JOJUTLA, Mexico - The recruits filed into a clearing, where a group of trainers with the stern bearing of drill sergeants stood in a tight row, hiding something.
"How many of you have killed someone before?" one of the instructors asked. A few hands shot up.
The trainers separated, revealing a naked corpse face up in the grass. One thrust a machete into the nearest man's hand.
"Dismember that body," he ordered.
The recruit froze. The instructor waited, then walked up behind the terrified recruit and fired a bullet into his head, killing him. Next, he passed the blade to a lanky teenager while the others watched, dumbfounded.
The teenager didn't hesitate. Offered the chance to prove that he could be an assassin - a sicario - he seized it, he said. A chance at money, power and what he craved most, respect. To be feared in a place where fear was currency.
"I wanted to be a psychopath, to kill without mercy and be the most feared sicario in the world," he said, describing the scene.
Like the other recruits, he had been sent by a drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos to a training camp in the mountains. He envisioned field exercises, morning runs, target practice. Now, standing over the body, he was just trying to suppress an urge to vomit.
He closed his eyes and struck blindly. To survive, he needed to stay the course. The training would do the rest, purging him of fear and empathy.
"They took away everything left in me that was human and made me a monster," he said.
Within a few years, he became one of the deadliest assassins in the Mexican state of Morelos, an instrument of the cartels tearing the nation apart. By 2017, at only 22 years old, he had taken part in more than 100 murders, he said. The authorities have confirmed nearly two dozen of them in Morelos alone.
When the police caught him that year, he could have faced more than 200 years in prison. But instead of prosecuting him, authorities saw an opportunity, a chance to pick apart the cartel from the inside. They made him the centerpiece of an off-the-books police operation that dismantled the cartel in southern Morelos, resulting in the arrest and conviction of dozens of its operatives.
For investigators, he was a gold mine, a complete reference book on the state's murder industry. For the sicario, the government was a lifeline.
Of course, Mexico's legal system wasn't set up for this kind of arrangement.
The nation has only one official witness protection program, at the federal level, and few in law enforcement actually trust it. Leaks, corruption and incompetence have left it in shambles.
The police chief in Morelos at the time, Alberto Capella, wanted a witness protection program that worked, one he could use to smash organized crime in his state. So he simply created a clandestine one of his own - an improvised strategy that former justice officials describe as a legal stretch.
But if working around the edges of the law was the only way to tackle the scourge of organized crime, Capella figured, it seemed a small price to pay for justice.
"We had to try something," said Capella, who had survived an all-out gunbattle with assassins years earlier, hardening his resolve. "We couldn't just sit there and do nothing."
The sicario's journey from hit man to state witness - drawn from public records, at least a dozen visits to the program and 17 months of interviews with him, his family, officials and other assassins - offers a rare glimpse into the world of Mexico's ultraviolent killers and the lengths to which authorities will go to stop them.
More killings take place in Mexico today than at any time in the last two decades, when the nation started collecting homicide statistics. Cartels fight one another for control of local drug sales and smuggling routes to the United States, while Mexico's armed forces battle them all.
The violence is the worst it has been since the U.S.-backed drug war began 13 years ago, and assassins like the one Capella built his program around embody the crisis, responsible for a disproportionate share of murders nationwide.
Killings have become so common, so expected, that the country has grown increasingly numb to them. Each passing year brings record levels of violence - with more harrowing expressions of it - and the nation's institutions are so ill-equipped to stem the tide that Capella felt he had little choice but to invent a workaround to the country's broken rule of law.
The deal was simple: The sicario testified against his former comrades and bosses, detailing the inner workings of a notoriously ruthless cartel. In return, he could walk free, without facing any charges.
No paperwork. No signatures. No legislation authorizing a witness protection program in the state. Just a gentleman's agreement, those involved called it.
"There was nothing to think about," the sicario recalled. "I didn't want to spend my whole life in prison."
Through early 2019, the sicario proved so valuable that police erected an even bigger wildcat program around him, recruiting more than a dozen cartel henchmen and housing them in a small, worn-down building attached to the local prison.
Together, their testimony led to 100 convictions and helped cut homicides, kidnappings and extortion in the state, at least for a time, officials said. Even as violence soared across Mexico, it was down in southern Morelos.
Countrywide, nearly 100 people were being killed every day, often in horrible ways that stretched the bounds of human imagination. Fewer than 5% of those cases were ever solved.
With such dismal conviction rates, Capella felt, Mexico was practically issuing licenses to kill. His program, explicitly authorized by law or not, was a chance to do what hundreds of other officers could only dream of: pinpoint and lock up the assassins driving the country's homicide crisis.
The unchecked power of organized crime was on full display this October, when hundreds of gunmen for the Sinaloa Cartel laid siege to the city of Culiacán in broad daylight, forcing the government to surrender a notable cartel figure - the son of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as "El Chapo" - and set him loose, right back into the underworld.
Soon after, a different cartel gunned down nine Mormon mothers and children, another haunting reminder of the toll taken on innocent civilians. In the aftermath, President Donald Trump threatened to designate the cartels as terrorist groups.
Capella was well aware that his own solution to the cartels was dangerous, particularly because it relied on the unsavory prospect of setting a prolific killer free.
"It's something few have dared to do," the police chief acknowledged, "but it is worth the risk."
But no one, least of all the sicario, expected how the arrangement would end.
Capella moved on to another job almost 1,000 miles away, and the program slowly collapsed. With no legal mandate or official support, it buckled this year under the change in political winds. Some of the witnesses left and returned to lives of crime. At least one was murdered.
The sicario stayed until the summer when, fearful the police were going to hand him over to his cartel enemies, he fled.
Gunmen were not far behind. His brother - who studiously avoided crime and had enlisted in Mexico's armed forces - was killed days later. His parents found a note attached to the body: This is what happens to snitches, it warned.
"This is the way things work in Mexico," the sicario, who asked that his name not be used for his family's safety, said while on the run. "And I want the world to see it."
The Making of a Sicario
The cartel bosses huddled in a small group, taunting him. Sure, he could rob, even fight, his fellow gangsters teased him. But he couldn't kill, they said. He didn't have the heart.
They snickered, pushing to see how far he would go. He knew it was a test.
He was 17 and working for Guerreros Unidos, a cartel that operated across several states and smuggled heroin to the United States. Right away, he distinguished himself as smart and naturally violent. A prospect in their world.
He snapped back. They didn't know what he was capable of, he said. In truth, he didn't either.
His fellow gangsters pointed down the street at two young men - a pair of unwitting targets. He took off toward them, wondering if his bosses were right, that he couldn't take a life. Then, as if someone else was controlling his movements, he pulled a small knife from his pocket and, without any warning, slit the throat of the young man closest to him.
As the blood spewed, he recalled, he buried his fear, determined to prove he was merciless, the essence of a sicario.
"I blocked myself, my own emotions, and told myself it was someone else doing it," he said.
He later discovered that the two men were innocent, part of a game his bosses were playing. They hadn't expected him to actually kill anyone.
When word spread, and the glow of admiration came from friends and others, his guilt subsided. No one would question him again. He was on the path now, brutal and immutable, to becoming a professional killer.
"They liked this," he recalled. "This opened up a career for me."
In more than a dozen interviews, the sicario said his childhood was normal, even good. His parents were together. They taught him to care for others.
"I was taught values, principles," he said.
Tall and slender, with a round face and hooded eyes, he moved with the economy of an athlete, which he was. He once hoped to play professional soccer, but he skipped school to hang out with a small gang, smoking pot and getting into fights. Eventually, he dropped out.
Some days, he followed his father to work, joining him on his rounds for the local water company. For a while, he thought about making a life of such work, however mundane and underpaid.
Then his father lost his job, plunging the family toward financial ruin. His mother began working from dusk until dawn for a few dollars a day. With growing resentment, he watched the humiliation and low pay of day labor, while local gangsters made big money, enjoying a respect that bordered on fear.
"That's when I chose to live day by day," he said. "I became a criminal."
He worked his way up, from a small-time lookout for Guerreros Unidos to robbery and drug sales. The leaders noticed his ambition. After that first killing, the cartel leader offered him a slot in the sicario training camp.
It was 2012, and Mexico's war on drugs was in its sixth year. Violence had reached record highs as the military took to the streets to combat organized crime and the cartels battled one another for supremacy.
Murder became a form of messaging, a spectacle of sadism - bodies hanging from bridges, chopped in pieces, deposited in public plazas, each grisly crime scene a warning, a way of saying the cartel's violence knew no limits.
As the drug market churned, with new players rising and falling, training camps became academies for the industry's enforcers. The sicario saw an opportunity.
For six months, he lived in austerity with dozens of other men in the mountains of southern Mexico, he said, through terror, starvation and cold. Everywhere the specter of death.
They hunted and killed rival cartel members, and were killed themselves, often by their own trainers who disposed of them for disobeying orders or showing hesitation, he said. Trainees who ran afoul of the instructors were strung up from trees and used for target practice, he recalled - a claim that experts on cartels found plausible.
Knowing he might die for failing to follow orders - whether killing a farmer, cutting up a body or torturing a friend - was all the incentive he needed to do the unthinkable. At least that's how he justified it.
"They turned me into an animal," he said.
But behind every decision, every inhuman act, was a truth he could not escape. He chose this life. It was what he wanted.
The Murder Business
In a year, he had transformed into a skilled assassin - battle-tested and not yet 20 years old.
After the training camp, he was sent to Acapulco, he said, to fight other cartels for the lucrative drug market in tourist districts.
A year or so later, he returned, but to a very different Morelos. His old boss had been gunned down and his old cartel, Guerreros Unidos, was nearly vanquished there, swallowed up by its one-time allies, Los Rojos.
The sicario no longer had a champion, or any allegiance at all.
Some of his old comrades had switched sides, which happened in cartel warfare, the winners subsuming the losers.
The Rojos leader, Santiago Mazari Hernández, known on the street as El Carrete, sent an emissary to recruit the sicario. He wanted him to help set up drug operations across southern Morelos state. The past was the past, he said.
"It was join them or be killed," the sicario recalled.
They began selling drugs in Jojutla, then spread to Tlaltizapan, Tlaquiltenango, Zacatepec, fighting off other groups in the small towns across southern Morelos.
As their business expanded, so did their influence, especially on local government. They had local officials everywhere on the payroll, the sicario said, to prevent surprises like arrests or seizures.
Expanding operations meant cleaning out the competition, not just other cartels, but also local criminals - thieves, rapists, small-time drug dealers and snitches. Anyone who drew police scrutiny.
Murder was rarely for sport, the sicario said. He studied his victims at length, investigating the complaints against them. Once confirmed, he warned them to stop, mostly to keep them from drawing too much attention from the authorities. If they didn't, he planned the killings meticulously, carrying them out only with approval from above.
"For me to kill someone, I had to have permission," he explained. "Why do I want to kill that person? Not because I just don't like them. That's not how it works."
He followed a code, he said. He didn't recruit children, and wouldn't harm women or working people, if he could avoid it. But the workings of organized crime were rarely orderly. He did kill women and innocent civilians. For all the talk of honoring a code, it was often just that: talk. Business always came first.
The New York Times confirmed many of his homicides with authorities and attempted to speak with the victims' families in several cases. All refused. Having lost their daughters, sons and fathers to the cartel, they were fearful of reprisals.
Of all the people the sicario killed in his five-year run, only a few haunted him, he said. One in particular.
It was during a routine operation, he recalled, when his bosses sent him to eliminate a group of local kidnappers. After he arrived, he said, he found a college student with them. The sicario said he knew instantly the student was innocent: the look of terror on his face, his body language, even his clothes. They were all wrong.
Following protocol, the sicario tied everyone up and called his boss. He wanted to let the young man go. He was unaffiliated. There was no need to kill him. But the boss said no. Any witness was a liability.
As the boy begged for his life, the sicario said he looked away and told him he was sorry before slitting his throat.
"That student still haunts me," he said, weeping. "I see his face, that kid begging me for his life. I will never forget his eyes. He was the only one who ever looked at me that way."
Betrayal and Capture
Sometimes, in the dark, the sicario's mother quietly knelt beside his bed, whispering over him as he slept. She knew he worked for the cartels, even if she didn't know how exactly. Prayer was all she had left.
"Stop doing that," he recalled telling her one night. "Your God can't save me."
By late 2016, he had grown numb to killing, hunting for targets with a mechanical indifference. Life mattered even less to him, his own included.
He received a promotion, which brought higher pay, more responsibilities and the envy of others. He still worked for El Carrete, who ran Los Rojos cartel, but he was consumed by paranoia, and for good reason.
The deeper he descended into the underworld, the more he understood the petty rivalries among the leadership. Their lives were steeped in mistrust. The work demanded it. Friends betrayed friends, right-hand men killed bosses.
He was told to kill members of his own team by leaders who worried they were growing too influential or undisciplined. He said he killed so many that he began to reconsider whom he hired.
"I almost never recruited within my friendship circles," he said. "I would recruit whatever guy wanted easy money."
But that left him vulnerable, unable to trust his team. It proved to be his undoing.
In May of 2017, the police took one of his partners into custody. To avoid prison, he promised them the sicario.
On May 15, the partner called the sicario. They had work to do, he said. It was bright outside, odd working hours for the men, but there was an emergency, his partner said.
They met up at a safe house and left together, heading toward their motorcycles parked down the street. The sicario heard the police before he saw them, the screech of tires, the revved engines. It was over in less than a minute.
He cursed himself on the way to the station. For years, he had survived on suspicion, yet somehow missed this easy setup. He wondered whether dumb luck alone had saved him all these years.
At the station in Jojutla, a small white building facing the district prison, police commanders confiscated his phone. It contained enough evidence to put him away for life.
While he sat handcuffed to a chair, the officers watched a snuff film of his work, which he had recorded on his phone. In it, one of the cartel's lawyers, who had gone missing, sat in the shallow eddy of a river, bloody and terror-stricken, confessing a betrayal.
The police called his mother, who refused to believe them. Yes, she knew her son was a criminal, she recalled. But she refused to believe he was a killer - until an officer made her watch an interview in which her son confessed to his myriad homicides.
"We never taught him these things," she said, sobbing. "He didn't learn that malice from us. We gave him love and support."
The police began adding up what they knew, starting with several homicides that traced back to him. He faced 240 years in prison for those alone.
But the police chief, Capella, had grown weary of the state's limited tools and ambitions. Sloppy forensics, corrupt officers and haphazard investigations left few cases solved.
He had previously been a police chief in Tijuana, where the local press nicknamed him Rambo in 2007 for fighting off dozens of cartel assassins in an all-out battle that riddled his home with bullets.
Now, as the commander in Morelos, he wanted results. As the sicario sat in a ripped vinyl chair in the precinct, one of Capella's deputies explained the arrangement.
The sicario would testify against his former comrades, detailing the many murders they had committed. But instead of describing the sicario in court or in case files as one of the killers or main conspirators, the state authorities listed him as a witness - someone with no real involvement in the crime.
The sicario, then 22, agreed to live in a building next to the prison for his own protection and be shuttled to public hearings. The state authorities did not charge him with any of the killings, choosing to wait until he was done testifying. Then, they could decide how to prosecute him, if at all.
By law, cartel cases in Mexico are supposed to be handled at the federal level, by a division tasked with investigating organized crime. The group can use its plea bargain powers to persuade witnesses to come forward, though few do. It is widely distrusted.
At the state level, no such program exists, and officials have often found their own ways of chasing justice, sometimes by breaking the law entirely. Many have held suspects in detention for years before trial as a form of punishment, knowing they didn't have the evidence for a conviction. Others have opted for a more brutal solution: the extrajudicial killing of suspected criminals.
Capella tried a very different approach - looking for convictions in court, and ginning up a new set of rules to secure them. Tired of Mexico's feeble rule of law, Capella decided to create his own version of it.
His unorthodox methods and unapologetic manner have brought him controversy, and plenty of enemies. The current government of Morelos has accused him of misappropriating funds in a separate matter, which he strongly denies.
Some former justice officials in Mexico call his witness protection program a stretch, operating well outside of legal norms. Others say it is so unusual that they are not quite sure. Even state officials in Morelos who supported the program acknowledged that it operated in a legal gray area, though, like Capella, they called it legal, defensible - and highly effective.
"I'd rather make a big mistake than be guilty of inaction," Capella said. "Mexico is tired of this institutional paralysis."
'It's a Miracle I Survived'
For five years, the sicario lived as two different people: the son who dropped off groceries for his mother and had a baby of his own with his girlfriend; and the "monster," as he called himself, who killed for a few hundred dollars a week.
After his arrest, the wall between them began to crack. He suffered what seemed like psychotic episodes, he said, sleepless nights of strange voices and shadows collapsing on him. He knew he deserved no pity, that he alone was to blame. He took some comfort in that.
"I was at the point of going crazy," he said. "I would spend two or three days crying."
Eventually, a pastor - an uneducated, reformed convict himself - came to see him. At first, the sicario worried the man was a spy sent by his enemies. Eventually, he began to speak to him and, before long, could hardly stop.
The pastor was caught off guard by the torrent of confessions as the sicario gave himself over to the Bible with a fervor he once held for violence, a conversion so common it is almost a cliché in the world of gangs and cartels.
"That other person is dead," the sicario said as if, with repetition, it might become true.
The sicario found new purpose in confinement, helping solve cold cases, testifying against cartel players and paving the way for some two dozen convictions. The police said they saw a real transformation in him, though they had their own reasons to believe it, too.
By October of 2018, police had expanded the program to include a dozen cooperating witnesses. With no other place to put them, authorities housed the young men right next door to the jail that held the cartel members they were testifying against. Every few weeks, police ferried them to court to provide evidence in cases.
The witnesses slept on thin mattresses on the floor, ate at a cracked plastic table and sat in chairs shorn of their backs. Large blue tubs overflowed with water used for bathing and flushing.
There were small comforts - a television, a microwave and an electric keyboard on which the sicario taught himself to play the theme song to the movie "Titanic." And every weekday, the makeshift wing of the prison turned into an evangelical revival.
A pastor strummed an old guitar and led them in hymns. When the singing stopped, they took turns confessing - the soulless acts of violence they had committed, their temptation to return, their gratitude for having been saved.
"Sixteen years ago, I was like you boys," the pastor said, the guitar resting against his belly. "It's a miracle I survived." Several began to cry unprompted.
The sicario, whose crimes far exceeded those of the others, was the natural leader. He became a parental figure for the group, and enforced his will by wielding a large wooden stick.
Eventually, the young men earned the trust of their wardens, and were allowed an almost comic level of autonomy. By early 2019, they were running their own security, locking and unlocking the barred entry for visitors, monitoring comings and goings in the ward. A few even started their own business, washing the government cars in the lot.
The police knew the risks were big, as was the possibility of failure. But their confidence grew by the day. Capella, the police chief, boasted of the change the sicario's testimony had made on the streets. One deputy said the sicario would walk free with a clean rap sheet.
"We have achieved what we set out to achieve," Capella said.
'You Won't Stand a Chance'
The unwinding came sooner than expected. More than a year into the program, Capella got a new job as police chief in the state of Quintana Roo. Home to the neon hum of Cancún and boho-chic of Tulum, it was a much bigger post than Morelos.
With his departure, the witness protection program lost its steward. It was expensive, and off the books. No one wanted to oversee someone else's pet project.
The young men continued to attend their court dates, the pastor kept turning up and the sicario's girlfriend gave birth to their second child, a girl. But the energy of even a few months earlier began to vanish.
Nearly half of the witnesses were gone. Some had finished their court appearances and left of their own volition. Others had skipped out, content to risk the death sentence that awaited them on the street. Many had grown accustomed to the idea of an early death. To them, the program was a brief respite.
The sicario talked less about what came next. Before, he practically counted the days until his departure. Now he merely shrugged when asked.
In truth, he had grown used to the facility. He liked the respect from the guards, the prosecutors and his fellow witnesses. It was a sanctuary from the outside world, which frightened him. Not only did he worry about the cartel and a life on the run, but he also feared the temptation - that for all his talk of change, he would wind up right back where he started.
"I know that being released and forming part of society again is harder than being locked up in here," he said after a prayer session. "The truth is, I'd rather be in here, in pain, for 10 years than out there on my own."
By the summer of 2019, the program was in rank disrepair - dirty dishes piled up, water pooled on the floor, toilets were left uncleaned. The lights didn't even function properly anymore.
"Everything is coming to an end," he said one day. "Just take a look around you. The world is upside down."
He was practically alone now. Only one other witness remained. His friends came by periodically, to smoke weed or listen to music in the dark. He used them to ferry messages to people on the outside, including drug dealers.
The police had all but abandoned the program. Most officials were happy to see it empty out, eager to be done with the burden.
In the void, the sicario returned to what he knew: selling drugs. While still inside, he recruited former witnesses who had left the program, forming a team of marijuana dealers from the same youth he had once vowed to rescue.
The pastor found out and pressed him to stop.
"I realized how many people I was dragging to their doom again," the sicario said. "I led my friends toward the Bible, and now I'm making them sell drugs."
His relapse seemed almost inevitable. How could the state expect to change someone so stripped of his humanity in just two years, with an unpaid, uneducated pastor as his only source of inspiration?
Perhaps it never intended to. The sicario had helped dismantle his former cartel, leaving it in shambles. He was no longer of much use to the police.
On the outside, his enemies would see him as weak, no longer under the protection of the police. He liked to claim that his reputation on the streets kept his family safe, but that wasn't entirely true, either. Even the police knew as much. The sicario had softened since joining the program. He cared about his family, his children, the prospect of a new life. Hope was a liability in his old world.
One of the police officers had warned him about leaving.
"'You won't stand a chance out there,'" he recalled the officer saying. "'You aren't the same person anymore.'"
"He got it right," the sicario said. "It's true."
'Justice For Me Would Be Death'
On a sunny afternoon in August, the sicario fled. A tipster warned him that the police were planning to arrest him and bring charges. True or not, he didn't take the chance.
He had been careless before, when he was caught the first time. But now, after all the people he had helped lock up, going to prison for real - with inmates, not cooperating witnesses - would mean certain death. He would be killed the moment he entered.
He slipped out of the facility and checked into a small roadside hotel. After nearly two years under police protection, he was on his own.
A few days later, on Aug. 5, a pair of gunmen posing as customers came to his parents' taco stand and shot his brother four times. As the killers fled, they left a note: "Let's see if you all learn this way."
The brothers looked alike, so the gunmen may have thought they had killed the sicario. When he found out about the shooting, he wished they had.
His brother was innocent, the family insisted. He had never associated with organized crime, on the sicario's orders. He finished high school, lived at home with his parents, had enlisted to join the Mexican armed forces and was scheduled to head out soon, his mother said.
The sicario knew he didn't deserve freedom. "Justice for me," he sometimes said, "would be death." But his brother was different.
"They hit me where it hurt most," the sicario said, crying, not long after the murder. "The thing I loved most in the world, they took from me."
Still, he insisted that he would not seek revenge. Nothing would change because of it. His brother would still be dead. The killings would continue, even escalate, sucking in the rest of his family, in the kind of unending cycle Mexico itself is trapped in. Murder was inevitable, he said. His involvement didn't have to be.
"This will never end, no matter what I do," he said. "But I just won't be a part of it anymore."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2019 The New York Times Company