The path from naive drug-courier to remorseless killer is all too easy
During a recent trip to Waterstone's, I happened to pick up US journalist Charles Bowden's book El Sicario: Confessions of a Cartel Hitman.
Its setting, Juárez City, forms a combined metropolitan area with El Paso, Texas, and is one of the centres of Mexico's drug war. Many such pairings of cities have dramatic imbalances of crime: below average on the US side of the border, elevated on the Mexican side. Juárez, a city of maybe 1.5 million people, has seen its murder rate soar from under 200 annually in the early 90s to more than 3000 last year, catalysed by President Calderón's war against the cartels and the entirely predictable blowback.
The subject of Bowden's book had retired from his career as a professional murderer by the time Calderón sent the widely corrupt Mexican Army to take on the narcos, and his story comes from a relatively peaceable time. But only relatively.
It's the entry into the criminal lifestyle that demonstrates one of the most devastating unintended consequences of prohibition. A poor young man was offered a large some of money to drive a car across the border, and he accepted:
"When we were in secondary school, a person invited us to a party, and he showed us how nice things could be. He made us see that we could drink and have fun, and what's more, that we could have money and maybe even a car.
"So I ask this guy, 'Okay, how? What do I have to do?'
"And he says, 'Nothing. Just drive this car to your school and deliver it to me in the morning. When you leave school in the afternoon, you will drive it over to El Paso and deliver it to me there.'
"'After that I'll give you another car, you can use it all week, I'll fill it up with gas for you. And on the weekend you give it back to me, and then you take it to El Paso for me, and then I'll loan you another car and I'll pay you.'"
Driving a car over a bridge. Why not? It's easy. There's consderable reward, little risk, and no obvious harm done.
Even when he was stopped by the DEA, after a sniffer dog had done its thing, he was let go by someone in the pay of the far-reaching cartels.
But legal regulation would deny the cartels that recruitment opportunity in the first place, reducing the incentives for young people to enter into a criminal lifestyle at the most crucial stage. Because after that entry, turning back is extremely difficult and increasing involvement almost inevitable. So, fuelled by alcohol, drugs and fear of what might happen if he refused, the book's nameless narrator ultimately became a sicario, an assassin. A murderer.
And then, 100 or so bodies later, he quit, and has been evading his former employers ever since.
In truth, the book is not as grim as I perhaps had expected. But what is truly striking is the level of self-indulgence, and the apparent lack of remorse.
All mention of his retirement is couched in terms of his 'salvation', of god singling him out and leaving messages aimed at putting him on a different path. There seems to be very little regret for the century of people that he tortured and killed other than that he had to do it – all feeling is for himself as the killer rather than for his victims as, well, victims.
Even when the cartel abduct and rape his then-wife to 'send a message' to him, he appears to view it only in terms of the effect on his own life.
It's chilling, really.
But then cold-hearted killers are not born: they are made. And they don't have to be.