For a confessed drug-cartel hood whose alias is "The Nut Job," Marco Vinicio Cobo is remarkably calm and plain-looking. Sitting in the blue-walled interrogation room of a Mexican army base, the chubby, goateed 30-year-old coolly describes his work for the Zetas, a feared paramilitary force responsible for thousands of brutal murders. And even when he details how his bosses kidnapped and chopped the head off a soldier, he appears relaxed and unemotional, as if he were discussing the weather. But despite the unsettling indifference of its tone, Cobo's confession of which a video has been obtained by TIME offers some extraordinary insights into how the cartels have grown into a formidable threat to the Mexican government, outwitting and outgunning the armed forces in great swaths of the country.
In a statement made on video following his arrest in southern Mexico last April, Cobo explains how the cartels use a disciplined cell structure with a military-style vertical chain of command to control thousands of men at arms. "I began as an H the code they use for Hawk," he says. "After a time, I became a Central. I gave information to all the local H's in the community." He also reveals how his "family" stays a step ahead of the authorities by paying a vast network of informants, from local journalists to high-ranking federal agents. (See pictures of fighting crime in Mexico City.)
In the worst year for Mexican law enforcement in recent history, cartel gunmen have killed more than 500 police and military personnel, including eight soldiers who were beheaded near Acapulco on Sunday. Cobo's life story sheds light on the machinations of the crime empires behind the killing spree. From a lower-middle-class family, Cobo had worked for a while as a journalist in the poor state of Oaxaca before joining the cartel in his late 20s because it was the best job opportunity available. "They first paid me $300 a fortnight, and then it went up to $400," he explains. "The money was deposited at the local Elektra [a chain store that provides low-cost banking]". His modest wage shows how cartel foot soldiers like him live a world apart from the extravagant kingpins who have million-dollar mansions and fleets of luxury cars, but it was still five times the country's minimum wage. The swelling of the narco armies with tens of thousands of low-paid recruits helps explain the scale of the bloodshed here, with more than 5,300 drug-related killings over the past year alone.
Cobo claims he first came into contact with the Zetas while covering crime for the small-town newspaper Sol del Istmo. "Journalists were threatened," he said. "One time, they told me not to publish a story about some men who were arrested with guns. They said the story couldn't come out." When he joined up with these gangsters, he said, his first job was to monitor the local roads. Later he helped set up the abductions of any cartel targets on those routes. "They kidnapped people who had committed what they said was a crime," he said. "Many were people who worked as drug traffickers." He lost count of how many victims they abducted but said three had had been killed and buried in the yard of a suburban house.
The Zetas act as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel and extort payments from anyone who moves narcotics through their territories. The Oaxaca coast, where Cobo joined, is strategically important in trafficking routes of cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. It is also the thinnest point between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. "The Gulf Cartel controls the drug trade along the Gulf of Mexico and dominates the movement of drugs into this country primarily through Texas," said Michele M. Leonhart, acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, in a recent statement. "They are known, even among their rivals, for their extreme violence."
As a Central, Cobo had 13 Hawks under his command. Above him were Second Commanders. The Zeta ranking system is based on the Mexican military, which is unsurprising considering that the organization was founded by soldiers from the army's special forces who defected in the late 1990s. Cobo knew his superiors only by aliases in order to protect their identities. "There was Franco, Tarzan, Texas and Zorro," he said. He saw a book with names of dozens of police under the unit's payroll, he said, including officers from many nearby towns and federal agents stationed there. The corrupt police were also given aliases, including Papa and Brother.
In late March, Cobo's unit kidnapped a military officer, decapitated him and stuck his body out on a road, along with several bags of cocaine and about $2,000 in cash. "Franco told me that the officer was from military intelligence and he was getting too close," Cobo said. "The drugs and the money were planted so it would seem like he was involved in narco-trafficking." Following the slaying, soldiers arrested Cobo and 13 others and confiscated semiautomatic rifles and radio equipment. His confession led the military to the suburban house where they dug up the bodies he had mentioned. Cobo was eventually sent to a civilian prison, where he awaits his court date on organized-crime charges. Federal prosecutors declined to comment on whether his cooperation will lead to a more lenient sentence.