SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Through Department of Homeland Security contacts, Texas journalist Todd Bensman arranged in November 2008 to interview a former Mexican special forces soldier who went AWOL and joined the Gulf Cartel's notoriously brutal The Zetas enforcement gang. The Zetas are responsible for thousands of murders and for operating houses of torture all along the Mexican side of the Texas border.
The cartel foot soldier had left the organization several years prior to the interview, and had become a cooperating witness for the U.S. government in the upcoming trial of extradited Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen in Houston.
The former gunman was produced for Bensman to interview on strict condition that his name and other revealing details not be publicly disclosed, for his protection. Bensman questioned the Zeta about how his gang procured American weapons.
How long were you in the military?
Then in the cartel, what was your job? What did you do?
Basically, I was a hitman.
Your job was to do what?
Bodyguard and things like that. Kill people, kidnap, all kind of stuff like that.
That's an interesting change from the military.
Yeah. It's almost the same, but without permission.
What does it pay? How much did you make?
About $500 per week.
You would be an expert from your military training. Were you ever involved in the procurement of weapons?
Not directly, but I saw little things of how they introduced the weapons in the country, into Mexico.
How did it work?
The same person that works for the organization here in the United States, they get the weapons and they carry them to Mexico ... They never had any problems to cross them into Mexico at the border. Sometimes they use secret compartments to hide the weapons, but not all the time. The principal way was crossing the river or by the international bridges.
Who would buy the weapons?
I'm not sure about that because I never was there. But the same people that work for the organization here in the U.S., I don't know how to explain in English, they have to be U.S. citizens to buy the weapons. They get some people to buy the weapons, every kind of them, and then pay them for it ... . The people who was working here in U.S. selling the drugs, they were the same that get the weapons. It was people who was working directly for my boss, so he said "don't bring me money, bring me weapons."
What kinds of weapons did you have, did you carry?
When I was in the organization, we asked for them to bring weapons like Heckler and Koch, MP5, and M-16 or something like that, AR-15, but the most we wanted Heckler and Koch and Colt AR-15 'cuz they were the better weapons. We knew about weapons, so we ask them for the best weapons we could use for that work.
Who would you ask?
The leader of the escort. He was a nearby person, close person. We ask them to bring us Barrett rifles, .50 caliber, 'cuz we have them in the military, so we knew about them. Grenades and all kinds of stuff.
You knew how to use the weapons?
Actually, the escort leader, he had been a sniper in the army, in the military, so he knew exactly what he wants.
When you would receive an AR-15, would you convert it to automatic?
Sometimes, yeah. There was a person in Mexico that could do that change. Just adding a little piece of metal. In Spanish is the safety thing. Don't know it in English.
So you always had American weapons?
Yeah, actually, the MP5s we got were made in Germany, but they brought them from the U.S.
What do you do now?
Manual job. I'm a craftsman or something like that.
How long did you work for the organization?
When you received these weapons, did you take away the serial numbers?
No sir. It isn't necessary ... Most of the times, the local authorities, the state police or the municipal police, they protect us all the time, so we don't need to erase nothing. We don't cover the parts or nothing.
Did you keep your weapon, the same one, all the time, or was there a central warehouse, where were these weapons kept?
When we were in service, because we had days off too, we kept the weapons all the time with us. But when we were tourists, there were safety houses, each small group have their own safety houses to keep the weapons and vehicles and every kind of stuff. So before you go to the home, you have to pass through the safety house, leave all your equipment, weapons and everything, and then you go to the home.
It's interesting to me because there was a ban on these kind of guns, you couldn't buy these guns very easily, how did you get these assault weapons?
I don't have no idea.
Where did you get the military weapons?
We received hand grenades all the time. From the U.S., we don't know where they came from. One time we got some oldie machine guns, this one with three-foot stand, it was brought. There were two of them. They were Browning, I guess. Caliber 7.62. And some grenade launchers, Just the grenade launcher, that you can put on the guard-hand to the rifle. That kind of grenade launcher.
How did you get ammunition?
When we need some ammo, just cross somebody who can come here to the United States legally. They would go to the store and buy some ammo. Whatever the caliber because you don't need an ID or be a citizen or resident or nothing.
How much ammunition did you see?
Buckets filled with it. You could enter into the safety houses and see buckets full of ammunition. So you could go and see whatever caliber do I need and take your own ammunition, magazines and everything. There's no restriction for buying. There weren't, but I don't know if there is already.
What did you use these weapons for?
Oh, (to) kill people, or hurt people. Use them as a tool for kidnap and for escort drugs.
After you hurt or killed somebody, did you keep the weapons or throw them?
Yes sir. The same gun to kill persons in different events. If you are caught with the weapons, they never noted that the weapon was used in so many crimes. They don't do the investigation, how do you say the CSI things, tests for the weapons to match the crimes. They don't do that in Mexico, so it was no problem to keep the same weapon.
How many people in your group?
In my escort group, about 40 persons.
Was everybody armed better than the local police or the military?
Yeah, but a lot of, for the first thing, we got uniforms. The local police didn't have uniforms. Many times, they couldn't afford them. We had better vehicles. Better radio communications, and much better weapons because we had automatic and the same weapons and we had ammo in it. Sometimes we cuff some cops and take their weapons and they don't have ammo. I remember one time we took a pistol from a guy who tried to stop us, so when we take the weapon, I show it to my boss and I told him, he has no ammo and he tried to stop us. What is he thinking about? The most times, we were better armed than the local police. Not the army, just the local police.
Why is all this happening, all this shooting and killing, decapitations?
It's a big war. Many organizations started war in two or three different fronts at the same time, so they are making alliances with another group who has money to get weapons and to get supplies for keep the war. I mean there are groups who has the training because all the members are military, but there are groups that have the money because they are working more often with drugs here to the U.S. so they are receiving more money. These groups are working together to fight their enemies.
Why not just stay in the military?
I told you, I had a problem in the military, so I left the military. About a couple of months then I met him and he offered me the work ... . It was a legal problem. I was working on a special commission and I had a legal problem over there.
Were there a lot of military people like you who were going to the cartel?
What were their reasons?
Many reasons. Some for the money. Some for they have nothing to do ... . As your work, you know a lot of people. As you go to one part, you say, I know this guy and I know this guy. And that guy knows another two. It's a long chain.
And they only paid you $500 a week? That's a lot of money to you?
It wasn't too much for me, but it was enough in that moment. When I started to work for him. Then some of us got a raise $1,000 per week.
Did you ever get bonuses?
What were your favorite weapons you always got in America?
M-16, AR-15 and HK.
How were they kept or stored?
We get them in safety houses. We have a little storage for the weapons. They were not a main storage, but each group had their own safehouse. There were a lot of little storage of weapons around the cities where we were working at. The same way the ammo. You could find buckets full of ammo, divided by calibers. For rifles or for hand weapons.
They never told you to go easy on ammunition?
No, 'cuz it's a tool for that work. You can't limit the use of that 'cuz it's a tool. It's a tool for the job.
You were always more powerful?
The police in most of the cities of Mexico are bad armed, so we had better power of fire than them. They are getting stuff, even the grenades, on the Internet and asking them to be sent to Mexico City. They bring it to your house, there's no inspection, theres; nothing, cuz in Mexico, nothing happens.
Read more about Mexico's drug war:
Clash of the cartels: a guide
Meet the drug lords
Investigation: US retailers fuel Mexico's drug wars