He Begged His Bosses: Stop Sending Me to Cartel Land

A Chicago engineer is suing his former employer for allegedly firing him after he had a bad run-in with Los Zetas.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

He was almost killed before he was canned.

A Chicago-based engineer claims his employers showed him the door after he pleaded with his superiors to quit sending him to Mexico, where he’d allegedly been held at gunpoint by cartel thugs.

“It’s really affected us as a family,” his wife told The Daily Beast.

Ruben Saldivar thought he was bulletproof.

With eight years in good standing at Mazak Optonics, a Japanese-based machine tool manufacturer and leading global supplier of laser-cutting systems, he assumed he had job security. Not to mention the fact that he’d faced down two M16’s aimed at his head while he was on the clock.

On Nov. 15, 2010, the 41-year-old senior field engineer claims he had been dispatched by his bosses to Torreon, Mexico, a stronghold for the notorious Los Zetas drug syndicate, to service the company’s Caterpillar account.

According to a civil lawsuit filed on Feb. 10 in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Saldivar wrapped up a long day at the Caterpillar plant and hopped behind the wheel of his rental car at around 7 p.m.

He drove down “the main road” in order to make it back to the Holiday Inn where he had already “registered as a guest.”

Only a half-mile out, he says he was “flagged to stop his car by two men dressed in black.”

He followed their commands to roll down his driver’s-side window. In the lawsuit, Saldivar describes how the two men “identified themselves as belonging to a terrorist group known as Los Zetas.”

One of the men allegedly placed “an M16 machine gun to his left temple” while his Zetas cohort trained his gun “to the passenger window.”

The men demanded to know who he was and Saldivar “related he was in Torreon to service the Caterpillar account” for his company.

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The armed Zetas soldiers apparently vetted Saldivar and after an hour they “allowed him to travel to the Holiday Inn,” according to the lawsuit.

Saldivar made it back to Chicago in one piece. But the episode had apparently shaken his psyche.

Until that point, Saldivar had made countless trips to Canada and around North America for the company—and, because he spoke fluent Spanish, he was often assigned service duties south of the border as well.

But three months after his brush with death, Saldivar says he asked to be spared any more missions to Mexico, at least “pending physician approval.” That’s when his bosses decided to hastily sack him, the lawsuit claims.

Attempts to reach Mazak Corp. for comment by press time were unsuccessful.

The brush with the Zetas has sent Saldivar spiraling, his wife, Mabel Flores, told The Daily Beast. And even with his computer science bona fides, she says he’s struggling to land a full-time gig. “He’s doing everything he can right now,” she said.

Experts say that Torreon, in the state of Coahuila, has long been associated with the Zetas. According to Gary J. Hale, a Drug Policy and Mexico Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, the Zetas claimed the region back in 2007 when they found themselves warring with a consolidated enemy made up of three former rivals: the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartels and La Familia Michoacana.

“They all started battling the Zetas,” Hale said. “And the Zetas moved their command and control headquarters farther west.”

Coahuila state became an even more prized bastion after the group’s chieftain, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano, was gunned down there in a firefight with the Mexican navy commandos back in 2012.

“His death demonstrates that that was the new Zetas home base,” Hale noted. “It’s a real bad place.”

Although Hale could not speak to the specifics of Saldivar’s alleged run-in with the group, he said that the cartel’s operatives were often “jittery” and on high alert with anybody traveling around its domain.

“That’s why they’re nervous. They want to know who the hell you are and the first thing they want to know is if you’re a DEA informant or whether you belong to any of the other alphabet agencies: ICE and the FBI.” Hale said.

He pointed to multiple near-death incidents wherein armed Zetas members had stopped various U.S. government officials traveling around the region. They would “stick guns in their window, asking, ‘Who you are?’ and ‘What are you doing here?’”

“If they even suspect you’re not a legitimate businessman they will kidnap and torture you and you’ll never be seen again,” Hale added.

There are ways around certain death by automatic weapon—even in the merciless drug cartel’s domain. Paying out a fee for protection, known as paying the “Piso,” or hiring local guns—oftentimes a squad of off-duty cops—can occasionally ward off run-ins with the outlaws.

But those options are pricey and could land multinational businesses in hot water if local security turns out to have ties to the cartels. Such slippery terrain all too often results in a breach of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and places foreign companies in a pickle.

Asked if Saldivar could have used a security detail when he was working in Torreon, the former chief of intelligence at the DEA’s Houston Field Division said that would have made him an even bigger target. “The last thing you want to do is travel up with a convoy,” he said.

“If you show up with an armed security team they’re going to assume you are an element of an opposing cartel and attack outright without asking questions.

“They’re just going to shoot you.”