Editor's note: This is a short excerpt from the full article. For more in depth analysis on this and other topics, check out Harper's Magazine.
I am ready for the story of all the dead men who last saw his face.
As I drank coffee and tried to frame questions in my mind, a crime reporter in Juárez was cut down beside his eight-year-old daughter as they sat in his car letting it warm up. This morning as I drove down here, a Toyota passed me with a bumper sticker that read, with a heart symbol, i love love. This morning I tried to remember how I got to this rendezvous.
I was in a distant city and a man told me of the killer and how he had hidden him. He said at first he feared him, but he was so useful. He would clean everything and cook all the time and get on his hands and knees and polish his shoes. I took him on as a favor, he explained.
I said, “I want him. I want to put him on paper.”
And so I came.
The man I wait for insists, “You don’t know me. No one can forgive me for what I did.”
He has pride in his hard work. The good killers make a very tight pattern through the driver’s door. They do not spray rounds everywhere in the vehicle, no, they make a tight pattern right through the door and into the driver’s chest. The reporter who died received just such a pattern, ten rounds from a 9mm and not a single bullet came near his eight-year-old daughter.
I admire craftsmanship.
The first call comes at 9:00 and says to expect the next call at 10:05. So I drive fifty miles and wait. The call at 10:05 says to wait until 11:30. The call at 11:30 does not come, and so I wait and wait. Next door is a game store frequented by men seeking power over a virtual world. Inside the coffee shop, it is all calculated calm and everything is clean.
I am in the safe country. I will not name the city, but it is far from Juárez and it is down by the river. At noon, the next call comes.
We meet in a parking lot, our cars conjoined like cops with driver next to driver. I hand over some photographs. He quickly glances at them and then tells me to go to a pizza parlor. There he says we must find a quiet place because he talks very loudly. I rent a motel room with him. None of this can be arranged ahead of time because that would allow me to set him up.
He glances at the photographs, images never printed in newspapers. He stabs his finger at a guy standing over a half-exposed body in a grave and says, “This picture can get you killed.”
I show him the photograph of the woman. She is lovely in her white clothes and perfect makeup. Blood trickles from her mouth, and the early-morning light caresses her face. The photograph has a history in my life. Once I placed it in a magazine and the editor there had to field a call from a terrified man, her brother, who asked, “Are you trying to get me killed, to get my family killed?” I remember the editor calling me up and asking me what I thought the guy meant. I answered, “Exactly what he said.”
Now the man looks at her and tells me she was the girlfriend of the head of the sicarios in Juárez, and the guys in charge of the cartel thought she talked too much. Not that she’d ever given up a load or anything, it was simply the fact that she talked too much. So they told her boyfriend to kill her and he did. Or he would die.
This is ancient ground. The term sicario goes back to Roman Palestine, where a Jewish sect, the Sicarii, used concealed daggers (sicae) in their murders of Romans and their supporters.
He leans forward. “Amado and Vicente”—the two brothers who have successively headed the Juárez cartel—“could kill you if they even thought you were talking,” he says.
These photographs can get you killed. Words can get you killed. And all this will happen and you will die and the sentence will never have a subject, simply an object falling dead to the ground.
I feel myself falling down into some kind of well, some dark place that hums beneath the workaday city, and in this place there is a harder reality and absolute facts. I have been living, I think, in a kind of fantasy world of laws and theories and logical events. Now I am in a country where people are murdered on a whim and a beautiful woman is found in the dirt with blood trickling from her mouth and then she is wrapped with explanations that have no actual connection to what happened.
I have spent years getting to this moment. The killers, well, I have been around them before. Once I partied with two hundred armed killers in a Mexican hotel for five days. But they were not interested in talking about their murders. He is.