It was Better to Just Shoot Them
Charles Bowden, writer and reporter specializing in the subject of narco-traffic and the author of the book “Murder City” interviewed a Mexican hitman over a five day period. These conversations were captured by the Italian director Gianfranco Rosi. The result is the documentary “El Sicario, Room 164” which has been shown in Europe and will be seen in New York this month, although no one in Mexico has dared to distribute it.
WASHINGTON, DC.- “I remember one time when they sent us from Mexico to the other side, to the United States, me and a ‘compañero.’ The order was to abduct someone and hold them, and we came here, to this motel, and we stayed in this room. He was over there—he points toward the bathtub—three days, for three days we tortured him.”
Thus begins the documentary “El Sicario, Room 164” whose protagonist—a Mexican cartel hit-man—reveals how he began his career murdering, torturing, kidnapping, and trafficking drugs; he details the manner in which organized crime operates and speaks of the high level of corruption that permeates every level of Mexican government.
The 77 minute documentary was produced by Venezia Cinema 2010, Orizzonti-Competition, Robofilms, Les Films d’Ici, in association with Arte France-La Lucarne. It was filmed by Gianfranco Rosi during a five day interview with a “sicario” conducted by United States author and reporter, Charles Bowden..
“During the time I was here—continues his account—the order was to keep him alive; beyond that we don’t know what happened. In the majority of instances, even if the ransom has been paid, they still die.”
“There are no borders for the narco. Not in Mexico, the United States, Colombia, Costa Rica, or El Salvador. The narco can buy anything, pay off police, customs agents, border patrol. If they move tons upon tons of drugs, how difficult is it to move a single person?”
THE HANDS OF AN ASSASIN
The killer’s hands are large, strong, and do not stop moving during the course of the documentary. To calm them he keeps them always occupied: with a large black pen he draws in a notebook. “The sicario draws each of his narrations. He was a specialist at manual strangulation. He doesn’t even remember how many people he killed. Or maybe he forgets on purpose,” comments Bowden.
The killer states that in Mexico there are many myths surrounding those who serve the cartels; for example, a “true sicario” is one who delivers just one blow, a single knife wound or a single shot eliminates one person. “When a sicario is a professional, he doesn’t do what a random wannabe does,” the sicario comments as he draws an automobile in his notebook. “This is a car. The hit is driving and he has to be killed; a wannabe does this—with his marker he draws a bunch of dots on the car alluding to a burst of random bullets—he sprays the entire car,” he explains. He turns the page of the notebook to draw another car. “When a sicario works, he has the mark and he is driving. There are two very simple ways of going about it. Make a circle here, where the handle to the door is, or make a circle here in the window where the mark’s head is. That is a sicario, the rest are imitators.”
The profesional sicario, he continues, is someone who maintains anonymity, who doesn’t like to be identified with the spectacular nature of his work. “He could be at a park playing baseball with his kids, just like he could be at a meeting, in a council meeting with the mayor of a city.”
THEY ARE EDUCATED
El sicario says he entered organized crime when he was a high school student. Without revealing who recruited him, he claims he was sought after so that he could move cars between Mexico and the United States, and visa versa. He never saw what was transported in the autos, in the trunk or in secret compartments, but he imagines that it must have been drugs and money.
He was paid in dollars and the cars were left at his disposal for as long as he wanted. He could also count on houses were there were women, alcohol, drugs, and firearms of all types. He worked in this way for three years.
“When I was in my fourth semester at the university, some acquaintances arranged for me to enter the police academy,” he says, explaining how he went from a ‘pasacarros’ to a professional cartel hit-man.
A the police academy you have to be of age, you have to have your military service card in order, preferably, you should be married, you have to pass a drug test and a physical exam. He claims he was a minor, he did not pass the drug test, and the only thing he did pass was the physical examine. But since he “came recommended,” he was accepted.
“Disgracefully, the Mexican academies—the special police, the investigative police, the military police, or the army—have served so that the narcos can use their people….that is why anyone who has passed through one of those academies is easily recruited by the narcos. With this [system] the narcos are not going to trouble themselves with having to show someone how to use a firearm, drive a car, patrol, how to read a license plate, or have to train them on how to look at a person so that they will never forget their face,” he emphasizes.
Two-hundred police graduated from his class. "Chihuahua is big: Juárez, Villa Ahumada, Parral, Camargo, Delicias, Ojinaga, and we border the states of Sonora and Durango. Of those 200 graduates, 50 are already being paid by the narcos; in other words, 150 will be distributed in different places throughout the state. But the other fifty will also be spread about the state: 25 will stay in Juárez, 5 in Chihuahua, 5 in Parral, 5 in Ojinaga, and so on and so forth.
“They distribute the police in such a way that when it is time to transport drugs from Sonora or Durango, at the state-lines there will always be someone tied up [with the narcos] so that they can circulate freely. Many times they use the police to transport the drugs.” The “clave” he adds, is to simply say that “the drugs are already blessed.”
Professional sicarios are in charge of abducting people who owe money to the cartel or who change sides (amongst them police, military people, informants or mistresses of the capos), and in some cases they have to bury people.
As he speaks of government corruption at the hands of narco-traffic, he sketches a diagram where he puts the President at the top and the state governments along the edges, and the secretaries of state at the bottom. “I can’t speak with certainty about the president, but the people below him…they are bought off by the narcos. Just as sure as there are safe houses in all of Mexico….where people from the judicial branch of government up to the secretary of government—who are the president’s strong arm--are aware that there are people buried there. Not one, two, three, or four, but more than, three or four hundred people,” he explains.
HOUSES FULL OF THE DEAD
He reveals that the “narcofosas” that are “supposedly found by Mexican police” are “casas de seguridad” where FBI or DEA agents have been buried and that they are found because the US agencies implant them “with a chip in their body,” so it is very easy to locate them by way of a satellite locations system, or GPS.
The documentary can be classified by some as a torture, kidnapping, or assassination manual, to learn torture, because the sicario explains how narco-trafficking cartels carry out these activities. Even in his sketches, for example, he illustrates how the patrol cars should position themselves for a kidnapping or an abduction.
The sicario narrates torture techniques, including recreating certain cases. He relives the dialogue he exchanged with the victim and what it was like being with the perpetrators:
“[the victim] is completely naked and you cover him with a blanket, you douse it with gasoline or alcohol and you light it on fire, once it is burning, you pull it off and it brings with it up to three layers of skin. You can see the person’s spine…you throw a liter of alcohol on it…the suffering is enormous. There are interrogation techniques that you cannot even imagine.
"It is ugly seeing a woman tortured; it is ugly seeing how they are insulted because there are no scruples. It is not the same with a man…it is not the same to see a woman suffering, asking for mercy, to see her insulted by no just one but four, five, six, seven persons, and after making her suffer up until the point she loses consciousness, it was better in the end to just shoot them.
There are exceptions, he says. Some people are not tortured, they are swiftly executed; it depends on the “patron’s” wishes. In another one of his accounts he says that not all of the people eliminated by sicarios are involved in narco-traffic.
He talks about a case of about 45 car thieves in Ciudad Juarez who were giving state authorities a bad image, so the authorities asked the cartel to abduct them, an event that coincided with the loss of 3,000 kilos of cocaine. The patron sent out the order that during thirty days not a bit of cocaine was to be sold, but about 70 drug dealers did not comply with the order. They were picked up and executed along with the car thieves.
Cartel sicarios were not the only ones who participated in this massive execution: the sicario says that a group of about 800 assasins was formed including municipal, state, and federal police to carry out the order.
“I remember one time: they heated up some 200 liter vats of water. They set up a pulley and hung the men by the shoulders from it and they lowered them little by little into the boiling water. When they fainted, they took them out. There was a doctor [present] who would revive them; they would cut off the parts that were already completely cooked…they would come to and they would lower them again, little by little….until they died.”
During the last part of the documentary, the sicario explains his transformation from “la vida loca” to a practicing Christian.
He flamboyantly narrates the reasons that led him to leave a life of death behind after, for reasons he cannot even explain, he decided to quit smoking, and using drugs and alcohol, which produced in him an attitude that within the cartel was viewed as a threat, so they decided to eliminate him…