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      What It's Like to Lead a Team of Zetas Cartel Hitmen in One of Mexico's Bloodiest States

      What It's Like to Lead a Team of Zetas Cartel Hitmen in One of Mexico's Bloodiest States What It's Like to Lead a Team of Zetas Cartel Hitmen in One of Mexico's Bloodiest States What It's Like to Lead a Team of Zetas Cartel Hitmen in One of Mexico's Bloodiest States
      Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News

      Crime & Drugs

      What It's Like to Lead a Team of Zetas Cartel Hitmen in One of Mexico's Bloodiest States

      By Oscar Balderas and Nathaniel Janowitz

      Léalo en Español aquí

      The man sitting in a cheap hotel room made it clear that he would not be described physically, though there wasn't anything remarkable about his appearance.

      Nor would it be possible to reveal the exact location of the meeting, and any idea of using his real name, or usual alias, was clearly out of the question.

      Instead, the chief of a cell of hitmen for the Zetas cartel in Veracruz, one of Mexico's deadliest states, created a name for publication that he thought represents his career — El Sangres, from the Spanish word sangre, which means blood.

      It is very rare to get the chance to talk to an active Zeta commander. El Sangres agreed to the interview, it seemed, because he was keen to talk about the way the influence of his notoriously bloody cartel in Veracruz has risen and fallen with the strength of its ties to the state government.

      The Zetas, he admitted, have lost presence in recent years because of a turf war with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG in Spanish) which, he insisted, have a deal with the current governor Javier Duarte. But, he added, he was sure that the Zetas will find a way of returning to dominance again.

      "Duarte is a puppet," he said. He did not sound angry. His tone suggested he was simply stating a fact, that the rules of the game have changed from the days when it was the Zetas who had the loyalty of the governor. "Duarte wants to finish off the Zetas, but that's never going to happen. They kill one of us and three or four are coming right back at them."

      The hitman's claims about the governor, who has been in office since 2010, are not verifiable. Even so, few serious observers of Mexico's drug wars explain the rampant violence in Veracruz today without reference to narcopolitics.

      'They kill one of us and three or four are coming right back at them'

      At the same time both Sangres' cool, and his bravado, suggest that — as elections approach on Sunday to replace Duarte — the terror suffered in Veracruz and other Mexican states is going to continue.

      VICE News confirmed with three credible sources that Sangres is who he claims to be, an active Zeta for the past five years and the leader of a cell of hitmen in the center of the state.

      In the interview he said he has nearly a dozen assassins working beneath him. He called them his angelitos, or little angels.

      "They are a family, my family is the group I manage, straight up assassins," El Sangres stated. He insisted that though "people think we are the worst," there are good reasons why he is ordered to kill. His victims "owed something" or had got involved in things they shouldn't have. With what seemed like pride, he said he does not commit other kinds of crimes, such as extortion or theft.

      'I get my orders to go to a particular place, find a particular person, abduct them, and ensure they are never seen again'

      "I'm not going to take your wallet or your phone, I'm not going to take your watch," he said. "I get my orders to go to a particular place, find a particular person, abduct them, and ensure they are never seen again."

      Related: Mexican Authorities Say They Don't Exist: Meet the Vigilantes Standing Up to the Zetas

      The Zetas origins trace back to the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas in the late 90s. The Gulf cartel recruited elite Mexican military deserters to form an armed wing of their criminal organization. The group of highly-trained former soldiers later began to operate independently, and the Gulf-Zeta alliance finally split in 2010 leading to a particularly violent turf war in Tamaulipas.

      In the meantime, the Zetas had carved out an especially bloody reputation, hanging bodies from bridges, leaving heads in front of schools, dismembering women on video and then publishing them online.

      "We weren't here in Veracruz. We entered because the government of Fidel Herrera let us and this I guarantee you," said El Sangres, referring to Duarte's predecessor.

      El Sangres said that "Fidel" initially invited the Zetas in to Veracruz, just south of Tamaulipas, in 2005 to take care of "problems" he had. But, the hitman added, the group soon got beyond the governor's control.

      Zeta influence in Veracruz once seemed so unchallenged locals joke darkly that it explained the "z" in the state's name, and in so many other of its major cities — the state capital, Xalapa-Enriquez, Orizaba, Coatzacoalcos, Ciudad Mendoza, Zongolica, Aculztingo, and others.

      Related: How a Mexican Cartel Demolished a Town, Incinerated Hundreds of Victims, and Got Away With It

      Fernanda Rubí Salcedo was one victim of Zeta horror.

      The Zetas, it seems, kidnapped the pretty 21-year-old on September 7, 2012, because one of their leaders wanted her to be his girlfriend.

      Rubí and several friends had gone out to a trendy bar called the Bulldog in Orizaba, an important city in central Veracruz and a stronghold of the cartel. Near midnight, four armed men entered the bar and headed directly for her.

      Even though the bar was busy, and guarded by private security, nothing prevented the group from pulling the young woman from the dance floor by her hair. They bundled her into a truck that disappeared into the night. The bar was just 50 yards from the municipal police headquarters and only a few hundred yards from a state police base.

      Since then Rubí's mother has become the driving force behind efforts to find the missing young woman.

      The Zetas abducted Fernanda Rubí Salcedo. Her mother marches in Mexico City holding a poster with her photo. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)

      "I investigated very deeply and gave the authorities addresses, names, clues. And why didn't they act?" Araceli Salcedo said last month. "Because they know the Zetas, they know who is involved and you can't beat these people."

      Salcedo was speaking while on a march in Mexico City on May 10 this year — Mexican Mother's Day — along with hundreds of other families who are also missing loved ones from across the country.

      'Because they know the Zetas, they know who is involved and you can't beat these people'

      Her fearlessness is well known in Veracruz where last October a local paper filmed her as she shouted "where's my family" at Governor Duarte when he visited Orizaba with his.

      The governor initially ignored her and smiled at a poster Salcedo was holding of Rubí.

      "Don't mock me, wipe that smile off your face," the determined mother said. "You're all the same. Pure corruption."

      Related: Victim in Photojournalist Killing: 'If Anything Happens to Me,' It Was the Veracruz Governor

      Salcedo's cries resonated in Veracruz where many believe the politicians are the biggest criminals.

      The first sign that the Zetas' political control in Veracruz might be slipping came in a YouTube video posted in July 2011 featuring a large group of armed and hooded individuals calling themselves Los Matazetas — The Zeta Killers. They named former governor Herrera as the Zeta leader, calling him "Z 1"

      Los Matazetas, aka CJNG, pose in a YouTube video released in 2011 threatening the Zetas. (Screenshot via YouTube.com)

      The Matazetas were actually a branch of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, and their video announced their attempt to take the state from Zeta control. It was the beginning of the battle between the cartels that continues today.

      The Jalisco cartel has since been recognized as the the fastest growing cartel with their presence felt in states throughout Mexico.

      In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published a map with the most recent distribution of cartels in Mexico and they labelled CJNG as the owners of central Veracruz. Another DEA report from the same year, puts the CJNG and its partners The Cuinis, as the world's richest drug traffickers over the legendary Sinaloa Cartel and its now detained leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. The report labelled Veracruz in red, as a key to their economic superiority, because through it the CJNG can smuggle cocaine and methamphetamine to Europe, Canada, and Asia.

      Related: How the Jalisco New Generation Cartel Is Terrorizing the People of Western Mexico

      El Sangres says that the intruders have also been aided by Duarte switching loyalties after he took office in 2010.

      "We are losing ground, presence, respect, everything," he said.

      The hitmen said the Zetas are losing members to the CJNG. He also bemoaned the unraveling of the group's famed, if brutal, professionalism that was the norm when he joined la última letra, which means the final letter in Spanish — Z.

      'They are sending kids who are not trained to the front, to the battles... Some of these kids are 15 years old, and never more than 20'

      "Unfortunately, the organization of la letra is hiring people who don't know what they are doing. They are sending kids who are not trained to the front, to the battles," he said. "Some of these kids are 15 years old, and never more than 20. There are very few people left who are older and who understand what our work is."

      However inexperienced the killers, the violence continues in Veracruz.

      In the month between the interview and publication three incidents made national headlines. In Xalapa-Enriquez, five people were executed in a bar. In Amatlán de los Reyes five dismembered bodies were discovered. A message with the bodies alleged the dead were Zetas, killed by operatives of the CJNG. In the Bulldog — the bar in Orizaba where Rubí was abducted — an important cartel member was gunned down in the early morning hours.

      The turf war with Jalisco is one of the reasons why El Sangres only agreed to an interview if we kept it to under half an hour.

      Related: Mexico's Efforts to Tackle Police Corruption Keep Failing

      His explanation was that his "work" requires him to change locations every 60 minutes or be killed. His nervousness was evident. He sat stiffly in a chair in the corner of the room. His hands tightly gripped the arms of the seat. His knuckles were white throughout.

      The decline of the Zetas, however, has not brought security for the inhabitants of Veracruz.

      For the Quevado Orozco family, life under the control of CJNG was even worse.

      Kidnappers took Gerson Quevado, a 19-year-old architecture student, from outside a convenience store in the town of Medellin de Bravo in March 2014. They demanded 80,000 pesos, about $4,300, from his family who paid the ransom exactly as they were told.

      Gerson's father, mother, sister, brother, girlfriend, and girlfriend's brother waited at the family home for a call that didn't come to say he had been released. Instead, a supposed friend of the family gave them an address where he said Gerson was being held.

      'Why did they kidnap my son? Why did they kill my other son? He only wanted to see his brother... These people don't have mothers? They don't have children?'

      The family sent Gerson's brother, Alan, a promising 15-year-old goalie on a popular Veracruz soccer team. They also sent Miguel, his girlfriend's brother and an accomplished taekwondo fighter. They didn't tell the authorities. They were nervous the police had links to the kidnappers.

      Alan and Miguel were met by gunfire when they arrived and died instantly. Gerson is still missing today.

      Gerson, Alan, and Miguel are all missing or dead. Family members march in Mexico City on Mother's Day holding their images. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)

      The family are convinced that the kidnappers were part of the CJNG and have police protection because they did not act on evidence they gave them.

      "Not only did our relatives disappear, the evidence disappeared too. What do you do with so much corruption?" said Marisela Orozco, Gerson and Alan's mother. "The fucking government is the one that is finishing us."

      Orozco, her husband, and her daughter marched with the mother of Rubí on Mother's Day in Mexico City, still trying to bring awareness to the violence in a state they have now fled.

      Related: Cartel Gunmen Are Targeting Police and Politicians in Mexico's Jalisco State

      "Why did they kidnap my son? Why did they kill my other son? He only wanted to see his brother," she said. "Don't these people have mothers? Don't they have children?"

      El Sangres said he does have an ex-wife and kids. He claimed his ex knows what he does, but his children do not, though he no longer sees any of them.

      "The family doesn't exist to me anymore, I'm alone," he said. For a moment he seemed unable to choose his words. His voice shook. "They don't know what's going on with me. I know about them, but no... "

      El Sangres would only agree to a photo if we provided a mask. He decided to cover his head with a sheet and took aim at the camera. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)

      The self-confessed mass murderer also described his decision to join the cartel as the product of the abuses of authority he witnessed as a municipal police officer. He said he left his job because of "all the injustices" that he saw and then joined the cartel when "they offered the right price."

      But Sangres also said life as a hitman was not easy.

      "Your life gets worse in all aspects," he said. "You don't sleep well. You feel the need to keep moving from one place to the other all the time. Why? Because even your own organization wants to bring you down."

      Just before leaving the hotel, El Sangres told us that we could take a single photo, but only if we provided him with a mask. We had brought one with us in case he made this demand.

      The hitman took a white sheet and covered the rest of his head. Standing in front of a white wall he raised his hand and pointed it at the camera. The movement made his shirt rise slightly revealing a real gun tucked neatly into his pants.

      Related: How Veracruz Became the Most Dangerous State in Mexico for Journalists

      Follow Oscar Balderas and Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @oscarbalmen and @ngjanowitz

      Topics: crime & drugs, americas, mexico, los zetas, zetas, jalisco new generation cartel, cjng, veracruz, javier duarte, fidel herrera, orizaba, cordoba

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