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I THE SICARIO
Page 1
44
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2009
I
am ready for the
story of all the dead
men who last saw
his face.
As I drank coffee
and tried to frame
questions in my
mind, a crime re-
porter in Juárez was
cut down beside his
eight-year-old daugh-
ter as they sat in his
car letting it warm
up. This morning as I
drove down here, a
Toyota passed me
with a bumper stick-
er that read, with a
heart symbol,
I LOVE
LOVE
. This morning I tried to remem-
ber how I got to this rendezvous.
I was in a distant city and a man
told me of the killer and how he had
hidden him. He said at first he feared
him, but he was so useful. He would
clean everything and cook all the time
and get on his hands and knees and
polish his shoes. I took him on as a fa-
vor, he explained.
I said, “I want him. I want to put
him on paper.”
And so I came.
The man I wait for insists, “You
don’t know me. No one can forgive
me for what I did.”
He has pride in his hard work.
The good killers make a very tight
pattern through the driver’s door.
They do not spray rounds every-
where in the vehicle, no, they make
a tight pattern right through the
door and into the driver’s chest. The
reporter who died received just such
a pattern, ten rounds from a 9mm
and not a single bullet came near his
eight-year-old daughter.
I wait.
I admire craftsmanship.
The first call comes at 9:00 and says
to expect the next call at 10:05. So I
drive fifty miles and wait. The call at
10:05 says to wait
until 11:30. The call
at 11:30 does not
come, and so I wait
and wait. Next door
is a game store fre-
quented by men
seeking power over
a virtual world. In-
side the coffee shop,
it is all calculated
calm and everything
is clean.
I am in the safe
country. I will not
name the city, but it
is far from Juárez and
it is down by the
river. At noon, the
next call comes.
We meet in a parking lot, our cars
conjoined like cops with driver next
to driver. I hand over some pho-
tographs. He quickly glances at them
and then tells me to go to a pizza
parlor. There he says we must find a
quiet place because he talks very
loudly. I rent a motel room with
him. None of this can be arranged
ahead of time because that would al-
low me to set him up.
He glances at the photographs,
images never printed in newspapers.
He stabs his finger at a guy standing
over a half-exposed body in a grave
and says, “This picture can get
you killed.”
THE SICARIO
A Juárez hit man speaks
By Charles Bowden
E S S A Y
Illustrations by Danijel Zezelj
Charles Bowden lives in Tucson, Arizona.
His most recent book is Some of the Dead
Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future.

Page 2
I show him the photograph of the
woman. She is lovely in her white
clothes and perfect makeup. Blood
trickles from her mouth, and the
early-morning light caresses her face.
The photograph has a history in my
life. Once I placed it in a magazine
and the editor there had to field a
call from a terrified man, her broth-
er, who asked, “Are you trying to get
me killed, to get my family killed?” I
remember the editor calling me up
and asking me what I thought the
guy meant. I answered, “Exactly
what he said.”
Now the man looks at her and
tells me she was the girlfriend of the
head of the sicarios in Juárez, and
the guys in charge of the cartel
thought she talked too much. Not
that she’d ever given up a load or
anything, it was simply the fact that
she talked too much. So they told
her boyfriend to kill her and he did.
Or he would die.
This is ancient ground. The term
sicario goes back to Roman Palestine,
where a Jewish sect, the Sicarii, used
concealed daggers (sicae) in their mur-
ders of Romans and their supporters.
He leans forward. “Amado and
Vicente”—the two brothers who have
successively headed the Juárez cartel—
“could kill you if they even thought
you were talking,” he says.
These photographs can get you
killed. Words can get you killed. And
all this will happen and you will die
and the sentence will never have a
subject, simply an object falling dead
to the ground.
I feel myself falling down into
some kind of well, some dark place
that hums beneath the workaday
city, and in this place there is a hard-
er reality and absolute facts. I have
been living, I think, in a kind of fan-
tasy world of laws and theories and
logical events. Now I am in a country
where people are murdered on a
whim and a beautiful woman is found
in the dirt with blood trickling from
her mouth and then she is wrapped
with explanations that have no actu-
al connection to what happened.
I have spent years getting to this
moment. The killers, well, I have
been around them before. Once I
partied with two hundred armed
killers in a Mexican hotel for five
days. But they were not interested
in talking about their
murders. He is.
W
e will never see him coming. He
is of average height, he dresses like a
workman with sturdy boots and a knit
cap. If he stood next to you in a check-
out line, you would be unable to de-
scribe him five minutes later. Nothing
about him draws attention. Nothing.
He has very thick fingers and large
hands. His face is expressionless. His
voice is loud but flat.
He lives beneath notice. That is
part of how he kills.
He says, “Juárez is a cemetery. I have
dug the graves for 250 bodies.”
I nod because I know what he means.
The dead, the 250 corpses, are details,
people he disappeared and put in holes
in death houses. The city is studded
with these secret tombs. Just today the
authorities discovered a skeleton. From
the rotted clothing, the experts peg the
bones to be those of a twenty-five-year-
old man. He is one of a legion of dead
hidden in Juárez.
That is why I am here. I have spent
twenty years now waiting for this mo-
ment and trying to avoid being buried
in some hole. At that party long ago
with the two hundred gunmen, a Mex-
ican federal cop wanted to kill me. He
was stopped by the host, and so I con-
tinued on with my tattered life. But I
have come to this room so that I can
bring out my dead, the thousands who
have been cut down on my watch. I
have published two books on the
slaughter of the city, reporting there
from 1995, when murder in Juárez ran
at two to three hundred a year, until
2008, when 1,607 people were killed.
And that is only the official tally—no
one really keeps track of those who are
taken and never heard from again. I
am a prisoner of all this killing.
We sit with a translator at a round
wooden table, drapes closed.
He says, “Everything I say stays in
this room.”
I nod and continue making notes.
That is how it begins: nothing is to
leave the room, even though I am mak-
ing notes and he knows I will publish
what he says because I tell him that.
We are entering a place neither of us
knows. I can never repeat what he tells
me even though I tell him I will re-
peat it. Nothing must leave the room
even though he watches me write his
words down in a black notebook. I do
not even know his name, nor can I
verify the particulars of what he tells
me. But this killer has come to me with
a pedigree, established through the
hands that delivered him to me: a man
who once used him, a former cartel
member and leading state policeman
who now has produced him as a favor.
He tells me to feel the tricep on his
right arm. It hangs down like a tire.
Now, he says, feel my left arm. There
is nothing there.
He stands, puts a chokehold on me.
He can snap my neck like a twig.
Then he sits down again.
I ask him how much he would
charge to kill me.
He gives me a cool appraisal and
says, “At the most, $5,000, proba-
bly less. You are powerless and you
have no connections to power. No
one would come after me if
I killed you.”
We are ready to begin.
I
ask him how he became a killer.
He smiles and says, “My arm grew.”
He takes a sheet of paper, draws five
vertical lines, and writes in the spaces
in black ink:
CHILDHOOD
,
POLICE
,
NARCO
,
GOD
. The four phases of his
life. Then he scratches out what he
has written until there is nothing but
solid ink on the page.
He cannot leave tracks. He cannot
quite give up the habits of a lifetime.
I reach for the paper but he snatch-
es it back. And laughs. I think at both
of us.
“When I believed in the Lord,” he
says, “I ran from the dead.”
“I had a normal childhood,” he
insists. He will not tolerate the easy
explanation that he is the product
of abuse.
“We were very poor, very needy,”
he continues. “We came to the bor-
der from the south to survive. My
people went into the maquilas. I
went to a university. I didn’t have a
father who treated me badly. My fa-
ther worked, a working man. He
started at the maquila at 6:00
P
.
M
.
and worked until 6:00
A
.
M
., six days
a week. The rest of the time he was
sleeping. My mother had to be both
father and mother. She cleaned
ESSAY 45

Page 3
houses in El Paso three days a week.
There were twelve children to feed.”
He pauses here to see if I under-
stand. He will not be a victim, not of
poverty, not of parents. He became a
killer because it was a way to live, not
because of trauma. His eyes are clear
and intelligent. And cold.
“Once,” he says, “my father took me
and three of my brothers to the cir-
cus. We brought our own chilis and
cookies so we did not have to spend
money. That was the happiest day of
my life. And the only time I went
somewhere with my father.”
But now we turn to the time he
worked for the devil.
He is in high school when the
state police recruit him and his
friends. They get $50 to drive cars
across the bridge to El Paso, where
they park them and walk away.
They never know what is in the
cars, nor do they ever ask. After the
delivery, they are taken to a motel
where cocaine and women are al-
ways available.
He drops out of the university be-
cause he has no money. And then
the police dip into his set of friends
who have been moving drugs for
them to El Paso. And send them to
the police academy. In his own case,
because he is only seventeen, the
mayor of Juárez has to intervene to
get him into the academy.
“We were paid about a hundred and
fifty pesos a month as cadets,” he says,
“but we got a bonus of $1,000 a month
that came from El Paso. Every day,
liquor and drugs came to the acade-
my for parties. Each weekend, we
bribed the guards and went to El Paso.
I was sent to the FBI school in the
United States and taught how to detect
drugs, guns, and stolen vehicles. The
training was very good.”
After graduation, no one in the var-
ious departments really wanted him
because he was too young, but U.S.
law enforcement insisted he be given
a command position. And so he was.
“I commanded eight people,” he
continues. “Two were honest and
good. The other six were into drugs
and kidnapping.”
Two units of the State Police in
Juárez specialized in kidnapping, and
his was one such unit. The official as-
signment of both units was to stop
kidnapping. In reality, one unit would
kidnap the person and then hand the
victim over to the other unit to be
killed, a procedure less time-
consuming than guarding the victim
until the ransom was paid. Sometimes
they would feign discovering the body
a few days after the abduction.
That was the orderly Juárez he
once knew. Then in July 1997,
Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the head of
the Juárez cartel, died. This was an
46
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2009

Page 4
“earthquake.” Order broke down.
The payments to the State Police
from an account in the United
States ended. And each unit had to
fend for itself.
“I have no real idea how and when
I became a sicario,” he says. “At first,
I picked up people and handed them
over to killers. And then my arm be-
gan to grow because I strangled people.
I could earn $20,000 a killing.”
Before Carrillo’s death, cocaine was
not easy for him to get in Juárez be-
cause “if you cut open a kilo, you died.”
So he and his crew would cross the
bridge to El Paso and score. He is by
now running a crew of kidnappers and
killers, he is working for a cartel that
stores tons of cocaine in Juárez ware-
houses, and he must enter the United
States to get his drugs.
That changed after Carrillo’s death.
Soon he was deep into cocaine, am-
phetamines, and liquor and would stay
up for a week. He also acquired his
skill set: strangulation, killing with a
knife, killing with a gun, car-to-car
barrages, torture, kidnapping, and sim-
ply disappearing people and burying
them in holes.
He mentions the case of Victor
Manuel Oropeza, a doctor who wrote
a column for the newspaper. He linked
the police and the drug world. He was
knifed to death in his office in 1991.
“The people who killed him
taught me. Sicarios are not born, they
are made.”
He became a new man in
a new world.
I
n the eyes of the U.S. govern-
ment, the Mexican drug industry is
very organized, its cartels structured
like corporations, perhaps with peri-
odic meetings. But on the ground
with the sicario, there is no structure.
He kills all over Mexico, he works
with various groups, but he never
knows how things are linked, he
never meets the people in charge,
and he never asks any questions.
And so he visits the various outposts
of this underground empire, but does
so without any map and with no di-
rectory of the management. He is in
a cell and can betray only the hand-
ful of people in his cell. He will
never even be certain which cartel
organization pays him.
He tells me of a leader—a deputy of
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the current
head of the Juárez cartel—“a man full
of hate, a man who even hates his own
family. He would cut up a baby in front
of the father in order to make the fa-
ther talk.”
He says the man is a beast. He is
drifting now, going back in time to a
place he has left, the killing ground
where he would slaughter and then
drop five grand in a single evening.
He remembers when outsiders would
try to move into Juárez and com-
mandeer the plaza, the crossing. For
a while, the organization killed them
and hung them upside down. Then,
for a spell, they offered Colombian
neckties, the throat cut, tongue dan-
gling through the slit. There was a
spate of necklacing, the burned body
found with a charred stub where the
head had been, the metal cords of
the tire simply blackened hoops em-
bracing the corpse.
He has lived like a god and been
the destroyer of worlds. The room is
still, so very still, the television a
blank eye, the walls sedated with
beige, the exhaust fan purring. His
arms at rest on the wood table,
everything solid and calm.
But his face is fear. Not fear of me
but of something neither of us can de-
fine, a death machine with no appar-
ent driver. There is no headquarters
for him to avoid, no boss to keep an eye
peeled for. He has been green-lighted,
and now anyone who knows of the
contract can kill him on sight and col-
lect the money. The name of his killer
is legion.
He can hide, but that only buys a
little time, and he is allowed only
one serious mistake and then he is
dead. His hunters can be patient.
He is like a winning lottery ticket,
and one day they will collect. The
death machine careens through the
streets, guns at the ready, always
rolling, no real route, randomly
prowling and looking for fresh
blood. The day comes and goes, and
ten die. Or more. No one can really
keep count any longer, and besides,
some of the bodies simply vanish
and cannot be tallied.
He stares at me.
He says, “I want to talk about God.”
I say, “We’ll get to that.”
He is the killer and he does not
know who is in charge. Just as he usu-
ally did not know the reason for the
murders he committed. He will die.
Someone will kill him. No
one will really notice.
N
o place is safe, he knows that
fact. A family in the States owed
some money on a deal, so a fourteen-
year-old son and his friend were
snatched and taken back over. The
man killed them with a broken bot-
tle, then drank a glass of their
blood. He knows things like that.
Because of what he has done. He
knows that crossing the bridge is
easy because he has crossed it so
many times. He knows all the
searches and all the security claims
at the border are a joke because he
has moved with his weapons back
and forth. He knows that every-
thing has been penetrated, that
nothing can be trusted, not even
the solid feel of the wooden table.
The rough edge of burning wood
fires at those shacks of the poor, the
acrid smell of burned powder flowing
from a spent brass cartridge, an old cop-
per kettle with oil boiling and fresh
pork swirling into the crispness of car-
nitas, the caravan of cars passing in the
night, windows tinted, and then the
entire procession turns and comes by
again and you look but do not stare
because if they pause, however briefly,
they will take you with them to the
death that waits, the holes being dug
each morning in the brown dirt of the
Campo Santo, the graves a guess and
a promise gaping up like hungry
mouths for the kills of the morning
and afternoon and evening, and four
people sit outside their house at night
and the cars come by, the bullets bark,
two die soon after the barrage, and the
other two are scooped up by family
who drive them from hospital to hos-
pital through the dark houses because
no healers will take them in. The
killers have a way of following their
prey into the emergency rooms in or-
der to finish the work.
His arms are on the wooden table as
Juárez wafts across our faces, and we do
not speak of this fact.
I cannot explain the draw of the
city that gives death but makes every-
one feel life. Nor can he. So we do
ESSAY 47

Page 5
not speak but simply note this fact
with our silence. We are both trying
to return to some person we imagine
we once were, the person before the
killings, before the torture, before the
fear. He wants to live without the
power of life and death, and wonders
if he can endure being without the
money. I want to obliterate memory,
to be in a world where I do not know
of sicarios and think of dinner and not
of fresh corpses decorating the calles.
We have followed different paths and
wound up in the same plaza, and now
we sit and talk and wonder how we
will ever get home.
I crossed the river about twenty
years ago—I can’t be exact about the
date because I am still not sure what
crossing really means except that
you never come back. I just know I
crossed and now I stumble on some
distant shore. It is like killing. I ask
him, “Tell me about your first
killing,” and he says he can’t remem-
ber, and I know that he is not telling
the truth and I know that he is not
lying. Sometimes you cannot reach
it. You open that drawer, and your
hand is paralyzed and you cannot
reach it. It is right in front of you but
still you cannot reach it, and so you
say you don’t remember.
He has a green pen, a notebook. He
has printouts from the Internet, main-
ly things about me. He has spent ten
hours researching me, he says. Like so
many pilgrims, he is in the market for
a witness who can understand his life.
He has decided I will suffice. He is at
ease now. Before, his body was hunched
over, shoulders looming, those trained
and talented hands. He wore a skullcap
that hid his hair and he seldom smiled.
Now he is a different person, a man
who laughs, his body almost fluid, his
eyes no longer dead black coals but
beaming and dancing as he speaks.
“We are not monsters,” he explains.
“We have education, we have feelings.
I would leave torturing someone, go
home and have dinner with my fami-
ly, and then return. You shut off parts
of your mind. It is a kind of work, you
follow orders.”
For some time, his past life has been
dead to him, something he shut off.
But now it is back. He thinks God has
sent me to convey his lessons to others.
Like all of us, he wants his life to have
meaning, and I am to write it down
and send it out into the world. Of
course, he must be careful. When he
left the life two years ago, the organi-
zation put a $250,000 contract on his
life. He does not know what the con-
tract currently is, but it is unlikely to be
lower. At the moment, God is pro-
tecting him and his family, he knows
this, but still he must be careful.
“I don’t do bad things anymore,” he
says, “but I can’t stop being careful. It
is a habit I have. That’s how I ensure
security for myself. They killed me
twice, you know.”
And he lifts his shirt to show me
two groupings of bullet holes in his
belly from separate times when he took
rounds from an AK-47.
“I was in a coma for a while,” he
continues. “I weighed 290 pounds when
I went into the hospital, a narco hos-
pital, and I shrank to 120 pounds.”
It was all a mistake. The organiza-
tion believed he had leaked informa-
tion on the killing of a newspaper
columnist, but it turned out the actu-
al informant had been the guy paid to
tap phones. So he was killed and “they
apologized to me and paid for a
month’s vacation in Mazatlán with
women, drugs, and liquor. I was about
twenty-four then.”
He sips his coffee. He is
ready to begin.
H
e notes that when I asked him
earlier about his first killing, he said he
couldn’t really remember because he
used so much cocaine and drank so
much alcohol back then. That was a
lie. He remembers quite well.
“The first person I killed, well, we
were state policemen doing a patrol,” he
says. “They called my partner on his cell
phone and told him the person we were
looking for was in a mall. So we went
and got him and put him in the car.”
Two guys get in the car, identify the
target, and leave. They are people pay-
ing for the murder.
He and his partner use the police
code for a homicide: when the num-
ber 39 is spoken, it means to kill
the person.
The guy they have picked up has
lost ten kilos of cocaine, drugs that be-
long to the other two men.
His partner drives, and he gets in
back with the victim.
The target says that he gave the
drugs to someone else. At that mo-
ment his partner says, “Thirty-nine,”
and so he instantly kills him.
“It was like automatic,” he explains.
They drive around for hours with
the body and they drink. Finally,
they go to an industrial park, pry off
a manhole, and throw the body in
the sewer. For his work, he gets an
ounce of coke, a bottle of whiskey,
and $1,000.
“They told me I had passed the test.
I was eighteen.”
He checks into a hotel and does co-
caine and drinks for four days.
“The state police didn’t care if you
were drunk. If you really wanted to be
left alone, you gave the dispatcher a
hundred pesos and then they would
not call you at all.”
After this baptism, he moves into
kidnapping and enters a new world.
Soon he is traveling all over Mexico.
He is working for the police, but when-
ever an assignment comes up he sim-
ply gets leave.
A few of the kidnappings he partic-
ipates in are merely snatches for ran-
som. But hundreds of others have a
different goal.
“They would say, ‘Take this guy. He
lost 200 kilos of marijuana and didn’t
pay.’ I would pick him up in my police
car, I would drop him off at a safe
house. A few hours later, I would get
a call that said there is a dead body to
get rid of.
“This was at the start of my ca-
reer, after I passed my test. For
about three years I traveled all over
Mexico. Once I even went to Quin-
tana Roo. I always had an official
police car. Sometimes we used
planes, but usually we drove. We
got through military checkpoints by
showing an official document that
said we were transporting a prison-
er. The document would have a
fake case number.”
He becomes a tour guide to an al-
ternate Mexico, a place where citizens
are transported from safe house to safe
house without any records left for
courts and agencies. When he arrives
someplace, the person has already been
kidnapped. He simply picks him up
for shipment.
Controlling them was easy because
they were terrified.
48
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2009

Page 6
“When they saw that it was an of-
ficial car and when I said, ‘Don’t
worry, everything will be fine. You’ll
be back with your family. If you
don’t cooperate, we’ll drug you and
put you in the trunk and I can’t
guarantee then that you’ll see the
end of the journey.’”
The drive is fueled by coke. He
and his partner always dress well for
such work—they get five or six new
suits from the organization every few
months. They are seldom home but
seem to live in various safe houses
and are supplied with food and
drugs. But no women.
This is all business.
T
hey hardly ever do police work;
they are working full-time for narcos.
This is his real home for almost
twenty years, a second Mexico that
does not exist officially and that co-
exists seamlessly with the govern-
ment. In his many transports of
human beings to bondage, torture,
and death, he is never interfered
with by the authorities. He is part of
the government, the state policeman
with eight men under his command.
But his key employer is the organiza-
tion, which he assumes is the Juárez
cartel, but he never asks since ques-
tions can be fatal. They give him a
salary, a house, a car. And standing.
He estimates that 85 percent of
the police worked for the organiza-
tion. But, even on a clear day, he
could barely glimpse the cartel that
employed him. He is in a cell, and
above him is a boss, and above that
boss is a region of power he never
visits or knows. He also estimates
that out of every hundred human be-
ings he transports maybe two make it
back to their former lives. The rest
die. Slowly, very slowly.
In each safe house, there would be
anywhere from five to fifteen kidnap
victims. They wore blindfolds all the
time, and if their blindfolds slipped
they were killed. At times, they would
be put in a chair facing a television,
their eyes would be briefly uncovered,
and they would watch videos of their
children going to school, their wives
shopping, the family at church. They
would see the world they had left be-
hind, and they would know this world
would vanish, be destroyed, if they
did not come through with the mon-
ey. The neighbors never complained
about the safe houses. They would see
all the police cars parked in front and
remain silent.
They might owe a million, but
when the work was finished they
would pay everything, their entire
fortunes, and maybe,
just maybe, the wife
would be left with a
house and a car.
People would be
held for up to two
years. They were
beaten after they
were fed, and so they
learned to associate
food with pain.
Once in a great
while, the order
would come down to
release a prisoner.
They would be tak-
en to a park blind-
folded, told to count
to fifty before they
opened their eyes.
Even at this moment
of freedom, they
would weep because
they no longer be-
lieved it possible for
them to be released
and still expected to
be murdered.
“Sometimes,” he
says, “prisoners who
had been held for
months would be allowed to remove
the blindfolds so they could clean the
safe house. After a while, they began to
think they were part of the organiza-
tion, and they identified with the guards
who beat them. They would even make
up songs about their experiences as pris-
oners, and they would tell us of all the
fine things they would make sure we
got when they were released. Some-
times after beating them badly, we
would send their families videos of them
and they would be pleading, saying,
‘Give them everything.’ And then the
order would come down and they would
be killed.”
Payment to the organization would
always be made in a different city from
where the prisoner was held. Every-
ESSAY 49

Page 7
thing in the organization was com-
partmentalized. Often he would stay
in a safe house for weeks and never
speak to a prisoner or know who they
were. It did not matter. They were
products and he was a worker follow-
ing orders. No matter how much the
family paid, the prisoner almost al-
ways died. When the family had been
sucked dry of money, the prisoner had
no value. And besides, he could betray
the organization. So death was logical
and inevitable.
He pauses in his account. He
wants it understood that he is now
similar to the prisoners he tortured
and killed. He is outside the organi-
zation, he is a threat to the organiza-
tion, and “everyone who is no longer
of use to the boss dies.”
He is now the floating man remem-
bering when he was firmly
anchored in his world.
I
want it understood,” he says, “that
I had feelings when I was in the torture
houses and people would be lying in
their vomit and blood. I was not per-
mitted to help them.”
He is calm as he says this. He alter-
nates between asserting his humanity
and explaining how he maintained a
professional demeanor while he kid-
napped, tortured, and killed people.
He says he is feared now because he be-
lieves in God. Then he says he could
make a good grouping on the target
with his AK-47 at 800 yards. He would
practice at military bases and police
academies. He could get in using his
police badge.
The work, he insists, is not for am-
ateurs. Take torture—you must know
just how far to go. Even if you intend
to kill the person in the end, you must
proceed carefully in order to get the
necessary information.
“They are so afraid,” he explains,
“they are usually cooperative. Some-
times when they realize what is going
to happen to them, they become ag-
gressive. Then you take their shoes
away, soak their clothes, and put a hot
wire to each foot for fifteen seconds.
Then they understand that you are in
charge and that you are going to get
the information. You can’t beat them
too much because then they become
insensitive to pain. I have seen people
beaten so badly that you could pull
out their fingernails with pliers and
they wouldn’t feel it.
“You handcuff them behind their
backs, sit them in a chair facing a
hundred-watt bulb, and you ask
them questions about their jobs,
number and age of children, all
things you have researched and
know the answer to. Every time they
lie, you give them a jolt from an
electric cattle prod. Once they real-
ize they can’t lie, you start asking
them the real questions—how many
loads have they moved to the U.S.,
who do they work for, and if they are
not paying your boss, well, why?
“They will try by this point to an-
swer everything. Then we beat them
and let them rest. We show them
those videos of their family. At this
point, they will give up anything we
ask for and even more. Now you
have the advantage, and you use this
new information to hit warehouses
and steal loads, to round up other
people they work with, and then you
video their families and begin the
process again. You know the families
will not likely go to the police be-
cause they know the guy is in a bad
business. But if they do tell the po-
lice, we instantly know because we
work with the police. We’re part of
the anti-kidnapping unit. Sometimes
the people kidnapped are killed in-
stantly because, after we take their
jewelry and cars, they are worthless.
Such goods are divided up within
the unit, among five to eight people.
The hardest thing is when you kill
them because then you must dig a
hole to bury them. There are two
mistakes most people make. They
don’t pay whoever controls the
plaza, the city. Or they dreamed of
being bigger than the boss.”
But none of this really matters be-
cause he never asks why people are
kidnapped, nor who they really are.
They are simply product and he is sim-
ply a worker. Their screams are simply
the background noise to the task at
hand. Just as calming them or trans-
porting them is simply part
of the job.
T
here is a second category of kid-
napping, one he finds almost embar-
rassing. Someone’s wife is having an
affair with her personal trainer, so you
pick up the trainer and kill him. Or a
guy has a hot woman and some other
guy wants her, so you kill the boyfriend
to get the woman for him.
“I received my orders,” he says,
“and I had to kill them. The bosses
didn’t know what the limits were. If
they want a woman, they get her. If
they want a car, they get it. They
have no limits.”
He resents people who like to kill.
They are not professional. Real sicar-
ios kill for money. But there are people
who kill for fun.
“People will say, ‘I haven’t killed
anyone for a week.’ So they’ll go out
and kill someone. This kind of person
does not belong in organized crime.
They’re crazy. If you discover such a
person in your unit, you kill him. The
people you really want to recruit are
police or ex-police—trained killers.”
All this is a sore point for him.
The slaughter now going on in
Juárez offends him because too many
of the killings are done by amateurs,
by kids imitating sicarios. He is ap-
palled by the number of bullets used
in a single execution. It shows a lack
of training and skill. In a real hit, the
burst goes right where the lock is on
the door because such rounds will
penetrate the driver’s torso with a
killing shot. Twice he was stymied
by armored vehicles, but the solution
is a burst of full-jacketed rounds in a
tight pattern—this will gouge
through the armor. A hit should
take no more than a minute. Even
his hardest jobs against armored cars
took under three minutes.
A real sicario, he notes, does not
kill women or children. Unless the
women are informants for the DEA or
the FBI.
Here, he must show me. A proper
execution requires planning. First,
the Eyes study the target for days,
usually at least a week. His schedule
at home is noted, when he gets up,
when he leaves for work, when he
comes home, everything about his
routines in his domestic life is
recorded by the Eyes. Then the
Mind takes over. He studies the
man’s habits in the city itself: his
day at work, where he lunches,
where he drinks, how often he visits
his mistress and where she lives and
what her habits are. Between the
50
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2009

Page 8
Eyes and the Mind a portrait is pos-
sible. Now there is a meeting of the
crew, which is six to eight people.
There will be two police cars with
officers and two other cars with
sicarios. A street will be selected for
the hit, one that can easily be
blocked off. Timing will be carefully
worked out, and the hit will take
place within a half dozen blocks of a
safe house—an easy matter since
there are so many in the city.
He picks up a pen and starts drawing.
The lead car will be police. Then will
come a car full of sicarios. Then the
car driven by the target. This is fol-
lowed by another car of sicarios. And
then, bringing up the rear, another po-
lice car.
During the execution, the Eyes will
watchandtheMindwillmantheradios.
When the target enters the block
selected for the murder, the lead po-
lice car will pivot and block the street,
the first sicario will slow, the second
car of sicarios behind the target will
pull up beside him and shoot him,
the final police car will block the end
of the street.
All this should take less than thirty
seconds. One man will get out and give
a coup de grâce to the bullet-riddled
victim. Then all will disperse.
The car with the killers will go to
the safe house and leave their vehicle
in a garage. It will be taken to a garage
owned by the organization, repainted,
and then sold on one of the organiza-
tion’s lots. The killers themselves will
pick up a clean car at the safe house,
and often they return to the scene of
the murder to see that everything has
gone well.
He sketches this with exactness,
each rectangle neatly drawn to delin-
eate a car, and the target’s car is filled
in and blooms on the page with green
ink. Arrows indicate how each vehicle
will move. It is like an equa-
tion on a chalkboard.
H
e leans back from his toil and on
his face is almost the look of a job well
done. This is how a real sicario per-
forms his work. In the ideal hit, no tar-
get is left alive. Should any in the group
be injured, they go to one of the orga-
nization’s hospitals—“If you can buy a
governor, you can buy a hospital.”
“I never knew the names of the
people I was involved with,” he con-
tinues. “There was a person who
directed our group and he knew
everything. But if your job is to exe-
cute people, that is all you do. You
don’t know the reasons or names. I
would be in a safe house with the
kidnapped for a month and never
speak to them. Then, if I was told to
kill them, I would. We would take
them to the place where they would
be killed, take off their clothes. We
would kill them exactly the way we
were ordered—a bullet to the neck,
acid on the bodies. There would be
cases where you would be killing
someone, strangling them, and they
would stop breathing, and you
would get a call—‘Don’t kill
them’—and so you would have to
know how to resuscitate them or we
would be killed because the boss
never makes a mistake.”
Everything is contained and sealed.
For a while they used crazy kids to steal
cars for the work, but the kids, about
forty of them, got too arrogant, talking
and selling drugs in the nightclubs.
This violated an agreement with the
governor of Chihuahua to keep the
city quiet. So one night around ten
years ago, fifty police, and one hun-
dred and fifty guys from the organiza-
tion who were to ensure the job was
done, rounded up all the kids on
Avenida Juárez. They were not tor-
tured. They were killed with a single
head shot and buried in one hole.
“No.” He smiles at me. “I will not
tell you where that hole is.”
He has trouble remembering some
things.
“I would get up in the morning and
do a line,” he explains, “then have a
glass of whiskey. Then I would go to
lunch. I would never sleep more than
a few hours, little naps. It is hard to
sleep during a time of war. Even if my
eyes were closed, I was alert. I slept
with a loaded AK-47 on one side, a
.38 on the other. The safeties were al-
ways off.
Do I know of the death houses, he
asks. “It would take a book to do the
death houses. After all, I know where
six hundred bodies are buried in safe
houses in Juárez. There is one death
house they have never revealed that I
know has fifty-six bodies. Just as there
is a rancho where the officials say they
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Page 9
found two bodies but I know that ran-
cho has thirty-two corpses. If the po-
lice really investigated they would find
bodies. But obviously, you cannot trust
the police.”
He especially wants to know what I
know about the two death houses un-
covered last winter. I say one had nine
bodies, the other thirty-six.
No, no, he insists, the second one
had thirty-eight, two of them women.
He carefully draws me the layout of
this second death house. One of the
women, he notes, was killed for speak-
ing too much. The other was a mistake.
These do happen, though the bosses
never admit to it.
But he keeps returning to the death
house with the thirty-eight bodies. It
has memories for him.
I remember standing on the quiet
dirt street as the authorities made a
show of digging up the dead. Half a
mile away was a hospital where some
machine-gunned people were taken
that spring, but the killers followed
and killed them in the emergency
room. Shot their kinfolk in the wait-
ing room also.
“The narcos,” he wants me to un-
derstand, “have informants in the DEA
and the FBI. They work until they are
useless. Then they are killed.”
As for those who inform to the FBI
and DEA, they “die ugly.”
He explains.
“They were brought handcuffed be-
hind the back to the death house
where they found thirty-six bodies,”
he rolls on. “A T-shirt was soaked with
gasoline and put on their backs, lit,
and then after a while pulled from their
backs. The skin came off with it. Both
men made sounds like cattle being
killed. They were injected with a drug
so they would not lose consciousness.
Then they put alcohol on their testi-
cles and lit them. They jumped so
high—they were handcuffed and still
I never saw people jump so high.”
We are slipping now, all the
masks have fallen to the floor. The
veteran, the professional sicario, is
walking me through a key assign-
ment he completed.
“Their backs were like leather and
did not bleed. They put plastic bags
on their heads to smother them and
then revived them with alcohol un-
der their noses.
“All they ever said to us was, ‘We
will see you in hell.’
“This went on for three days. They
smelled terrible because of the burns.
They brought in a doctor to keep re-
viving them. They wanted them to
live one more day. After a while they
defecated blood. They shoved broom-
sticks up their asses.
“The second day a person came and
told them, ‘I warned you this was go-
ing to happen.’
“They said, ‘Kill us.’
“The guys lived three days. The doc-
tor kept injecting them to keep them
alive and he had to work hard. Even-
tually they died of the torture.
“They never asked God for help.
They just kept saying, ‘We will see you
in hell.’
“I buried them with their faces down
and poured on a whole lot of lime.”
He is excited. It is all back.
He can feel the shovel in
his hand.
H
e is calm now. He is revisiting
this evil time, he says, simply for my
benefit. He takes his various drawings—
how to do a hit, where some people
were buried in a death house—looks at
the green schematics he has created,
and then slowly tears them into little
squares until the torn heap can never
be reconstructed.
Until late 2006, he worked all
over Mexico for different groups,
and the various organizations gener-
ally got along. There were small
moments, such as when others tried
to take over Juárez and it was neces-
sary to necklace them. But his life
in the main was calm. So calm he
did not need to know who he really
worked for.
“I received orders from two people.
They ran me. I never knew which car-
tel I worked for. Now there is Vicente
Carrillo against Chapo Guzmán”—
that is, Joaquin Guzmán Loera, head of
Mexico’s largest cartel. “But I never
met any bosses, so when the war start-
ed around 2006, I did not know which
one I did the killing for. And orders
could cross from one group to anoth-
er. I am living in a cell and I simply
take orders. In thirty minutes in Juárez,
sixty well-trained and heavily armed
men can assemble in thirty cars and
circulate as a show of force.
“Then, at my level, we began to get
orders to kill each other.”
He is kidnapped but let go after an
hour. This unsettles him, and he begins
to think about escaping his life. But
that is not a simple matter, since if you
leave you are murdered. As the war es-
calates, he begins to distance himself
from people he knows and works with.
He tries to fade away. By this time, a
third of the people he knows have been
killed—“they were seen as useless and
then killed.”
He doesn’t know the boss, he is still
not even sure who his boss is. He drinks
at home. The streets are too dangerous.
New people arrive and he does not
know them. He is not safe.
So he flees.
He confides in a friend. Who be-
trays him.
He pauses at this point. He knows
he is guilty of a fatal error. He has vi-
olated a fundamental rule: you can be
betrayed only by someone you trust. So
you survive by trusting no one. Still,
there is this shred of humanity in all
of us, and in the end we feel the need
to trust someone, to call someone
friend, to share feelings with others.
And this need is fatal. It is the very
need he has exploited for years, the
need he used when he put people in
the police car and told them they
would be all right if they cooperated,
would be back with their families in no
time if they were calm. And by God,
they did trust him and rode across
Mexico, went through checkpoints
and said nothing, never told a single
soul they had been kidnapped. They
would trust him as they were tortured
in the safe houses. They would help
mop the floors, clean up the vomit
and blood. They would compose songs.
They would trust him right up to that
instant when he strangled them.
So his friend gives him up. He is
taken at 10:00
P
.
M
., and this time he is
held until 3:00
A
.
M
.
But something has changed within
him. And some things have not
changed. Four men take him to a safe
house. They remove all of his clothing
but his shorts. They take pool balls in
their hands and beat him.
But he can tell they are amateurs.
They do not even handcuff him, and
this is disturbing to him. He is the cap-
tive of third-raters. As they beat him,
52
HARPER’S MAGAZINE / MAY 2009

Page 10
he prays and prays and prays. He also
laughs because he is appalled by their
incompetence. They have not bound
him and their blows do not disable
him. He sizes them up and in his mind
plans how he will kill them, one, two,
three, four, just like that.
And at the same moment, he is
praying to God to help him so that he
will not kill them, so that he can stop
his life of murder. As he sits in the
room, sipping coffee and recalling this
moment, his face comes alive. He is
passionate now. He is approaching the
very moment of his salvation. Some
people pretend to accept Christ, he
says, but at that moment he could feel
total acceptance fill his body. He could
feel peace.
They point rifles at him. He can-
not stop laughing.
“I was afraid,” he explains. “I realized
I would have to kill them all.”
Two of the armed men left. One
other guy went to the bathroom. He
looks at the remaining captor.
“The guy says, ‘I don’t have a prob-
lem with you. Once, you told me to be
careful or they would kill me. You did
me a favor.’
“So, I am praying to God, help me!
I don’t want to kill these people. And
I know I can do it rapidly.
“The guy turns his back on me and
says, ‘Get out, go.’
He opens the door and runs
without his shoes or clothes.
H
is face is stern now. He has
come to the place, the very moment
that has permitted him to recount
the kidnappings, the tortures, the
killings. He is selling and what he is
selling is God. He is believing, and
what he believes based on his own
life is that anyone can be redeemed.
And that it is possible to leave the
organization and survive.
His thoughts are a jumble as he
speaks. He is telling of his salvation,
and yet he feels the tug of his
killings. He feels the pride in being
feared. Back at the beginning, when
he first started with the state police,
that was when Oropeza, the doctor
and newspaper columnist, was
killed. And Oropeza’s killers, he
now recalls, were his mentors, his
teachers. He remembers that after
the murder, the state government
announced a big investigation to get
the killers. And one of them, a fel-
low cop, stayed at his own police
station until the noise quieted and
the charade ended.
He is excited now; he is living in
his past.
“The only reason I am here is God
saved me. I repented. After all these
years I am talking to you. I am having
to relive things that are dead to me. I
don’t want to be part of this life. I don’t
want to know the news. You must write
this so that other sicarios know it is
possible to leave. They must know God
can help them. They are not monsters.
They have been trained like special
forces in the Army. But they never re-
alize they have been trained to serve
the devil.
“Imagine being nineteen and being
able to call up a plane. I liked the pow-
er. I never realized until God talked to
me that I could get out. Still, when
God frees me, I remain a wolf. I can’t
become a lamb. I remain a terrible per-
son, but now I have God on my side.
He stares at me as I write in a
black notebook.
His body seems to loom over
the table.
This is the point in all stories where
everyone discovers who they really are.
He says, “I have now relived
something I should never have
opened up. Are you the medium to
reach others? I prayed to God asking
what I should do. And you are the
answer. You are going to write this
story because God has a purpose in
you writing this story.
“God has given you this mission.
“No one will understand this story
except those who have been in the
life. And God will tell you how to
write this story.”
Then we embrace and pray. I can
feel his hand on my shoulder probing,
seeking the power of the Lord in me.
I have my work to do now.
And so we go our separate ways.
In the parking lot he moves with
ease, in a state of grace. The sun
blazes, the sky aches blue. Life feels
good. His eyes relax and he laughs.
And then I see him memorize my li-
cense plate in a quick and practiced
glance. He has told me he is bathed
in the blood of the lamb, but his eyes
remain those of the wolf.
ESSAY 53
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