Inside the Minds of Cartel Hitmen: Hannibal Lecters for Hire
A groundbreaking new study seeks to profile the behavior patterns of cartel assassins in Mexico, offering a rare glimpse into their strange and tortured psyches.
PANAMA CITY, Panama—One of the things that shocked me the first time I talked with an active cartel member in Mexico was hearing how much he loved his work. But as time went on, and I interviewed others like him, I came to see that my initial surprise derived from my own naiveté.
The homicide rate in Mexico has risen by almost 30 percent over the last five years, a national epidemic. There were at least 25,316 murders in 2017, making it the most violent period since the Drug War began. So far 2018 is on pace to eclipse those numbers.
And the tactics employed in all that killing have become more and more gruesome over time. Maybe the rush felt by some murderers is like a drug itself, and they are junkies needing ever greater doses to get the same high. But how is it that ordinary people get hooked on activities like beheading, acid baths, and cannibalism?
A new study by Dr. Arcelia Ruíz Vásquez, a research psychologist at the University of Guanajuato, provides important answers and insights to many questions about the origins, motivations, and behavioral patterns of cartel operatives.
The report is titled “X-Ray of a Mexican Sicario.” In compiling it, Ruíz interviewed dozens of inmates from the Penitentiary Center in Acapulco, Guerrero, which just happens to be the most violent state in Mexico. (The Acapulco Cartel is actually headquartered inside the penitentiary, with the capos giving orders from their cell blocks.)
By recording her subjects’ personal histories in great detail, Ruíz was able to identify four main personality types among cartel foot soldiers, with a special emphasis on how they became sicarios in the first place:
Marginal: These sicarios are typically from rural areas that have been largely abandoned by the Mexican state. Marginals grow up with little or no infrastructure or opportunities awaiting them, and so they turn to organized crime to escape a life of poverty. They typically start out cultivating drugs in the sierra, or working as collection agents for the cartels. As they move up the ladder, they’re promoted to guarding safehouses and accompanying higher-ranking members on shakedown and execution runs. Such activities serve to “desensitize and train them enough for their first murder,” Ruíz writes in the report.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Ruíz elaborated on this character type. Like many people raised in farming country, “the value system of the Marginal hit man [is] based on tradition, respect for authority and obedience to their customs.” As their immersion in the underworld deepens they frequently “retain respect and obedience, but now turned to their criminal leaders.”
Antisocial: This character type usually comes of age in an environment where criminal behavior is commonplace. Antisocials often hail from crowded urban barrios, which also are deeply impoverished with few economic opportunities. A life of crime thus becomes deeply attractive to many young people.
As they grow older, Ruíz says, “they are usually encouraged by relatives or friends already immersed in organized crime to participate.” Gateway activities include working as informants, small-scale robberies, and selling drugs, all of which can pay two or three times what they might earn from lawful income.
Often affiliated with street gangs from as young as 10 years of age, Antisocials gradually escalate their illicit activity by joining larger, better connected, and more lucrative cartels. Along the way they manifest an increased “intolerance for frustration” along with “impulsivity, hedonism, recklessness, and the search for immediate satisfaction,” according to the report.
The more violent they are, the more sway they hold over their peers. “This would explain in part the increase in the escalation of violence in many of their executions,” Ruíz says.
Above all they crave social status, and like to show off their new-found wealth in ostentatious displays via social media. Because of their lack of impulse control, Antisocials often put their own cartels’ business in jeopardy. That makes them the most likely variety to be betrayed and murdered by their cohorts, or to wind up in prison.
Antisocials, like Marginals, can feel remorse for their actions, but they often cushion their feelings of guilt by turning to drugs and alcohol to numb their conscience.
Like Pablo Escobar, or Chapo Guzmán, they may also be known for providing economic relief efforts and charitable projects to aid vulnerable communities—and to insure “silence and protection from the authorities” within those same neighborhoods, Ruíz explains.
Psychopathic or Sadistic: The most dangerous class of sicario is also the least common. Marginals and Antisocials make up about 85 percent of the inmates included in the “X-Ray” study. Psychopaths and Sadists round out the remaining 15 percent. Unlike the previous categories, who tend to come from the lower economic strata of Mexican society, these types are often from middle-class or upper-middle-class families.
Psychopathic gunsels are characterized by “emotional coldness, total absence of remorse, cruelty and lack of empathy.” Those traits also go hand in hand with considerable “cognitive abilities of analysis and leadership, making them highly dangerous individuals.”
This type of sicario is capable of executing “children, families, any member of the population, without feeling the slightest guilt,” Ruíz says.
The difference between the Psychopath and the Sadist is that while the former kills primarily for profit, the latter does it for pure pleasure.
These Hannibal Lecters for hire are motivated by a desire to execute victims with “sadistic tactics, so as to produce the greatest possible suffering,” because they enjoy the process. That includes “resuscitating the victim in order to extend his agony,” adds Ruíz.
The Sadist’s “distinctive feature” lies in the way he tortures and kills, “devising and implementing techniques that are ever more sophisticated” and even making video recordings “in order to obtain a satisfaction after the execution.”
Ruíz likens this type to serial killers commonly found in developed nations, who also take human lives for fun, but with one important difference: “The sadistic hit man in Mexico receives financial compensation for his executions.”
Another factor cited by Ruíz is the rise of “narco-culture,” which glorifies criminal activity as a means to riches, even if it also leads to an early death.
“Being a hitman in many regions of the country has become synonymous with courage, power and respect. That has led them to enjoy the activity and feel fulfilled in their roles as leaders of the armed wings of criminal groups,” says Ruíz.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Dr. Robert Bunker—a professor with the Strategic Studies Unit of the U.S. Army War college, who specializes in narco-terrorism—praised the “X-Ray” report as being “extremely timely in nature, fascinating, and highly innovative.”
Ruíz’s work “underscores the fact that a marginalized youth subject to hunger and poverty, violence, and the corrupting influence of an alternative criminal lifestyle—exemplified by narcocultura—results in the production of dysfunctional individuals who range from being broken human beings . . . through societal predators,” says Bunker, a former researcher for the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU).
Bunker says there’s another side of narco-culture that might inform future studies like the one undertaken by Ruíz. That is the “spiritual element,” specifically Santa Muerta and San Nazario-type veneration and worship.”
Santa Muerta, the patron saint of the underworld, is a death-cult figure who often appears in shrines around Mexico as a skeletal bride. San (Saint) Nazario is a reference to Nazario Moreno, aka El Chayo, the now-deceased leader of The Knights Templar cartel, who encouraged his followers to practice ritual cannibalism as part of their initiation rights.
“I believe that a sicario possessing a psychopathic personality, when coupled with the darker [occult] influences for spiritual justification purposes, would ultimately exhibit the worst type of narco-terrorist behaviors, well beyond only secularly motivated ones,” Bunker says.
In the wake of publishing her acclaimed report, Ruíz has turned her attention to an intervention program aimed at stopping the development of sicarios before they have a chance to be indoctrinated into the world of the cartels. She’s now working with a team of physicians, psychologist colleagues, and social workers in hopes of reaching endangered communities around the country. The program’s goal, she says, is to “give comprehensive training to young people for the development of social [and] cognitive skills that allow them to face the risk factors.”
A few years ago in Guerrero state, in a dusty barrio called Petaquillas, I interviewed a young would-be sicario named Edwin Esteban Mendoza. Mendoza had been captured by indigenous, anti-cartel guerrillas shortly after committing his first murder. He and several other narcos had forced a kidnapped victim to dig his own grave out in the chaparral. Then Mendoza had shot him.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “The others had to make me pull the trigger. They said it was him or me.”
The young sicario had been hit in the leg by a shotgun blast during the firefight in which he’d been taken captive and he was in great pain. The guerrillas were holding him in a tiny room at the rear of their base with a handful of other prisoners.
“I’m not like these others,” he said, as he peeled off the bandage to show his wounded leg for the camera.
Mendoza came from a tiny village called Calvario, in the desert region known as Tierra Caliente. He had only joined the Rojos cartel to make enough money to feed his family, he said as he sat on the floor with his back to the wall, his leg full of buckshot and no doctor to treat it. He hoped the leg wouldn’t infect, he said. He didn’t want to lose it.
Mendoza is the only cartel triggerman I’ve ever interviewed who expressed sorrow for his actions. Maybe that was because he’d been caught—and shot—by the civilian militia of Petaquillas. Or maybe it was because this was only his first execution, and his sense of compassion had not yet been completely deadened.
“I still see it in my dreams,” Mendoza said. “If only I hadn’t killed him like that. I’d do anything to have my old life back again.”
I’ve often wondered whatever became of Edwin Mendoza. Likely I’ll never know. But maybe, thanks to the efforts of caring and concerned people like Dr. Ruíz, others like him might now be saved. And the rising tide of violence in Mexico be brought low again.