In “Wolf Boys,” Dan Slater writes about two teens from Laredo, Texas, who became assassins for the Zetas, a brutal cartel.
After Gabriel Cardona was sentenced, in 2009, press photographers took his picture through a pane of protective glass, as if he were some exotic beast. There was something unthinkable about what he had become, a ghoulish contradiction too awful for the culture to assimilate: a child assassin.
Yet there he sat, in pristine white prison scrubs, reciting a catalogue of macabre achievements in the matter-of-fact tones of a college interview. When cardona was arrested, he was nineteen, and his delicate-featured face retained a dissonant boyishness. But he blinked when he spoke, in nervous flurries, and his interlocutors found themselves staring at a tattoo of a second set of eyes, blue-black and smudgy, that had been inked onto his eyelids.
In the past decade, as the death toll from mexico’s drug war spiralled, it was all too easy for people in the united states to think of the horrors unfolding just across the border as a foreign problem, as disconnected from our day-to-day reality as the conflicts in Libya or Syria. But gabriel cardona was an american kid. Born and raised in Laredo, Texas, he was poor but smart, and fully attuned to the meritocratic ethos of life in the United States; as a child, he thought he might grow up to be a lawyer. cardona played on the football team, read buzz bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights,” and identified with the stunted yearning of the characters in the book. Then, during his sophomore year, a coach benched him, and he ended up dropping out and drifting into delinquency—first stealing cars, later smuggling drugs and weapons across the border. As cardona came of age as a petty criminal, a brash new cartel, the Zetas, was asserting itself in mexico’s drug economy and developing a reputation for tactics of unparalleled cruelty.
Laredo’s population grew by nearly fifty per cent in the nineteen-nineties, as cross-border trade surged after the passage of the North American free trade agreement, and the new relationship between mexico and the United States transformed the underworld ecosystem as well. In a new book, “Wolf Boys: two american teenagers and mexico’s most dangerous drug cartel” (simon & schuster), Dan Slater writes that by 2004 the Zetas were moving as much as ten tons of cocaine across the border—and grossing roughly a hundred million dollars—every week. They called their cartel the Company, and as that dirty revenue trickled into the sprawling metropolitan region that comprises Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, just across the border in Mexico, the area started to look like a company town. Small businesses became fronts for laundering drug proceeds, slater writes, and “everyone, it seemed, was mixed up in something.”
Slater, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, read about the arrest of cardona, and of his childhood friend and fellow teen hit man Rosalio Reta, in the press. in interviews with the times and other outlets, Cardona and Reta described living in a Texas safe house and carrying out hits on demand. Slater wondered how an adolescent becomes a mass murderer. Cardona was seventeen when he joined the cartel and nineteen when he was captured. Reta, who, with his diminutive stature and oblong head, was known as Bart, after Bart Simpson, joined at sixteen and was in custody less than a year later. Between them, by their own accounts, they killed more than fifty people. Were they psychopaths to begin with? Or were they ordinary kids whom the Zetas had sculpted into monsters? Wanting to understand “the allure of cartel logic,” Slater wrote to Cardona and Reta in prison. To his surprise, they wrote back.
One day in the summer of 1995, a psychologist named Michael Wessells visited Grafton Camp, a rehabilitation center in Sierra Leone for child soldiers who had fought in the country’s civil war. The children ranged in age from nine to sixteen. Many of them had killed. But as Wessells watched they drew pictures and danced and played coöperative games. They behaved, in other words, like kids. In an essay, he recalled how he was struck, in that moment, by the realization that, “under certain conditions, practically any child could be changed into a killer.”
The phrase “child soldier” tends to conjure images of places like Sierra Leone, and minors were used extensively there and in other african conflicts during the nineteen-nineties. but boys and girls under the age of eighteen have been deployed in battles throughout the world, from Colombia to Sri lanka, and still fight on the front lines of many conflicts today. According to the United Nations, recruitment of child soldiers in Afghanistan doubled last year, with both the taliban and government forces relying on underage combatants. In march, the state department reported that the Islamic State is increasing its dependence on a cadre of juvenile conscripts, some as young as ten years old, who are known as the cubs of the caliphate. Historically, children often served in ancillary roles during wartime, as couriers, drummer boys, or “powder monkeys,” who ferried ammunition to cannon crews. But as weapons design evolved during the past century, and particularly with the advent of the AK-47 assault rifle, it became more practical to put children in front-line combat.
P. W. Singer, in his book “Children at War” (2005), observes that the AK-47, with fewer than ten moving parts, is “brutally simple”: “interviews reveal that it generally takes children around thirty minutes to learn how to use one.”
What juveniles lack in strength and experience they make up for in other qualities: they are coachable and often available in abundant supply. The uncertainty of wartime leaves young people acutely vulnerable; separated from family or other support structures, children can form a dependency on their military commanders that makes them easy to exploit. The warlord Joseph Kony, in the early years of his insurgency in Uganda, conscripted adults for his Lord’s Resistance Army. He eventually switched to children, because they were easier to indoctrinate. Of course, there is a moral taboo associated with defiling the innocence of youth, but a willingness to violate that taboo can amount to a tactical advantage. A professional soldier, peering through the scope of his rifle at a twelve-year-old, might hesitate to pull the trigger. And signalling that there is no boundary one is unprepared to transgress may demoralize one’s adversary. A recent report by the Quilliam Foundation describes Islamic State propaganda videos that feature children committing murder, and suggests that the group is broadcasting its willingness to flout international norms in a deliberate effort to seize “the psychological upper hand.”
One context in which we don’t often hear about child soldiers is the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet, according to Child Rights Network, an alliance of civic and social organizations in Mexico, some thirty thousand minors have been pressed into playing a role in the country’s ongoing criminal insurgency, and several thousand of them have been killed. “Wolf Boys” offers a bracingly intimate glimpse of how this insurgency looks from the point of view of the young killers on the front lines. Prison can make a good correspondent of almost anyone, and, after writing to Cardona and Reta, Slater found himself drawn into an epistolary relationship of queasy intensity. He visited both boys in prison and spoke to them for hours. Reta eventually cut off contact, but Slater and Cardona continued to correspond, exchanging hundreds of pages of letters.
When Cardona was seventeen, in 2004, he was in Nuevo Laredo doing a freelance smuggling deal; corrupt local police spotted him and brought him to Miguel Treviño, the dead-eyed commander of the Zetas. Treviño, who was in his thirties, interrogated Cardona while palming a hand grenade, “like a pitcher cups a baseball,” Slater writes. Treviño was impressed by Cardona’s self-possession, and not long afterward Cardona was sent, as a probationary foot soldier, to a training camp in Tamaulipas.
The Zetas originated from a team of élite commandos who defected from Mexico’s armed forces, so the cartel was prone to paramilitary affectation. Treviño was known by his radio call sign: cuarenta (“forty”). but the training camp bore a notable resemblance to regimens from other parts of the world in which armed groups teach kids to kill. Cardona was instructed to leave behind his civilian clothes, along with his wallet and phone, and to wear the same uniform as the other recruits (bluejeans, white t-shirt), in a symbolic shedding of skin.
In a 2007 memoir, “A Long Way Gone,” Ishmael Beah describes a similar ritual when, at thirteen, he was inducted into the armed forces of Sierra Leone. as he is putting on new army shorts, Beah sees a soldier burning his “old belongings.” He is given a bayonet and ordered to attack a banana tree, imagining that it is his enemy. This is a standard feature of any curriculum in homicide: progressive exposure to violence. When the Islamic State trains the cubs of the caliphate, children are instructed to decapitate a doll, then to watch while a human is decapitated, then to decapitate a human themselves.
Cardona and his fellow-trainees, who ranged in age from fifteen to thirty, were given assault rifles and coached by mercenaries from Colombia and Israel. They were taught how to shoot a fleeing target, “like leading a wide receiver in a football game.” At the camp, the Zetas had assembled hundreds of prisoners—captured adversaries from the rival Sinaloa cartel—whom they called “contras.” “You see and do,” the instructors intoned, demonstrating how to kill someone with a knife by killing a contra. It was not in the heat of battle but with these hapless human guinea pigs that Cardona learned to kill. The recruits were told to take an AR-15, run into a house, and murder the contra inside. so Cardona did. You see and do.
Child soldiers often rely on drugs to inure themselves to horror. Ishmael Beah became addicted to “brown-brown,” a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine. Cardona favored a cocktail of heavy tranquillizers and red bull, administered at regular intervals throughout the day, which rendered him alert but insensate. Miguel Treviño, though, required no drugs to kill.
If the role he plays in “Wolf Boys” is an archetypal one—the psychopath father proxy, the charismatic comandante—the details have a chilling specificity. When Treviño is driving and sees a dog sleeping by the side of the road, he swerves to hit it. After stealing a tiger from the circus, he starves it, then feeds it human victims. At one point, Treviño tells Cardona that he has killed “more than eight hundred people.” Among the Zetas, this counts as a boast. It is not merely the act of killing but a real or feigned emotional indifference to the taking of human life that consolidates status in the cartel.
Armed groups that use child soldiers often truck in mystical elements—one reason that Joseph Kony found kids so easy to manipulate is their readiness to believe in magic—and the Zetas betray some elements of a death cult. Vardona was not an especially spiritual kid, but like his colleagues he offered lip service to Santa Muerte, the mexican folk saint of the dead.
In the Zetas, Dan Slater tells us, the highest praise you could offer someone was to say that he was frío—coldhearted. The first time Rosalio Reta kills someone, his comrades rally around to celebrate. “your first job!” they exclaim. “You’re going to have nightmares!” he was sixteen. Slater charts Cardona’s evolution into an efficient and reliable killer, “a heat-seeking missile of black-market capitalism to be deployed against anyone who ran afoul of the company.” At one point, Treviño touches Cardona’s chest and tells him, “You’re just as cold as me.”
Non solo televisione per Michele Santoro, ma anche cinema per parlare di una strage dimenticata, rompendo il muro del silenzio e dell’indifferenza che la circonda. I baby boss della camorra per la prima volta si raccontano senza mediazioni nel film documentario dal tilo Robinù: la sete di potere, l’amore per i soldi, il divertimento sfrenato, le loro pagine Facebook da vere star.
Ribelli insofferenti ai capi “d’o’sistema”, la vecchia camorra, senza padroni e senza paure. Si uccidono tra loro: la droga è il motore della mattanza.
Un racconto diretto e senza alcuna mediazione l’opera del giornalista porta per la prima volta sullo schermo la storia di un intero giovane popolo ridotto a carne da macello.
Sotto gli occhi indifferenti delle istituzioni, quei ragazzi hanno evaso qualunque obbligo scolastico, non parlano italiano, hanno i denti già devastati dalla droga, ed esprimono chiaramente sentimenti e passioni di una forza sconosciuta a quella parte di Paese definita “normale”.
“Tu queste cose le devi fare ora. Perché così, se vai in galera per vent’anni, esci e hai tutta la vita davanti”.
È questa la concezione del mondo di quei soldati bambino che a 15 anni imparano a sparare, a 20 sono killer consumati e a 30 spesso non ci arrivano nemmeno.
Festival di Venezia, Robinù il documentario di Michele Santoro che racconta i baby boss della camorra 6 settembre 2016