The Brownsville Herald
EDITOR’S NOTE: For security reasons, the name of the cartel subject interviewed has been changed to obscure his identity. Likewise, the time, location and other details of the interview have been omitted.
“Antonio” is a trained killer. His life has been one of violence, drugs and death.
He admits to killing 32 people. Now, he wishes he could take it all back.
Antonio, not his real name, is a former hitman for the notoriously violent Zeta drug cartel in Mexico. He met recently with the Brownsville Herald to talk about the murders and shootouts, the drugs and pain that make up his life history.
Clad in body armor and a mask to camouflage his identity, this former high-ranking member of one of Mexico’s most ruthless drug cartels is one of the few who has managed to shed his life as a trained killer. Most who live by the bullet die the same way, he said.
“This is nothing,” he said in Spanish, picking up his assault rifle and tugging on his body armor. “This vest will not save your life. There have been many wearing a vest and they still die.”
His advice to young people who want a good life is to not look for shortcuts to fame and fortune, but instead to get an education.
“And get close to God ... This (life of crime) is nothing. It’s like a fantasy that one has in the head, but once you live it, you can only cry.”
Government intelligence reports list the Zetas under the current leadership of Heriberto Lazcano as one of the top drug cartels in Mexico. They began under the wing of Arturo Guzman Decena as a group of elite military deserters in the late 1990s, who joined the Gulf Cartel as their enforcement wing.
After the death of Decena and the capture of the Zeta’s second-in-command – known as “Z-2” – the power fell to Lazcano.
The Zetas splintered off from the Gulf last year amid a violent struggle over protection territories that continues to this day.
Antonio left the Zeta organization in 2006, long before the current struggle began. According to him, many of the Zetas have infiltrated law enforcement agencies in Mexico in order to carry out their illegal operations. A former policeman with trusted friends and connections on both sides of the law, Antonio eventually chose the criminal life.
“I worked for the government, for the PGR (the Mexican Attorney General’s Office), but I was involved with the Zetas,” he said.
He began his career as a municipal police officer at the age of 19, and after two years joined the Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office as a police officer. He served there for three years before switching to the PGR.
“I quit the state and went with the PGR … and began working with the Zetas,” he said.
LIFE AMONG THE ZETAS
Antonio first joined the cartel in search of earning a lot of money to better support his family. But once he made it into the highest levels of the Zeta inner circle, the glamour of fast money, powerful drugs and women quickly faded, leaving behind a harsh and dangerous reality.
“Once you are in there, they give you orders that must be carried out. And if you don’t take out (kill) who you were sent to take out, your own people take you out,” he said.
And he feared constantly for the safety of his family.
“When I went out with my family, I had to have eyes everywhere, because there are many enemies who want to take you out, and you are not going to let yourself be a target. I had my wife and children ready, so whenever they heard the first shot, they knew to run and hide, in a store or anywhere, and I was going to go it alone.”
His weapons of choice were a 9mm Beretta handgun, an AR-15 and an AK-47, he said. During his six years as a hitman, he recalls numerous firefights with both the Mexican military and rival drug organizations. But what he remembers the most were the kidnappings and executions.
“In a safehouse, we had all the uniforms,” he said. “They (the bosses) would tell you what you needed to wear whether you dressed – military or PGR, or whatever. They would tell you which trucks to use to carry out your orders. Before we would leave, we would go to a cabinet where we had Buchanan’s (a high-pricde whiskey) because that’s what we drank, only Buchanan’s.”
But alcohol didn’t provide enough fortitude to carry out the seemingly countless abductions, tortures and executions the bosses were ordering. So Antonio and the other executioners routinely turned to cocaine.
“Half a kilogram of cocaine for every five operatives that were used in the mission,” he said. “We wouldn’t finish the drugs, but we used it to find the guts to do what we were ordered to ... The drugs were to make you brave, because the truth is that, without them, we couldn’t do any of it.”
En route to a hit or a kidnapping, the Zetas would be given pictures and details about their target. Once they arrived at a target’s house, they would force their way in, using the butts of their rifles to knock family members or friends out of the way.
“They were very clear on who we would be going to pick up,” Antonio said. “They would give us photos and all the information on who to pick up. And it’s your job to make sure it’s that person, because if you kill the wrong target, you get your ‘tablazos,’” he said.
“Tablazos” refers to a disciplinary measure used by the Zetas, in which the bosses use a two-by-four or a paddle to beat operators who make mistakes.
Antonio said he and his fellow hitmen would find the target and drag him to one of the cartel’s trucks. Then they would drive to a secure location for an interrogation.
And then, they would finish him.
After killing their mark, the hitmen would take the body to a clandestine cemetery.
Sometimes, they would dismember the body, and then dispose of the pieces throughout the city.
Asked if he had personally killed anyone, Antonio was matter-of-fact.
“A lot of them. Like, 32 people, and very heavy hitters.”
But the mayhem eventually caught up with him.
The murders, especially the dismemberments, began to play over and over in his head. Horrible thoughts kept him awake at night. Three cocaine overdoses followed, along with alienation from the family he loved.
He decided to ask his cartel boss for a way out. The boss agreed – but leaving is not usually an easy or a successful route.
The way out of the organization included a number of tasks that the former gunman refuses to talk about. He did say he had to turn over all his properties, his cars, his money and his weapons.
“I was a very good friend of (one of the top bosses),” he said. “He told me that if I left, to leave the region and go somewhere else. Then he took me to the woods, to the area where we carried out our executions.”
Stripped of all weapons – except his trusty .380-caliber pistol, which wasn’t confiscated only because he always kept it hidden — he was ordered to get out of the Chevrolet Suburban in which they had been riding.
“I asked him, ‘Hey, what’s going on.’ He just told me to get out of the vehicle. And I did, because he was the boss. Once I was out, I put my hand behind my back and gripped my gun, thinking that if I went down, I was taking one or two with me.”
The next few seconds remain etched in Antonio’s mind.
“(He) came forward and hugged me. I didn’t want to (embrace him), because that is when they…” he mimed placing a gun to someone’s head and pulling the trigger “… BOOM.”
“He hugged me, and then smacked me on the head and said, ‘Let go.’ And he climbed back into the truck. I simply said, ‘Thank you, sir,’ got back into the truck. I took a swig of Buchanan’s, did some blow, and said to myself, ‘I did it.’”
Looking back, Antonio is not proud of the self-inflicted pain or of what he put his family and friends through.
“Had I known what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “It’s better to live poor, like my old man would say, eating eggs and beans, than to live like this.”
Today, he remains in hiding, in constant fear. His enemies are still out there, he said, and he knows too much.
He is worried that the Zetas will want to recruit him again, because he will not go, he said.
“My heart is clean and I want to live on the right path,” he said.
He is now a devout Christian, and believes that God is the only reason he is still alive.
Antonio worries about the teenagers who listen to “narcocorridos” and want to imitate the lifestyle he once led.
“They are clowns. If you are going to carry this,” he said, slapping his rifle, “or this,” he said, pulling on his body armor, “it’s because you have a big pair and are ready to mix it up.”
“If you are just doing it for show or to act cool, you’re going to end up crying. More so, you will wet your pants, because you haven’t seen anything yet. Once you are in the middle of the action, you will know what it means to pray.”
For young people tempted to join organized crime, Antonio’s message is much like the advice teachers and law enforcement deliver every day: Stay in school and make something of your life.
“You get into this looking for women, money and power,” he said. “You can get all that if you work hard and go to school.
“Take it from someone who was there,” he said. “This is not a lifestyle that you want. You may believe in a fantasy and want to get in on it. But this fantasy cost me a lot of tears. I almost went crazy. I had three overdoses and my nose even stank from all the stuff I put in it.
“I am only here by the grace of God.”
George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary and author of the book “Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?” says the chilling tale of Antonio’s trip to the “monte,” or countryside, is a significant event with many meanings.
The author of more than 20 books and monographs on Latin American politics and narco-violence, Grayson says that in order to become a Zeta, a person has to kill. And usually, the only way to leave the organization is to die.
The scene at the monte is a death ritual, of sorts, Grayson said, one that speaks to Antonio’s influence at the top levels of the organization to provide him a way out. He sees it as Antonio having undergone a symbolic death, rather than a literal one.
“The Zetas are a very ritualistic organization,” Grayson said. “One has to look back at the death of their founder, Arturo Guzman Decena. They broke into the cemetery and stole the body in order to give it what they called a proper burial.”
Guzman Decena died in November 2002 in Matamoros.