To Strangle Someone is Horrible
All mothers have a sense of whether their kids are okay. My mother could see I was the black sheep of the family so she worried about me.
“The job of a sicario is to do away with the victim immediately, either with a bullet, a knife or a blow.” As he speaks, the hooded subject of El Sicario, Room 164 writes in a notebook, a numbered list of the weapons he names. “Quick and lean,” he continues, “So that the victim feels nothing more.” In answer to his own question, “How?”, he begins to draw a childlike outline of a car and to explain the difference between a professional sicario and an imitation sicario. Where the pretender fires dozens of bullets at a car—here he stabs at the page, bullet-dots all over the car he’s drawn—the real thing takes aim, needing only one shot to get the job done.
The sicario, according to this former sicario, is a worker, skilled and self-assured. Hailing from Ciudad Juárez, and now seated in a motel room on the border between Mexico and the US, he recalls his employment simultaneously by a drug cartel and the Chihuahua State Police. Such experience is common, he says, as the narcos typically groom their workers from the time they are boys, rewarding them for transporting drugs (“I never knew what kind of drugs I was carrying,” he says, “I didn’t know the quantity”) and then sending them through the police or military academy (where they take classes in marksmanship, how to make arrests, drug detection, and criminal psychology). By the time he graduated, says this former police commander, he was fully prepared to kidnap and murder and also to avoid arrest. “I was very careful,” he doesn’t quite explain, “Everything was scheduled.”
Now, in El Sicario, Room 164—at Film Forum through 3 January—as he stands before the motel room mirror to put on the mesh hood he will wear throughout the interview, his hands appear broad and beefy, creepily expressive. He walks to the camera spreads his arms wide as he recalls one job in particular: “We had orders to kidnap a guy,” he says, “And we took him to this motel. We were right in this room. He was here for three days.” Their orders were to “maintain him,” rather than kill him, until they got a call from the boss, instructions to hand the victim over to another team. “I don’t know what happened to him. Usually, even if the person has paid back the money he owes, he dies,” the sicario shakes his head. “There are no borders for the narcos, not in Mexico, or the United States, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or El Salvador. The narcos can buy anyone.”
It’s striking that Gianfranco Rosi’s film illustrates this infinite reach in just one room. Inspired by Charles Bowden’s 2009 article, and shot over two sessions that produced six or seven hours of footage, the interview goes on to provide more detailed memories of the sicario’s brutal work, which he narrates and acts out. Recalling another torture session, he leans over the chair where a victim once cowered, the bedside lamp reflected in the dark TV screen behind him. A moment later, the scene cuts to show the sicario inside the bathroom, where he stands over the imaginary victim, delivering the news that his family has been unable to pay the full amount he owes. He points his finger like a teacher over a student, instructing that the family had better sell their real estate.
During this performance, the camera stays in the main room. Yet the distance from the action only makes it more disturbing. When the sicario leans toward the bathtub (“We fill the tub with water… he needs a little therapy”), the volume of his voice rises and falls, his gestures precise, outrageous, and performative. He comments on the difficulties of the job, how he strangled a man almost to death and then had to call a doctor to revive him when the boss (el patrón) called to stop the murder, or how it’s “ugly to see a woman tortured… to see her raped not by one man, but by six or seven, and then to make her suffer until she loses consciousness.” Or again, how he lowered victims into barrels of boiling water or burned them under gas-soaked blankets (“When you pull off the blanket while it’s burning, three layers of skin come with it”). Everyone “has a line,” he declares. “Their body goes limp, then you can loosen the grip a little and they gain a little strength and you’re under orders to make it last a long time, so the asphyxiation is slow.”
As the sicario talks, his face hidden and his hands in motion, the violence is vivid in your mind. Of course, he may be lying. As he notes more than once, he lied for most of his life, pretending to uphold the law while engineering kidnappings and committing murders, keeping his wife and daughter at home while spend “wild” nights drinking and taking drugs just to get through the days. “You get to a point,” he says, “When you’re about to snap, not because you feel remorse, but because you’re so stressed out about what you do. You have to stay drunk and high all the time to overcome your scruples.”
Whether or not the sicario had scruples to overcome (he notes that his mother was disappointed and possibly made sick by his bad behavior as a boy), his story needs you to think he did. For indeed, he has rejected his work—else why would he be telling the story at all?—and found salvation, or at least a route to God. Currently on the run from his former patrón (for no one can just leave the narcos), he recalls his moment of transformation (surrounded by “a bunch of fairies,” people singing and dancing with their hands up, rejoicing in the Lord). This moment, he says today, at first so unbelievable, especially to him, has given him a means to speak, to tell his story as you hear it now.
But the film is not his story. The film is how he tells it and how you see it. In Juárez, it reveals in closing, more than 5,000 people have been killed since 2008. According to the sicario, their bodies are buried in safe houses, backyards and city buildings, places he can’t recall or never knew. He may be lying. And he may not.