Wrap ’em Up Tightly
By Weston Phippen
Before he abducts someone, Zurdo likes to get high: a little weed, maybe some lines, a few shots, pills, whatever. After that he puts on black clothes, gets his guns together—an AK-47 and a 9-millimeter—and climbs into a Chevy Tahoe with four other guys. Then they creep around the streets of a town a few hours southwest of Ciudad Juárez that I’ve been asked not to identify. By sunrise they’ll have nabbed some poor bastard and delivered him to “El Patron,” Zurdo’s boss.
During the day, Zurdo (“Lefty” in English) works at a Mexican restaurant across the street from a halfway-crumbled building, near a bar where leather-skinned drunks hold court all day on the sidewalk. Kidnapping for the Juárez Cartel is his side job. He mostly abducts small-time drug dealers or their relatives. They all know how it works: If you sell narcotics without El Patron’s permission, or break his rules, Zurdo and his crew (or another group of masked men) will chauffeur you to one of the boss’s many ranches or houses. There you will either be tortured and released—in exchange for money—or tortured and killed, your body tossed into the street like a cigarette out a window. Most go easily, Zurdo tells me. He says to them: “They’re calling you. Get in the car,” and they usually comply. Only a handful of times has he been asked to dispose of bodies, and in those cases he’ll drop them at the edge of town for the cops to find later. By his estimate, about half of the people he abducts are eventually murdered. But that’s none of his business—he’s only a forceful courier. Besides, he’s needed back at his other job, where there are endless tables to be clean and burritos to roll.
Zurdo lives in an apartment connected to the back of the eatery where he works from 5:30 AM to 11 PM almost every day (except when he’s been snorting lines all night). He’s about 5′ 7″ and 38 years old. Our meeting was arranged by a friend of mine who somehow persuaded Zurdo, one of his best and oldest amigos, to grant me an interview.
Before sitting down to talk, he walks behind the counter, grabs a rag, and wipes down a wooden table where two customers just finished eating. He’s wearing a tight black Tony Montana t-shirt, tucked snugly over his gut and into faded black pants. His soccer shoes—the sole small hint of his other, more lucrative life—are so white and spotless they practically glow. He thrums the table, his eyes wandering off, following the traffic outside. I ask whether we should maybe take a walk so he can talk about his other job without worrying about eavesdroppers. But he can’t leave until 11 PM, he says, because they need him at the shop; he’s even had to turn down some kidnapping jobs because the past two days have been so busy. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We can talk here, he says. Everyone at the restaurant knows what he does, even if they aren’t aware of the particulars.
During our conversation Zurdo tells me he feels bad that his side job perpetuates Mexico’s ongoing drug war: “If they don’t ever call me then it’s best. But if they do, I have to go.” Then he immediately contradicts his last statement: “If I don’t do it then I’m not happy.” He also won’t have as much money to fund his costly vices, of which there are many. Zurdo was lured to his line of work (crime, not burritos) at a young age, dropping out of school in the eighth grade to make quick money in the streets. Chihuahua, the Mexican state where he resides, has one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere and, according to the UN, the second-lowest number of high school graduates in the country.
The last time Zurdo snatched someone, he tells me, was three days before our meeting. He was working at the restaurant when his cell phone rang. El Patron gave him the name and address of his target, who, like most, was a young man. Zurdo and his team found their prey shopping for groceries with his wife around 9 PM, which was good timing: It’s best to do this kind of work before midnight, when more people will be outside and it’s less likely the victim will cause a scene, try to flee, or retaliate with a weapon. This last pickup was no exception. As the couple walked to the car with their groceries, Zurdo got out of the vehicle, confronted them, and said, “They’re calling you.” Then he flashed his gun. The couple understood. The man went easily, and they let his wife go. They dropped their passenger at one of El Patron’s houses, and Zurdo returned to the burrito shop, where his help was still needed.
Each time Zurdo goes out for a pickup he gets a little scared and anxious, but the drugs and money help him overcome these feelings. One thing he doesn’t worry about is the police. Mexican officials only manage to complete about 4 percent of criminal investigations. Even more troubling, they only bother to investigate about 15 percent of the crimes committed in the country (according to a 2010 study by the Monterrey Institute of Technology). Many times, Zurdo says, the police are complicit in illegal activities.
In March, a group of men walked into the El Castillo bar in Ciudad Juárez and massacred ten people. A survivor told the local newspaper El Diario that federal police stormed in just before the shooting and conducted a thorough search that ended with them confiscating everyone’s cell phones, as if they were clearing the way for the killers. The police, of course, were also the first on the scene after the shooting and were later accused of rifling through the pockets of the dead and stealing a plasma-screen TV from the scene of the crime.
For his trouble, Zurdo is paid $1,000 to $2,000 per kidnapping, depending on his target and other—sometimes unpredictable—circumstances. (He tells El Patron if a pickup was particularly challenging or if the person tried to run, and the boss takes him at his word.) He only accepts US currency, he says. “I get paid in dollars. Pesos? Don’t shit me. The burritos earn the pesos.” But he spends it quickly, either on his beloved shoe collection or on even more fleeting pleasures. “It costs a lot: women, drinking, coke. And the women also drink. I have to spend money on the hotel…”
Job security is a rarity these days, and Zurdo’s industry is no exception. The cartels have recently moved away from the expensive “professional” hitmen and kidnappers—part-timers like Zurdo, current or ex-army officers, and others who specialize in this kind of work—and are instead tapping into the internecine battles between rival gangs like Partido Revolucionario Mexicano (PRM) and the Aztecas. Kidnapping and killing are being outsourced, just like the factory jobs that once attracted Mexicans from all over the country to Ciudad Juárez and then gradually shifted to China and other, less costly locales.
Like any other business, cheap and sloppy is always an option. For instance, there’s 35-year-old Monico Aguirre Carillon. Barring an early parole, escape, or death, he will be 130 when he’s released from CERESO prison in Juárez. Yet he tells me he has a good thing going here. His gang, PRM, runs his side of the prison. Monico enjoys a small amount of notoriety among his fellow inmates, partially due to his PRM affiliation but mostly because he tied a rival gang member to a chair and was caught trying to slit his throat. “With a fucking wire that I had there. He’s a pig. I tie them up like pigs.”
The cartels’ tactic is to pit gangs against one another and employ them to push drugs. The result is that the brutes take one another out for around $200 a week. Economically, it’s good business. The difference is that before hiring gang members was common practice, a certain amount of professional pride was taken if the wife or son waiting in the car was spared. But gangs usually target their victims with the delicacy of a fire hose, spraying innocent street vendors, neighbors watching television on their couches, and kids walking home from school.
Josué Reyes Castro, 26, was the 560th person killed this year in Juárez—and that was in March. In the aftermath, police counted more than 130 AK-47 rounds in front of his house. Inside, his mother, father, grandfather, and cousins hugged the ground for cover. Slumped between the center console of the family car, bleeding to death, Castro was driven to the hospital by his brother because most ambulances in the area no longer respond to shootings. The killers lingered long enough to reload three times, Castro’s brother tells me, and the police waited up the street for the firing to stop. By mid-July, Juárez’s murder tally had reached 1,250, averaging eight per day for the first half of the month.
“It’s bad. That’s why it’s bad. That’s why we pick [the abductee] up,” Zurdo answers when I asked him about the new crop of gangster assassins. “Why would you kill the wife or kid if they have nothing to do with it?” He understands, however, why people do desperate things for a bit of cash. “They come and offer you money, and you don’t have a job… well, then you’ll do it. But I do it just to do it, not because I’m in need. I have everything here—home, work, and food.”
Zurdo says he doesn’t see himself working for the cartels forever; his dreams for the future have more to do with burritos than with guns. One day he’d like to open his own restaurant. “Or at least be the manager, if I couldn’t be the owner.” He’d call it Zurdo’s, he replies, and I ask him how he’d decorate it. That’s thinking too far ahead, he says, but if it happens he won’t be selling burritos in this town. He has too much of a past here. He only assures me that he’d keep it very clean, like his glowing white shoes.