The nightmares come in waves, and when Carlos* opens his eyes, the tears are often already streaming down his face, forming a crusty residue on his cheeks. He stares at the ceiling, twists to one side and then the other. If he has some marijuana, he smokes it since it makes him drowsy. If he’s lucky, he grabs another hour of rest before he goes to work.
There are many things that keep Carlos awake: his two children who live in two different countries; his former boss, whose nickname, Cherry, belies his love of a good fight; US immigration authorities, who know him intimately from the five times they have deported him. But more than anything, what he sees when he awakes is a moribund, twitching leg he had to chop off to prove his loyalty to a Mexican criminal organization.
In the meantime, his mind races through the decisions he made that brought him to this moment: alone, cloistered in a single bed, rewinding then fast-forwarding his life over and over. Neither the past nor the future provides peace.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Carlos was supposed to be a “bodyguard” for the boss, not a soldier in a cartel war carving up rivals. He was supposed to make a lot of money, which he could send to his children. At least that is what his friend, Pepe, told him on the phone when he reached him at his part-time job at the call center in Guatemala and lured him to central Mexico for another type of “work.”
A Tumultuous Life
Carlos’ journey to that call center had been equally tumultuous. He told InSight Crime that his mother and father had left the house in Guatemala when he was three to move to the United States, and his grandmother had tried to raise him.
But it was difficult. The area had two gangs -- the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18 -- each of which tried to recruit Carlos. He says he resisted, in part because he had his own crew, but also because he was rebellious. He winces when he thinks about it now, not so much for the gang but for his grandmother who had to absorb his infernal energy.
“I made her suffer a lot,” he explained. “I gave her a lot of headaches.”
His mother wrote letters, and on Father’s Day, he gave presents to his uncle, his paternal stand-in. But there was a void, and Carlos filled it with mischief and later, delinquency. By the time he was 14, Carlos was drinking heavily. Instead of going to school, he and some friends would get a bottle of Venado Especial, the brand name for the rudimentary, $6 rum sold on the corners.
“It was cheap,” Carlos explained.
Drunk, he roamed the neighborhood vandalizing, graffitiing, and fighting. He showed some scars across his face and arms, a history of brawling permanently etched in his skin.
By the time he was 17, his grandmother was done.
“If you stay here,” she told him, “You will die.”
She called his mother who flew down for the holidays. Carlos went with a large entourage to greet her. As she exited security at the airport, his sister and his uncle -- both of whom had migrated to the United States a few years earlier and had traveled with her -- hugged him.
Then he stood still. As he remembers it, his mother looked at him quizzically. That’s your son, his uncle finally said.
“That’s my son?” she asked, looking at his uncle, before turning to him, “You’re my son?”
Carlos froze, embarrassed and hurt. It still hurts.
She spent Christmas and New Year’s with them that year. Two months later, his mother paid a coyote to bring him to the United States. He was 18. School was not an option, he said, so he got a job fashioning granite into kitchen countertops, jacuzzis, and other home furnishings. There he met others like him, including a Mexican national from the state of Michoacán named Pepe. The two began a lifelong friendship that would later put them in the crosshairs of several brutal criminal organizations in that same bellicose Mexican state.
Carlos liked his job, and he tried to straighten out his life. But there were distractions. He soon joined a gang, one of the many along the West Coast. They were part of the Sureños, an umbrella name for dozens of street gangs that follow the orders of a brutal prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia. Although he did not realize it at the time, it was an auspicious decision.
Carlos mostly worked, but he also continued to drink, party, and fight. He was first arrested in his early 20s with a few grams of cocaine, judicial documents show. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors released him after a few months in a state prison into the hands of US immigration authorities, who deported him. Within a month of being sent to Guatemala, though, he was back in the United States with the help of another coyote.
Within 18 months, he was arrested again, this time for drunk driving. By then, he said he had a wife who was two months pregnant. Seven months later, Carlos’ daughter was born, but he was still in a state jail cell serving his sentence. A month later, authorities deported him again.
By that time, his family was done paying for coyotes. Instead, they wired him $100 and wished him luck, so he found his way to the Bestia (Beast), the cargo trains traveling from southern Mexico to the United States. The journey is much cheaper but also much more dangerous. Robbery, rape, extortion, kidnappings, and accidents frequently befall those who travel on the Beast.
Carlos missed the first train that passed. But he caught the second and managed to make his way into the United States again. A few months later, authorities arrested him anew for drunk driving. Carlos spent the next 11 months in a state prison before they deported him another time, and again he returned on the cheap. A few months later, they arrested him yet again.
As it was the fifth time he’d been arrested for illegal re-entry, the judge was not interested in plea deals or quick deportations. Instead, he sentenced Carlos to 21 months in a federal penitentiary.
From the moment he arrived, he knew it was going to be different. A group of Latino prisoners quizzed him about his past and studied his tattoos. As part of the Sureños, they explained to him, he would be a soldier for the Mexican Mafia. Carlos fell in line. He made his bed, took regular showers, kept his clothes well-pressed and clean, and did calisthenics in the morning.
“Either you take it easy, or you take it easy,” Carlos said, referring to federal prison. “There is no other way.”
After federal prison, Carlos was deported to his home country one more time. Divorced from his first wife, he got involved with another woman. The two had a little boy and got married, but Carlos struggled. Jobs were short-term or difficult to find. He said employers looked at his tattoos and blanched.
Wherever Carlos went, he said he also drew the attention of the street gangs, who saw him as a threat. So he and his girlfriend went to her hometown, a smaller city where gangs are not as prevalent. But there too, jobs were hard to find. Sometimes, he would go with his girlfriend’s uncle to paint houses, but the pay was low, between $40 and $50 for a week’s work. When food was scarce, Carlos said he stole it. When he got desperate, he said he went to Mexico and applied for asylum, but they looked at his tattoos and sent him back.
Eventually, Carlos got a job at a call center in Guatemala. His English is remarkably good for someone who first went to the United States when he was 18. The center handled calls for major electronics retailers and banks. However, he said the pay was barely enough to make ends meet. His family was going hungry and his relationship with his second wife was fraying.
Then his phone buzzed.
A Fateful Telephone Call
On the other end of the line was Pepe, his friend from Michaocán. The two had kept in touch since they’d met in California fashioning granite into kitchen countertops and jacuzzis. They’d gone down similar paths. Like Carlos, Pepe had been arrested on drug charges in the United States, served nearly 10 years in prison, and had been deported back to his home country. And like Carlos, he’d continued to keep one foot in the criminal world. He’d even sent Carlos money a few times when things were tight, and Carlos had told him that he’d be happy to come work for him.
“He was like a brother to me,” said Carlos.
Unlike Carlos, Pepe had not tried to resettle in the United States. Instead, parleying the contacts he’d made in the US prison system, Pepe had become an important methamphetamine broker in Michoacán. He bought drugs in the area, then used a transport network to get those drugs to the United States. He was, in effect, an independent intermediary, a dangerous profession made even more so by the near constant fighting in Michoacán.
As such, Pepe knew important methamphetamine sellers, including a local kingpin whom we will call Cherry. Like many of his fellow trafficking colleagues in Michoacán, Cherry had started as an enforcer at a young age. The state is replete with gunmen, but Carlos said Cherry had managed to stand out for his ability, his lust for a good battle and his leadership. Local press accounts of him confirm as much. They called him Cherry, Carlos said, because, despite his reputation, he was sweet, like a cherry.
Over time, Cherry had created his own mini-army and had begun selling methamphetamine to Pepe, the broker, who sold it to large intermediaries on the streets via his contacts in US prison. Cherry also developed his own contacts in the United States to whom he sold methamphetamine directly. Both Cherry and Pepe had their own transporters and logistics specialists. This was how the business worked: a mix of small and large criminal groups, brokers, transporters, logistics operators, and wholesalers interacting across a vast geographic expanse.
In fact, Cherry’s group was one of a half-dozen or so criminal organizations that had emerged in Michoacán following the dissolution of the state’s most formidable group, the Familia Michoacana, and its most immediate descendent, the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios).
By the time Carlos got this phone call, this mishmash of groups had created a fragile alliance called the United Cartels (Cárteles Unidos), which included what was left of the Knights Templar. Many of them pose as vigilantes who fight crime, with some of them even scrawling autodefensas (self-defense forces) on the sides of their vehicles. But Carlos said they are all criminal groups.
They ostensibly united to slow the incursion of yet another criminal group, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), which is one of Mexico’s most formidable drug trafficking organizations. The fight between them is as much about business as it is personal. One of the Cárteles Unidos’ leaders allegedly stole drugs from the CJNG’s top leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho.”
El Mencho is also from Michoacán and is reportedly seeking to establish dominance over what he has long considered his territory. When he talked about El Mencho, Carlos referenced a narcocorrido, the melodic sounds that pay homage to the banditry. Using a slightly altered name, the song announces El Mencho’s pending, ominous return.
“El Mencho has a home, and you are not invited.”
When they spoke, Pepe did not give Carlos any of this context. There are things you don’t say over the phone. What he did say is that there was “work” for Carlos, that Cherry needed soldiers and was interested in having Carlos in Michoacán before possibly sending him to the United States “to do other things.”
Pepe also told him he should try to recruit others, so Carlos contacted some acquaintances he knew from his criminal exploits in Guatemala and beyond. They were interested, but after a subsequent video call with Pepe in Michoacán, where the details of the job became a bit clearer, the others dropped out.
So Carlos packed and went on his own, leaving his son and second wife behind.
Joining the ‘United Cartels’
From Guatemala, Carlos made his way to Oaxaca with other migrants moving north where he met another gang member. The two hit it off and spent the next couple of days hanging out, smoking and drinking with the gang member’s friends traveling together. Carlos says that eventually he told his new friend about the opportunity for work, and they agreed to accompany him. One of those who was with that group and joined Carlos on this adventure confirmed this account to InSight Crime when we spoke to him later. About a week after they’d met, Carlos and a half dozen other Central American recruits arrived in a taxi at a safe house in western Michoacán.
Carlos’ friend Pepe was there, and he and Carlos embraced. As it turned out, Pepe was in trouble. Cherry had fronted him some methamphetamine for sale in the United States, but Pepe had lost three of the shipments. In all, he was in the hole for some $750,000, Carlos said, and was working off his debt while he and his family were held hostage by Cherry’s mini-army.
That army now surrounded Carlos and the other Central American recruits. They carried automatic rifles, but wore expensive boots and donned fancy shirts. The soldiers told them to take showers and brush their teeth. About an hour after they’d cleaned up, a caravan of pickups arrived. The soldiers told them to sit down, lower their heads, and keep their mouths shut.
A young man -- tall, well-dressed, with long hair and a mustache -- walked into the house, Carlos said. It was Cherry.
“Hola, ¿Cómo están?” he greeted them. “Welcome. You’re going to work for me.”
Like a drill sergeant, Cherry then went one by one down the row of his new recruits, asking them what talents they had, if they knew how to manage weapons, or other ways in which they could be useful. When he got to Carlos and saw his tattoos, he asked him if he was a cholo, slang for a gang member in Mexico.
“Yeah, I’m a gang banger,” Carlos told him.
“I’m going to make you a famous sicario (hitman),” he told Carlos.
Carlos beamed. He liked the attention.
Cherry then asked each of them for their shirt and pants size and gave one of his soldiers a stack of cash to buy them a week’s worth of clothing. Then he gave each of his new recruits a little bit of spending money to get “cigarettes, a soda, or whatever.”
The next day the new recruits hopped into some pickups and 4x4s, which drove them 15 minutes into an adjacent forest. Carlos and the others had used handguns in their gang days but not assault rifles, so after some instruction, they passed out some weapons. Carlos said Cherry gave him an M16 and told him it was his, that he needed to keep it with him at all times, even sleep with it.
Then they started target practice. The power of the weapon scared Carlos but also enthralled him. El patrón, as Carlos likes to call Cherry, promised 5,000 pesos (about $250) to anyone who could hit a target from a distance. But nobody could and they returned to the safe house.
There Carlos shared a room with several others, sleeping on the floor on a thin mattress when it wasn’t his turn to keep guard. In the slow moments, the other soldiers and his commander taught them more about weapons: how to load and unload them, and how to keep them clean. As instructed, Carlos slept with his M16 next to his pillow. A little bit later, he got a tattoo of an animal that Cherry liked. His fellow soldiers got the same tattoo. It was a sign of their loyalty, but it would also mark them and later put them in danger.
Quickly, they entered a routine. Carlos and the others would be called to accompany Cherry as he did his rounds. When he stopped to have a meeting, the eight or 10 who were with him would spread into a circle with a 30- to 50-meter radius. They usually had at least one lookout further away who could notify them via radio of any large-scale movements of rivals or the authorities, so even when they were not on duty, they had to have an ear near the radio.
They sometimes attended larger meetings with the other criminal groups. At one of these meetings, Carlos said the various groups decided to prohibit car theft and the sale of crystal methamphetamine in the area, since methamphetamine use was spiking and causing domestic disturbances and a slight rise in delinquency. To level the playing field between them, they declared that each of them would only sell methamphetamine in the United States for $2,800 per kilogram.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Cárteles Unidos
When they were not with el patrón, they were assigned other tasks, such as watching a house with drugs or money, or both. The days were long and unpredictable. His phone and radio had to be on, and Carlos had to be ready to answer, especially if the lookouts announced the presence of other groups or the authorities.
There were also rules. Marijuana was permitted but soldiers like Carlos weren’t allowed to consume methamphetamine. Rape was strictly prohibited, Carlos said. They had to respect civilians, even avoid interactions with them, if possible, he added. They also couldn’t interact with the other criminal organizations in the area, and they weren’t supposed to post anything on social media. Cherry would often randomly call them over and ask to see their phones.
There were repercussions for those who broke those rules. After one of the Central American recruits posted photos of himself with assault rifles, a group of soldiers tied him up, put a bag over his head, and squeezed it tight around his neck so he couldn’t breathe. Just as it seemed he might pass out, they released the pressure. Once he regained his breath, they repeated the asphyxiation. They did it five times, Carlos said, before taking the bag off and releasing him.
When a taxi driver lost a gun belonging to the group, it was Carlos’ turn to discipline someone. He said he had to fill a hose with sand and pound the driver with it as he curled into a fetal position. For Carlos, it was a way of proving his commitment. The taxi driver, he said, spent several days recuperating in the hospital.
Still, Cherry was generous. Their pay was not great -- some 3,000 Mexican pesos per week (or about $150) -- but, in addition to housing, he gave them clothes and good food,Carlos said, driven in from the nearest town. And when Carlos told the boss his son was ill, Cherry gave him some money to send to his family in Central America.
Occasionally, el patrón would send bottles of Buchanan’s whiskey, marijuana, and sex workers to the safe house as well. Carlos said it often resembled a narcocorrido music video.
“Go ahead,” Cherry would tell them, pointing to the women. “Grab them. They’re paid for.”
It was going well, Carlos thought.
The Front Lines
A few weeks after he’d arrived, Cherry turned to Carlos.
“So, are you going to fight?”
Carlos knew what he meant. The other groups in the United Cartels were asking Cherry to do his part in the war with the CJNG. Carlos figured they would force him to go anyway, so he volunteered.
“Yes,” he told Cherry.
Carlos gathered his things: the M16 Cherry had given him, a flak jacket, and camouflage pants. Before he left, Carlos said he asked his military commander if they were going to give them something to stay hyped, to be ready to fight. His commander paused.
“What are you talking about?” his commander asked sharply.
“If they’re gonna give us drugs or something, so we can stay up?” Carlos continued.
“If you’re asking me if we’re going to be high, the answer is yes,” his commander responded. “We will be high, but we don’t have crystal [methamphetamine], only cocaine … and a lot of marijuana.”
Soon after, Carlos and a half dozen soldiers went to an abandoned lime farm where another 50 soldiers from the United Cartels had established trenches and other makeshift barricades. A little less than a kilometer away were the “Jaliscos,” or the CJNG cartel members. They’d gathered behind their own barricades and inside their own trenches.
Each side had snipers wielding .50 caliber assault rifles, as well as a smattering of soldiers with AR-15s, M16s, and AK-47s. They each also had what they call Monsters: dump trucks and other similar-sized vehicles they’d fashioned into Mad Max-like tanks, some of which had turrets. But the Jaliscos had many more Monsters than the United Cartels. To slow these down, the United Cartels blew holes in the roads or brought backhoes to break up the highways. Carlos said they also buried table-sized improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the ground, ready to detonate when the Monsters passed. When all else failed, they shot their .50 calibers and assault rifles until they ran out of bullets.
The Jaliscos also had drones, which they used to drop .60 mm grenades on the trenches. The grenades had been fashioned to detonate on impact, hitting anything within a 30-meter radius. Carlos said that he and others would, in their heightened state of alert, listen for the drones constantly. It was exhausting, especially at the beginning.
Still, Carlos said the fighting was sporadic, with shots traded across the lime farm in the middle of the night for a couple of hours, before becoming mostly quiet during the day. Supply lines were also strong. Carlos had six cartridges with 30 rounds each across his chest and another 12 cartridges within reach. Helpers also brought the soldiers good food from the local town, soda, fresh fruit juice, cigarettes, and, of course, marijuana and cocaine.
Not everyone followed the rules. Carlos said that one time one of the soldiers got his hands on crystal methamphetamine. At first, he was fine, just more alert than usual. But after a few hours, the soldier was seeing things: a drone; a Monster; even a cow carrying an assault rifle, Carlos said. Then the soldier took his rifle and hit another soldier square in the face with the nozzle, injuring the other soldier badly. Panicked, the meth-laced soldier ran into the woods, but another group captured him a few kilometers away and returned him to his group.
On the radio, Carlos could hear that the meth-laced soldier was to be punished and asked if he could be there. It was, like the beating of the taxi driver a few weeks earlier, a way Carlos could show he was committed to the group. His commander gave him the go-ahead, and Carlos watched as the other group savagely beat the meth-laced soldier. He was later executed, Carlos said, although he was not there to see it.
Carlos’ team did a three-day tour, then they went back and rested, carrying out the normal duties he had prior to his deployment. A few weeks later, he did another three-day tour. Eventually the tours would stretch closer to seven days. He didn’t mind. The pattern on the front persisted, and the pay went up: 4,000 pesos (about $200) a week instead of 3,000 pesos.
Sometime into his second month on the front lines, however, there was a shift. One of the soldiers heard a low humming sound and began screaming, “Drone! Drone! Drone!”
Some of them took cover. Others came from beneath the shelter and searched the skies, pointing and shooting their assault rifles at the sky until they heard an extended whir, then a thud. They'd shot down the drone, and the grenade had not exploded. A few gave a celebratory yell and ran to retrieve it. The drones have cameras, so they wanted to make sure it was not gathering intelligence on them. They also like to show them to the media outlets chronicling the fight.
As they approached the drone, they heard the rumble of the Monsters. There were at least three, Carlos said, each coming from a different angle. The sound of gunfire followed. It was about 9 a.m. He moved to support the .50 caliber, which was trying to repel the Monster that was headed in their direction.
The fighting went on for hours, Carlos said. Some fighters acted “crazy,” standing in the open and firing their weapons wildly. In contrast, he said he tried to shoot when there was a target and take cover when the Jaliscos and their Monsters were raining bullets.
“I was beginning to accept that I was going to die there,” he said later.
In Michoacán, instead of saying an eye for an eye, they say vida por vida, a life for a life. Carlos had gotten a glimpse of how this played out with the meth-laced soldier’s demise. But it was a while before Carlos saw what happened when this unwritten rule was ignored.
It began, he said, when Cherry’s second-in-command heard that a commander from another group was flirting with his wife. The other group was stronger than Cherry’s and had powerful allies, but these types of details are often ignored, especially when someone’s virility is challenged.
The second-in-command drove to where he could find the commander of the other group, got out of the vehicle, and, according to what he later told Carlos, put his assault rifle on automatic and let it rip: Pum, pum, pum … After 40 rounds, the commander from the other group who’d been making advances on his wife was dead, lying in a pool of his own blood.
The dead commander’s group demanded vida por vida, so Cherry reluctantly handed over his lieutenant. For a few hours, they tortured him, beating him with chains. Then the boss of the other group shot him in the foot and, to everyone’s surprise, let him go. Carlos’ group picked him up and brought him to the safehouse, but the boss of the other group reversed his decision and demanded he be brought back, so he could finish him. Cherry said he didn’t know where he was.
Cherry knew the consequences of his words. He’d been having small disputes with the other group for a while. Part of it was professional jealousy. Cherry was young and had grown considerably stronger in a short time, both in terms of the size of his army and the amount of money he was making. Carlos said Cherry managed about 50 soldiers, less than the rival, but many more than others his age. What’s more, he had his own drivers and money launderers who made sure he got close to $250,000 for every drug load he sent to the United States.
There were a lot of methamphetamine loads. Carlos said it seemed like Cherry was constantly sending cars north, so the money was piling up. In addition to providing his own soldiers with whiskey and prostitutes, Cherry financed local parties and gave handouts to civilians who would shout to him as he walked the streets. Narcocorridos followed. Not handing over his second-in-command -- and, in effect, breaking the golden rule of vida por vida -- was the last straw for the rival group’s leader.
Cherry’s group scrambled.
“Where’s everyone?” Carlos heard one of his commanders squawking on the radio. “Grab your rifles. Grab your ammo and get fucking ready, because they’re coming.”
That night, several trucks picked up Carlos and most of the other soldiers who traveled to a nearby town where they stayed on an abandoned lime farm at the behest of another cartel leader. Cherry then went to a meeting with the other boss during which that boss agreed to accept Cherry back in the area if Cherry dissolved his mini-army, handed over all his weapons and gave the other boss a percentage of his earnings from his methamphetamine sales in the United States.
Carlos later heard that part of the deal was also to let the aggrieved boss kill the “Central Americans” -- namely Carlos and the others who’d arrived with him, which would serve to fulfill the vida por vida compromise. (The other Central American soldier who spoke to InSight Crime also said he heard this rumor.) But he was never able to confirm if this was true. That’s because for Cherry, the deal was a non-starter. While Cherry played along, giving the aggrieved boss some AR-15 assault rifles as a gesture of goodwill, he began making contacts with a person who Carlos said was “a cousin” he had in the CJNG.
And after two weeks hiding on the lime farm, Cherry called a meeting. We are changing teams, he told them. So it was that after spending months fending off the CJNG’s machine-gun firing Monsters and grenade-dropping drones, some 30 or 35 of Cherry’s soldiers packed into a truck. The truck was normally used to carry movies and projector equipment from town to town, so no one suspected that on that day it was carrying several dozen well-armed soldiers to the other side of the front lines.
Cutting Off a Dead Leg
During his pep talk to his troops before they crossed over to the CJNG, Cherry had promised the Jaliscos would treat them better; that they were going to pay them more; that they would be in the city, not in the dirty trenches. But from the first moment they arrived in the CJNG camp in an adjacent state, Carlos knew it was going to be worse.
“Okay,” Cherry’s cousin began. “Here, you can forget about United Cartels. Here is pure Jalisco Cartel, and no one is going anywhere.”
They took their phones. They lowered their salaries again to 3,000 pesos per week and told them they could not leave the base under any circumstances. Carlos said it felt like they were “practically kidnapped.”
“The [commanders] look at you like a piece of shit,” he said about the CJNG leaders. “You are [nothing but] a gunman.”
He later met several soldiers who told him they’d been promised a job on a farm. When they arrived, a cartel soldier had sat them down and announced they were not going “to pick oranges,” but rather be part of the Jaliscos.
Carlos moved into another group home with his fellow soldiers. This time, Cherry lived in the same house, which he used as his headquarters to try and rebuild his drug routes. From there, Cherry quickly got another supplier. The house filled with drugs. Carlos said he would sometimes sleep next to 100 kilograms of crystal. In the other room were cocaine and marijuana, packed and ready to ship.
Occasionally, the bosses would leave a brick of cocaine on a table in the kitchen for public consumption. Carlos said he would sometimes wake up, take a small, congealed clump from the plate and microwave it, so he could do a bump. It was his morning coffee.
But Cherry had more than just his own business to think about. When he’d fled Michoacán, he’d made a deal with the Jaliscos. He’d promised to help them clear the Sinaloa Cartel from the area where they’d moved, as well as from a neighboring town.
By the time Carlos and the others arrived, the Jaliscos were solidifying their hold. They would send out groups of three or four to assassinate the remnants of the Sinaloa Cartel or force them to flee. As a newcomer to the area and a bodyguard to his boss, Carlos said he didn’t get picked for these missions. (His fellow Central American soldier corroborated this account.)
The CJNG also held meetings with local power brokers. At one of them, they’d gathered all the local drug dealers. At another, they had a few police commanders. Carlos said the Jaliscos gave the same message: You now work with us, or you work with no one. Sometimes they would go out and find the dealers. Carlos did accompany a couple of these missions, he said, but they did not meet resistance.
One day, Cherry told him he had to attend a meeting. He knew what might be next. He’d heard the Jaliscos had captured one of the “Sinaloas,” as they liked to call them. He was a low-level messenger, but they’d been torturing him for three days, and Cherry was inviting him to attend the execution. They’d also gathered about 15 local dealers as a preview of what would happen to them if they fell out of line.
By the time Carlos arrived, they had the Sinaloa messenger tied up in a chair and were interrogating him. This went on for about three hours, Carlos said. The messenger’s body was bruised and bloody, but he still had hope. They’d told him they were going to put him to work for them. This sometimes happened, especially for high-level members of rivals. They were worth more alive than dead.
But in this case, they laid down an old piece of plastic on the floor, and one of them said simply, “That’s it.”
Cherry then told Carlos to get closer. They threw the messenger on the plastic tarp. A soldier emerged with a machete and began cutting his neck. As he pulled off the head, Carlos said the blood from the messenger’s body sprayed like a hose, hitting the ceiling and covering the floor and those closest to the body.
Then one of the commanders turned to the others: “Hey, who here has not cut up a body, so someone can teach them?”
Carlos shivered. They gave the machete to another soldier who proceeded to cut off the messenger’s arms. When he was done, the commanders told him to give the machete to Carlos.
As Carlos approached what was left of the messenger’s body, they coached him: lift the leg slightly; cut just above the knee. Carlos said he felt disembodied, entering what he called a “trance.” Then he began to strike the leg with the machete as hard as he could. The victim had become like an “animal,” Carlos recalled, scrunching his forehead as he spoke.
Except, the animal still had signs of life. And, as he struck the leg -- tearing through the skin, the flesh, the veins, the cartilage and finally, the bones -- he could see the foot twitch. With each blow, the toes seemed to stand at attention and point to the sky.
When he finished, they ordered him to do the other leg, but Carlos said he refused, telling them he’d done his part and that it was someone else’s turn. Carlos then said he handed the machete to one of the other Central Americans he’d recruited and watched as he cut the other leg. (This was the Central American soldier who corroborated much of Carlos’ account.)
After it was over, Carlos tried to clean up, but he couldn’t wash his hands of the messenger’s “grease,” which he said covered his hands and body. For days, he couldn’t eat. He kept playing out the scene in his head, and when he closed his eyes, he could see the foot and toes stretching towards the heavens, twitching.
Escaping the ‘United Cartels’
Cherry might have left Michoacán, but the fight with the other groups he’d double-crossed continued. The aggrieved rival, for instance, made a “blacklist” with Cherry’s acquaintances and contacts and began hunting them down in Michoacán.
This included Carlos’ friend, Pepe, the independent methamphetamine broker who brought him to Michoacán in the first place after that fateful phone call. Cherry had forced Pepe to go with him when he’d left the area to ensure Pepe would pay him his debt of more than half a million dollars, but Pepe had used the chaotic scramble to the neighboring state to escape Cherry’s men and return to Michoacán.
Carlos panicked. He thought Cherry might think he was responsible for Pepe’s flight, but when they talked, Cherry only told him that he simply had to stop communicating with Pepe. So Carlos cut off all contact with his lifelong friend.
Still, it got worse. Once back in Michoacán, Pepe naively assumed he could continue buying and selling methamphetamine for the other groups, including the aggrieved rival. The two met and the rival killed Pepe. The rival then sent the photos of Pepe’s corpse to Cherry, which were eventually filtered to Carlos.
When he saw the photos, Carlos felt like his own “doomsday clock” started to tick. His friend who brought him into that world was now dead. How much longer did he have? He’d recouped his phone and called his brother who told him he had to flee, but to where? And how?
By then, he’d been sent to the mountains to train for the second mission: taking a neighboring town from the Sinaloas. It would not be easy. The Sinaloa Cartel had as many as 300 soldiers in the town, Carlos said, a strong presence for any place. And they’d been there for years.
There they got daily instruction from a long-time Jalisco sicario. Carlos described it as more “military” than his previous training: how to shoot with both eyes open; how to sneak up on someone in a low, tactical position; how to carry a fellow soldier who’d been injured. They also walked eight to 10 hours a day with heavy backpacks and weapons at the ready, among other exercises, something Carlos would appreciate later when he was fleeing for his life. And they would give them sparse rations of food, so they could learn how to fight on an empty stomach.
The CJNG plan was to overwhelm the Sinaloas by sending armored vehicles and Monsters from various sides of town, and Carlos’ group on foot from the mountains. Given the size of the opposition forces and the lack of cover Carlos’ group would have once they arrived in the town, Carlos considered it a suicide mission. Even if they were successful, Carlos feared what would happen when the government sent their own troops.
“It was stupid,” Carlos remembered. “The ones who end up fine are the bosses. I mean, they end up with the plazas, and the gunmen die. The soldiers die.”
Carlos’ group had been in the mountains for about two months and was getting ready to launch the attack when they got a tip that the army was coming for them. Four armored trucks with about 40 soldiers knew exactly where they were. Later, Carlos heard that his group had stolen several vehicles from the area, one of which had a GPS, which the CJNG supposed the army had used to track their position.
With the head start they got, Carlos’ group was able to escape the government soldiers’ initial approach, but the army gave chase. It was during this time that Carlos and a few of the other Central American recruits he’d drawn into the criminal organization hatched a plan to escape.
At the end of the third day, Carlos was on watch, but as it got dark, three of the recruits told the commander they were going to get water. The river was about a 15-minute walk from camp, giving them a 30-minute window. They’d also timed it so the CJNG lookout could not track them through the dwindling light.
Carlos joined the others as they scampered to the river banks. There they dropped their gear and weapons and started to walk as fast as they could through the trees. Having been in the forest for two months, they knew the general direction where they needed to go. They just didn’t know if it was the correct choice.
They could have headed toward the town where the Sinaloas were, but that was dangerous, not least because several of them had the same tattoo of the animal their boss liked, linking them to the opposition. They could have headed back toward Michoacán, but the other groups would surely cut them into pieces for joining the Jaliscos. So they did what they thought their boss would never suspect: They headed back to the city where their Jalisco odyssey had begun.
They moved for hours. To help them, they turned to online maps, but getting a signal often meant going to the highest point, a risky move considering the army’s continued presence, so they mostly moved by instinct, and, to a certain degree, luck.
After about four hours, they reached the edge of a small town where they patted the dust from their pants and split into two groups of two. Within the hour, they rendezvoused at a gasoline station where Carlos, with his phone, had gotten them transport to a motel in the city -- the same place where Carlos had chopped off the leg of the slain Sinaloa messenger and where their boss, Cherry, still resided in a group house.
A few minutes after arriving at the motel, the adrenaline subsided, and their breathing returned to normal. They soon smiled at one another and started to joke again. Then they cleaned up, and one of them went to get some beer. Another called a sex worker.
Crossing Back to the United States
By the next morning, their phones were buzzing every couple of minutes. Don’t answer the phone, Carlos told them repeatedly, only texts. Carlos answered one text from Cherry.
“I’m leaving to continue my life,” he wrote. “You’re not going to hear from me again.”
“You’re fucked,” Cherry wrote back. “Run, because I’m going to kill you, you motherfucker.”
Carlos’ body went hot. It was time to go. They got transport to Guanajuato. En route, they got stopped. Two of the three Central Americans were detained and later deported. Carlos and the other managed to talk their way into staying in Mexico, and Carlos kept going alone to Monterrey, a couple hundred kilometers south of the US-Mexico border. There his brother had arranged for a coyote to pick him up.
The coyote took Carlos to a safehouse in the city where he and about 30 others who’d also gathered got into a variety of vehicles and headed to Reynosa, along the US-Mexico border. When they arrived, a faction of the Gulf Cartel was waiting. The vehicles stopped and, one by one, the Gulf Cartel soldiers matched the coyotes’ list with their own to make sure they’d been paid the $800 per head tax they charged the coyotes to let them pass.
Now at the safehouse, Carlos waited two weeks for his turn. When it came, he said he went with a small group in the dead of night and crossed the Rio Grande to McAllen, Texas. There he spent a few more nights in another safehouse. One night, the coyotes gave him a few cans of tuna and a jug of water, and he left with a group of 11, plus their two guides, to cross the Texas desert.
By night, the group walked. Carlos was tired, but the training he’d done with the CJNG in the forests made him stronger than most. By day, they rested in areas where the cameras and drones that now constantly patrol the US border could not spot them. Four days later, as the sun strained to come over the horizon, they made it to the pickup point -- a desolate highway stretching across the Texas plains.
Soon after, a large SUV pulled up, and they packed in. Exhausted, Carlos took his shoes off and drifted in and out of sleep. But it was difficult. His legs were cramping, and he was freezing.
After five hours, the driver got on the phone and told someone on the other end they were in Houston. The driver then took them to what Carlos presumed was the next safehouse. There, they were supposed to contact their families, and the coyotes were supposed to collect the second part of the payment before they would be free to go.
But after the two guides and the driver had gotten out, another person suddenly jumped in and took off wildly down the road again. Once this new driver gained some distance, he told the migrants that everything was fine, that this was part of the process. But they started to look at each other with wide eyes. Then the driver got on the phone and, in English now, began to tell someone, “I got the truck. I’m on my way.”
Carlos knew then it was a kidnapping. He began to put on his shoes and signaled silently to the others to do the same. The driver, meanwhile, got off the phone and continued to tell the migrants that everything was fine, that he was about to get them some food.
After arriving at an apartment complex, the driver stopped the car, got out and told the migrants not to move, that he would be right back. When he was out of sight, Carlos and the others opened the car doors and made a run for it, scampering in various directions. Carlos said he ran as fast as he could for about three minutes. Then he stopped for fear that -- looking the way he did and running the way he was -- he would garner the attention of police or immigration officials.
He called his brother and told him what happened, then made his way to a shopping mall where someone his brother knew picked him up and took him to a Guatemalan restaurant. He ordered a big plate with steak, chicken, and shrimp. He was starving.
Three days later, Carlos showered, shaved, and put on clean clothes. He was with his brother who told him they were going by a friend’s house to get some tables for a party and that he needed his help. They drove for a bit, then stopped at an apartment complex.
The two of them opened the door and climbed the stairs to the apartment, his brother going first. But when Carlos entered, his family was there to surprise him, among them his mother, sister, and his now 12-year-old daughter. A video of the moment shows how the room became silent, as he scanned it and tears welled in his eyes. He hugged his mother, then his sister.
Then he embraced his daughter. They squeezed each other. It had been 10 years since he’d seen her. Without trying, he’d repeated the pattern his mother had established. It crushed him to think about it later, bringing a new round of tears to his eyes.
In the days following, he got a part-time job, fashioning granite into kitchen tabletops and jacuzzis again. With the $2,400 he made a month, he paid for a room, food, and small bits of marijuana to help him sleep. Whatever he has left, he says he sends it to his son in Guatemala, who is now three. But he was having trouble connecting with his now 12-year-old daughter.
For the first few weeks, he also found himself constantly looking out the window. Over time, his fear of a surprise attack dissipated. What he can’t shake, though, are the thoughts about that twitching leg and those toes pointing to the sky.
His goal, he says, is to get legal immigration status in the United States, but he knows it is a long path. His judicial records, which InSight Crime accessed, show he’s been deported five times and has a long list of other criminal acts. Nonetheless, he has hope since these cases have been adjudicated.
He also knows that his former boss, Cherry, is still looking for him. He’d sent a voice message not long before we spoke.
“What’s up baldie?” Cherry said. “You think you’re a badass. Look at the shit you put me in. You know what? I’m going to kill you.”
*For security reasons, InSight Crime is not using Carlos’ real name. We have also concealed names of places and changed the names of others with whom the protagonist interacted, including his friend and his boss. We corroborated much of the story with a person who was in Mexico with Carlos. We have also used judicial documents, text messages, personal videos, photographs provided by the protagonist, as well as YouTube videos and news accounts to corroborate other parts of this story. We have tried to indicate where we were unable to corroborate certain details or were dependent on the account of the protagonist by putting it in his voice.