I found Beto by chance. For several months in 2007, I had been searching for the so-called child soldiers of Michoacán, the southern Mexican state that is home to La Familia Michoacana, a notoriously violent drug-trafficking group that had reportedly begun recruiting young hit men. These young killers had been mentioned in the press, and their existence was confirmed to me by María, a 16-year-old girl from Michoacán who was involved in the Luz y Sombra nightclub events of September 2006, when La Familia managed to draw attention to all of Mexico by dumping five severed human heads onto the club’s dancefloor.
María told me that in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, La Familia has a small army of youth who are variously used as fee collectors, messengers, and lookouts. Others, who are paid, serve as drug couriers and assassins, she told me. I tried in several ways to locate a member of this “army,” but without success. Each question, each attempt was met with a wall of silence and evasions. Then Beto appeared.
For now the circumstances of how Beto and I came into contact cannot be disclosed. We met three times for three hours each, and if at first tension and mistrust predominated, by the end Beto’s words gushed forth like the springs of his native Michoacán. He wanted to talk, to share his story, and to see reflected in the eyes of another person the things he had felt in his short life of 16 years.
Beto, whose name has been changed for this article, was born in Turicato, a municipality of Tierra Caliente in Michoacán, on February 15, 1994.
“A good Aquarius,” I told him. “Like my oldest son.” I’m not sure now if I said that just to break the tension or because I was moved by his fragile body and scared eyes.
“No, psss, where I come from, we don’t believe in those things,” he said with fake indignation. He asked curiously, “What are Aquariuses like? Are they cool?”
“Oh, yeah, they’re artists, creative, very sensitive,” I said. “They really like people and people really like Aquariuses because they’re very peaceful and helpful, and they have a lot of dreams. And besides, they get along really well with Libras.”
“I’m a Libra,” I added, trying to get through to this young man with a shaven head and lost gaze.
“Oh,” he said. And he remained silent for a couple of seemingly never-ending minutes. I was wrong, I thought. Now I’m going to have to start all over, from somewhere else. But suddenly he took out an old, beaten-up medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe from his pants pocket. He handed it to me.
“It was my mother’s,” he said. “She believed in those things, that people have a purpose and a destiny, and she would always hide from my dad when she read those things in the magazines, you know those things—horoscopes, they’re called, right?”
He is the fourth child in a family of seven, and the second-born of the sons. I came to understand that he didn’t like that. Being the second of two brothers took away his right to be named after his father, the right to follow in his footsteps, and to be his heir in a way that I didn’t manage to fully comprehend. It was as if he felt uncomfortable facing an incomplete inheritance.
“My cabrón brother was always in good with my dad,” Beto said, now relaxed and lost in his memories. When he told me that his Apá—as he always called his father when he spoke of him as an admirable figure—was a native of the town of Los Espinos and about how he met his mom, who was born in Turicato, his eyes clouded a little and he spoke of them as if in some far-off past.
“Why do you speak of them in the past tense?” I asked him. “Are they dead?”
“No, they’re alive. They left for Morelia, because the town just isn’t a livable place anymore. They grabbed my three little siblings who were still around and they left. None of us stayed in the village.”
Then he told me that his older brother, “the one who was always in good with his father,” and who was named after him, was taken away one day, whether by the army or the Zetas, a rival drug cartel, he did not know. In any case he never reappeared, and his dad, Beto told me, had become “smaller, older, since then.” One of his sisters, he said, went to the United States with her husband, “and nobody ever heard from her again,” and another sister “shacked up with a puto narco, one of those from Mexico City, and we never heard again from her either.” “And then there’s me,” he said. His eyes became teary, and a kind of sigh left him breathless.
“Why can’t anyone live in your town anymore?” I said, interrupting his train of thought to give him a little space to compose himself.
“Um, you mean, you don’t know?” He gave me a challenging look.
“No,” I said. “Tell me.”
“It’s a big mess,” he said. “It got really hot over there. People killed from one day to the next. The other side killed one of our guys to send a message, and we had to return the favor. Lots of action, but it wasn’t clear who won. The bosses were all nervous and ready to kill anyone over anything.”
“Explain that to me,” I said. “I don’t understand.” Beto looked at me with eyes that said, “You just had to be a pendeja, you dumb old lady,” but I stayed quiet and didn’t give up my position as awkward student. He felt strong, in possession of knowledge that I didn’t have, a teacher and a guide in a world where I was completely ignorant.
He explained that the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel arrived in town, but La Familia didn’t have good weapons or enough of them. “We all had to be good and ready,” he said. Then Beto paused in a long silence. “And then, well, that was when I started. But we can talk about this more later, OK?”
And so we did.
“I don’t know anything about my parents or my three little siblings. And I think that they don’t know anything about me, either, but it’s just as well. One day I had to accompany my boss in a really tough job. I had to shoot a guy from a little store who was going around saying things he shouldn’t have. He was a friend of our rivals, pointing fingers at our people. And that, you know, you just don’t do. ‘Go ahead, Beto, grab the machete and the cartridges and get in the truck,’ my boss told me.”
“What was your boss like?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s a really awesome guy,” he said, using the present tense. “Very tough. I think he’s about 25 years old, and he can recite the Bible to you by memory. I’ve learned more from him than from a priest. El Mero Mero [the top leader of the cartel] gave a lot of jobs to my boss.
“Once,” Beto said, his eyes squinting like those of a purring kitten, “I got to hear a really good conversation: that everything was messed up because nobody believes in God anymore, that men were needed, that now El Mero was going to take over the mountains and the coast, and fight everyone in his way, and they would know the Bible. I was really excited and I wanted to recite to them the Bible verses that I had learned by heart, but, I mean, I was barely a pendejo. But that’s OK. I had a desire to progress and to give my homeland what it deserved, to get rid of all of the hijos de la chingada who didn’t believe and . . . things like that.”
“And what happened on the day of the truck?” I asked him. “Will you tell me?”
Beto looked at me with sadness from an unreachable place.
“Well, OK, seeing as we’re already into this and you seem like a good person. I killed my first three people; I blasted off faster than I was ready for. I took down the guy from the store, his brother, and a friend of his who ran with them and sometimes with us. Honestly, I didn’t feel anything. I used an AK-47 rifle like I knew what I was doing, and my boss just laughed, saying, ‘How brave you turned out to be, my Beto,’ and he made the sign of the cross and said, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ And the honest truth is, I was happy that my boss was happy. The bad part came later.”
Beto was silent and took out the Virgin medallion again. “My boss told us, we’re going to take the El Mero a gift. He took out a machete about the size of his leg, and slash, slash, slash! He cut off all three of their heads the same way my godfather used to cut them off the hens on the ranch. My legs went numb. This was no laughing matter. But everyone in the truck was really happy and, well, whatever. I said, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ while I put one of the heads in a dark black bag, so that we couldn’t see them . . . that’s how I remember it now. Really, we’re not like the bad people. Here only those who deserve it are punished.”
My silence must have been uncomfortable, because Beto was trying to meet my eyes with his, in search of understanding not forgiveness. And so he explained his violent past—two bodies here, three heads there, one leg, one tongue, mutilations, adding up to 18 lives of “bad people” on his secret track record. I was finding it hard to breathe. Sixteen years old, 18 deaths, mutilations, a shattered future. Narcotics, religion, and power: a trinity that is very hard to understand.
We smoked one last menthol cigarette together. Beto thought they were awful, but considering the lack of other options, he put up with it. We looked at each other for quite some time through the smoke.
“How do you imagine your death, Beto?”
He took out his medallion, looked at it with a light smile, took a drag, and said:
“If I’m going to die, I’d like it to be from a large bullet that knocks out my brain so I don’t feel anything. Or,” he said, reconsidering, “let them cut me up into pieces, to save my mother the pain of having to mourn me. The thing is, in this business, dying isn’t enough anymore.”
Rossana Reguillo is a professor in the Department of Sociocultural Studies at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, ITESO, Guadalajara, Mexico. She is the author, most recently, of Estrategias del desencanto: Emergencia de culturas juveniles (Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2000). Translation by Leisha Reynolds-Ramos.