The Russian was 13 years old when he first killed a man. He has no regrets about it; the man he killed had mistreated the Russian’s little sister. He built a weapon called a chupa chupa—a blade tied to a length of PVC pipe—and plunged it into his victim’s neck. “I learned a man’s most fragile area is his jugular,” he said, adding that he was arrested for the murder but walked free due to a lack of evidence.
In Medellín, Colombia, during the 80s, the Russian (who, like all of the criminals interviewed for this story, wishes to remain anonymous—“the Russian” is not even his real nickname) was recognized as a talented and valuable hit man. Pablo Escobar, the drug lord of drug lords, was in the midst of building his trafficking empire, which of course led to constant altercations with rivals and the police. The dirtiest of the work was carried out by gang members from the slums who came to be known as combos, so it was all too easy for someone like the Russian to land a full-time job as a sicario, or “hired gun.”
The Russian’s most striking features are his red hair and a series of burn scars on his arms, which he calls his résumé. He got them when he was a young man working in a cocaine-processing laboratory. “One day a container of sulfuric acid spilled all over my body,” he recalled. “I spent six days in a coma—I had second-degree burns and a broken arm and foot. It’s not easy getting out of such a place alive. But I was lucky enough for them to think I was dead and just throw me out. The following day, a passing mule driver found me.”
After a year and a half of recovery, the Russian gathered some money he had buried for safekeeping and went after the people who had left him for dead. “A friend gave me a .38,” he said, before pausing, as if he was reliving the scene inside his head. “I killed them all.”
Writer and journalist Alonso Salazar, who served as mayor of Medellín from 2008 to 2011, documented the sociological changes the city’s slums went through during the murderous 80s in his book La Parábola de Pablo (Pablo’s Parable). Legitimate employment opportunities were few and far between, mostly thanks to the country’s black-market economy. As a result, the Andean mountainsides overflowed with slums; young men living there watched the luxury cars, parties, cash, and power wielded by the drug dealers and wondered, Why not me, too? Contract murders became commonplace, the status quo. “Deranged, [the cartels] killed many—for being thieves, for being wrong, or just because,” writes Alonso. “Later, they began to kill each other—for payback, for deals gone wrong, and they even killed the authorities.”
The Russian told me he was paid anywhere from $170 to thousands of dollars per hit, depending on who the victim was. He doesn’t kill anyone anymore, but the vast majority of sicarios never get out of the business. Most don’t even have the opportunity to do so. “Out of the more than 150 sicarios I’ve met,” he said, “I only know of four or five who’ve changed like I did. All the others are dead or in a wheelchair or just doing what they’ve always known.”
Tinta (whose name translates as “ink” in English) falls into the latter category. A 38-year-old who lives in the neighborhood Barrio Triste (“Sad Town”), he splits his work between fixing cars and killing people—his last victim was murdered six months ago. At his age, he has no plans to change his ways because killing is all he knows, and, more important, he could be killed himself for refusing a job. He told me he walks the streets without fear and that he’s come to terms with the fact that, sooner or later, he’s going to get done himself. Last February, one of his last remaining friends, a man he had personally helped to climb the combo ladder, was murdered.
A flash of pain went across his face when he spoke about his colleague, but it dissipated just as quickly. “That’s the way things are around here, brother,” he said.
“What do you feel when you kill someone?” we asked.
“Power, brother. You feel power.”
“And what do you feel for the body lying on the floor?”
“Nothing,” he answered as though we had asked a strange question. “That man is dead. You leave a still one lying still.”
“You never experience fear when on a job?”
“No, you begin to like it. You feel the adrenaline. And then you are no longer scared. No,” he repeated. “One is not afraid.”
The Russian looks out over Medellin, where he worked as a hit man for decades. Photo by Cristian Camilo Gonzalez Gonzalez
Over the past few years, violence in Medellín has tapered to a degree—at least according to the official statistics. In 1991, just before Pablo Escobar’s fall, more than 6,000 murders were reported. By 2012, that number was down to 1,247. Medellín actually was given a City of the Year award in 2012, by the Urban Land Institute, an American nonprofit, for vastly improving its security, transportation, and infrastructure. But this dip in violence has little to do with the Colombian government’s actions. For reasons no one is sure of, the combos have been flying under the radar. Things may seem more peaceful as of late, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped selling drugs or murdering people, though, they seem to be doing it less these days.
The dichotomy of Medellín is exemplified by “Paisa,” who controls one of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods on behalf of the cartels. He would only speak to us on the condition that we would not reveal his location. We met him outside a grocery store, where he was bouncing among three cell phones—he never stopped texting and barely lifted his face to speak with us the whole time we were there. “One I use for my wife, another for my lovers, and the last one for my pelados [“young thugs”],” he explained.
Paisa told us that Los Urabeños—a paramilitary group that has been a driving force behind Colombia’s drug trade since 2001—offered him silver in exchange for his support, but he is loyal to the Office of Envigado, which he said is currently controlling the dirty money in Medellín. “Right now, it’s quiet,” he said of the lack of killings, “but because we want it to be.”
As Paisa spoke, he signaled at a young boy who disappeared between the surrounding huts and returned carrying two packages: one full of cocaine and the other with vacuum-packed marijuana. “We sell between 900 and 1,000 bags of cocaine like this every two weeks,” Paisa said. “Each one for 2,500 pesos [about $1.50]. Two thousand goes to the office, 300 goes to me, and 200 goes to the one who sells it.”
The young men who sell and deliver the drugs, the little sicarios at the bottom of the chain, are usually no more than 14 years old, and yet they are already well on their way to becoming like the Russian or Tinta—or, if they aren’t as lucky, dead. This is simply the natural order of things in the slums, even when it comes to local law enforcement. “The other day, [the police] caught three kids for murder,” Paisa said. “I gave them 3 million pesos [$1,700], and they let them go.”
Carlos Arcila is an activist who was instrumental in the founding of the Medellín Human Rights Committee. The organization is fighting for a better quality of life in his community by arranging activities in crime-ridden neighborhoods all over the city and by publicly denouncing the responsible parties after massacres. While the authorities have come to respect Carlos and his fellow activists, he’s consequently become a target of the combos.
“I had to leave the neighborhood because I was threatened,” he said. “We denounced armed groups because they were extorting workers, so they threatened me.” Carlos now travels with an armed escort, just in case. He’s happy for the improvements they’ve achieved in the neighborhoods, but he knows there’s still a long way to go. “The state has done things,” he said. “But these Mafia-like structures have been here for years.”
Maybe Medellín will be able to reinvent itself sometime in the future, and the next generation of young men won’t be driven into careers as assassins and drug runners, or at least they might have less of a chance of ending up dead by the side of the road before hitting 40. It seems things could go either way, exemplified by Tinta and the Russian’s difference of opinion on the matter.
“A lot of people are still being killed, brother,” the Russian said, “but now there are less people doing the killing. I believe in a few years… bam, change, brother!” He wants his daughter, who wrote him the letter that persuaded him to leave the violence behind for good, “to live in a Medellín of beautiful things” and considers himself a role model for other sicarios and even speaks with former comrades to sway them from continuing to kill.
Tinta, who is still very much part of the cycle of violence, is more cynical: “All that talk about the number of murders having dropped is nonsense.” While he concedes that the official body count is lower, he doesn’t think the situation in the slums is any safer. “In this place, when one [community] calms down, another begins to shake,” he said. “That’s how it is and always will be.”
Before leaving, we asked Tinta if he would even like to live in a town where he didn’t have to murder people. He froze, thought about it for three long seconds, and replied. “But I can’t imagine a city like that… Now that you mention it, no, I can’t imagine it.”
By Jaled Abdelrahim and Pablo Ferri , Vice.com