With his thick arms and big hands, he looked just like one of the millions of Mexican labourers living illegally in the United States and seeking off-the-books building work to survive. As we drove around this city we cannot name, it was only his eyes that revealed his former profession – they watched constantly for any sign of danger. He was a man with a bounty on his head.
For more than 20 years, he served the Juárez cartel as a professional hitman – a sicario. He killed hundreds of people, then stole money from his bosses and ran. Now a bullet through his head could earn $250,000 for another contract killer.
For six days, in room 164 of an anonymous motel, he told us of his life as a professional assassin for the Juárez drugs organisation, a cartel that controlled one of the main drug trafficking routes from Mexico across the border into the lucrative American market.
He chose this room to tell his story: the same one that he had used to hold and torture people he had kidnapped as an enforcer for the cartel.
"Juárez is a cemetery," he said at one point of Ciudad Juárez , the gang's stronghold inside Mexico. How many people had he killed? "I can't answer that because of the drugs and alcohol" [that he took while he was working].
Later, during some of the interviews conducted over two years from late 2008, he explained that he had helped bury at least 250 people in Juárez alone – and he has operated in many Mexican states and cities.
He talked with a brutal eloquence of the methods of his former life. He recalled burning the skin off people, chopping off fingers and arms, lowering people alive into barrels of boiling water. He strangled others until life their ebbed away. "It is so ugly to torture a woman, to see the outrages done to them," he said. But he did it.
His story is more than one of a life turned criminal. It is one that details the huge power of the cartels to influence life in Mexico; the unholy alliances between authorities and the gangs; corruption and power; and how a brutal war on drugs launched by the Mexican authorities has failed at the cost of thousands of lives. His life as a hitman started as a teenager. He was recruited, by people that he knew were in the drugs business, to drive loaded cars across a bridge spanning the border between Juárez and El Paso in Texas.
The same men arranged his entry (even though he was under-age) into an academy where he was trained and paid a small salary as a police cadet, always knowing that the real money – and his real paymasters – came from the Juárez cartel. Later, as a commander in an anti-kidnapping unit of police in the northern state of Chihuahua, he simultaneously kidnapped and killed on orders from the Juárez cartel. He and his colleagues drove around in their squad car, high on cartel-supplied cocaine, ready to kill.
Since the late 1980s, when the Colombian cocaine trade began to flow through Mexico, various organisations have dominated the business: Sinaloa, Juárez, Gulf, Tijuana, Beltran-Leyva, Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana. According to US intelligence, drugs sales earn Mexico up to $50bn (£31bn) a year.
Sometimes subgroups of the gangs band together on deals and then drift apart, or a fragment of one will strike out on its own. There is constant friction and in the drugs business, friction produces murder. On Saturday, 14 people were murdered in separate incidents in Juárez. The industry cannot survive without sicarios to do the killing.
Since 1993, the Carrillo Fuentes family has run the Juárez operation. The sicario gave his life to them by killing on their command. "In the world of the cartels... it is the patron – the boss – who gives the orders. The boss never makes a mistake," he said.
At one of our early meetings, he was shown some photographs. He pointed at one image of a man standing over a dead woman. "This photograph can get you killed." Later we learned that he knew the man, that he had witnessed him cut a baby in half in front of the child's parents. The sicario also knew that the killer had been a member of a police force in the northern state of Chihuahua. After years of working and killing under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he suddenly stopped using them. "I started to function at 200 per cent. I was stronger, faster, more aggressive..."
But these changes in him raised the suspicions of his bosses. He could no longer be trusted and he fled. He does not think he can ever be forgiven for what he has done. He often got five to twenty thousand dollars for a hit, plus expenses. But his world of high-end contract killings and good pay has been outsourced.
He accepts that eventually he will be run to ground. The sicario sees former colleagues and enemies in the streets, shops and even churches in the city where he hides by trying to blend in. He said that he would not let himself be taken alive because he knows what happens to those who are taken.
He assumes his killer will be a teenager who wants to collect the huge bounty on his head. In Juárez, armies of young men patrol the streets and they will kill for $50 or $100. He was a pioneer of their bloody trade.
In December 2006, President Felipe Calderó* deployed the Mexican military to fight the drugs cartels, though there is ample evidence that elements of the army had been in league with traffickers for decades. This current effort to renegotiate the arrangement has left more than 40,000 Mexicans dead and further corrupted the Mexican army, but it has not interfered with the shipment of drugs abroad, nor with the amount of money flowing in.
The sicario told us that he finally agreed to talk after he prayed, and God told him to do so. He is one of very few from inside the system to speak publicly. He knows that he spent his life as a pawn of the drugs industry.
He knows that he's a dead man walking – and those trying to kill him have already come close. At one point, amid growing publicity about his case, he knew he had to disappear, to cut off contact with us who had in a way become his confessors. "The trouble with you," he said, "is that you have never been tortured."
Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden are the editors of 'El Sicario: Confessions of a Cartel Hitman'Reuse content