El Sicario

The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin


Edited by Molly Molloy

Edited by Charles Bowden

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In this unprecedented and chilling monologue, a repentant Mexican hitman tells the unvarnished truth about the war on drugs on the American. El Sicario is the hidden face of America’s war on drugs. He is a contract killer who functioned as a commandante in the Chihuahuan State police, who was trained in the US by the FBI, and who for twenty years kidnapped, tortured and murdered people for the drug industry at the behest of Mexican drug cartels. He is a hit man who came off the killing fields alive. He left the business and turned to Christ. And then he decided to tell the story of his life and work. Charles Bowden first encountered El Sicario while reporting for the book “Murder City”. As trust between the two men developed, Bowden bore witness to the Sicario’s unfolding confession, and decided to tell his story. The well-spoken man that emerges from the pages of El Sicario is one who has been groomed by poverty and driven by a refusal to be one more statistic in the failure of Mexico. He is not boastful, he claims no major standing in organized crime. But he can explain in detail not only torture and murder, but how power is distributed and used in the arrangement between the public Mexican state and law enforcement on the ground – where terror and slaughter are simply tools in implementing policy for both the police and the cartels. And he is not an outlaw or a rebel. He is the state. When he headed the state police anti-kidnapping squad in Juarez, he was also running a kidnapping ring in Juarez. When he was killing people for money in Juarez, he was sharpening his marksmanship at the Federal Police range. Now he lives in the United States as a fugitive. One cartel has a quarter million dollar contract on his head. Another cartel is trying to recruit him. He speaks as a free man and of his own free will – there are no charges against him. He is a lonely voice – no one with his background has ever come forward and talked. He is the future – there are thousands of men like him in Mexico and there will be more in other places. He is the truth no one wants to hear.


Also by Charles Bowden
Murder City
Killing the Hidden Waters
Street Signs Chicago: Neighborhood and Other Illusions of Big City Life (with Lew Kreinberg)
Blue Desert
Frog Mountain Blues (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
Trust Me: Charles Keating and the Missing Billions (with Michael Binstein)
Red Line
Desierto: Memories of the Future
The Sonoran Desert (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
The Secret Forest (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America
Chihuahua: Pictures from the Edge (photographs by Virgil Hancock)
Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau (photographs by Jack W. Dykinga)
The Sierra Pinacate (by Julian D. Hayden; photographs by Jack Dykinga; with essays by Charles Bowden and Bernard L. Fontana)
Juárez: The Laboratory for Our Future (preface by Noam Chomsky; afterword by Eduardo Galeano)
Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family
Blues for Cannibals
A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior
Inferno (photographs by Michael P. Berman)
Exodus/Éxodo (photographs by Julián Cardona)
Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future
Trinity (photographs by Michael P. Berman)

For my father, NDM, 1920–1998, and my brother, NDM Jr., 1951–2010, lovers of flight, books, and hard truths

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

He is difficult to remember. I have been dealing with him for the better part of a year when the next rendezvous happens. As usual, he is late. The meetings are always complicated and never happen on time. He keeps calling, changing times and locations, and still, every new schedule is overturned and the clock keeps ticking. I have gotten used to these complications.
But what keeps bothering me is that I cannot remember him. The face always remains a blank in my mind.
He'll be standing in front of me explaining something to me. Cars roll by on a busy avenue, and somehow he talks and yet constantly scans everything flickering around him. That time, he wanted me to understand a hit, realize that there was a long back story and he knew that story. He tells of a house in Ciudad Chihuahua, where a woman was held for five days, and how in order to convince her husband, three fingers were cut off the wife's hand on a one-a-day plan. He gives me documents so that I will understand what he is talking about. And then he gets into a truck I have never seen before and leaves.
Eventually, this passes, this failure on my part to clearly remember what he looks like. I slowly forge a face despite his ability to seemingly morph before my eyes. Part of this comes from the fact that I cannot accurately describe him in print without putting his life at risk. But mainly it comes from something else: He looks ordinary. Nothing in his appearance signals what he has been and what he has done. I think we often use words like "evil" and "monster" in order to not admit that people like the sicario are normal and just like you or me. Somehow, even given this fact, they manage to kidnap people, torture them, kill them, cut them up, and bury them when the rest of us cannot imagine doing such things.
I remember explaining this fact to a reporter from the daily newspaper in Milan, Italy, after the film that forged the core of this book had premiered in Venice. She started shouting, "No, no, no, no, no."
This account is, to my knowledge, a rare opportunity to meet such a person and to finally understand such a person. It is neither a defense of such a life nor a judgment on it, but an explanation given by a man who has done all these things and, at least for the moment, has lived to tell the tale.
This book resulted from days of interviews. Some parts have been rearranged but not much. He is a very lucid man. I remember the first interview: I asked one question, and he talked for two days without stumbling. Like most stories people make of their lives, his account is a journey from innocence to sin and then on to redemption, in his case by being born again in Christ. But it is his story—it is a Mexican life, not an American life.
The interviews began as a report that wound up in Harper's magazine and then continued as a film, a documentary of his life, directed by the Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi. This book began with the transcripts from that filming, which went on for days on two separate occasions. He was paid for these interviews. I don't think they changed what he said or what he believes, but the reader will be the judge of that.
I believe he is going to be a part of our future. Killers like him are multiplying. The global economy has brought ruin for many, and he is a pioneer of a new type of person: the human who kills and expects to be killed and has little hope or complaint. He does not fit our beliefs or ideas. But he exists, and so do the others who are following in this path.
His story is about power, but he is never really in control. He must worry about his superiors, he must worry about other killers, about police, the army, all the agents of violence who at times are his colleagues but who never can be trusted. He must worry. His world is not as imagined in novels and films. He is always the man who comes and takes you and tortures you and kills you. But still, he is always worried, because his work stands on a floor of uncertainty. Alliances shift, colleagues vanish—sometimes because he murders them—and he seldom knows what is really going on. He catches only glimpses of the battlefield.
Since my original piece in Harper's, there have been some questions.
Some say that I made him up.
You be the judge.
Some ask me if he is a psychopath or sociopath or some other path.
Some tell me they hope he burns in hell. Almost always this is said by those who believe neither in heaven nor in hell.
I do not share their appetite.
Some ask me if I was afraid.
Yes, of what he told me, and of what I must face as part of my world and my hopes for my world.
In 2007, 307 people were murdered in Juárez, a city that was then 348 years old. This was the bloodiest year in the history of the city.
In 2008, 1,623 people were murdered.
In 2009, 2,754 were murdered.
In 2010, 3,111 were murdered.
At the same time, El Paso, the Texas city facing Juárez, was experiencing ten to twenty murders a year. That number dwindled to five in 2010, and two of those were a murder-suicide.
And yet, the reports in the United States were about the risk of violence spilling over the border. There were few reports of the violence in Juárez.
The sicario's story is from an earlier time, one that pretty much ended in 2007. He worked in the innocent days when Mexico was peaceful and a success story to all the nations. He lived inside a system, and he explains just how this system worked. This system has changed now and become more violent, more corrupt, and more out of control. But it persists, and all discussions of Mexico must accept the facts of life that the sicario lived.
He's killed hundreds of people—he can't really remember them all—and he was paid very well for his work. He is highly trained and very intelligent. And I can't seem to remember his face.
I get bored waiting, and so I wander out of the Home Depot parking lot and kill time looking at barbecue grills. After a while, I go outside again and sit on a bench by the door. My eye floats over the busy parking lot—he likes places with lots of traffic to mask his arrival—studying vehicles as they prowl the lanes. I know this is a waste of time, since he changes cars with each trip. He prides himself on this fact, that no one can find him by noting his vehicle. Just as he never reveals where he is living at the moment and moves every two or three weeks, sometimes more often.
This is necessary because of footsteps. One time, he clears out just sixty minutes before the arrival of people who were looking for him.
But still, what strikes me is the blankness of his face in my mind. I have been wandering his world for over twenty years and have grown accustomed to fake names or no names, have learned never to ask certain questions and always to memorize faces, words, any clue that falls before me.
In his case, I keep coming up empty. I know his nickname because it accidentally fell from someone's lips. But I don't know his real name. I have prayed with him, but I can't identify his church. He knows a lot about me. He is a bear for research and mines the Internet with ease. This habit aids his work. For years he has made detailed studies of people he is to kidnap, torture, and kill.
This work habit underscores his caution. He knows the people who will come to kill him have the same skills and put in the same hours combing records in order to find him. His phone numbers have a very short life, his e-mail addresses shift constantly. I remember once spending days with him, and then, within an hour or two of leaving him, his phone number went dead forever. All this makes a certain sense because the price on his head is at least $250,000 and rising. Besides this fact, another criminal organization is searching for him in order to hire him.
Still, no system is perfect. Once, he is discovered and then flees well over a thousand miles until things calm down. He gets reports—I don't ask how—about the people looking for him. He always knows more than the newspapers report, and yet he seems severed from all contact with the workaday world.
The day is sunny, a weekend, and shoppers seem relaxed as they stream into the Home Depot with their patio dreams. In such a setting, he should stand out like a sore thumb, but I know he will not.
I stare at the ground in front of the bench and wait. Suddenly, someone is standing before me. I look up and am not sure who the person is.
Of course, it's him. This happens every time. He wears no disguise, no makeup, he does not vary costumes. He simply is not memorable.
We slap each other on the back, laugh, and then we move on. Plans are always changed at the last instant. We search for a place to talk and run through three locations before he insists on a certain motel and a certain room, 164. I have learned not to ask why.
Given the nature of this book, there are certain things that cannot be done. First, it is not my book or Molly Molloy's book but rather the sicario's book, and it must be told in his words without the protective screen of some narrator explaining him away. As it happens, he is an incisive and clear guide to his world, and there is no need to dress up his language. Second, we must realize this book is more like a song than a manual, and like a song it creates a reality and this reality creates all the answers. In this reality, everything is answered by two conditions: death and power. For example, in the opening kidnapping it becomes clear as the story evolves that essentially no one comes back from being snatched alive. And generally not even a corpse is returned to the families. Also, every problem is solved by graft. You lose an immigration card and presto, the fix is in and you get a new U.S. visa. The sicario takes us to the real Latin America, not a place of magical realism, but a place of murderous realism.
The purpose of the book is not to answer the reader's questions but to teach the reader a new reality, one in which an American reader's normal questions are absurd because the reader has entered a world of terror and total corruption. The reader is not staring at the face of the sicario, but into the true face of the Mexican state, and in this place no one asks if a cop is honest or corrupt, no one asks if a murder will be investigated, and no one asks for justice but simply seeks survival. In this world, the statements of American presidents about Mexico mean nothing because they insist on a Mexico that does not exist and that has never existed.
This is the gift of the book: a true voice from within the ranks of the people who actually run Mexico. This voice has been discussed by others from time to time but never actually allowed to speak before.
In some ways the book reminds me of the Iliad, a self-contained strange world that by its very existence upends all the lies and assumptions of our world. In the Iliad humans are toys for the gods' pleasure. In this book humans are toys that are tortured and murdered by unseen forces wearing the mask of the Mexican state. And in this world every Achilles or Hector learns this reality as he goes into the holes and is covered with lime.
What we have is the unspeakable nature of Mexican power, and for once it finally speaks and tells us both our fate and our ignorance of the world.
There is nothing to do but listen.
I have watched audiences deal with the documentary film that became the arena where the sicario discovered his desire to speak out. At first they are puzzled, then frightened, and when it ends they have no questions and too many answers. A Mexican director told me, "The problem is that he is too clear, too good, too convincing. No one wants to believe him."
That first bout of filming went on for two days.
And gradually he explained that room 164 was essential because this was the room where he once brought a package.
I remember the red door to the room opening. The bed, kitchenette, sitting area with chair and sofa—this looked familiar and safe. I'd been in hundreds of rooms just like it in my years on the road, and they had always been safe havens after long days of reporting on this or that.
But this time I was wrong.
We'd entered here to get some footage.
He had a different agenda.
We got a life that tore a hole in our idea of life.
He acted out what he had done in that room to that man.
I still have a hard time remembering his face.
But I don't think I'll forget his story.

The night is warm and hazy from the refinery stacks on one side of the border, from street dust and smoke on the other side. A low sky glows dull orange. The stocky man sits on the bricks of the empty hearth in the mostly empty house. His thick arms cradle a baby, and another child bounces around him like a wood sprite, irrepressible after sneaking half a bag of Hershey's kisses while waiting for the man to get home. This child had called every few minutes on his cell phone during the hours we drove around the city. He gently scolds the kid now and puts the bag of chocolate away.
He took a circuitous route to the tract-house neighborhood, somewhere in the city. I am certain I could not get there again on my own. He will not be at this house for long anyway, or he would never have taken me there. He needed a ride back tonight because his borrowed car broke down. As we drove, he told me that his wife and children had crossed the border some time ago without legal papers, that it was another miracle of the Lord. The house is large, the window blinds bent and broken, a few pieces of cheap, castoff furniture in each room. Except for a table in the kitchen, a strong rough table that he crafted himself with leftover wood from a recent remodeling job.
On the old computer in the kitchen, he shows off some photographs of his recent handiwork—remodeled houses in neighborhoods like this one. He often leaves a house on an hour's notice and carries nothing with him but his family. His jobs must be arranged through others with the papers and the tools and the connections. He has the strong arms, skills, and hardworking attitude of an expert craftsman, and nothing else. I noticed on occasion during interviews that he would get a call from a former or prospective employer in his new survival world of odd construction jobs. His voice would instantly change from that of "the authority" to that of the submissive worker: "Yes, sir. Yes, chief. Of course, I'm here at your service.... What are your orders, sir?" The very same voice he used as he reenacted other jobs you will read about in this book.
Several days of recordings, about ten hours of sound, went into this book. Other than these introductory pages and a few footnotes, the words in the book are the sicario's words. Several other interviews were recorded in notebooks—he talked, I translated, and Charles Bowden wrote it down.
The first time I met him, the sicario was not happy at the idea of having to trust yet another person. In fact, he had already placed himself at risk by agreeing to talk to Bowden. Standing outside in a parking lot on a blustery day, Bowden introduces me as his bodyguard. I translate: "Dice que soy su guardaespalda." For a split second the man's eyes darken as he considers the possibility, knowing from experience that killers come in all sizes and the one that gets you is the person you overlook, but then the joke kicks in. Here we are—three men totaling at least 600 pounds between them and me at four-foot-eleven and about 100 pounds. The sicario's usually blank face breaks into a grin, and he laughs out loud, probably convinced by now that we are all crazy and certain that we have to be crazy to be there at all. Later, we learn that there were other crazy people at key moments in his journey, and now I believe he is convinced that we are part of a fraternity of holy fools that God has placed on his path. He believes that God has a purpose for his life, that part of this purpose is fulfilled by telling his story, and that Bowden and I are tools to make it happen.
We go to a motel for the interview. While the room is being rented, he takes me aside and asks me to tell Bowden that he will not be able to talk today, that he has important bills due and needs money up front. Nevertheless, without any money changing hands, we go into the room and sit at the small wooden table while he talks for four hours. He looks at Bowden's notebook and tells him not to write anything down. Bowden writes for four hours. He takes a small notebook and green pen from me and diagrams parts of the story. At the end of the interview, I reach across the table to take the pages. He laughs and then tears the sheets into tiny bits and pockets them.
Months later, we meet to arrange the details for the filming. This is done as we drive around the city for several hours in another person's car. The sicario does not like to meet and talk in cafés or other public places. Before he has agreed to talk to Charles Bowden, he has researched him on the Internet, and he comes to the interview with a sheaf of downloaded pages about Bowden's books and a photograph taken in the writer's backyard. He has not met the filmmaker at this point, but he has searched the Web for information about Gianfranco Rosi also, and he brings some of those printouts with him when we meet to talk about the project.
He states his conditions: the film can never show his face, and his voice will have to be altered before the film can be shown. There are powerful people on both sides of the border looking for him. The price on his head is high. There are people he will speak of who are still alive. There are those who will never forget the face or the voice of the man who tortured them.
And so arrangements are made for the days and hours of the filming. Deciding on the place that will suit the subject and the filmmaker is more of a challenge. I think the sicario intended from the beginning to take us to room 164, but he wants us to make the choice. We spend an afternoon driving around the city visiting motels and apartments he has access to. Finally, he and Rosi agree on room 164. For the next two days, the sicario sits in the room where he once performed another job. But this time, for the camera, he talks for hours, his head shrouded in a black fishnet veil, and he draws pictures and diagrams with a thick brown pen in a large leather-bound sketchbook. The veil is the filmmaker's idea and is intended just to hide the man's face and also allow him to breathe, but it turns out to be a stroke of genius. With his head covered, the sicario enters a state of grace, as if talking to another person inside of himself. His words and emotions flow into story with hardly any need for questions. Later, I learn that Rosi's nine-year-old daughter saw a drawing of the sicario under the veil and told her father: he looks like an ancient killer. This drawing will become the poster for the documentary film El Sicario, Room 164.
On the day of this visit to the sicario's house, I have come with a digital voice recorder and a list of questions to help clear up some details, a few names, important dates, things recorded earlier that were unclear. We drive around the city for several hours, his hands controlling the recorder while I try to make notes. He remains fuzzy on the dates, explaining that when he found God he erased his disco duro, his hard drive. There are things he does not want to remember. But when his head is wrapped in the black veil, he inhabits that state of grace, and like a man hypnotized, he is able to relive his experiences and tell his story in a way that he cannot do face to face, in the light of day, in response to a list of questions.
He doesn't like the questions I ask, especially if they are written down and communicated in any way other than a face-to-face conversation. He knows that nothing he does is safe from notice, that people watch, that any carelessness could reveal his presence, and that he is running out of places to hide. So I drive to the meeting and later will transcribe another several hours of his answers. He shows me some printouts from the Internet that he says will illustrate some of his answers. But then he tells me that these explanations of "narco-messages" are "pure fantasy"—garbage posted online by fake sicarios. He wants to be sure I know the difference, that his voice is the authentic one. Then he answers the questions, and those words are here in this book.
When I first listen to the recordings made during the filming, they are so clear, and the voice so plain and alive, that I decide to write directly into English without first transcribing into Spanish text. It is the most careful listening I've ever done, and it is necessary so that the English text will have the sense, rhythm, and character of the Spanish speaker telling his compelling life story for the first time. As editors, we have made only minimal changes from the spoken words to the order in which the story is presented in this book. The first day is a chronological recounting of his life. On the second day, the sicario reflects on what that story means. He analyzes how his life fits into the system that he became a part of, that he managed to survive, and that he abandoned.
By the end of the second day, I start calling him "Professor." His treatise on the narco-trafficking system and its role in Mexican life and society is spoken in language so cogent and precise that I feel that I have attended a college lecture. Even better, there is nothing hypothetical in his presentation. He has lived his life as an integral component of the system he describes. It might be more accurate for me to call him "Ingeniero," Engineer. With his words and diagrams, he constructs and then deconstructs for us the functioning of the Mexican government, the political economy of the drug business, and the technical details of its deadly system of control in which he was an enforcer for more than twenty years.
At one interview, I show him how to use a database containing more than thirty years of newspaper articles from the state of Chihuahua. He instantly figures out the system and begins to use it to find documentation for events that he knows about firsthand. One of the articles he finds is of a time when he procured the prostitutes and liquor for a party at a hotel. The party got out of hand, and the desk clerk was threatened by men brandishing guns. The sicario ended up under arrest, and the name he was using at that time was published in the newspaper even though he carried the badge of a federal policeman. His superiors told him later that the article had been removed from all of the newspaper archives. He laughs as he recalls the incident. On more than one occasion, his job was the procurement of women for parties, and his wife had always scolded him for this. I do not know if the name that was published was his real name.
He now searches the database regularly to try to keep track of a world he has left behind, but a world that still interests him. And he wants to explain that world to us as best he can. He considers it his duty that we get the story right. He knows that the Chihuahua press accounts reveal only a partial version of events he experienced, but he knows that these are links that can help to confirm the truth of the stories that he tells.
He brings more printed articles from the database to another interview—Chihuahua newspaper coverage of a massacre at a Juárez restaurant in August 1997 when six people were shot to death. Until the first drug rehabilitation center massacre in 2008, where nine people were killed,1


On Sale
May 10, 2011
Page Count
224 pages
Bold Type Books