For nearly a decade, Dan Buettner has researched the places people live longest, healthiest and happiest.
A new book puts a human face on the drug-related violence in Mexico. In “El Sicario: The Autobiography Of A Mexican Assassin,” a man who worked for the drug cartels as a hit-man for nearly 20 years speaks candidly about his violent life, his crimes and finally his repentance.
The book was edited by journalist Chuck Bowden and Molly Molloy, a research librarian at New Mexico State University. Molloy tracks the daily violence in Mexico for her Google newsgroup, The Frontera List.
Edited by: Chuck Bowden and Molly Molloy
But what keeps bothering me is that I cannot remember him. The face always remains a blank in my mind.
He’ll be standing in front of me explaining something to me. Cars roll by on a busy avenue, and somehow he talks and yet constantly scans everything flickering around him. That time, he wanted me to understand a hit, realize that there was a long back story and he knew that story. He tells of a house in Ciudad Chihuahua, where a woman was held for five days, and how in order to convince her husband, three fingers were cut off the wife’s hand on a one-a-day plan. He gives me documents so that I will understand what he is talking about. And then he gets into a truck I have never seen before and leaves.
Eventually, this passes, this failure on my part to clearly remember what he looks like. I slowly forge a face despite his ability to seemingly morph before my eyes. Part of this comes from the fact that I cannot accurately describe him in print without putting his life at risk. But mainly it comes from something else: He looks ordinary. Nothing in his appearance signals what he has been and what he has done. I think we often use words like “evil” and “monster” in order to not admit that people like the sicario are normal and just like you or me. Somehow, even given this fact, they manage to kidnap people, torture them, kill them, cut them up, and bury them when the rest of us cannot imagine doing such things.
I remember explaining this fact to a reporter from the daily newspaper in Milan, Italy, after the film that forged the core of this book had premiered in Venice. She started shouting, “No, no, no, no, no.”
This account is, to my knowledge, a rare opportunity to meet such a person and to finally understand such a person. It is neither a defense of such a life nor a judgment on it, but an explanation given by a man who has done all these things and, at least for the moment, has lived to tell the tale.
This book resulted from days of interviews. Some parts have been rearranged but not much. He is a very lucid man. I remember the first interview: I asked one question, and he talked for two days without stumbling. Like most stories people make of their lives, his account is a journey from innocence to sin and then on to redemption, in his case by being born again in Christ. But it is his story—it is a Mexican life, not an American life.
The interviews began as a report that wound up in Harper’s magazine and then continued as a film, a documentary of his life, directed by the Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi. This book began with the transcripts from that filming, which went on for days on two separate occasions. He was paid for these interviews. I don’t think they changed what he said or what he believes, but the reader will be the judge of that.
I believe he is going to be a part of our future. Killers like him are multiplying. The global economy has brought ruin for many, and he is a pioneer of a new type of person: the human who kills and expects to be killed and has little hope or complaint. He does not fit our beliefs or ideas. But he exists, and so do the others who are following in this path.
His story is about power, but he is never really in control. He must worry about his superiors, he must worry about other killers, about police, the army, all the agents of violence who at times are his colleagues but who never can be trusted. He must worry. His world is not as imagined in novels and films. He is always the man who comes and takes you and tortures you and kills you. But still, he is always worried, because his work stands on a floor of uncertainty. Alliances shift, colleagues vanish—sometimes because he murders them—and he seldom knows what is really going on. He catches only glimpses of the battlefield.
Since my original piece in Harper’s, there have been some questions. Some say that I made him up.
You be the judge.
Some ask me if he is a psychopath or sociopath or some other path.
Some tell me they hope he burns in hell. Almost always this is said by those who believe neither in heaven nor in hell.
I do not share their appetite.
Some ask me if I was afraid.
Yes, of what he told me, and of what I must face as part of my world and my hopes for my world.
In 2007, 307 people were murdered in Juárez, a city that was then 348 years old. This was the bloodiest year in the history of the city.
In 2008, 1,623 people were murdered.
In 2009, 2,754 were murdered.
In 2010, 3,111 were murdered.
At the same time, El Paso, the Texas city facing Juárez, was experiencing ten to twenty murders a year. That number dwindled to five in 2010, and two of those were a murder-suicide.
And yet, the reports in the United States were about the risk of violence spilling over the border. There were few reports of the violence in Juárez.
The sicario’s story is from an earlier time, one that pretty much ended in 2007. He worked in the innocent days when Mexico was peaceful and a success story to all the nations. He lived inside a system, and he explains just how this system worked. This system has changed now and become more violent, more corrupt, and more out of control. But it persists, and all discussions of Mexico must accept the facts of life that the
He’s killed hundreds of people—he can’t really remember them all—and he was paid very well for his work. He is highly trained and very intelligent. And I can’t seem to remember his face.
I get bored waiting, and so I wander out of the Home Depot parking lot and kill time looking at barbecue grills. After a while, I go outside again and sit on a bench by the door. My eye floats over the busy parking lot—he likes places with lots of traffic to mask his arrival—studying vehicles as they prowl the lanes. I know this is a waste of time, since he changes cars with each trip. He prides himself on this fact, that no one can find him by noting his vehicle. Just as he never reveals where he is living at the moment and moves every two or three weeks, sometimes more often.
This is necessary because of footsteps. One time, he clears out just sixty minutes before the arrival of people who were looking for him.
But still, what strikes me is the blankness of his face in my mind. I have been wandering his world for over twenty years and have grown accustomed to fake names or no names, have learned never to ask certain questions and always to memorize faces, words, any clue that falls before me.
In his case, I keep coming up empty. I know his nickname because it accidentally fell from someone’s lips. But I don’t know his real name. I have prayed with him, but I can’t identify his church. He knows a lot about me. He is a bear for research and mines the Internet with ease. This habit aids his work. For years he has made detailed studies of people he is to kidnap, torture, and kill.
This work habit underscores his caution. He knows the people who will come to kill him have the same skills and put in the same hours combing records in order to find him. His phone numbers have a very short life, his e-mail addresses shift constantly. I remember once spending days with him, and then, within an hour or two of leaving him, his phone number went dead forever. All this makes a certain sense because the price on his head is at least $250,000 and rising. Besides this fact, another criminal organization is searching for him in order to hire him.
Still, no system is perfect. Once, he is discovered and then flees well over a thousand miles until things calm down. He gets reports—I don’t ask how—about the people looking for him. He always knows more than the newspapers report, and yet he seems
severed from all contact with the workaday world.
The day is sunny, a weekend, and shoppers seem relaxed as they stream into the Home Depot with their patio dreams. In such a setting, he should stand out like a sore thumb, but I know he will not.
I stare at the ground in front of the bench and wait. Suddenly, someone is standing before me. I look up and am not sure who the person is.
Of course, it’s him. This happens every time. He wears no disguise, no makeup, he does not vary costumes. He simply is not memorable.
We slap each other on the back, laugh, and then we move on. Plans are always changed at the last instant. We search for a place to talk and run through three locations before he insists on a certain motel and a certain room, 164. I have learned not to ask why.
Given the nature of this book, there are certain things that cannot be done. First, it is not my book or Molly Molloy’s book but rather the sicario’s book, and it must be told in his words without the protective screen of some narrator explaining him away. As it happens, he is an incisive and clear guide to his world, and there is no need to dress up his language. Second, we must realize this book is more like a song than a manual, and like a
song it creates a reality and this reality creates all the answers. In this reality, everything is answered by two conditions: death and power. For example, in the opening kidnapping it becomes clear as the story evolves that essentially no one comes back from being
snatched alive. And generally not even a corpse is returned to the families. Also, every problem is solved by graft. You lose an immigration card and presto, the fix is in and you get a new U.S. visa. The sicario takes us to the real Latin America, not a place of
magical realism, but a place of murderous realism.
The purpose of the book is not to answer the reader’s questions but to teach the reader a new reality, one in which an American reader’s normal questions are absurd because the reader has entered a world of terror and total corruption. The reader is not staring at the face of the sicario, but into the true face of the Mexican state, and in this place no one asks if a cop is honest or corrupt, no one asks if a murder will be investigated, and no one
asks for justice but simply seeks survival. In this world, the statements of American presidents about Mexico mean nothing because they insist on a Mexico that does not exist and that has never existed.
This is the gift of the book: a true voice from within the ranks of the people who actually run Mexico. This voice has been discussed by others from time to time but never actually allowed to speak before.
In some ways the book reminds me of the Iliad, a selfcontained strange world that by its very existence upends all the lies and assumptions of our world. In the Iliad humans are toys for the gods’ pleasure. In this book humans are toys that are tortured and murdered by unseen forces wearing the mask of the Mexican state. And in this world every Achilles or Hector learns this reality as he goes into the holes and is covered with lime.
What we have is the unspeakable nature of Mexican power, and for once it finally speaks and tells us both our fate and our ignorance of the world.
There is nothing to do but listen.
I have watched audiences deal with the documentary film that became the arena where the sicario discovered his desire to speak out. At first they are puzzled, then frightened, and when it ends they have no questions and too many answers. A Mexican director told me, “The problem is that he is too clear, too good, too convincing. No one wants to believe him.”
That first bout of filming went on for two days.
And gradually he explained that room 164 was essential because this was the room where he once brought a package.
I remember the red door to the room opening. The bed, kitchenette, sitting area with chair and sofa—this looked familiar and safe. I’d been in hundreds of rooms just like it in my years on the road, and they had always been safe havens after long days of reporting on this or that.
But this time I was wrong.
We’d entered here to get some footage.
He had a different agenda.
We got a life that tore a hole in our idea of life.
He acted out what he had done in that room to that man.
I still have a hard time remembering his face.
But I don’t think I’ll forget his story.
Copyright © 2011 by RoboFilms, LLC. Used by permission of Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.