ZAPATA, Texas – The waters of Falcon Lake normally beckon boaters with waterskiing and world-record bass fishing. But this holiday weekend, fishermen on the waters that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border are on the lookout for something more sinister: pirates.
Twice in recent weeks, fishermen have been robbed at gunpoint by marauders that the local sheriff says are "spillover" from fighting between rival Mexican drug gangs.
Boaters are concerned about their safety, and the president of the local Chamber of Commerce is trying to assure people that everything's fine on the U.S. side of the lake.
At the fishing camp his family has owned for 50 years, Jack Cox now sleeps with a loaded shotgun at his feet and a handgun within reach.
In the American waters, Cox said, "you're safer, but you're not safe." Mexican commercial fishermen regularly cross to set their nets illegally, why wouldn't gunmen do the same? he asked.
Two weeks ago, the Texas Department of Public Safety warned boaters to avoid the international boundary that zig-zags through the lake, which is 25 miles long and 3 miles across at its widest point. Authorities also urged anyone on the water to notify relatives of their boating plans to aid law enforcement in case of trouble.
Since issuing the warning, most boats have stayed on the U.S. side.
"That's a good indication. It means they're getting the message," Texas Parks and Wildlife Capt. Fernando Cervantes said Thursday as he patrolled with two other game wardens. "They're still coming out, but they're not going across."
The border is marked by 14 partially submerged concrete towers that mark the Rio Grande's path before the lake was created in 1954.
Game wardens and the U.S. Border Patrol watch over the lake but do not cross into Mexican waters, and no Mexican law enforcement is visible.
Men armed with assault rifles robbed fishermen on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake on April 30 and May 6. They traveled in the low-slung, underpowered commercial Mexican fishing boats that are familiar here. They asked for money, drugs and guns, and took what cash was available. No one was hurt.
A third incident happened a couple of days before the warning was issued, but Cervantes said the fishermen were able to escape without the thieves boarding their boat.
The attacks "were really unusual," Cervantes said. "We had never seen it, and then they started up."
Violence on the Mexican side of the lake has been climbing for several months.
A fractured partnership between the region's dominant Gulf Cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, plunged many of the area's Mexican border cities into violence. Police stations were attacked, officers killed and rolling gun battles between the gangs and with the Mexican military became commonplace.
"To me, this is spillover violence," Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr. said. "I don't do the Chamber of Commerce talk. I talk reality."
Still, the sheriff says, boaters should safe provided they stay on the American side.
Cox, 81, says it was only a matter of time before the violence from Mexico crept onto the water. And the idea that gunmen looking to score easy cash from fishermen would not cross the lake's imaginary boundary doesn't make sense, he said.
That perspective is what worries Chamber of Commerce President Paco Mendoza.
"What's keeping our town alive is our lake," Mendoza said. In recent years, drilling in the county's oilfields has virtually stopped, and the wells are no longer producing like they once did. In those days, oilfield workers packed Zapata's restaurants and hotels, he said.
So Zapata increasingly looks to the lake for economic growth. Five fishing tournaments are scheduled between now and July, and a few big ones are set for next year.
"As far as we know, all of our contracts are still in play," Mendoza said.
Falcon Lake landed on the national map of fishing destinations after the 2008 Bassmaster Elite Series tournament, where bass-fishing world records were broken.
The pirate warning could hurt businesses that depend on the lake, "but anglers will continue to come to Falcon because of the great fishing," Mendoza said.
Norma Amaya, who runs a tackle shop with her husband, insists there is plenty of good fishing in U.S. waters. She points to a photo taken in December of a woman holding a 13.2-pound bass and smiling broadly.
Amaya said her husband's guide service had had a couple cancellations since the pirate warning, but they are still booked solid for next year's peak season, which runs from December to March.
They've stopped selling Mexican fishing licenses because no one is fishing over there now. Robert Amaya stopped taking clients into Mexican waters back in March, when violence was peaking in Mexico.
"It is dangerous over there (in northern Mexico), I wouldn't advise anyone to cross," she said.
Norma Amaya said the reports of pirates "have been blown out of proportion. It's probably just some hoodlums. I don't think the cartels want the exposure."
As he helped launch his cousin's bass boat from Falcon Lake State Park, Ronnie Guerra said he hadn't heard much about the pirates. But he knew enough to stay on his side of the lake.
"We already know what's going on on the other side," he said. "It's been going on for a long time."