In his comprehensive and compelling new book, El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, British correspondent Ioan Grillo, who also reports for TIME, narrates the Mexican underworld's "radical transformation from drug smugglers into paramilitary death squads ... a criminal insurgency that poses the biggest armed threat to Mexico since its 1910 revolution." Grillo outlines both the Mexican and American policy failures that fostered the crisis, which has produced 40,000 murders south of the border since 2006. More important, he offers a rare and unsettling look into the lives of ordinary Mexicans and other Latin Americans "sucked into [the drug war] or victimized by it." An excerpt:
It all seemed like a bad dream.
It may have been vivid and raw. But it felt somehow surreal, like Gonzalo was watching these terrible acts from above. Like it was someone else who had firefights with ski-masked federal police in broad daylight. Someone else who stormed into homes and dragged away men from crying wives and mothers. Someone else who duct-taped victims to chairs and starved and beat them for days. Someone else who clasped a machete and began to hack off their craniums while they were still living.
But it was all real.
He was a different man when he did those things, Gonzalo tells me. He had smoked crack cocaine and drunk whisky every day, had enjoyed power in a country where the poor are so powerless, had a latest model truck and could pay for houses in cash, had four wives and children scattered all over ... had no God.
"In those days, I had no fear. I felt nothing. I had no compassion for anybody," he says, speaking slowly, swallowing some words.
His voice is high and nasal after police smashed his teeth out until he confessed. His face betrays little emotion. I can't really take in the gravity of what he is saying until I play back a video of the interview later and transcribe his words. And then as I wallow over the things he told me, I have to pause and shudder inside.
I talk to Gonzalo in a prison cell he shares with eight others on a sunny Tuesday morning in Ciudad Juárez, the most murderous city on the planet. We are less than seven miles from the U.S. and the Rio Grande that slices through North America like a line dividing a palm. Gonzalo sits on his bed in the corner clasping his hands together on his lap. He wears a simple white T-shirt that reveals a protruding belly under broad shoulders and bulging muscles that he built as a teenage American football star and are still in shape at his 38 years. Standing 6 ft. 2 in., he cuts an imposing figure and exhibits an air of authority over his cellmates. But as he talks to me, he is modest and forthcoming. He bears a goatee, divided between a curved black moustache and gray hairs on his chin. His eyes are focused and intense, looking ruthless and intimidating but also revealing an inner pain.
Gonzalo spent 17 years working as a soldier, kidnapper and murderer for Mexican drug gangs. In that time he took the lives of many, many more people than he can count. In most countries, he would be viewed as a dangerous serial killer and locked up in a top security prison. But Mexico today has thousands of serial murderers. Overwhelmed jails have themselves become scenes of bloody massacres: 20 slain in one riot; 21 murdered in another; 23 in yet another: all in penitentiaries close to this same cursed border.
Within these sanguine pens, we are in a kind of sanctuary an entire wing of born-again Christians. This is the realm of Jesus, they tell me, a place where they abide by laws of their own "ecclesiastical government." Other wings in this jail are segregated between gangs: one controlled by the Barrio Azteca, which works for the Juárez Cartel; another controlled by their sworn enemies the Artist Assassins, who murder for the Sinaloa Cartel.
The 300 Christians try to live outside of this war. Baptized Libres en Cristo, or "Free Through Christ," the sect founded in the prison borrows some of the radical and rowdy elements of Southern U.S. Evangelicalism to save these souls. I visit a jail-block mass before I sit down with Gonzalo. The pastor, a convicted drug trafficker, mixes stories of ancient Jerusalem with his hard-core street experiences, using slang and addressing the flock as the "homies from the barrio." A live band blends rock, rap and norteño music into their hymns. And the sinners let it all out, slam-dancing wildly to the chorus, praying with eyes closed tight, teeth gritted, sweat pouring from foreheads, hands raised to the heavens using all their spiritual power to exorcise their heinous demons.
Gonzalo has more demons than most. He was incarcerated in the prison a year before I met him, and bought his way into the Christian wing hoping it was a quiet place where he could escape the war. But when I listen carefully to his interview, he sounds like he really has given his heart to Christ, really does pray for redemption. And when he talks to me a nosy British journalist prying into his past he is really confessing to Jesus.
"You meet Christ and it is a totally different thing. You feel horror, and start thinking about the things you have done. Because it was bad. You think about the people. It could have been a brother of mine I was doing these things to. I did bad things to a lot of people. A lot of parents suffered."