mexico for Texas three decades ago, the country had little resemblance to the place it has become today. In fact, only a few of Mandala's extended family members remain in Mexico.

After moving to Houston, she married an Italian-American, and by the time Elisabeth was born in the spring of 1992, the fourth of six children, the Mandalas had saved enough money to buy a small horse ranch on the outskirts of Sugar Land. Paula named the place Plantation Stables.

Not long after Elisabeth turned ten, her parents divorced and her father moved away from the ranch and across town. A couple years later, Elisabeth's sister Adriana became pregnant and moved out, shifting her attention from her younger sister and to her newborn. At the same time, Paula was busy with a young child, nine years younger than Elisabeth, of her own. As a 13-year-old girl, Elisabeth was, for the most part, alone.

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