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Interviewing a narco hitman: my journey into Mexico's cartel heartland

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URUAPAN, Mexico -

Driving through cartel-controlled territory in a beat-up rental car, “Pedro” is more nervous than I would like. He’s gripping the wheel and rapid-fire explaining in Spanish that this is dangerous, he can't guarantee our safety, and "oh, by the way," he asks, "do you have bulletproof vests?"

Cameraman Jerry Vienneau and I are in the backseat. We look at each other and laugh. "He’s asking us about body armour? Now?" In whispers, we debate whether to send "I love you" texts to our kids. We decide not to; it might make them worry unnecessarily.

Pedro is the middleman between our W5 crew and one of the most brutal cartels in Mexico, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known by their Spanish acronym, CJNG (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación).

They have unleashed very public displays of violence to gain control of huge swaths of Michoacán state in western Mexico: beheadings, acid baths, videotaped torture, hanging bodies from bridges. And they are armed with military-grade weaponry: drone bombs, landmines, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, homemade armoured tanks that they call ‘monsters.’

Everything I know about this cartel is rattling around in my head as Pedro drives us into the mountains to meet the commander of a cell of CJNG hitmen, known in Spanish as sicarios.

We are working on a documentary about CJNG muscling its way into this region and the impact it’s having on the US$3-billion-a-year avocado industry. Michoacán state supplies 95 per cent of the avocados on Canadian store shelves.

Before leaving Canada, we were told not to bring body armour, because it would increase our visibility. Instead, a security company in Mexico is tracking us, through an app on our phones, and has prepared an extraction plan if things go south.

As Pedro drives us further into CJNG-controlled territory, my heart sinks a little when the signal bars on my phone disappear. We’ve moved into a region without cell service. We have an emergency satellite phone but the security company can no longer track us.

The cartel monitors our every move. (W5)

The cartel, however, is monitoring our every move. Pedro tells us that hundreds of eyes will be on us as we drive through invisible CJNG security perimeters. They want to make sure we aren’t being followed by the police or the military.

After about 20 minutes of driving, Pedro pulls off onto a smaller road, in a hamlet in the middle of nowhere, and tells us to get out of the car. We need to wait for permission to continue further up into the mountains.

Sitting on the curb beside the car, the cartel lookouts become more obvious. Up on the hill across from where we are parked, a man speaks into a satellite phone, looking down at us. A guy on a motorcycle pulls up behind our car and watches us for about 15 minutes. For some reason, I think I should pretend not to notice and so I keep my back to him. A white pickup truck slowly drives past. Once. Twice. Another truck drives by, this time with armed men standing in the back.

I can tell Pedro is getting worried about how much time has passed without direct contact. I’m starting to get concerned, too. My fear? That the narcos might be a no-show. This is an interview that was previously called off at the last minute. About two months earlier, we were supposed to meet the CJNG commander, but we returned to Toronto empty-handed. Spies for the cartel had sent him photos of our crew interviewing Michoacán’s top cop and he was convinced that we were trying to get him arrested as part of our documentary.

For weeks, Pedro has been relaying messages from me in Toronto to the cartel commander, explaining that I just want to hear his side of the avocado story. Near the end of my Christmas vacation, he changed his mind and agreed to meet me.

Arranging an interview with a narco is tricky business and, on such short notice, we can’t find an interpreter who will agree to make the trip with us. That’s why, with Jerry and me in the backseat and Pedro driving, the front seat is occupied by my wife, a doctor with vast amounts of conflict zone experience, who also happens to be fluent in Spanish.

As we wait by the car, Jerry, Mel and I pass the time listing the hot zones where our collective work has taken us: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Burma/Myanmar, North Korea, Haiti, Uganda, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali. Each had its own unique set of potential dangers. Jerry and I have interviewed a cartel leader before for a documentary on the Sinaloa cartel in Cancun. But this is different. We aren’t in a bustling tourist destination. We are in an isolated region of the cartel heartland.

We are comforted by the fact that we have been invited by CJNG into their territory and know that our only real danger is getting caught in the crossfire of skirmishes with rival cartels.

Some of the armed, masked men protecting their leader, at a concrete structure overlooking an avocado plantation. (W5)

After about two hours of waiting -- and trying not to feel like sitting ducks -- a rickety old car pulls up. The driver jumps out and approaches with a heavily-armed man at his side. Brief introductions are made and we are directed to follow them to, of all places, an avocado orchard.

We follow their speeding vehicle up the mountain as the road narrows and the potholes widen. Eventually, we aren’t on the road at all, but driving in the orchard, veering around avocado trees until we get to a dilapidated concrete structure that overlooks the avocado plantation below.

'WE WON'T HARM ANYONE'

We are greeted by about a dozen masked men who are armed to the teeth. They have loaded assault rifles slung across their chests. One proudly shows off his shiny silver grenade launcher.

One of the masked men showing off his grenade launcher. (W5)

Jerry has to move fast to set up three cameras for our interview. We don’t know how long they will give us. We also don’t want to be driving out of this area in the dark. While some of the sicarios are on lookout duty during our interview, the rest flank their commander. It is more surreal than it is frightening.

I’ve done so much research on these purveyors of terror that it’s hard to reconcile what I know with what the commander is telling me. Standing across from him, looking into his eyes, he earnestly explains that CJNG is “misunderstood.”

He explains that they are just trying to “clean up” the area, that they are being unfairly targeted by the military and the government, and that they don’t do bad things to good people.

“We won't harm anyone. Except for those that deserve it. If you deserve it, you better hide because we will come with all we got.”

When the interview ends, the sicarios take off their masks to smoke. I find out that some are just teenagers. One is so young he still has braces on his teeth.

As we start packing up, I grab one of Jerry’s heavy equipment cases and start lugging it down to our car. The sicarios jump up to help me and take it from my hands. It’s a jarringly chivalrous gesture amidst a group of men who live by a very different set of rules.

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