According to Reta's statements to investigators, two Zeta hit-squad members kidnapped him and took him to an abandoned safe house in Monterrey, where he was tortured. Realizing execution was imminent, he overpowered his captors and killed them. He ran to a nearby house and called the Monterrey police, knowing that as long as he was on the streets the Zetas would hunt him. He called Garcia's cell phone from jail. He knew too much about the inner workings of the Zetas, he told Garcia, and as long as he was in a Mexican jail, his days were numbered. Once in U.S. custody, Reta, like Cardona, confessed to his crimes. To Garcia's shock, he said he had killed 30 people.

With Cardona and Reta behind bars, the police and the DEA continued to work the case. Trials related to the subsequent investigation, called Operation Prophecy, are expected to get under way this fall. Last year, a jury convicted Reta for one killing, and in March he pleaded guilty to another. He will not be up for parole until 2039. Also in March, Mexican officials arrested Jesse Gonzalez and put him in a Nuevo Laredo jail. His family placed several calls to U.S. officials, frantically begging for extradition. Within days, he was stabbed to death. "These guys were seduced by the lure of easy money, but in the end they were used," says Laredo assistant district attorney Uriel Druker. "When they were being sentenced, where were the Zetas to support them? Nobody showed up. They were alone."

Indeed, Cardona tells me his mother has yet to visit him in jail, and his girlfriend writes only sporadically. He's stopped believing in God, he says. Instead, he's given his life to Santísima Muerte. In tribute, he had an image of her tattooed on his back. As for the tattoos on his eyelids, he says, "When I close my eyes, that's who I really am. I'm a sad person. Sad knowing I don't have anyone out there, sad knowing I donít have any kids, sad knowing I'm alone."

Today, the Gulf Cartel controls Nuevo Laredo and the entrance to the lucrative I-35 corridor. Its rivals have moved on, but they will be back. That's the way it is along the border. Police and federal authorities are still hunting Treviño, who is reportedly now the cartel's No. 2 man. Threatened with additional charges, Cardona accepted a deal this spring from the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of Texas. He was sentenced to life in prison. "The judge said that I didnít show any remorse, but what does she want me to do, be crying, just begging for my life?" he says. "I donít feel anything about anything. He closes his eyes, leaving behind that wide, cold stare. "