[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/CRIME/03/12/cartel.teens/art.reta.nocourtesy.cnn.jpg caption="Rosalio Reta joined Los Zetas at the age of 13."]
Documentary Filmmaker and Author
On a hot summer evening, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just across the bridge from Laredo, Texas, a 30-year-old man is on his knees in a bar, surrounded by a dozen armed guards. He begs for his life and cries for one more chance to make it right with the boss, one more chance to see his family—one more chance at life.
His boss is the man who essentially dictates the life and death of every soul in the Laredo corridor. He listens to this young man’s pleas but has already made up his mind. He is the judge and jury in this warped court of injustice and it’s clear he’s heard enough.
The boss pulls a diamond-studded, pearl-handled pistol from his belt and slowly hands it over to one of his newest recruits. He tells the recruit to put a bullet in the condemned man’s head, who is sobbing uncontrollably. Without hesitation, the new recruit pulls the trigger – four times over. This was his first kill; an initiation test to become an assassin for the Zetas, the enforcement arm of one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.
The irony in this story is that the Zetas were originally an elite combat unit working for the Mexican government. They were handpicked by the Mexican military and trained in counter-narcotics techniques. But once these highly-trained men began to fight the drug cartels, the narcos made them a better deal. Many of them defected to go work for the cartels. The FBI considers the Zetas a “ruthless group.” Its members are known for their beheadings of rivals, police officers, and public officials. They are experts at psychological warfare. And it works. It works so well, in fact, that many people in the region with direct knowledge of the perpetrators and their crimes would never dream of cooperating with the authorities.
The “rush” of a hit
The shooting in the bar in Nuevo Laredo happened more than five years ago, but it’s a scene that still plays out today. The new recruit who shot and killed the former cartel member is named Rosalio Reta. He was 13-years-old at the time.
Reta said that when his boss handed him the pistol and pulled the trigger, he loved it. He said it gave him a “rush” that he had never felt before, “to kill a man and know I was going to get away with it gave me a feeling of power.” He spoke of that night as if he had found his true calling.
“I knew right then I was born to be a sicario,” he said. That’s Spanish for hit man.
I have spent the past five years investigating and reporting on the drug cartels as a documentary filmmaker. Over the course of this time, I have met and talked with numerous players in the drug war. They have told me stories that have often left me feeling more than a little disturbed. The daily tortures and executions that are symptoms of the drug violence reflect an utter disregard for human life. It can certainly wear on even the most seasoned reporter.
The first time I met Reta he had just turned 18 and was already awaiting his first murder trial in Webb County. I was doing research for a program I was to produce about the Zetas. We had to meet in private because to be seen talking with someone like me could have been a death sentence for someone like him.
Reta was born and raised in Laredo, Tx, and recruited by the Zetas when he was in the 7th grade. He received military-style training on a Mexican ranch and became a contract killer for the cartel. Investigators say Reta and another American recruit were paid $500 a week on retainer to sit and wait for a call to kill. They were paid up to $50,000 and 2 kilos of cocaine for carrying out a hit.
Since Reta and I spoke last year, he has been featured in numerous news stories. But I spoke with him about his experience before the mainstream media even knew his name.
When I looked into the eyes of this young man and saw how he lit up inside while speaking so nonchalantly – yet eloquently – about how he “lived to kill,” it gave me chills—and still does.
“I’ve killed men while they were tied and bound but that there is no thrill, no excitement in that for me. I prefer to stalk my target, hunt them down and then, after I know his moves front to back, I sneak up on them, look’em in the eyes and pull the trigger—now that’s a rush.”
Sheriff Rick Flores, had him moved into his personal office so I could meet with Reta, the most infamous prisoner in his jail at the time.
The accused killer was in leg irons and shackles, and facing a potential death sentence. Still, he had an arrogant look about him, wearing a smirk on his face that made you think he found his situation amusing.
Authorities caught up with Reta after he threw two grenades and fired rounds into a Monterrey, Mexico nightclub. But this went against orders from his cartel commanders to not leave the Laredo corridor. He was quickly apprehended by local cops. Reta suspected they would hand him over to his own gang for torture and execution. He was right. For three days Reta said he was held in a safe-house in northern Mexico and tortured by his own cartel members for violating their orders. He was able to free himself and ran out into the street screaming for help. He was picked up by the federal police.
Reta called the homicide detective for the Laredo, Texas police department and confessed to his crimes. He was immediately extradited to the United States and put in jail. He was convicted of murder in a case prosecuted by the Webb County District Attorney’s office. He now sits in a Texas prison awaiting another murder trial set to begin later this year.
How does an American teenager get recruited by a drug cartel?
If you don’t count the lightening bolts tattooed on his face, he looked like any ordinary kid until he opened his mouth to speak. He was calculating and conniving with a high degree of street smarts. For example, Reta ended up asking me as many questions that first day as I did him.
He took notes as we talked and asked me many personal questions. In fact the more personal I got with my questions to him, the more personal his questions became for me. At first I didn’t know what to think about this quid pro quo interview, but after a while I realized he was trying to intimidate me. And given my knowledge of his background, it almost worked.
He told me that he frequently went to Nuevo Laredo looking for work as a drug runner. This part of his story is played out every day all along the border, and recruitment of young teenagers into drug gangs is nothing new.
But giving these recruits paramilitary training and state of the art weaponry is new. Reta is part of a new wave of young recruits that gives the drug cartels a bumper crop of highly-trained and highly-motivated soldiers. And they’re giving us our worst nightmare – domestic narco-terrorists.
Training for these kids starts as soon as an elder Zeta commander deems them ready. This usually occurs after they have proven their ability to kill someone. Then, the “real” training begins.
The core group of men commanding los Zetas were trained to handle all types sophisticated weaponry: automatic assault rifles, heavy-caliber machine guns, bombs, and grenade launchers. They are experts in explosives, GPS technology, wiretapping, and counterintelligence. And even though many of the founding members have been captured or killed in the last few years—they have managed to duplicate themselves many times over with this new generation of young Zetas often referred to as Zetita’s (baby Zetas).
My interviews with Reta and numerous other law enforcement and cartel sources on both sides of the border revealed that the Zetas have training camps all over northern Mexico and Central America. They have even been known to use property on the U.S. side of the border for training purposes.
And what exactly are they training these boys and girls to do? It starts out as any other military boot camp - with classes, physical training, running and obstacle course drills. Around the clock, seven days a week, for six months; these recruits get the same kind of training given to even the most elite military special forces anywhere. The goal is to build a generation of narco-terrorists that is more advanced than its predecessors. New recruits are indoctrinated to the ways of the Zetas. According to Reta, “Leave no man behind” is a creed a Zetita is taught to live by.
“If you go out with ten other men and they get killed, you come home with ten corpses or not at all,” he said.
The next generation of narco-insurgents
At a time in his life when Reta should have been learning geometry, basic biology and how to muster up the courage to ask a girl out on a date — he was learning how to calculate wind and distance to take out a target. He was learning about the best methods of torturing a man to extract information.
The young men eager to become assassins for the cartel aren’t just taught to kill with weapons. They are given martial arts training and taught how to kill with their hands. They learn how to operate the most sophisticated surveillance and weaponry available today. They are taught how to dismantle and reassemble every weapon they are issued, and then they learn how to use them with deadly precision. Young Zetas handle all forms of handguns: AK-47’s, AR-15’s, .50 caliber machine guns, fragment grenades and rocket launchers. They are taught how to properly form a sniper team and take out a target from distances of a thousand yards or more.
Like many U.S. troops and government agents, these killers get an extensive course in SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape). They are taught methods of handling being tortured in case they are ever captured. They learn how to drive their vehicles in high-speed chases and how to box in their intended targets at intersections to create the best possible kill zone and the potential for injury to innocent bystanders.
As you would probably guess many of these kids “wash out” of the program. And for those recruits who can’t cut the rigors of paramilitary training, they are given the option to go into a complete smuggling training program or sign up for an advanced school in electronics or even college.
American recruits trained by the cartels often end up working in the United States. They are valuable to the cartels because they don’t stand out and can blend into society. They speak perfect English, dress like every other teenager and they know the roads and the customs. They can guard a million-dollar load of narcotics from Laredo to Dallas and pass right through a border checkpoint and never look suspicious. When the narcotics reach their destination they act as the cartel bankers, collect the money, and drive the cash back safely to Mexico. And they never miss a day of school to do it.
The Reta story is one of the most glaring examples of the evolution that the illicit drug trade has taken in the past decade. It is naïve to think that terrorists have to be from a certain part of the world or only have one specific motivation. It’s no longer drug dealing as usual, narco–terrorism is alive and well in the United States of America. The insurgents are not from some far-flung place across the world, they are living among us.
Editor’s note: Rusty Fleming is an award-winning producer, director and author. He produced, "Drug Wars: Silver or Lead," while researching the drug cartels in Mexico. He also wrote a book, entitled "Narco-Warfare in the Twenty-First Century," on the same subject. Rusty has spent the majority of the past four years traveling the southwest border and across Mexico developing credible sources and confidential informants about drug wars. He is recognized by national media and law enforcement agencies as an expert on border security and the Mexican drug cartels. He is also the executive producer of a new series entitled “Embedded” about federal and military forces from the U.S. and Mexico as they go head-to-head against the most powerful drug lords in the Western Hemisphere. The series, is set to begin shooting in the fall of 2009.