It was at his lowest point – after being kidnapped and tortured for five days, addicted to multiple class-A drugs and being deported away from his wife and children – that Israel Hinosa decided to start killing for the cartel.
‘I can’t believe some of the terrible things I was doing out here,’ he told MailOnline, the first he had spoken out about his four years as a ‘sicario’ – a Mexican cartel hitman.
‘And it amazes me even more that I’m still alive,’ he said, ‘Everyone I worked for is now either dead or behind bars’.
Israel’s story mirrors that of so many other Mexican cartel members – desperate individuals who become ruthless killers for the narcotrafficking industry, a criminal underworld soon to be exposed in the upcoming Hollywood movie, ‘Sicario’, starring Emily Blunt.
Another ex-cartel member, Mario Vallarino, who was staying in the Christian refuge set up by Israel, revealed the dark truth behind the ‘easy money’ and power promised to cartel members.
Tattooed from the neck down with the marks of his former employers, Mario said: ‘Being a killer is made to look glamorous from the outside.’
‘But there’s no glory in death, in either killing or being killed. It’s always ugly.’
Israel’s closely-cropped hair barely covers deep scars across his head and he walks with a slight limp in his right leg – the result of a bullet he took to the thigh during a shootout with the police.
During his four-year employment with the Sinaloa cartel, he kidnapped innocent people and extorted their families, defended cartel turf against rival gangs, set up flaming blockades on the city’s streets to attack the Mexican police and assassinated anyone who got in the way of cartel business.
He eventually walked away from that life of violence, but the tattoos across his chest and arms are a permanent reminder of his former affiliation to the notorious Sinaloa Cartel.
In 2010, Israel was deported to Mexico from San Jose, California, where he had lived since the age of five.
He is one of the hundreds of thousands of Mexican-born people who have been deported back to their country of birth for committing a crime on US soil, despite spending most of their lives in America.
Suddenly alone in a country he barely knew, Israel stayed on the US-Mexico border where he felt closest to his wife and two children.
‘The narcos here know you come from the US and that you’re desperate,’ he said, ‘They know what time you’re getting dropped off from the deportee centre and they come to the biggest guys straight away.’
‘They say, ‘Hey, you wanna’ work?’ and you make your own decision,’ he said, ‘But a lot of guys get attracted by what they think is easy money.’
‘Sicario’, starring Emily Blunt and Oscar-nominated actor Benecio Del Toro, was set in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas – the scene of one of the most violent cartel conflicts Mexico has ever seen.
It was in Juarez in 2007 that Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, founder of the Sinaloa Cartel, declared war on the Juarez Cartel for control of the city.
El Chapo sent in his private army of thousands known as ‘Antrax’ and over the next five years, more than 20,000 people in the city lost their lives.
Today, it’s estimated that the private Antrax armed wing of the Sinaloa cartel has five thousand sicarios policing the cartel’s territory. And to the east, the warring Gulf and Zeta cartels’ killers number in their tens of thousands.
Israel, said at first he refused to work for the narcos, preferring an honest job in a call centre where his English was a viable skill.
But after six months on the border, his wife and kids stopped visiting. He said: ‘I found out through a friend back home that my wife was living with another man. It made me so angry that I turned to drugs, just to stop the pain.’
Israel began to slide into addiction, the fate of many Mexicans who live in close proximity to the drug cartels.
During one heavy period of drug use he was kidnapped.
‘They took me for five days while they tried to get money out of my family in the US,’ he told MailOnline.
‘I was blindfolded and tortured for hours on end. I was pretty badly mutilated,’ he said, revealing the scars on his skull, ‘I nearly died.’
When Israel woke up on the sixth day of his ordeal, naked and bleeding in a dark backstreet, he went in search of revenge.
‘I called up one of my old friends and said I need to find the people that did this to me. He said, ‘okay, but you need to work for us’.
‘I don’t care’, replied Israel, hungry for vengeance, ‘I’ll do it.’
The Sinaloa Cartel found out who had kidnapped Israel and gave their newest recruit the address.
‘I got revenge, which felt great in the moment,’ he said, ‘But then I became the cartel’s slave.
‘They recruit people one way or another. My downfall was my need for revenge, but it’s really bad if you have your family here, because they threaten your loved ones unless you do what they say’.
In the cartel hierarchy, the sicario is not a high-ranking member. The gangsters know their hitmen, whose job involves fighting the police and rival cartels, have a low life expectancy so they recruit only the most desperate members with promises of fortune.
Street lookouts quickly become collectors and once they are well-versed in extortion and aggression, collectors soon become sicarios.
Pay is not good, although drugs are generally handed out freely for good work. A sicario in Ciudad Juarez is paid per kill, generally earning around £20 ($500 pesos) per life taken.
Israel began as a collector for the cartel, doing the weekly rounds picking up extortion money extracted by the gangsters from local business owners.
‘I would collect the money and punish anyone who didn’t pay,’ he said.
All the time his drug addictions were getting worse.
He said: ‘I didn’t want to think about the terrible things I was doing.
‘It got to the point where I was injecting myself with heroin, crystal meth and tequila instead of water. I just didn’t want to think’.
Israel soon began to kidnap and kill for the cartel. He said: ‘I began to do exactly the same things that happened to me.’
Israel spent four years as a cartel ‘sicario’ and managed to tell the tale, but many of Mexico’s most notorious sicarios are either dead or behind bars.
They include Manuel Torres Felix, known as ‘The Crazy One’, who was famous for his hair-trigger temper and would regularly go three days without sleep.
He went on a killing spree in 2009 after his son was kidnapped, and was killed in 2012.
Melissa Calderon, or ‘La China’, the Sinaloa Cartel’s most powerful female sicario, was recently arrested after her own boyfriend turned her over to the cops.
Calderon spent seven years at the head of the Baja California Sur state cartel army before an argument with her superiors forced her to form her own gang.
The killings quickly spiralled out of control and when her boyfriend was arrested, he happily gave her up in return for a reduced sentence.
The most famous Mexican sicario still at large is ‘El Chino Antrax’, the the head of the Sinaloa Cartel’s armed wing.
The ‘rising star’ of the Sinaloa Cartel, who now heads the private army that defends the cartel’s territory, is said to be responsible for the murders of over a thousand people.
El Chino Antrax is fond of social media and regularly posts photos of his extravagant wealth on Instagram and Twitter.
Meanwhile, despite his past, Israel has only spent 36 hours behind bars, thanks to his connection to the cartel.
‘The cartel controls everything here,’ he told MailOnline, ‘Drugs, kidnap, torture, people smuggling. They even control the cops.’
Israel lost many friends to the violence during his time as a hitman for the cartel. Lots of the killers lost their lives to rival gangs, others to confrontations with the Mexican authorities and some were even murdered by their own cartel.
He said: ‘If you’re not strong enough, they’ll take you out. If you’re good at what you do, they like you. But they only like you as long as they need you.
‘Once they don’t need you, they get rid of you,’ he said, disgusted that he carried out many of the executions like it was ‘nothing’.
He added: ‘I had to get rid of one of my friends because he had offended the boss. I pretended we were going to collect on a business on the outside of town.
‘When we got there and he went to bang on the door, he got it in the back.
‘When you’re a slave to their drugs then you’ll do whatever they order. Some of the things I did make me want to vomit when I think back on them.’
After four years, his addiction to drugs finally caught up with him and after passing out in the street following a week-long binge, Israel sought out a rehab centre far from the border and the violence he had grown used to. It was here that he found faith.
One of my friends mentioned God, and I asked: ‘What is God going to do for me?’
After getting clean, Israel decided to get out of the cartel and took refuge in a religious sanctuary for migrants and deportees in Mexican border towns.
Despite leaving the cartel, Israel says he is under constant pressure to go back, saying: ‘It’s a good thing I don’t have my family here.
‘But they don’t mess with me while I’m in here,’ he said, referring to the migrant shelter where he now volunteers and tries to prevent other desperate men making his mistakes.
‘I got away with a lot of things. All the people that I worked for are now in jail.
‘Some police officers even came to see me last week. They’re looking for my old best friend. He’s wanted for four murders. They thought maybe I knew where he’s at’.
Israel says his terrible deeds have made him determined to improve the lives of those who arrive helpless and scared, just as he did five years ago.
He said: ‘The first thing you gotta’ do is get away from the border, it is the worst of the worst. It’s the most dangerous place on earth.’