If I’m being honest with myself, I knew who I was really working for from the first time I saw my bosses come into the office carrying huge bundles of cash. It was like clockwork, every day, at 3pm, 10 guys would turn up with what must have been millions, and a female employee would take it down to the bank. Nobody asked questions. In that moment I became convinced that my fear was true – I was working for a drug cartel.
I’d always known about the cartels – organised crime groups involved with drug trafficking – even back when I was a kid. Growing up in Mexico, the threat these Mafia-like criminal gangs posed was always in the background of daily life. Most of the time, it was possible to block out the endless news reports or rumours of bloody killings, but when it did finally intrude upon my life I was worried I wouldn't be able to escape.
I grew up in the kind of place where everyone knows each other and news travels fast.
My understanding of how dangerous the cartels were was really heightened when I was about 15. It was 2006, and a new president, Felipe Calderon, had just taken office. He came to power on the promise of restoring “the rule of law” to Mexico, waging a bloody war against the country’s drug trade.
I remember him being determined to fight the cartels, and sending the military after them. He was president until 2012, but the battle carried on after he left office. Since 2006, over 200,000 people have died or disappeared in Mexico as a result of the war on drugs.
The cartels started splitting into smaller groups, spreading out from their original areas of control. Historically, much of Northern Mexico was controlled by the Sinaloa cartel – led by the infamous El Chapo – and Los Zetas, a cartel formed of army deserters, controlled much of the east. The controlled areas changed and fragmented as new cartels and splinter groups sprung up.
They’d fight with AK-47s in the middle of town – I’d never seen anything like it. People would get murdered and their bodies dumped in the street. I remember being a teenager, walking through the city and hearing gunshots in the distance - a chill crept through my body. I didn’t see the moment the killing happened, but I saw the body lying in the street later. The first time I saw something like that it was so horrible, I was just deeply shocked – but, sadly, it soon became normal.
It’s shocking to me now, looking back on how this brutal violence became such a part of our lives. Some people I knew became really scared of starting businesses as well, because cartel members would come by and try and extort their profits. If they saw you had a business, like a shop, they’d come and demand a share of your profits in exchange for ‘protection’ – in other words, ‘give me your money or I’ll kill you’.
I saw them around when I went out clubbing with my friends in my late teens, too. It was usually a big guy with loads of golden chains surrounded by beautiful women, and I’d wonder what it was about him that was so attractive. Once, one of their sidekicks threatened me. He accused me of taking a drink from the boss’s table, and told me he didn’t want to see me again. I was terrified – I ran from the club with my heart pounding.
As a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist, because I love ancient history – I think I was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies. But when it came to choosing a career, I settled on something that I thought would make me more money – marketing. A friend of mine got me a job with a local magazine, and before long, I'd made a name for myself.
Then a contact, who worked for a successful agency whose clients included restaurants and bars owned by the drug cartels, asked me if I wanted some freelance work helping them out with their promotional materials. The cartels had to act like regular businesses so they could hide the money they were making from illegal activity. When I found out the pay (the equivalent of £1,000 for one weekend’s work), I couldn’t say no. That’s almost 25,000 Mexican pesos – the minimum wage in Mexico is 102 pesos per day.
The money drew me in. I was 21, and I started showing off loads, living like a rockstar, partying and getting loads of alcohol for all my friends. I didn’t move out of my parents' house, though. I didn’t want to show off too much in case people started asking questions. I had my suspicions at that point that these people were involved with the cartels but I didn’t feel like I was part of it – all I was doing was helping them promote their bars and restaurants.
My parents became concerned about my lifestyle and the kind of people I was working for. They told me to be careful but, in the beginning, it was fine. I didn’t meet anyone from the cartel, I just did my work and got my money. After a few weeks, one of the bosses came in to the office. I immediately got a vibe that something wasn’t right, and that I couldn’t trust him. He was dressed head to foot in designer gear and pulled up in a big car… these guys love to show off – some people think they’re fashion icons. When several cartel members were arrested wearing a certain designer polo shirt in 2010, everyone wanted that shirt. There’s even a #narcofashion hashtag on Instagram.
He asked me if I wanted more work, and more money. He said he was going to start putting on shows with corrido singers, which is a popular kind of Mexican folk music, and wanted me to help with promotion. Sometimes, drug lords get these singers to write songs about them, to make them famous. In some parts of Mexico, it’s illegal to sing narcocorridos, or songs about drug lords. They glamorise the violence of the cartel world – there’s one song that goes, “With an AK and a bazooka taking aim, blowing off the heads of whoever gets in the way”. It’s dangerous, too – singers have been killed by rival cartels for singing about the wrong drug lord.
At that point, I didn’t know how heavily involved with the cartels those music concerts could be. They took place on local farms and there’d be about 30,000 people there. I started going to the concerts, and there were guys there with huge guns as security.
I didn’t feel safe – that was the first time I genuinely became scared of dying, because you just didn’t know whether a rival cartel would turn up and a fight would break out, or if the police would burst in with guns of their own. Neither of those things happened, but I knew from seeing cartel turf wars on the news it could happen. But, weirdly, I also felt quite protected because of all the security. And, in some ways, hanging out with these guys was fun – if I tried to forget who they really were. Once I’d started doing the concerts, they’d take me and my colleagues to fancy places for dinner and drinks. But I was always aware one of them could shoot me if they wanted to.
The moral issue of working for these people was weighing heavily on my mind, too. The more involved I became with these guys, the more I was sure they were in a cartel. Even though I wasn’t doing any of the really bad stuff, like transporting drugs or killing people – and I didn’t witness them doing that kind of thing, either – I still knew it was happening somewhere. I wasn’t a member of any criminal gang, but I was still involved, I was being paid with their money. It felt wrong.
I was going into the office more by this point, and that’s when I saw the guys coming in with the bundles of cash. The boss took me out to some mansions he was building in the mountains, too – they were huge. I saw his boss, the big boss, a few times. He kept out of things, and mainly took care of the business side of things from his house. He had a pet jaguar and a beautiful wife.
I asked my boss outright: “Are you part of a drug cartel?”
His response was ambiguous.
“Do you want to know more, or do you want to pretend you don’t know anything?” he asked me. I glanced around uncomfortably, thinking about the predicament I was in. I said, “Let’s pretend”.
I kept going to the shows at the farms but I was becoming more and more uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do it anymore but I was worried that quitting would be dangerous. I started to distance myself from my colleagues at the marketing agency. I didn’t feel protected by being around these guys anymore – I was aware that, if I ever called on them to help me out, I’d owe them a favour forever. Besides, I’m not the kind of guy who gets into trouble, and it was all getting too much for me. One day, I got a call from the boss.
“Do you still want to work with us?” he asked.
I took a deep breath, and decided to tell the truth. “To be honest, no, I don’t,” I said.
“OK, good luck,” he replied.
I told him I’d go to the office and pick up my computer and the camera I used to take promotional pictures. There was a pause. “OK,” he said again. “Good luck.”
I started to panic. “What do you mean? It’s my stuff,” I asked.
“Well, it’s in my office,” he replied.
I felt like he was threatening me, and that something bad might happen to me if I went to get my equipment. I decided it was too dangerous to go and get my things, so I never got them back. It was expensive, but it wasn’t worth the risk.
I blocked him and the other people I’d worked with on social media, and I moved out of town for a few months. I’d still go back to my home city, and I would worry about seeing them around town, but I kept my head down. I carried on doing the same kind of work, but at gigs and events that weren’t linked to the cartels. In total, I worked for them for about eight months.
When there’s a terrorist attack, you hear about it all over the world, and Mexicans get really emotional sending support on social media to Paris or London, or wherever the latest awful attack has happened. But, it makes me think, we don’t look at our own country. If there’s a murder here it’s like, 'Oh, there’s a head in the street.' I love Mexico, but I think it’s sad that we’re so used to it in our culture.
Maybe telling my story will help people realise what life is like there, and how something so terrible can seem almost normal. I’m glad I’m not part of that world anymore.
*Names have been changed.
As told to Thea de Gallier