Interview with a Hitman

Whilst coming down from a second failed attempt of a particular mountain in the Ecuadorian Andes, I ended up talking with a friendly local who was curious of where I had been. My Spanish is poor but it transpired that the man, Alberto, was originally from Colombia and “needed” to move to Ecuador. Now peaking my interest I asked why and he said he was hiding from the cartel as he was a sicario. The word translated literally means “hitman”, the loose network of sicarios I am somewhat familiar with from research for my fiction typescript. I am a sceptical person, so I only allowed myself to be surprised when he answered my probing questions with answers few would know. I asked whether I could interview him for my book, to which he laughed and agreed so long that his identity remained ambiguous.

Alberto was a middle aged man, living in the rainforest outside of any village but not cut off from civilisation entirely. He was stout, short compared to an European but broad of shoulder, with a slightly lighter complexion than your typical rural Ecuadorian. He had an affable disposition, his laughter was frequent but ephemeral, a characteristic of cutting him self short like he had laughed too much. He smiled from one side of his face more than the other, in a Harrison Ford style of smirk, and when we would come to shake hands he would do so with both of his in an assertively genial manner. We sat on his veranda speaking a mixture of Spanish and English, finishing each others sentences like a couple.

I asked whether the terminology I knew of was actually used: “little girl” for murder victim, “guitar” for rifle, “iron” for pistol and “parrot” for cocaine. This question, struggled to be asked in Spanglish, was of great amusement to him. They do use these terms and many more, for example he would call a pistol “thunder”. The vocabulary of the sicarios consists of hundreds of words and even has altered linguistic structures (the order words form a sentence). He did not know why this existed anymore for it was a steep learning curve and there was no ambiguity to the “iguanas” (police) who had learnt the lingo. He continued to say it was stupid that “motorbike” in Spanish meant ‘marijuana user’ in sicarios, but “poisoned motorbike” meant ‘motorbike’ (a souped up motorbike specifically, but also a generic term). Using this Latin cockney meant that you were in the club. Referring to cocaine as parrot meant you were treated with respect, for only the sicarios used to use this term. So much so that if someone was caught using the term who was not a sicario they would be in “muchos problemas”. He said this with a grievous expression but also implied that this was less the case nowadays.

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Teenage sicarios in Medellina (Colombia).

I as politely as possible broached the subject of money, my understanding being that the equivalent of £350 a month salary and £1,000 to £3,000 per little girl was the norm. He was surprised that I knew such figures but said that the salary was closer to £300 nowadays, slowly going down as more and more teenagers from the slums look to the cartel for fame and fortune. The salary alone is typical money for someone who is in employment, but there are so few jobs that only one person may be able to work in a family and rarely consistently. The bonus is therefore highly lucrative, but a small share is given to the niño (boy).

The niño is an important part of the “ticket” (murder) and is a teenager who is learning how to be a hitman. If you’re thinking sniper rifles, ninja skills and radioactive umbrellas then think again. These images have largely been fabricated by fiction (except oddly the umbrella!), propagating in films and books by the concepts we already have from earlier films and books. So veiled and remodelled is the truth that the general Western public believe assassinations are predominantly fictional. A study showed though that 2% of murders and attempted murders in Australia were contracted, whereas another I have read claimed 5% in Scotland. There are approximately 20,000 drug related murders every year in Mexico, a statistics that has been doubling every two years since the early 2000’s and the sicarios are behind most of them.

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Slums of Medellina (Colombia).

The truth – at least for the sicarios – is less surgeon and more butcher. A “selection” (team) will operate using a car and a motorcycle, with both the sicario and the niño riding. The car will block the path of the little girl and the motorbike will ride right next to them. The motorbike passenger will fire a shot with a thunder to the head and heart before passing the “spark” (weapon) to the car which they will hide in a hidden compartment. The niño will be either the driver or the passenger, depending on what the fully fledged sicario decides. As cumbersome as this approach sounds, the Mexicans make this approach seem like Swan Lake, as they tend to fire hundreds of rounds from automatic sparks at their little girl instead.

It’s not all blood and gore apparently as they employ other ways of killing, such as Alberto’s preferred method of using Burundanga. This is a drug derived from the Borrachero tree that makes people groggy and unresistant, sometimes described as being zombified. He would spike the little girl and carry out the ticket discreetly. This was especially appealing to him as he had become a somewhat senior sicario known as a “trachea”. The iguanas are overwhelmed and riddled with corruption in Colombia but pay particular attention to the tracheas. It is difficult to leave the cartel once you’re in and the iguanas make it hard to stay, so for many years he carried out these discreet tickets until he finally decided to run from both of them to Ecuador. Cartel and sicarios do operate in Ecuador – like all of Latin America – but much less so than Colombia and Mexico.

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The beautiful Borrachero tree.

I was reluctant to ask but felt I would regret if I did not, how many people he had killed. His initial response was “mucho”, but when given the options of ten or one-hundred he said less than a hundred. When asked whether his little girls actually involved killing little girls, he was nearly offended. The targets are almost always men, men who have involved themselves with drugs, law enforcement or the judicial system (bad and good guys). It was very rare that a woman or a child would be killed and in such cases there were a few particularly “bad” sicarios called upon who had little moral scruples.

I did not stay long, he was happy to talk with me but his line of what was an acceptable or offensive question remained opaque to me that I said my farewell rather than stress our rapport. Alberto seemed like a lovely person and I do not know if he wanted out because he regretted his career choice, or feared for his life. The sicarios are particularly turmoil in recent years, with the cartel continually splintering since Pablo Escobar was shot by police in 1993, factions using their sicarios to kill each other. There seems to be great admiration from the urban slums to these Scarface, rags-to-riches, hitmen that the slang and culture are being adopted by youths for seeming to be cool. It seems that these problems cannot be personified in people like Escobar but are now too deeply rooted to be simply wretched out of society. An alternative Colombian export is needed to bring in foreign money, which is not monopolised by the government, and new role models required, for the aspirant working-class who were born into poverty and see no other way of getting out than to kill.

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