By Ioan Grillo
A corpse is decorated by gangsters in Sinaloa, Mexico. Since 2006, Mexico has seen tens of thousands of drug-related murders Fernando Brito.
In his comprehensive and compelling new book, El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, British correspondent Ioan Grillo, who also reports for TIME, narrates the Mexican underworld's "radical transformation from drug smugglers into paramilitary death squads ... a criminal insurgency that poses the biggest armed threat to Mexico since its 1910 revolution." Grillo outlines both the Mexican and American policy failures that fostered the crisis, which has produced 40,000 murders south of the border since 2006. More important, he offers a rare and unsettling look into the lives of ordinary Mexicans and other Latin Americans "sucked into [the drug war] or victimized by it." An excerpt:
It all seemed like a bad dream.
It may have been vivid and raw. But it felt somehow surreal, like Gonzalo was watching these terrible acts from above. Like it was someone else who had firefights with ski-masked federal police in broad daylight. Someone else who stormed into homes and dragged away men from crying wives and mothers. Someone else who duct-taped victims to chairs and starved and beat them for days. Someone else who clasped a machete and began to hack off their craniums while they were still living.
But it was all real.
He was a different man when he did those things, Gonzalo tells me. He had smoked crack cocaine and drunk whisky every day, had enjoyed power in a country where the poor are so powerless, had a latest model truck and could pay for houses in cash, had four wives and children scattered all over ... had no God.
"In those days, I had no fear. I felt nothing. I had no compassion for anybody," he says, speaking slowly, swallowing some words.
His voice is high and nasal after police smashed his teeth out until he confessed. His face betrays little emotion. I can't really take in the gravity of what he is saying — until I play back a video of the interview later and transcribe his words. And then as I wallow over the things he told me, I have to pause and shudder inside.
I talk to Gonzalo in a prison cell he shares with eight others on a sunny Tuesday morning in Ciudad Juárez, the most murderous city on the planet. We are less than seven miles from the U.S. and the Rio Grande that slices through North America like a line dividing a palm. Gonzalo sits on his bed in the corner clasping his hands together on his lap. He wears a simple white T-shirt that reveals a protruding belly under broad shoulders and bulging muscles that he built as a teenage American football star and are still in shape at his 38 years. Standing 6 ft. 2 in., he cuts an imposing figure and exhibits an air of authority over his cellmates. But as he talks to me, he is modest and forthcoming. He bears a goatee, divided between a curved black moustache and gray hairs on his chin. His eyes are focused and intense, looking ruthless and intimidating but also revealing an inner pain.
Gonzalo spent 17 years working as a soldier, kidnapper and murderer for Mexican drug gangs. In that time he took the lives of many, many more people than he can count. In most countries, he would be viewed as a dangerous serial killer and locked up in a top security prison. But Mexico today has thousands of serial murderers. Overwhelmed jails have themselves become scenes of bloody massacres: 20 slain in one riot; 21 murdered in another; 23 in yet another: all in penitentiaries close to this same cursed border.
Within these sanguine pens, we are in a kind of sanctuary — an entire wing of born-again Christians. This is the realm of Jesus, they tell me, a place where they abide by laws of their own "ecclesiastical government." Other wings in this jail are segregated between gangs: one controlled by the Barrio Azteca, which works for the Juárez Cartel; another controlled by their sworn enemies the Artist Assassins, who murder for the Sinaloa Cartel.
The 300 Christians try to live outside of this war. Baptized Libres en Cristo, or "Free Through Christ," the sect founded in the prison borrows some of the radical and rowdy elements of Southern U.S. Evangelicalism to save these souls. I visit a jail-block mass before I sit down with Gonzalo. The pastor, a convicted drug trafficker, mixes stories of ancient Jerusalem with his hard-core street experiences, using slang and addressing the flock as the "homies from the barrio." A live band blends rock, rap and norteño music into their hymns. And the sinners let it all out, slam-dancing wildly to the chorus, praying with eyes closed tight, teeth gritted, sweat pouring from foreheads, hands raised to the heavens — using all their spiritual power to exorcise their heinous demons.
Gonzalo has more demons than most. He was incarcerated in the prison a year before I met him, and bought his way into the Christian wing hoping it was a quiet place where he could escape the war. But when I listen carefully to his interview, he sounds like he really has given his heart to Christ, really does pray for redemption. And when he talks to me — a nosy British journalist prying into his past — he is really confessing to Jesus.
"You meet Christ and it is a totally different thing. You feel horror, and start thinking about the things you have done. Because it was bad. You think about the people. It could have been a brother of mine I was doing these things to. I did bad things to a lot of people. A lot of parents suffered."
"When you belong to organized crime you have to change. You could be the best person in the world, but the people you live with change you completely. You become somebody else. And then the drugs and liquor change you."
I have watched too many videos of the pain caused by killers like Gonzalo. I have seen a sobbing teenager tortured on a tape sent to his family; a bloodied old man confessing that he had talked to a rival cartel; a line of kneeling victims with bags over their heads being shot in the brain one by one. Does someone who has committed such crimes deserve redemption? Do they deserve a place in heaven?
Yet, I see a human side to Gonzalo. He is friendly and well mannered. We chat about lighter issues. Perhaps in another time and place, he could have been a stand-up guy who worked hard and cared for his family — like his father, who, he says, was a lifelong electrician and union man.
I have known angry, violent men in my home country; hooligans who smash bottles into people's faces or stab people at soccer games. And on the surface, those men seem more hateful and intimidating than Gonzalo as he talks to me in the prison cell. Yet they have killed nobody. Gonzalo has helped turn Mexico at the dawn of the 21st century into a bloodbath that has shocked the world.
In his 17 years in the service of the mafia, Gonzalo witnessed extraordinary changes in the Mexican drug industry.
He began his career in Durango, the mountainous northern state that is the proud birthplace of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. It is also near the heartland of smugglers who have taken drugs to America since Washington first made them illegal. After dropping out of high school and abandoning his hopes of becoming an NFL quarterback, Gonzalo did what many young tough nuts in his town did: he joined the police force. It was here he learned the highly marketable skills of kidnapping and torture.
The path from policeman to villain is alarmingly common in Mexico. Major drug lords, such as the 1980's "Boss of Bosses" Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, began as officers of the law, as did notorious kidnapper Daniel Arizmendi, alias the Ear Lopper. Like them, Gonzalo left the police after a reasonably short stint, deserting when he was 20 years old to pursue a full-time criminal career.
He arrived in Ciudad Juárez and did dirty work for an empire of traffickers who smuggled drugs along a thousand miles of border from east of Juárez to the Pacific Ocean. The year was 1992, glorious days for Mexico's drug mafias. A year earlier, the Soviet Union had collapsed and governments across the world were globalizing their economies. A year later, Colombian police shot dead cocaine king Pablo Escobar, signaling the beginning of the demise of that country's cartels. As the 1990s went on, Mexican traffickers flourished, moving tons of narcotics north and pumping back billions of dollars amid the surge in free trade created by NAFTA. They replaced Colombians as the dominant mafia in the Americas. Gonzalo provided muscle for these gangster entrepreneurs, pressuring (or kidnapping and murdering) anyone who didn't pay their bills. And he became a rich man, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But by the time of his arrest 17 years later, his job and his industry had changed drastically. He was leading heavily armed troops in urban warfare against rival gangs. He was carrying out mass kidnappings and controlling safe houses with dozens of victims bound and gagged. He was working with high-ranking city police officers, but fighting pitched battles against federal agents. And he was carrying out brutal terror, including countless decapitations. He had become, he tells me, a man he did not recognize when he stared in the mirror.
"You learn a lot of forms of torture. To a point you enjoy carrying them out. We laughed at people's pain — at the way we tortured them. There are many forms of torture. Cutting off arms, decapitating. This is a very strong thing. You decapitate someone and have no feeling, no fear."
Understanding the Mexican drug war is crucial not only because of morbid curiosity at heaps of severed-brain cases — but because the problems in Mexico are being played out across the world. We hear little about communist guerrillas in the Americas these days, but criminal uprisings are spreading like bushfire. In El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha forced bus drivers into a national strike over anti-gang laws; in Brazil, the First Command torched 82 buses, 17 banks and killed 42 policemen in one coordinated offensive; in Jamaica, police clashed with supporters of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, leaving 70 dead. Are pundits going to insist this is just cops and robbers? The Mexican drug war is a frightening warning of how bad things could get in these other countries; it is a case study in criminal insurgency.
Many Salvadoran gang bangers are the sons of communist guerrillas — and call themselves combatants just like their fathers. But they don't care about Che Guevara and socialism, just money and power. In a globalized world, mafia capitalists and criminal insurgents have become the new dictators and the new rebels. Welcome to the 21st century.