PANAMA CITY, Panama—One of the things that shocked me the first time I talked with an active cartel member in Mexico was hearing how much he loved his work. But as time went on, and I interviewed others like him, I came to see that my initial surprise derived from my own naiveté.
The homicide rate in Mexico has risen by almost 30 percent over the last five years, a national epidemic. There were at least 25,316 murders in 2017, making it the most violent period since the Drug War began. So far 2018 is on pace to eclipse those numbers.
And the tactics employed in all that killing have become more and more gruesome over time. Maybe the rush felt by some murderers is like a drug itself, and they are junkies needing ever greater doses to get the same high. But how is it that ordinary people get hooked on activities like beheading, acid baths, and cannibalism?
A new study by Dr. Arcelia Ruíz Vásquez, a research psychologist at the University of Guanajuato, provides important answers and insights to many questions about the origins, motivations, and behavioral patterns of cartel operatives.
The report is titled “X-Ray of a Mexican Sicario.” In compiling it, Ruíz interviewed dozens of inmates from the Penitentiary Center in Acapulco, Guerrero, which just happens to be the most violent state in Mexico. (The Acapulco Cartel is actually headquartered inside the penitentiary, with the capos giving orders from their cell blocks.)
By recording her subjects’ personal histories in great detail, Ruíz was able to identify four main personality types among cartel foot soldiers, with a special emphasis on how they became sicarios in the first place:
Marginal: These sicarios are typically from rural areas that have been largely abandoned by the Mexican state. Marginals grow up with little or no infrastructure or opportunities awaiting them, and so they turn to organized crime to escape a life of poverty. They typically start out cultivating drugs in the sierra, or working as collection agents for the cartels. As they move up the ladder, they’re promoted to guarding safehouses and accompanying higher-ranking members on shakedown and execution runs. Such activities serve to “desensitize and train them enough for their first murder,” Ruíz writes in the report.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Ruíz elaborated on this character type. Like many people raised in farming country, “the value system of the Marginal hit man [is] based on tradition, respect for authority and obedience to their customs.” As their immersion in the underworld deepens they frequently “retain respect and obedience, but now turned to their criminal leaders.”
Antisocial: This character type usually comes of age in an environment where criminal behavior is commonplace. Antisocials often hail from crowded urban barrios, which also are deeply impoverished with few economic opportunities. A life of crime thus becomes deeply attractive to many young people.
As they grow older, Ruíz says, “they are usually encouraged by relatives or friends already immersed in organized crime to participate.” Gateway activities include working as informants, small-scale robberies, and selling drugs, all of which can pay two or three times what they might earn from lawful income.
Often affiliated with street gangs from as young as 10 years of age, Antisocials gradually escalate their illicit activity by joining larger, better connected, and more lucrative cartels. Along the way they manifest an increased “intolerance for frustration” along with “impulsivity, hedonism, recklessness, and the search for immediate satisfaction,” according to the report.
The more violent they are, the more sway they hold over their peers. “This would explain in part the increase in the escalation of violence in many of their executions,” Ruíz says.
Above all they crave social status, and like to show off their new-found wealth in ostentatious displays via social media. Because of their lack of impulse control, Antisocials often put their own cartels’ business in jeopardy. That makes them the most likely variety to be betrayed and murdered by their cohorts, or to wind up in prison.
Antisocials, like Marginals, can feel remorse for their actions, but they often cushion their feelings of guilt by turning to drugs and alcohol to numb their conscience.