In a video interview, a hitman talks calmly about killing 300 people in his career working for a Mexican cartel, offering a snapshot of just how fragmented Mexico's "drug war" has become.
The subject is Oscar Osvaldo Garcia Montoya, alias "Compayito," leader of a Mexican gang known as Mano con Ojos, or Hand With Eyes. "It's because I see and hear everything," he tells his interrogators when asked about the gang's name. Montoya, who was arrested August 11, displays this confidence throughout the video, smiling and cracking jokes while describing his time as a hitman who participated in some of Mexico's most gruesome massacres, including the beheading of 24 civilians outside Mexico City in September 2009 (they were innocent people, Montoya explains, but they had "seen too many faces" of cartel members)
Mano con Ojos is a spin-off of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), active just outside Mexico City. The fact that the gang even exists -- and that Montoya, once a mid-level commander for the Beltran Leyvas, now leads his own group -- is indicative of the atomization and combustion that is now so characteristic of Mexico's underworld.
President Felipe Calderon's government struck hard against the BLO: in 2009, marines killed the group's top leader, Arturo; another brother, Carlos, was arrested soon afterwards. But the BLO was torn apart thanks to a power struggle between Hector Beltran Leyva and the group's top lieutenant, Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias "La Barbie." Much of the violence seen in 2011 in cities like Acapulco is thanks to power struggles within this power struggle, with new rivalries emerging as more mid-level operatives -- like Montoya -- seek to form their own groups. Mano con Ojos is just one splinter group that has emerged to try and seize a piece of territory for itself, in light of Villareal's arrest and Hector's efforts to lead a new BLO faction, known as the South Pacific Cartel.
In the video interview, Montoya gives a good run-down on how the atomization of the BLO looked from the inside. He started out working for Raul Beltran Leyva, he says, and was responsible for trying to take over the Lazaro Cardenas seaport (a key point for controlling Mexico's methamphetamine trade). After Arturo was killed, Montoya was "commissioned" to work for "La Barbie," who already "had his own people" at that point. Montoya then became a head bodyguard and hitman for another mid-level BLO operative, Gerardo Alvarez Vazquez, alias "El Indio," who was arrested in April 2010. Afterwards, Montoya moved up the ranks, assumed control of Alvarez's 50 gunmen, and began a violent campaign in the suburbs outside Mexico City. The journey undergone by Montoya -- from BLO employee to leader of his own gang -- is emblematic of the splintering of Mexico's cartels and explains, in part, why gang violence continues to rise even as the big cartels are dissolving.
As the government continues racking up arrests in the quest to show progress in the "drug war," video interviews with cartel gunmen like Montoya are increasingly made available. Partly what is striking about the Montoya video is the detachment with which he describes his job. He states that he was responsible for 930 killings, 300 of which he committed with his own hands. At one point he tells Mexico City's attorney general -- who is asking questions off camera -- that he would have "found you and cut you to pieces. That's the truth" -- in return for refusing to accept a $400,000 bribe.
Still, it is worth resisting the tendency to cite such videos as evidence that "brutal" and "cold blooded" killers are the main drivers of Mexico's conflict. Montoya is certainly both of these things, but writing him off as a mere "psychopath" mischaracterizes a fundamental dynamic of Mexico's violence. In his own way, Montoya presents himself as an independent-minded businessman: a man who does his job efficiently and well, and who can state matter-of-factly, "I was trained to kill and to sustain myself in life" in the same way that other, more educated members of Mexico's elite can say, "I was trained in stockbroking."
Trying to paint Montoya as an alien figure, the inhuman killer, ignores just how familiar he is. In his own twisted way, he presents himself a self-made man, the embodiment of capitalism at its very worst. At one point in the video, he describes a rival, alias "JJ," with obvious disdain: "He got everything from his dad. He never had to fight for anything. He didn't go to fight anywhere -- not in Monterrey, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Guadalajara, Michoacan, not in Guerrero. The territory that he had, they gave it to him, let's say out of kindness, but he never had to fight for anything. He had it all handed to him. I came from the bottom."
Near the end of the video, Montoya goes on to cite a warped code of ethics, when describing how other, larger cartels -- including the Gulf and the Zetas -- tried to enlist Mano con Ojos to their side. "Those people dedicate themselves to extortion," he states, shaking his head. "I don't agree with that. I don't agree with extortion or kidnapping." With obvious pride, he describes Mano con Ojos as "completely independent."
Montoya's crime are obviously horrific and to be condemned. But understanding Mexico's drug violence means understanding how men like Montoya see their behavior as following an acceptable moral code, a code which espouses values (machismo, independence, achievement) which would not be out of place in industries besides the drug trade. On a brute level, Mexico's drug war is about economics. It's worth recognizing, with a chill, that Montoya is just another businessman doing the job he was trained to do with exceptional efficiency.
(Watch interview below.)