By Alejandro Almazán
Photo by Adrián Duchateau
Alejandro Almazán is an investigative journalist who has won Mexico's Premio Nacional de Periodismo three times. He is also the founder of the weekly magazine Emeequis. This piece appears in Gatopardo at this link:
They have left us alone on the prison patio and the first thing I ask Yaretzi is how much would she charge to kill me. She says with an air of a femme fatal, "You’re worth as much as anyone else. Nothing.” Seven years ago, when she turned 18, Yaretzi acquired a special talent in military school: the ability to kill with a gun.
Those talented hands led her to the town narco, a narco who recruits people who have the nerve to pull the trigger and the need to earn dollars. He taught her other tricks: how to torture, how to fire an automatic weapon at a moving car, to kidnap and “disappear” people. Yaretzi was on her twenty-sixth murder, but she was arrested with two AK-47s before she could complete the job. That is why we are here, on the prison patio, in a location I had better not remember.
This short statured “chica” began killing when death lost the strict order that once governed it. At least here in Chihuahua death had meaning before Vicente Carrillo joined with the Zetas to finish off Chapo Guzmán. Back then you would get your brain bashed if you lost a shipment, if you were a rat, or for not comprehending that betrayal and contraband are inseparable.
A colleague who has accompanied me to the prison says those were good times. Nowadays, just as Yaretzi will later inform me, names and logic do not matter. As she tosses her shiny black hair back, she will say, "Those of us who do the work of ‘sicarios,’ we don’t need a motive.” As this artist of death heads back to her cell, I will think, killing on a whim has become the favorite pastime of contemporary Mexico, and life is a mere agent toward that end.
But this will happen at the end.
For now, let me tell you that Yaretzi arrived at the prison patio escorted by a guard who thought she was all that. “I just want to know how your world works,” I said to Yaretzi, and then she realized that the guy in front of her wasn’t there to solve the murders. She went along, under one condition. As if she were seeking redemption, she said, “You have to write that I believe in God and that I am sorry.” Alright then. But first we have to begin when she still worked for the devil.
Let’s say my name is Yaretzi, like my mom. Maybe then when she reads this story she will come and visit me. I’m sure she has told my two kids that their mother, aside from slutting around, also kills people. But, like I said, us sicarios are not born, we are made. For me it was the military school. Seriously! I came out of there with a heart of stone, hating people. In those schools it’s really strange the way they teach you to not love anyone.
Since I hung out in the street and I wasn’t one to stick around the house, that’s how I met my patrón. I still call him that even though they killed him. First he baptized my daughter, then my son. They abducted him about a month after I had [my son] Brandon. According to his wife, they told her that they cooked him alive in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc.
That’s why, if one day they pick me up, I hope they kill me before they torture me or cut my head off. I don’t want to look those dogs in the eye because I am the type that will hunt them down in hell. But like I was saying: I didn’t get into this because they killed my patrón. No. It was for the money.
Men, they do it for fun, because they enjoy killing, it makes them feel like big shit. Screw that. Us women, we get into this for the money. Well at least that was the way it was for me. That we get into this for love, that’s bullshit. Like I was saying: I got into this when I was twenty years old.
At first I was a “cleaner,” I mopped up vomit and blood. After I was a messenger and a gopher, and from there, I moved up to a “condor”—I hunted down the enemies. Then I was a “lynx”—I abducted and tortured people, and from there I became a sicaria. That’s the way it went down, vato. Since then, I’ve been a killer.
Just yesterday, at night, in a restaurant in Ciudad Juárez, La Güera offered to be my guide in the world of lipstick wearing killers.
She showed up making noise with her high heels, as if she wanted to leave a mark. That woman was so beautiful she provoked inappropriate thoughts. Maybe the legend that men were born to adore her was true. She oozed Ed Hardy. "I’m the sicaria, la Güera,” she said, introducing herself with the air of "Camelia la Texana.”
Amado Carrillo, the Tony Soprano of Chihuahua and virtuoso of death, had a horse named Silencio. Silence, that is the last thing you’d accuse La Güera of. She bragged saying she slept with a Kalashnikov under her pillow. She would tell an extravagant story only to conclude by pointing out that her killing days left a bad taste in her mouth, not because being a “pistolera” didn’t sit well with her, but because, just like beer, after you have your fill, it gets boring.
During a long line of confessions, during the last twenty minutes [of the interview] la Güera admitted that she had made a lot up. Her job within the cartel was different [than being a sicaria], albeit no less risky: to flirt with the rival narcos, to learn everything about them, never sharing anything about herself, and then to turn them over to her boss so he could rip their fingers off, cut off their testicles, and make holes in their heads.
Some low ranking narcos who have been arrested claim that these modern day Mataharis are remnants from La Línea, the hired guns of the Juárez Cartel who have employed the oldest known strategy: kill your enemies. Today it is known that the Sinaloa Cartel hasn’t left women out of its business plan either. The narcos of the last decade have come to understand that there a lot of people to kill and they need willing and ready hands.
Los Artistas Asesinos, los Aztecas, los Mexicles, and la Güera and many more cold blooded individuals are part of this cheap hired hand. La Güera, in contrast with these other gangs, won’t say for which cartel she Works. At first, given the disgust with which she referred to Chapo Guzmán, I figured her patrón was Vicente Carrillo, but then she cursed Vicente too and wished to the Santa Muerte that el Chapo, her paisano, would conquer this country of the dead.
Whoever she works for, la Güera has contributed her drop of blood so that 29% of the executions in Mexico happen in her state. It can be said that this pretty girl has sufficiently reddened the Rio Bravo with blood, helping murder displace diabetes as the number one cause of death in Chihuahua.
La Güera, for her part, turned a cop over to the cartel to whom, in the bedroom, she had promised eternal love. She endured beatings and brutal sex from a drug dealer in order to drop him at a cartel safe house where he was tortured then decapitated with a chainsaw. She had to flirt with a fat guy whose breath smelled of insecticide because he laundered money for “los rivales.” “That one, they cooked him,” said la Güera with reptile indifference.
“You mean to tell me that you never dream about all of those people you turned over to be butchered?” I asked her, and she just drummed her fingernails on the table.
“If I thought about it, regret would get the best of me,” she responded, and then smiled, a smile capable of bringing el Chapo and Vicente Carrillo to the same table to make peace. “I’m not laughing at you,” she said, “it’s just that I just remembered a certain son-of-a-bitch.”
That son-of-a-bitch was a little killer who, from the looks of things, didn’t even love his own mother. All day long he was up to his eyebrows in cocaine and killed with the same speed as he spoke. He sold out to another cartel and to save his life, he went and hid out at a little ranch in Parral.
La Güera found him out there in a cantina. "It cost me work to turn him over to my boss because the dude was always armed and guarded,” La Guera told me. "I had to sleep with him for a whole month,” she complained, and then she said that they dismembered him, and burned two of his guards. "Right after they picked them up, they threw gas on them and burned them alive.”
I must admit I still don’t know what part of this crime made la Güera smile.
a) Marta shoots up and she hears lots of voices. During one of her deliriums she hears: In this country you can kill whoever you want and nothing comes of it, so grab your “cuerno de chivo” and choose.
b) Marta spends days looking for her chance. "I want to be a sicaria", she tells her bosses and one of them warns: "In this job there are only two sure things: you shouldn’t trust anyone and you too will be murdered.” She is going to give it some thought.
c) Marta finds out that her father has died of a heart attack, but instead of going to the funeral, she goes home and steals her mother’s money. She knows that sooner or later the woodworking shop her parents started will close, that they will no longer be middle-class, and she won’t be able to buy drugs.
Screw it, what difference does a little money make, anyway. “Boss, I wanna pull the trigger.” “First go along with the gang and then we’ll see.” Marta has been waiting for this day and it has arrived.
d) Marta and a group of “pistoleros” pick up a [female] snitch in downtown Ciudad Juárez. Those who saw the way they dragged her by the hair and threw her in the truck, promptly forgot about it because Juárez and the rest of Mexico doesn’t just erase life, but also the memory because those who remember don’t come out alive.
e) Marta eggs her friends on with a voice filled with enthusiasm: "Let’s burn her alive!" The snitch is terrified and the music blasts from the windows of the truck.
f) Marta listens to the boss of the death squad: "Do you wanna kill her, morra?" "Sure, no problem,” she responds and she puffs her chest out like a rooster. Just like a shaman once told her, killings are necessary to maintain the universe’s equilibrium.
g) Marta is going to kill the snitch, but she has a dilemma: hammer or nine millimeter?
h) Marta chooses the hammer and she breaks the girl’s head open. Later she looks at her boss as if a huge weight has been lifted off of her shoulders.
i)Marta feels bad-ass. She knows what adrenaline is.
j) Marta explains it to me: "Your first killing is like your first lay; you never forget it. And from the very first moment you know if you are going to feel guilty about it or not, and I didn’t feel shit. I gave thanks to the Santa Muerte for allowing me to kill that no good little snitch.”
k) Marta didn’t have anything against the girl. She didn’t even know her. She didn’t look her in the eye either. “When you kill somebody you shouldn’t look at their face because it sticks with you and can drive you crazy.”
l) Marta wants to stress something before she goes on: La Santa Muerte is her guide. They say that the skull with the messed up teeth sweeps away the rich as well as the poor, and that is why she believes in her. Right now she has a black candle lit for her because she needs strength and power. Later she will light a yellow one for good luck.
m) Marta shows me the Santa she has tattooed on her back, like a billboard.
n) Marta has to go to the front cell. She is addicted to cocaine and she has to have her lunch time dose. Her habit is getting the best of her.
You get to the pile of tires and the first thing you see is your brother’s head on fire. Decapitating him didn’t suffice for those who killed him. You cry as if you could cry forever. You warned him: “Don’t get into this. You are too young.
This business is run by the devil." “But I have balls,” he answered you. "Here you don’t need balls. What you need is hate,” you told him, but your advice wasn’t worth didley squat. Now he is dead, ripped in two, and who knows why but you are remembering the drug dealer you killed in order to graduate to sicaria.
That was when you were 21. Remember, Yaretzi. It was Mother’s Day. Since the day you saw her get into her car, you wanted to kill her. She was the little bitch that went around telling everyone you were a slut and everyone, even your husband, believed her.
You always say she ruined your life. One day she even sicced the cops on you. And look how things turned out: they ordered you to kill her. That broad had been warned not to sell the other cartel’s drugs, even still she risked it. You were just following orders.
Yaretzi comes to life and imitates the sound of the gun. Tatatatatatá. This December afternoon the drug-dealer is shot dead once again and Yaretzi admits that to this day, she still dreams about her.
“How do you dream about her?”
“Without eyes, screaming at me that she hopes I die. But other times she begs me to kill her quick, with the cuerno, just the way I did her.”
In the following minutes Yaretzi will talk about her hallucinations. Now somebody is pulling her by the neck. Now the stuffed black peacock her brother gave her as a gift comes to life and orders her to kill her stepfather. "And as you shoot him remind that son of a bitch that your daughter is his.” Now they are moving the things in her cell around. And now she hears a loud voice in her ears like a trumpet. "Those must be the screams of the last man I shot to death.”
In under an hour, la Güera spoke of many things: the 4x4 she drove around Juárez in. How cheap and pure the drugs are in Chihuahua. How the “disappeared” are so many that the figures are mere conjecture. She claimed the rate of violence grew commensurate with government corruption.
She spoke of the day her brother beat his girlfriend to death, of the sicarios who show up at the hospital to finish off their victims, of her uncle the singer and how she wanted to be an actress. She also said that the thousand dollars the cartel pays her every month she invests in makeup, clothes, and tangas.
“Little money for a lot of risk,” I told her when she finished her long winded diatribe.
“Yeah, but my boyfriend buys me everything.”
“Is he a narco?”
“He is a “comandante,” but it’s the same thing.
“And what’s the best thing he’s bought you?”
“My boobs. They look good, don’t they?” She touches them. I can’t disagree.
“When you look in the mirror, who do you see?”
She tossed her hair back, twisted her mouth, then answered, “You ask really weird questions.”
A few seconds later, the waiter brought out a plate of meat and la Güera ate as if she had just come down from the moon. She waited a minute then elaborated about the class of people she had turned over to the cartels. The majority of them were in charge of the plazas.
“I don’t get it,” I told her. “How is it that they don’t know who you are? I mean you have to be one of the most talked about women in those circles.”
“They always fall for it. Remember, men think with their penises.”
Then la Güera grabbed her Ed Hardy bag and left. Because of that, she won’t show up again in this story.
She walked off with the confidence of a mountain goat.
Chihuahua is one of the seven marvels of the modern world. And if it’s not, then it should be: it’s a well done 248,000 square foot piece of meat whose blood never stops spilling. Every day, since December of 2006, seven people are murdered; three or four of them, depending on the mood of the narcos, are killed in Ciudad Juárez.
Journalist Charles Bowden says that in Chihuahua "people can live with the murders and knowing that people just disappear in broad daylight and be unfazed saying: well, they were bad people.”
Tin Tan must be turning over in his grave seeing that his adopted home has turned into a death machine.
But I veered off course. I came to tell you about the chicas Kaláshnikov.
I have died twice. (Yaretzi pulls her shirt aside to show me a hole in her shoulder; she says she has another in her back.) It’s the truth. You can’t even feel the bullets, but you get so cold. It's as if you were made of ice, or I don’t know what. And then you lose your strength, and you are like a wire doll. But that’s nothing compared to being abducted and tortured where you ask God to just die.
The business of being tortured is the worst of all pains. Most of the ones who get picked up owe money and the day they get picked up they are selling everything they own. Not me. I didn’t offer those cabrones anything. I just let them take me.
I think every single one of them raped me, all four of them. (Yaretzi looks down at the floor. In a second she will say that that was the day she saw God, when they raped her and ripped out two of her fingernails.) I saw him when everything went white. It was God. I opened my eyes and the dude that was keeping watch over me was fast asleep, and all drugged out.
Don’t ask me how, but God gave me the strength to untie myself and run, run like a lunatic and I didn’t stop. I have told God that when I get out of here, I am only going to kill the guys who picked me up, and then I am going to retire from this work.
“Is it possible to leave the cartel?” I ask her.
“No, you don’t get out unless you’re taken out it feet first.
“So how are you going to retire?”
“I don’t know, but God will free me.”
Yaretzi leaves for her cell. She will return with an old beat up Bible to show me her favorite psalm. "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10".
Sometimes without knowing it you are on a collision course and there’s nothing you can do to change it.
Malandrín 1, the guy in charge of extortions in downtown Juárez, had to go to Ojinaga to oversee a shipment because Malandrín 2, the one who should have done it, was murdered the night before. While Malandrín 1 makes his way to Ojinaga, over in Juárez the jefe reassigns his people. Marta was shifted to replace Malandrín 1 and she complained: "But I am a sicaria, you have to be kidding me.” The jefe, used to calling the shots, told Marta to not make a fuss. "It’s just this week", it couldn’t be avoided.
First the boss ordered her to charge a clothing vendor he had an old grudge against “the rent,” then he headed out to his usual cantina. While the jefe ordered 18 year whiskey, Marta drove along cursing her luck. She had already killed three and now she had been reduced to a mere payment collector. “Fine, I’ll do it,” she thought, “but I’m going to do it my way.”
Her way was to begin with some business on the way in the Juan Gabriel neighborhood. She would go see the clothing vendor last. But first she would stop off to eat.
And if something would have been different?
If Marta wouldn’t have went for tacos de asada or if she would have listened to her boss; if Malandrín 2 wouldn’t have been murdered the boss wouldn’t have substituted Marta for Malandrín 1, certainly Marta would still be in the street with her “cuerno de chivo” and her 22. But such is life that because of a series of events out of everyone’s control, Marta showed up at a restaurant to collect the extortion money and the military picked her up.
"Those soldiers got me good,” Marta tells me. "Here the soldiers are paid off by el Chapo and they screw everybody working against him.”
Yaretzi speaks of the weapons the way Mijaíl Kaláshnikov would speak of the AK-47.
The 5.7: here we call them cholo-killers, you might know them as cop-killers or just the five-seven. There isn’t a bullet proof vest or an armored vehicle they won’t destroy. They say they were invented in Belgium, but I say they were the devil’s idea. There is no kickback and this gives you precision. They are all the rage with the “clica.”
The .38 super: with this you can burst anybody’s head in half a second. The bullet exits with tons of precision. Personally I don’t care for it because you lose time reloading. I only used one once when I killed this dude after the boss stole his girlfriend.
The .45: it is very practical and has to be a Colt. The others go off by themselves.
The R: this is almost a grenade launcher. The problem is it’s too jumpy and after your arm really hurts. A Fal .38 is better.
And the cuerno de chivo: it is my favorite. With a cuerno, you can split an elephant in two and since it doesn’t jam, even a little kid can handle it. I had two with me the day they arrested me. The two cost me 27,000 pesos.
Yaretzi says she has the same accuracy with a.22 as with a cuerno. She swears she knows how to use a grenade launcher, and that she can take apart an “R” in less than a minute. The director of the prison told me that Yaretzi could shoot as if it were a sixth sense.
Marta, the girl with the little boy’s face. The girl who studied business administration. The fan of tamarindo candy. The one who misses her girlfriend. The one who swore her life for her gang. The girl who takes care of a doña who landed in prison for cocaine trafficking.
She who was born left handed twenty years ago. The girl who listens to Chalino Sanchez and others’ corridos, whose stories leave a halo of dust. She who eats no vegetables and asks for her meat almost raw. This very same Marta now wants to end our talk.
“Let me ask you one more thing,” I tell her and she accepts in return for a cigarette. “Do you hate Ciudad Juárez?”
“No,” she immediately responds, “She is my city and I love her.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, I am not a priest or a public servant and I am not interested in writing a self help book, but then why have you helped destroy her by taking part in murders?”
Marta looks ashamed. She raises the cigarette to her mouth and holds the smoke inside her lungs as if she were smoking marijuana.
“I have never thought about that,” she says, releasing the smoke. “But it’s better that there are tears in their house, not in mine.”
“But lots of people who have nothing to do with the narcos are dying, a lot of innocent people.”
“There are no innocents here. All of the dead have done something.”
Yaretzi told me something similar: it’s drug people killing drug people.
“And what are you going to do when you get out of prison, Marta?”
“Whatever comes along.”
“Are you going to stay with the narcos?”
“Whatever comes along.”
Marta is proof that there exists a natural human resistance to giving up on a way of life and starting new somewhere else.
Yaretzi doesn’t smoke and she has never taken drugs. She doesn’t know Chapo Guzmán or Vicente Carrillo or Heriberto Lazcano; she only deals with second ranking capos. She doesn’t like to fluff things up. She can’t stand hypocrisy. She doesn’t smile; she says death sucked the smiles out of her. She is not interested in tattoos. She hasn’t seen her step father since he got her pregnant.
She hasn’t forgiven her brother’s killers, and she doesn’t remember the names of the people she has killed. But one thing is for sure: she remembers the flies that congregated around the dead, she is sure that the killing spree began when el Chapo broke his pact with Vicente Carrillo, and she believes there is life after death.
You never have time to think about the murders. It’s like you disconnect your head. Like any other job, you just follow orders. Are you your own boss? Well in this job it’s the same. If you get all drugged up, or if you trust people, you end up with a bullet to the head.
That’s another reason why there is so much death here in Chihuahua, because the vatos spend all day getting loaded and they do stupid things. That’s why they killed the kids at Salvarcar, because the “clica” was all drugged up. They say that their boss cooked them alive.
Being at a hundred percent, that is the key to making it. That’s what I did. If they busted me, it’s because my squad was getting drunk and they didn’t stop at the roadblock. You gotta be a hundred percent.
“You kill, and then?”
“Nada,” says Yaretzi, “you don’t feel nothing. We have people like that.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that you should be dead?”
“Sure. I think that that is the only thing that surprises you in this work: staying alive.”
“What is in store for you when your time comes?”
“Hell. And don’t think it doesn’t bother me. I know I have been bad, but God forgives even the biggest son of a bitch. Here in prison I have grown closer to Him. I pray every night. I don’t need la Santa Muerta or Malverde, they are mere intermediaries.”
“And do you cry?”
“Not too much yet, but I am starting.”
“I read that Chihuahua is a place where it’s not worth it to be clean? Do you think that’s true?”
“Huh? I don’t get it.”
“That it’s better to be crooked than straight.”
“Here, being crooked is being straight.”
“And are the sicarias better than the hitmen?”
“It's just that the men are so violent, they want to shoot everything, and this pisses the jefes off. Women think more, and this has its merits.”
“Have you ever been left with the smell of death in your clothes?”
“A few times. And do you know what it smells like? Of sulfur. It is the scent of the morning of the 16th of September after all of the firecrackers go off.”
“In the cartel you work for, do the women ever fall in love and switch sides?”
“Yeah. That’s in fashion. They are beautiful women. But it’s better to be a sicaria than to slut around. Don’t you think?”
“Do you know when this war will end?”
“Yeah: never. El narco is money and everybody wants it.”
“Have you ever decapitated anyone?”
“Never. That is so psycho.”
“But the cartel you work for does that, right?”
“Yeah, but just to impress, to make people afraid.”
“Have you ever been afraid?”
“Just that time when they abducted me, one of my kidneys even dried up.”
“What do you mean it dried up?”
“Nothing. It just happened like that.”
“How much does the cartel pay you?”
“They gave me 15,000 pesos every two weeks.”
“And I was about to get 32 thousand.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“Like I said, that’s why I entered this line of work.”
“You must live well, right?”
“Not really. I am saving money for my kids. I want them to study, to be something in life. They are still little and they don’t know what I do. At least if one day they find out, if I don’t spend the money, they might forgive me.
“In the beginning you said that my life was worth the same as any other, nothing, but they pay you well. So it must be that we are worth at least something, right?”
“Well, they don’t pay me by the body, they pay me by the day. If they pay me a thousand pesos a day, take away five-hundred that I save, then two or three hundred for food, and a hundred for gas. I mean death is worth the amount of bullets you spend and here they go for ten pesos apiece.”
That’s why nowadays life disappears just like the sound of a gunshot.