Interview with a Mexican hitman
We agree to not reveal his real name. He wants me to call him George, but he slips some information about his identity, boasting that everyone on the streets of Culiacan calls him "Diablillo" or Little Devil.
He sits in front of me, crosses his legs and places the Israeli-made 50-calibre handgun on his lap - the cannon pointing at me.
"Does it make you uncomfortable?" he asks, smiling sarcastically.
I thought to myself that it wasn't the first time I've had guns pointing at me, but it was the first time I was interviewing a Mexican hitman with a gun on his lap. A chilling thought crossed my mind: perhaps in a few hours someone would be killed with that same weapon.
The lights are on, the cameras ready to roll. It's hot in the basement and the hitman sweats profusely. He's never been interviewed before and says he's nervous.
"My boss told me to come and talk to you," I tell him. "It's OK," he says, but under one condition: we won't go over details about the organisation he works for, who his boss is or any information that could put his life at risk. I agree, for his sake, and for my own team's security.
We agree to not reveal his real name. He wants me to call him George, but he slips some information about his identity, boasting that everyone on the streets of Culiacan calls him "Diablillo" or Little Devil. It's a nickname that actually suits him well after having spent the last 11 years of his life going all over Mexico on a killing rampage ... or so he says.
'I really don't know'
"How many people have you killed?" I ask. "I really don't know, 80? 100?" It could be many more. He says he stopped counting years ago.
George is a 26-year-old hitman, a "sicario", as hitmen are called in Mexico. Since he was 15, when he began killing people for money, he's had a clear agenda: to protect his boss and collect debts owed to the powerful drug trafficking organisation he professes loyalty to.
George was born and raised in a small town known as Badiraguato, the cradle of most of Mexico’s drug cartels. Our contact says he belongs to a family of a "legendary" drug lord from the state of Sinaloa. Guns and narcotics were commonly found around the ranch house, as rice on a kitchen's counter.
"I was raised in a ranch where we 'grow' drugs - everything from poppy to marijuana. That brings in a lot of money and power," he says. And, it's implied, killing people is part of the family tradition; it runs in his blood.
George says he'll do anything to show his loyalty to his boss. "I have killed friends, family members. You see, this is a business and they failed to comply with the business; they failed our boss and orders are orders. In the end, we don't have a heart."
One would think that George is a typical mean-looking criminal, the type authorities usually parade for a press photo-op. But he's not. He's a bit short, chubby and smiles easily - he almost resembles a child having fun with his toy gun.
As I was watching him, I turned to the door where a man in his early 30s was standing still, looking at each one of us in the room, vigilant. His eyes were cold, impenetrable. I have seen that look before in other conflict areas ... death is written on them. He is George’s zealous bodyguard. He moves slowly, with his right hand always inside a blue sac hanging from his shoulder. He's holding his gun, ready to shoot, I believe. He knows that if something happens to George, he's dead.
In this world of Mexican "mafiosos", loyalty is leveraged by money. And money is what gives "third-tier kingpins" like George, power.
Money not only buys allies among traffickers and corrupt authorities; it buys what criminals like George are willing to die for: expensive SUVs, gold chains, women or turtle boots, like the white ones George is wearing for the interview.
For killers like George, business is good these days. The turf war in Mexico gets bloodier every day. Drug lords are showering their hitmen with so much money they can be confident that anyone who interferes with their businesses will likely become a lethal target.
"I got paid $100 to kill a general and $70,000 for a senator," says George. I can't verify if this is true. But I am curious to know how much a journalist like me is worth in Mexico. So I ask the question: How much would you charge to kill a reporter? He pauses, looking at me straight in the eyes and replies: "About $1,000."
Life in Mexico has no value. George assures me that he no longer charges for killing policemen. He just does it because it will win him the respect of his boss and that of 18 young hitmen who follow him, protect him and kill for him. Among them, two 12-year-olds, who by the way, he says, have already killed four people altogether.
Many of these kids, or sicarios, are poor young Mexicans who didn't have many choices in life. Unemployment is high and poverty affects millions of people in this country. Before settling at a job for less than $1 a day, like millions of Mexicans, many of these youngsters prefer to join the ranks of the drug cartels and get enough pocket money to get them through the day.
But George’s case is different. He tells me he has $1.5m divided among bank accounts in the United States and hidden safes. And he says wants to make more because "it's not about having money anymore, its about power. How much power do I want to have? All the power necessary to live my life however I want".
Always on the run
This statement, however, is a fantasy. George cannot live the life he really wants "in peace", as he says. For months he's been sleeping between three and five hours each day. Never on the same bed. Always on the run.
I ask him how long does he think he will live? "I hope for long, but right now I live day by day, perhaps I go out now and get killed,' he says. "My life is pending from a string because I have a lot of problems." He has sowed many enemies.
He takes a sip of water and wipes his head. "It's hot here in Culiacan, the streets are very hot”. He means dangerous, violent. Fighting has become vicious, there is no compassion and no space for remorse.
The violence is at an unprecedented peak and George is one of thousands of Mexico’s violence masterminds. "That’s what I do. That’s my job, I go after debtors. I kill them."
And you torture people, too, right? "Of course," he answers cooly.
I ask him if he's not tormented by his victims' pleas for compassion. "If you can believe me, no. I get energetic, I get like adrenaline, and when they start to shout I feel anger," he says.
"The more suffering I inflict on them, the stronger the adrenaline. It's like an adventure. Torturing people takes the stress away from me." Really? I can’t help feeling my own words tripping and I can't help asking him why doesn't he go jogging instead. No joke.
I can tell that he really feels no remorse. "It's too late. At this point in my life there is no way I could go for another job," he says. "I am confined to it. I am only waiting to get killed and when the day comes there won’t be any compassion for my life because I’ve done a lot of damage."
The only way George says he can stay alive for a while longer is if he maintains his hitmen’s loyalty, if he feeds their appetite for a fast life, providing them with women and drugs ... if he can make sure he won’t miss a shot. It's either live by the gun or die.
And he can only do this with money. Lots of it. There is a saying in Mexico: "Even a dog dances for money ... but without it, one dances like a dog."
In the end he looks uneasy. It's not the heat. We've talked for over an hour. "You are torturing me with your questions," he says. "And the person who actually tortures people here is me." By then I thought ... lets just leave it at that.