IGUALA, Mexico — The killer says he "disappeared" a man for the first time at age 20. Nine years later, he says, he has eliminated 30 people — maybe three in error.
He sometimes feels sorry about the work he does but has no regrets, he says, because he is providing a kind of public service, defending his community from outsiders. Things would be much worse if rivals took over.
"A lot of times your neighborhood, your town, your city is being invaded by people who you think are going to hurt your family, your society," he says. "Well, then you have to act, because the government isn't going to come help you."
He operates along the Costa Grande of Guerrero, the southwestern state that is home to glitzy Acapulco as well as to rich farmland used to cultivate heroin poppies and marijuana. Large swaths of the state are controlled or contested by violent drug cartels that traffic in opium paste for the U.S. market, and more than 1,000 people have been reported missing in Guerrero since 2007— far fewer than the actual number believed to have disappeared in the state.
The plight of the missing and their families burst into public awareness last year when 43 rural college students were detained by police and disappeared from the Guerrero city of Iguala, setting off national protests. Then, suddenly, hundreds more families from the area came forward to report their kidnap victims, known now as "the other disappeared." They told stories of children and spouses abducted from home at gunpoint, or who left the house one day and simply vanished.
This is a story from the other side, the tale of a man who kidnaps, tortures and kills for a drug cartel. His story is the mirror image of those recounted by survivors and victims' families, and seems to confirm their worst fears: Many, if not most, of the disappeared likely are never coming home.
"Have you disappeared people?" he is asked.
"Yes," he replies.
In Mexico and other places where kidnapping is common, the word "disappeared" is an active verb and also an adjective to describe the missing. Disappearing someone means kidnapping, torturing, killing and disposing of the body in a place where no one will ever find it.
To date, none of the killer's victims have been found, he says.
For months, the AP approached sources connected with cartel bosses, seeking an interview with someone who kills people on their behalf.
Finally, the bosses put forward this 29-year-old man, with conditions: He, his organization and the town where he met with reporters would not be identified. He would appear on camera wearing a ski mask, and his voice would be distorted. And one of his bosses would be present throughout.
In jeans and a camouflage T-shirt, the hit man looked younger than his 29 years. He wore a baseball cap with a badge bearing the face of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and "prisoner 3578" — Guzman's inmate number before he escaped through a tunnel from Mexico's maximum-security prison in July, cementing his image as a folk hero.
"Of all the bad lot," the killer said, Guzman "seems to be the least bad."
The killer — who does not work for Guzman — does not see himself as bad. Unlike others, he says, he has standards: He doesn't kill women or children. He doesn't make his victims dig their own graves. He raises cattle for a living and doesn't consider himself a drug trafficker or a professional killer, although he is paid for disappearing people. While he acknowledges that what he does is illegal, he says he is defending his people against the violence of other cartels.
The killer wears a bag with a strap over his chest in which he carries several walkie-talkies and cell phones, one of which he used to take calls and issue orders: "Muevanse," he said — move on. "Esperense ahí" — wait there. Just before the interview begins, he puts the bag aside, and slips on the ski mask. He sits in a plastic armchair.
There are many reasons people are disappeared, the killer says. It may be for belonging to a rival gang, or for giving information to one. If a person is considered a security risk for any reason, he may be disappeared. Some are kidnapped for ransom, though he says he does not do this.
Each kidnapping starts with locating the target. The best place is at a home, early in the morning, "when everyone is asleep." But sometimes they are kidnapped from public areas. If the target is unarmed, two men are enough to carry out a "pickup" or "levanton," as the gang kidnappings are known. If he is armed, it requires more manpower.
The victim is taken to a safe house or far enough out into the woods that no one will hear him during the next step: "getting information out of them by torture."
He rests his forearms on the chair and moves his hands over his knees as he speaks about torture. He describes three methods: beatings; waterboarding, or simulated drownings in which a cloth is tied around the mouth and nose, and water is poured over it; and electric shocks to the testicles, tongue and the soles of the feet.
He has no training in torture. He learned it all by practice, he says. "With time, you come to learn how to hurt people, to get the information you need."
It usually takes just one night. "Of the people who have information you want, 99 percent will give you that information," he says. Once he gets it, he kills them. "Usually with a gun."
The problem is that people under torture sometimes admit to things that are not true: "They do it in hope that you will stop hurting them. They think it's a way to get out of the situation."
That may have happened to him three times, he says, leading him to kill the wrong men.
The dead are buried in clandestine grave sites, dumped into the ocean, or burned. If the organization wants to send a message to another cartel, a victim's tortured body is dumped in a public area. But the 30 people he has "disappeared" all have been buried, he says.
By the official count, 26,000 Mexicans have been reported missing nationwide since 2007, just over 1,000 of those from Guerrero. But human rights officials and the experience of families from the Iguala area indicate that most people are too afraid to report kidnappings, particularly in areas where police, municipal and state officials are believed to be operating in tandem with the cartels. The official tally has just 24 missing from the Costa Grande area, where the killer says he has been involved in the killings of 30 people.
"The (disappeared) problem is much bigger than people think," the killer says.
The killer has a grade-school education. He wanted to continue studying, but when he was a child there was no middle school in his town. "I would have liked to learn languages ... to travel to other places or other countries. I would have liked that," he said.
Some in his circumstances use drugs, but he says he doesn't. "When people are on drugs, they're not really themselves," he says. "They lose control, their judgment."
He says no one forced him to join his organization. His parents and siblings don't know what he does, but he thinks they can guess, since he is always armed: He usually carries a .38-caliber pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle.
He isn't married and has no children. Although he would like to have a family, he knows his future is uncertain. "I don't really see anything," he said. "I don't think you can make plans for the future, because you don't know what will happen tomorrow."
"It's not a pretty life," he says.
Life in an area torn by drug disputes is rarely pretty. For years, Guzman's Sinaloa cartel controlled drug production, coastal access and trafficking routes in Guerrero. The Beltran Leyva brothers took over until the Mexican government killed Arturo Beltran Leyva in a shootout in December 2009, and then the state's opium and marijuana business was divided up among half a dozen smaller cartels, including Guerreros Unidos, los Rojos, Los Granados and La Familia, from neighboring Michoacan state.
Besides running drugs, some Mexican cartels operate extortion rackets and control human trafficking to the United States. Where needed, they buy off politicians and police forces to make sure nothing gets in the way of business. When necessary, they kill those who fail to cooperate.
The violence spikes when cartels are fighting each other for control of territory, or when the military launches operations to strike the cartels. An anti-narcotics military operation prevented the killer's arrival at a pre-arranged location on the first try, but the next day he and his bosses made it to a house on a humid stretch of the Pacific Ocean known as the Costa Grande, an area lush with groves of coconuts and mangos — other exports for which cartels take a cut.
In recent years, residents of a number of towns and cities have taken up arms to protect themselves against drug cartels. In several cases, authorities have claimed these vigilantes are allied with rival gangs, and pass themselves off as self-defense groups to gain greater legitimacy.
Federal authorities told the AP that several drug gangs in Guerrero, including those that operate on the Costa Grande, act as self-defense groups to generate support from local residents.
"I can't say I'm a vigilante," says the killer, "but I am part of a group that protects people, an autonomous group of people who protect their town, their people."
He recognizes he would be punished if caught by the authorities. "For them, these (killings) are not justifiable under the laws we have, but my conscience — how can I put this — this is something that I can justify, because I am defending my family." A rival gang, "would do worse damage."
The killer fears dying, but he fears being captured by a rival gang even more. He knows better than most what will happen to him: "If I died in a shootout, for example, the suffering wouldn't be as bad."
With the same lack of emotion with which he described torture, the killer addresses his murders.
"Whatever you want to say, you're hurting someone and in the end, you kill them, and that leaves people hurting, the family hurting," he said. "It's the kind of thing that causes stress and remorse, because it's not a good thing."
But he tries not to think about it too much, and while he can remember the number of people he has killed and the places he buried them, he says he cannot recall his victims. "Over time," he says, "you forget."
E. Eduardo Castillo on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/EECastilloAP