by Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera \ El Paso Times firstname.lastname@example.org
Drug traffic is quite possibly the most important subject in understanding modern Mexico, as it comes up in virtually every big-picture discussion of politics, law enforcement, economics and social trends in the country.
However, despite numerous explorations into its causes and consequences, little is known about the personal stories of the men and women who populate the armies of Mexican criminal organizations.
We know, for instance, that the lack of educational and work opportunities make young people vulnerable targets for drug traffickers looking for new recruits. But when exactly does a young man become a killer? Where does he learn to kill? And who is such a man? In El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin (Nation Books), an insider gives us a look behind the curtain.
The book, edited by New Mexico State University librarian Molly Molloy and journalist and author Charles Bowden, is an extension of the documentary Sicario: Room 164, in which the editors interviewed a former sicario, or hit man, for the Juárez cartel, now a born-again Christian seeking redemption.
The story - with the exception of Bowden's preface, Molloy's introduction into the sicario's world and a handful of notes within the text - is a transcribed and translated first-person account of a man trained to be an obedient and ruthless killer who turned his back on the cartel and now lives on the run. Apparently driven by a need to exorcise his demons and empty the poison, the sicario shares his experiences with a personal sense of mission to warn young people about life within drug organizations.
He retells his life as a classic story of passage through innocence, sin and redemption. It begins with a child growing in poverty who prizes above all the memory of a visit to the circus, the only time his parents had enough money to take him and his siblings out.
However, instead of presenting himself as a victim of circumstances, the sicario describes his frustrations with powerlessness and his ambitions for a different path from the work-saturated lives of his parents. Despite being a bright student who earns scholarships and starts college, he begins to do drug runs at an early age. At 15, he meets the current head of the Juárez cartel, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, and as a young man he decides to drop out of college and enter the police academy - under the sponsorship of the cartel.
The sicario describes police academies as training grounds for cartel operatives, where cadets on the cartel's payroll would even go to special FBI-hosted training in the United States.
The penetration of drug organizations into government institutions goes even further, as the sicario describes his duties delivering money to state officials, using patrol cars to move drugs, the old pacts with local governments to not sell drugs within their cities, and the presence of top military officials at narco-parties.
The following years are a blur of drugs and alcohol, which numb the sicario's senses so he can diligently obey his bosses' every instruction and not feel anything every time he kills or tortures a man.
The sicario talks about hundreds of undiscovered mass graves across Mexico that he doubts will ever be unearthed, describes kidnapping operations and gruesome torture techniques, retells the time his "unit" helped broker a peace deal between rival gangs and the municipal prison, and shares insights into the deaths of a well- respected Juárez journalist and an efficient prosecutor with the federal attorney general's office.
Eventually, realizing he had surrendered two decades of his life and personal ambitions to serve el patrón, the sicario decides to escape - a decision that leads to his current life on the run and back into poverty.
Most of his story is difficult to verify, although Molloy tried to cross-reference some of the events he narrates with existing media accounts. Furthermore, his language is sometimes vague and, as a transcription of a virtually uninterrupted monologue, sometimes lacks clarity and continuity, providing few concrete details about specific incidents and individuals involved in the drug trade.
Nevertheless, it is a man's clearheaded and articulated reflection on his life, one that exemplifies similar realities for thousands of Mexican men and women. Overall, it is a rare treat to hear such a story straight from the lion's mouth, one that offers a valuable glimpse into the mechanisms of recruitment within drug organizations and their precise divisions of labor.
El Sicario raises mixed feelings - the sicario himself wonders whether someone like him deserves forgiveness and redemption. But however the reader judges the storyteller, the book offers a look into the back halls behind the official story of Mexico and adds complexity to our understanding of the tight grip that drug organizations hold over Mexican society as a whole.