The only reason he will meet with me, he says, is that his life is over. Estoy muerto pero no me acuesto, is how he puts it. I am dead but I won’t lie down.
I sit on a bench outside the Plaza Benito Juárez in Puerto Peñasco, a one-time fishing village now converted to a shabby resort where students from American universities spend spring break drinking and having sex. This is the location texted to my phone an hour ago. He lives and moves in secret. Though we have spoken on the phone many times, I have never met him.
I wonder what he will look like, scan the faces in the crowd over the fold of my newspaper. The hot air is greasy with the smoke of the food trucks parked in a long row by the gate. Volkswagen taxis rattle down the cobbles, engines braying like geese as they tear around the corners.
And then he is sitting on the bench next to me. He sets down a paper bag between us, gets up and is gone before I get a good look at him.
In the bag is a key to a room at the Casa Bonita Motel on the bay. There is a note. Written in block letters is the time when we will meet face-to-face, 11pm.
I arrive at 10:30, but he is already waiting for me. He does not look as I remember, though I saw him just this morning. For a moment I wonder if it is the indeed the same man. My doubts vanish as soon as he speaks, for the voice is the same as on the telephone. It is a soft voice, yet his precise pronunciation gives it an unnatural force, like a steel spike driven into concrete.
“Before I begin,” he says, “I must tell you something. What I give you are tales of evil, the deepest evil with no redemption in them. Your face says that you wonder why I wish to tell them to you. I have only what you will think an unsatisfactory answer: that time heals everything except lies. The truth is often ugly, often evil. Yet it is the truth and must be heard if it to be healed. Do you still wish to hear it?”
His pupils are so dilated that his eyes look black, the corona of iris so thin I cannot tell its color. This blackness is like an open grave. I shudder with an urge to flee, to close the door behind me, drive to the airport and forget all of this. Yet the eyes compel me.
“Yes,” I hear myself saying. “Tell me.”
From somewhere he produces a bottle of handblown glass, tiny bubbles trapped in its sides. He swiftly gets up and takes a pair of the motel glasses, tearing the paper covers with his blunt fingers. He pours each glass half-full of a murky amber liquid.
He hands one to me, holds up his own.
“To truth,” he says with dark solemnity. We drain the glasses and I feel the fire of raw mezcal spreading through me like ripples in a pond. He refills my glass, then sits back in the motel chair.
“I cannot say how I came to this profession,” he says. “It was not a decision I made all at once. My family came from central Mexico, a place so poor as to defy description. We came north, to the border. My mother and father went to the maquilas to work fifteen, eighteen hours, six days a week. We children were left on our own. In Ciudad Juárez I went to school. I was a good student, learned English and algebra. I dreamed of going to university to become a poet like Lorca or José Martí. When I was sixteen, a man offered us fifty US dollars to drive a car across the bridge into El Paso, leave the car and walk away. It was more money than my father made in week of work. For a year I did this, but no more. I never asked what was in the cars.”
He sips from his glass, then drains it. He motions for me to do the same.
“Drink. We must stay even to take this journey together.”
I drink, the room growing dim at the edges as he refills my glass. The mezcal tastes like the smoke of a desert fire burning far away, beyond the horizon.
“The Juárez police recruited some of us. We were paid two hundred pesos a month, plus bonuses. Weekends were long parties with drugs and liquor and whores. When I was eighteen, they sent me to train with the FBI, where I learned how to use weapons, to surveil, to command a squad of men. I came back to Mexico and was put in charge of a kidnapping unit. Our job was to prevent kidnappings, but what we really did was to kidnap the victims ourselves, hold them for a while, and then give them to another unit to be killed. This took less time than guarding the victim while waiting for the ransom. Sometimes we would be told where the body was hidden and pretend to discover it. Other times, the victim would never be found. ” He lights a cigarette, sips from his glass. “This was back in the days when things made sense.”
He tells me that in 1997 the head of the Juárez cartel was assassinated. The payments to the FBI stopped. The structure disintegrated and the units were left on their own, every man for himself. He calls it the time of chaos.
“In the days when things were organized, we had to buy all our personal drugs in El Paso,” he says. “The cartel had warehouses of cocaine on the Mexican side of the border, but to slit open a kilo was a death sentence. We all respected the rule, laughing at the irony. After the assassination of El Jefé, there were no such rules. It was only about survival. There was much death, many killings. Skilled men such as myself were in high demand. I did not decide to become a sicario. There was never a choice. It was a new world, and I became a new man to live in it. Such a world which Satan might devise, a world where only the most corrupt and evil men would prevail. Fear was the message, written by us in blood.
“A man arose in the organization, a man of bottomless cruelty, of endless evil. He became the boss of Ciudád Juárez. No one could match him for ruthlessness. There was no evil he would not engage in, no degree of savagery he would not employ. I will give you two examples. Once, there was a rumor that one of his lieutenants wanted to make a move, to acquire territory for himself. A rumor, no more. This lieutenant had a large family. Men were sent to this lieutenant’s house. They took his youngest, a baby girl of three months, and put her in a pot on a stove. In front of the entire family they boiled the baby alive. It took two hours for the child to die. As we left, the boss told the lieutenant that he would force the family to eat the next child he killed. Another time did not like a story printed in the Juárez newspaper. One night he sent men to their offices. They captured the entire staff and hung them by their ankles in a public park, slitting their throats and pulling their tongues through the gashes. The bodies hung for ten days because nobody would dare take them down. A cloud of birds descended upon them every dawn, departing at sundown. When the last body fell, they were all removed by night and buried in secret. These are but two examples I have seen with my own eyes.”
As he talks I can see the town square drenched with blood. I recall seeing photos of the charred remains of judges and police officers with burned tires around their necks. I can smell the singed flesh, hear their screams as they burn to death.
As I sit in this anonymous motel room, I am afraid. “How many?” I hear myself ask, my voice far away.
“How many have I killed?” His tone is flat. “It is bad luck to count. Three hundred? Five hundred? Most were taken in the night, bound and gagged and driven to the desert. These were killed cleanly and put into holes. To their families, they simply vanished.”
“Did you ever ask why?”
He stares at me, the black eyes like holes in the night sky. “I knew why. As I know now why I am telling you this. It is truth, and as such must be heard.”
He fills our glasses again. I drink automatically, finish in one gulp. My stomach tightens into a fist, and the world swims around me.
“I am a dead man now,” he says, lighting another cigarette. "Estoy muerto pero no me acuesto. They have given the green light so anyone can kill me on sight and receive a generous bounty. How much? And who pays it? It is not for me to say. Twenty thousand dollars, fifty thousand, a hundred? There is no agency or headquarters. No recourse for clemency or appeal. It is an event that will happen. I am like a coin whose fate was written the moment it was struck. One side heads, the other, tails. This coin is passed from hand to hand and wears thinner with each transaction. One time it is used to purchase medicine for saving a life; another time, for a knife that takes one. Highest of all its callings is when the coin is used to turn fate itself, tossed in the air to make a decision. Whether the decision is important or trivial is beside the point. The coin itself has no agency in the decision. It is a catalyst, causing the reaction without taking part in it.”
We sit in the motel room, the empty bottle between us. He looks now like an old man, hunched and beaten. It is as though he’s aged several decades during our conversation. When he looks up at me, I can see his eyes are brown and bloodshot, the black pupils reduced to pinpricks.
“I never knew the reason for the killings, just as I do not know the reason for my own death warrant. It has never been mine to know. Perhaps there is, in the end, nothing to know.”
When I awake the next morning, he is gone. So is the bottle, the ashtray, and any trace he was ever here. My head throbs as though it was split by a hatchet, my back twisted with cramp from sleeping hours in this uncomfortable chair. I stagger to the bathroom and kneel at the toilet, retching up the bitter dregs of the mezcal.
The memory of what he told me will never leave. I have crossed the bridge into a country I never wanted even to visit, a place where such evil not only exists but is commonplace.
A place where I will now dwell forever.