Friday, September 1, 2017

Book review: Martin Corona, "Confessions of a A Cartel Hitman"

This is the first of two parts...

Much appreciation to former Special Agent Steve Duncan for advancing a  copy of "Confessions". When Steve offered to send me an advance copy, I knew that at BB we had someone who could do the review justice, Borderland Beat contributor “J”. J grew up visiting Tijuana often including the violent years of the city.  He was able to put a personal element in his outstanding review.  Any of you who followed the Tijuana cartel/AFO need not an introduction to Martin Corona. Before becoming a teen he began dealing drugs, beginning his criminal career.  He became a sicario leader of an elite group of enforcers for the Tijuana Cartel.An example of Corona’s killings, is that of the sisters of a target named Ronnie Svoboda. One sister, Luz, was pregnant, the other, Ivonne, was a Paris fashion model, both are shot, Ivonne took 3 bullets in the head.  Luz’ 9 yr old daughter watched all the horror from the back seat, but was physically unhurt.  Amazingly the sisters survived but notunscathed, as Ivonne suffered brain damage.  Just a month later, the little girl would see Corona once again, when he and notorious sicario, David Barron, arrived at the grandfathers Tijuana home to beat her father to death.  He is now remorseful for his ghastly deeds,  From a Boy Scout to an effective, ruthless killer, Corona now asks for forgiveness. After the arrest of Javier Arellano-Félix in 2006, Corona played a key role in the downfall of the cartel when he turned state's evidence. The book also is an excellent source to exemplify how seamless cartel criminality flows from border cities like Tijuana to their U.S. counterpart, in this case San Diego County.  Many affluent Mexican nationals, wealthy by legitimate and/or organized crime endeavors, reside in San Diego cities such as Chula Vista. -C.M.-                                          

"As far as first hand documentation of the way of the gun in Tijuana, the brutality, the killings, the Arellano Felix brothers, their top lieutenants, there are few books like this."

Confessions of a Cartel Hitman by Martin Corona with Tony Rafael:

Review by Borderland Beat Reporter "J"

I grew up going to Tijuana, and seeing the wanted posters of the Arellano Felix brothers as we crossed through San Ysidro, thousands of cars in the night, in the gridlock of the border.  I used to stare at them, stare at the Federales with rifles walking above, and between the cars.  I asked my Mom once, who these men were, why were they wanted.  "Bad people", she had replied, "Bad men".  I wanted to know where they were, "But, Mom where are they"?  At 10 years old or so, I thought they were close by.

In a sense, they were.

It was 1997, and the Arellano Felix brothers still ran Tijuana. And Martin "Nite Owl" Corona, was soon to be running with David Barron Corona and Ramon Arellano Felix's team of killers, who lived in Colonia Chalupatec, the Beverly Hills of Tijuana, in mansions converted into safe houses and training facilities.  His story, and his involvement is one of a limited amount of direct knowledge about those days and times, who is willing to talk, willing to reveal, to confess, to purge, to heal.   If you are interested in the Arellano-Felix brothers, the Tijuana of that time, the socioeconomic and psychological conditions of a killer, you'll have to read this book.

I am conflicted however, because I had to read this book as well,  to review it or not, I would have read it. I have read many of these books, and they do not always feel the same as they did when I was younger. From psychological Cosa Nostra gangsters who flipped, to Sammy Gravano's tell all, to Hells Angels exiles, I have read these stories of men who lived to tell the story. They all share similar sentiments and personalities, which I suppose is to be expected. They are often extremely self aggrandizing, and at times lack a certain self awareness. Corona's book very much follows this pattern.

I believe he is sincere in his remorse, I believe his handler, Steve Duncan of the DOJ, who writes the intro. I don't believe he would say Corona was repentant if he wasn’t. Yet, as Corona launches into stories of apparently many sexual encounters, girlfriends, and younger glory days, which by far exceed the latter portions of the book, it does beg the question, if not of sincerity, but of delivery. He's done horrible things, and I have no doubt the trauma of that upon his psyche, not to mention the victims is a heavy burden, the stench of death, blood in the depths of the closest, the recesses of his mind. He is in the Witness Protection Program now, long from Tijuana, which will exceed 1200 killings by the end of this year, which is probably four times what it was when Corona was on the team.

It is the nature of the gangster to be self congratulatory and larger than life in many of his stories, but simply from a narrative perspective, you realize there is less than 100 pages left by the time he is in Tijuana.  There are some stories that are fascinating to read, Corona, Kitty Paez, (Arellano Felix partner, and the first to cooperate) and another enforcer driving around San Diego, in a van, planning a killing.  There are stories of life in the safe house, trips to Zona Norte's Red Light District, and providing security for a Colombian contact in Rosarito Beach. These stories aren't told with the detail I would prefer, which is perhaps a minor complaint. The book abruptly comes to a close, I didn't understand in the way I wanted to, of how it all worked out.

Nevertheless, as far as first hand documentation of the way of the gun in Tijuana, the brutality, the killings, the brothers, their top lieutenants, there are few like this. 'Twilight on the Line" has a chapter on the killing of the Cardinal in 1993, which does a really good job of painting the picture of Tijuana and Barrio Logan in the 90's. Beyond that, Benjamin wrote a book in 2015, which is in Spanish.  Eduardo Arellano Felix, is unlikely to pen a memoir. Francisco Arellano Felix was killed in 2013, Fernando Sanchez Arellano is in Altiplano fighting for his freedom, his mom, Endenina Arellano Felix is a shadow, a whisper in the dark.

The gunners, the boys, are all dead, though Bat Marquez (receiving an unflattering dressing down here) remains in federal prison for the rest of his life.; They went out in Tijuana, or San Diego, a long time ago.  Some may still survive, working construction, haunted, or perhaps not, by the memories of another life. To read, to picture, what no one else will say, you'll have to read this book, if that is a journey you want to take, you'll have to decide the cost.

The second part of this review will be posted tomorrow.  It includes excerpts and interview questions of Agent Steve Duncan.