The Laguna Madre is a briny lagoon in the Gulf of Mexico that straddles the border between Mexico and Texas. Home to a stunning array of fish and other sea life, the Laguna Madre has long supported commercial and amateur fishermen alike. So when a small army of them descended upon the lagoon last month and managed to net 17,000 shrimp, it wasn’t out of the ordinary — but the ultimate destination of all those crustaceans was. They were to become the biggest shrimp cocktail the world has ever known.
The cocktail would be assembled on La Carbonera beach in the town of San Fernando, about 85 miles south of the Texas border, to mark both Good Friday and the town’s Festival del Mar. Mariana Seoane, a well-known telenovela actress and singer, was scheduled to perform. Politicians would naturally be in attendance, including the governor of Tamaulipas state, Egidio Torre Cantú, and a dozen regional mayors.
But the real star would be the world-record-setting 2,257 lb. appetizer. The recipe was very basic — shrimp, ketchup, Clamato — but there are actually several variations popular in the shrimp-crazy region. In Tamaulipas, diners often add avocado, garlic, and lime. Up north in Texas, they’ll also add cucumber and serrano chilies. And when oysters and clams are added — a classic Mexican hangover cure — the people in San Fernando call it Vuelve a La Vida. Return to Life.
An eerie name in a place so associated with shallow graves.
* * *
In August 2010, not far from where the 1-ton shrimp cocktail was weighed and consumed, 72 predominantly Central American migrants were found murdered in a shed. Eight months later, the remains of 196 people who appeared to have been tortured were found buried close by.
In the following weeks, even more dead were discovered; in all, officials estimated that about 500 bodies had been buried in and around San Fernando. On Facebook and Twitter, the macabre joke was: “Come to San Fernando, where we receive you with open graves.”
The killing was the result of a war raging between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Army and Navy forces moved in, and due to safety concerns, a prohibition on public celebrations was put in place from 2009 to 2013 — another reason why this year’s Festival del Mar was such a big event.
Mariana Seoane entertains the crowd.
Not that the horrific drug violence in the city and its fallout was all bad. The region's military roadblocks have become a blessing to vendors, who sell dried shrimp to people in the cars inching along the roads. While driving from Reynosa to San Fernando, I asked one of these roadside vendors where his shrimp was from. He said it came from Laguna Madre, and he said those words with so much reverence, I thought he was referring to an ancient desert deity.
On Good Friday, the day the shrimp cocktail record was set, caravans of pickup trucks brimming with people gathered at the Loma Colorada gas station on the outskirts of town before departing for La Carbonera, more than 30 miles away. Down the road from the gas station, I saw patrol cars accompanying a group of men who were armed to the teeth — the governor’s bodyguards, who had driven to San Fernando the night before. Their boss was to arrive that day by helicopter; the guards were present to escort him less than three miles from the soccer field turned helipad to the party.
The Army brought with them their most recently acquired piece of equipment: the Sand Cat, essentially a deceptively fast bulletproof bus with a huge arsenal. The Sand Cat is the vehicle that the region’s military will use to confront “Monsters,” the tricked-out vehicles the Zetas have been employing in the region.
I asked an Army lieutenant carrying a 7.62mm FN MAG machine gun if I could take a picture of the Sand Cat. He said no, so I asked why. “Because then the criminals will copy us.”
I asked how.
“They kidnap the people who know how to make them and they force them to make them,” he responded.
As we spoke, the governor’s guards passed by, along with a convoy of state patrol cars, who were followed by a group of Marines.
* * *
At the entrance of La Carbonera, there was an old ship from which employees were hanging a promotional banner promoting Seoane’s appearance. The festivities were to begin at 10AM — doing so at night would have been far too risky no matter how many bodyguards, soldiers, cops, and checkpoints there were.
La Carbonera is a small shrimping settlement with only one dusty road, which on this particular occasion was packed with cars waiting for their turn to park. Soon a long line formed and began its slow crawl — which allowed local vendors to sell the drivers some delicious dehydrated shrimp.
Upon arriving at the edge of the Laguna Madre, a swarm of young people approached us wearing t-shirts that read, “We Are All Tamaulipas.” These shirts, along with plastic cups covered in cartoon shrimp, were being handed out at the entrance to the event. Front-row seats were occupied by government functionaries wearing shrimp-orange shirts and military officers who were not wearing shrimp-orange shirts. The master of ceremonies occasionally grabbed the mic and said things like, “This beautiful glass will surely catch the world’s eye, with a ton of shrimp or maybe moooore!” The crowd ignored him.
As people began to remove the plastic that covered the glass, a hush fell over the crowd. The MC quickly took advantage. “Today more than ever we are proud of our Laguna Madreeeee!” About 30 feet away, sitting in front of an old laptop, the notary who was vouching for the Guinness record explained that the glass alone weighed 825 lbs.
Of all the orange–shirted men in the front row, by far the most euphoric was a dentist by the name of Mario de La Garza, the mayor of San Fernando. “After this comes many positive things for San Fernando,” he insisted several times after acknowledging that the city’s economy had collapsed as a result of drug violence. When I spoke to him, I confessed that I had not known San Fernando produced shrimp.
“This is why we now want the entire world to know the shrimp of San Fernando and we want them to enjoy it,” de La Garza said. He promised that in the next few years San Fernando would emerge as one of Mexico’s up-and-coming cities.
The mayor was also pleased to announce that among the special guests was Thomas Mittmasht, the US consul general to Matamoros. When reporters asked Mittmasht if his government encourages US citizens to visit Tamaulipas, he told them to read a press release on the consulate website. It warns US citizens that if they must travel through Tamaulipas, they should do so during daylight hours, travel in groups, and “avoid displaying any evidence of wealth that might draw attention.”
Mittmasht arrived in San Fernando accompanied by four bulletproof vans.
* * *
The author Gabriel García Márquez, famous for his use of magical realism, had died the day before the world-record shrimp cocktail was made. I thought about this when a government tourism functionary insisted I interview two men wearing white guayabera shirts, white pants, and Colombian vueltiao hats.
They were Arnold and Plácido Verera Murillo, two restaurateurs from Cartagena, Colombia. They assured me that they had come to San Fernando because they were drawn by its shrimp, and that they had not had any security issues. On the official bulletin that circulated after the event by the government of Tamaulipas, the two men were quoted as saying, “Cartagena is a beautiful city, but what we have seen here doesn’t have no comparison [sic], it is like a dream, I never imagined coming to the Gulf of Mexico and meeting the Laguna Madre, queen of shrimp.”
The bulletin also mentioned that both men were overjoyed that “the governor and the municipal president are breathing new life into this beach, because in other places it is not the same, since the authorities forget about the town, and it is different here.” The bulletin failed to mention that the Verera brothers had travelled to Mexico with all expenses paid to learn how to prepare the world’s largest shrimp cocktail, a feat Cartagena politicians hope to achieve within a few years.
Tamaulipas paid $20,000 to Guinness to use their logo. At least the state saved itself transportation costs for Guinness representatives — they refused to come due to the high security risk.
When I approached them, the Colombians were speaking with Arturo Ponce Pérez, one of the two chefs in charge of directing the cocktail’s preparation. He assured me that during the last two weeks, he had done nothing but take lessons to prepare for the Guinness Record cocktail, and that he had everything ready for the event: just over a ton of frozen shrimp, 40 gallons of ketchup, and 25 gallons of Clamato.
Another functionary approached me to say that the exquisite taste of the shrimp in San Fernando was unique, later adding that shrimp and natural gas deposits could make San Fernando an economic powerhouse. He spoke of the 18 million cubic meters of local natural gas that are already shipped to the United States from one field, and — lowering his voice so that others wouldn’t overhear — he told me that engineers had found two additional deposits. Then he started to complain that Pemex, Mexico's state-owned petroleum company, did not provide any money for the shrimp cocktail celebrations.
Meanwhile, Tamaulipas authorities paid $20,000 to Guinness just to use their logo in a publicity campaign. At least the state saved itself transportation costs for Guinness representatives — they refused to attend due to the high security risk.
The functionary told me this was just a matter of bad publicity “because of those 72 dead undocumented migrants.” When I asked him about the mass graves and violence in recent years, he went silent. Then he said, “Seriously, our shrimp are the best in the world. I have tried them in San Francisco and in Europe, and they don’t even come close.”
* * *
That was about the time the governor showed up. To everyone’s surprise, he walked among the crowd, occasionally shaking hands. The two Colombians gave him some gifts they'd brought, and the three men took a picture together.
The master of ceremonies then announced that Guinness had sent a video from London. There was total silence as an image appeared on the giant screen of a smiling blonde with a low neckline that was met by a smattering of whistles. In broken Spanish, the young woman thanked the governor, very carefully trying to roll the double “r” in Torre. As she acknowledged other functionaries in slightly tortured Spanish, a pair of refrigerator vans backed up behind the screen and the two chefs, assisted by cooks in pristine white attire, began to bring out 50 lb. containers of packed shrimp.
At container No. 22, the San Fernando shrimp cocktail reached 1,200 lbs., officially surpassing the previous record. A cheer erupted. An even bigger cheer erupted when Seoane appeared, heading straight for the front row.
The master of ceremonies could not contain his excitement. “The highest level of tourist prestige in the woooorld!”
In the middle of an celebration, the governor gave a speech that lasted less than two minutes. “This is our Tamaulipas. Everyday we work hard, and on our days off what do we do? We break world records.” He then gave an informal press conference in which he did not mention any of the marches involving thousands of people demanding peace in the state, nor the petition from the Association of Parents, who suggested suspending school until their children’s safety could be guaranteed. He ate no shrimp.
As Seoane sang, hundreds of San Fernandans lined up to receive their share of the world’s largest shrimp cocktail. The party raged as the gigantic glass full of shrimp was slowly emptied. And finally, by about 4PM, 17,000 crustaceans were being digested in 4,000 or so stomachs on La Carbonera beach.
After I left, I went downtown, where dozens of homes are abandoned, many ransacked and in ruin. The night before, a young man had been kidnapped from his home.
A week before, a man selling tacos had been arrested for acting as a spy for the cartels.
Three weeks before, the daughter of a local evangelical priest had been picked up by members of the military for allegedly working as an assassin.
A month before, there had been an hour-long shootout.
Two months before, the town priest, who had occasionally mediated kidnappings, was beaten while handing over a ransom.
Three months before, a group of youths had been kidnapped by armed men and presumably taken as slaves.
Four months before, 20 people were kidnapped over the course of one week and freed in exchange for about $60,000.
“You can’t cover the reality in San Fernando with a shrimp cocktail,” one resident told me. “No matter how big it is.”
Follow Diego Enrique Osorno on Twitter: @diegoeosorno