A Barbaric Business

This true story of a Mexican drug assassin may disturb you

The person is lying down completely naked. We cover the body with a sheet, sprinkle gasoline or alcohol on the sheet, and when it is soaked, light it with a match. As the fuel burns, it removes up to three layers of skin from their bodies. Their backs would be left completely raw. ... The suffering is enormous.

And there are other forms of interrogation, things that you cannot imagine. —El Sicario

Once in a while, a book comes along that rocks your world with such violent force that you will never be the same. El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden, is such a book.

Two kinds of books try to explain how the world works: There are the "official" histories, and then there are books about what really happened. El Sicario will never be the former, because what it has to say is so disturbing, so barbaric, that many will claim it is fantasy—that such things do not happen in our world.

Tell that to the man who recently was beaten, executed, stuffed in a plastic bag and chucked across the border fence into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Just two days later, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared in Nogales to reassure the citizenry that the border is more secure than ever.

Bowden has spent much of the past 20 years documenting and bearing witness to the phenomenon of drugs in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Research-librarian Molloy has been tracking the dead bodies in Mexico's drug war in an attempt to quantify the carnage. They came together through their mutual interest. Molloy provided a sampling of her death list as an appendix to an earlier Bowden work, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields, a vital book that can be read as a prelude to this one.

El Sicario began as an article in the May 2009 Harper's Magazine. Through fortuitous circumstance, investigative persistence, patience and dumb luck, Bowden scored what may have been the journalistic coup of a lifetime: He managed to link up with and interview a "sicario," a Mexican drug-cartel enforcer/assassin, at a time when the assassin had found God and was trying to come in from the cold seeking forgiveness, redemption and/or something else that none of us will ever understand.

The Harper's article caught the attention of Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, who knows Bowden. Rosi convinced Bowden there was a documentary to be had in the story of the sicario. Bowden convinced the sicario to do the film; Rosi filmed as Molloy translated and Bowden wrote it all down. The film, El Sicario: Room 164, has already won awards in Europe, but has not been released in this country yet. "Room 164" refers to a hotel room somewhere on the border where the interviews and film took place, and where some of the actual crimes had been committed.

The current book comes from days of interviews done for the film.

The Sicario has killed hundreds of people. He was well-paid for his work. He's a skilled researcher on the Internet, a treasure trove of information on potential victims. He has a strong sense of professional ethics—never killing for fun, only for money. He is highly intelligent.

Bowden explains: This true story is not the magical realism of most Americans' Mexico dreams. This is murderous realism. The purpose behind the book, he continues, is to teach readers a new reality: Everything you think you know about Mexico is absurd. Mexico is a place of "terror and total corruption." In this book, you are privileged to see the true face of the people who run Mexico, as explained by a man who did some of the killing.

This stunning book is unlike anything you have ever read before, or are likely to read again. It is a chilling, cold-blooded tale of the end-game of capitalism, where torture and the taking of human life are merely costs of doing business in a lucrative global marketplace. Our desires for magical powders, chemicals and herbs that make us feel better have created a world where people like the sicario are a critical link in what we now call supply-chain management. Without highly trained, skilled, professional killers like the sicario, there is no discipline. With no discipline, there is no functioning, efficient market.

After all, business is business. What could be more American?

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