The Sicario is the genesis story of a criminal prodigy. The story traces the early and unlawful career of Santiago Ramírez, a budding, villainous genius, who lives life among the border cartels. The story describes murder, mayhem, and family. It portends that Santiago will one day be a powerful and Machiavellian cartel boss.
Santiago Ramírez was born an American in San Diego. Immediately after his birth certificate was issued, his mother, Maria Louisa “Lulu” Ramírez, returned with him to her home country of Mexico, and Santiago became a dual citizen shortly thereafter.
Señora Ramírez was a mother in a cartel family. Her brother, David, was arrested for trafficking arms in Culiacán. Her uncle, Jesse, was arrested for trafficking narcotics, also in Culiacán. The family’s lives were remarkable for their sensational violence, police encounters, and criminal associations. When the authorities released Jesse two months after his arrest, he was soon shot to death outside a grocery store. Three hundred and fifty 7.62 mm bullet casings were found at the scene of the crime. The authorities described Jesse Ramírez’ murder as an open case, and his assailants were never found. Lulu’s sister, Yolanda, was sanctioned under the Kingpin Act for her alleged involvement in the cartel’s financial activities. Señora Ramírez’ mother, María Luisa Ochoa, had run a brothel before she married her husband, Señor Carlos Ramírez. Now she was rumored to control no fewer than twenty and to live in the shadows with Carlos, a man wanted in Mexico, Colombia, and the United States.
When Santiago was four, his family was murdered by a rival gang, the Jalisco Alphas, in an attack so successful and decisive that it secured control of the western seaboard and primacy in cocaine traffic for the JAs. The Ramírez Cartel was a paramilitary operation, and over the course of the following year, the lieutenants and captains in the cartel were either hunted down or integrated into the Jalisco Alpha organization.
The only Ramírez survivor of the strikes was Santiago himself, who was with his nanny when the hit happened. The nanny, Julia Ortega, had used her wits and saved their lives. She took Santiago’s passport, her own, and a sackful of pesos, then slipped away. She fled to Mazatlán with the four year old, then she took the ferry from Mazatlán to La Paz in Baja Sur. As Julia traveled, she fretted about what to do with Santiago, feeling that, while the rival cartel had no interest in her, they would certainly be interested in Santiago, and that his very presence put her life at hazard. She had neither love nor sympathy for the Ramírez family, who had unduly punished her for mild offenses and treated her tyrannically, and, though she had no care for the baby either, she was human enough that she was repelled by the idea of leaving Santiago alone and exposed. Still Julia she knew of no one who could take Santiago, and now she felt stuck in La Paz.
Julia found herself in the unenviable position of being an unemployed woman with the care of a child who was not hers in a city in which she knew no one, and that child was the only thing attracting a group of animalistic gang members who hunted and killed.
After a year of much anxiety, during which Julia read about the slow and steady decimation of the Ramírez gang, Julia decided what she would do.
Julia went north, to Mexicali and Calexico, border towns between California and Mexico. There she crossed the border with Santiago.
“Remember this crossing, Santiago,” she said to him. “If you wish to return, you’ll have to make it by yourself tomorrow. At least I am giving you this chance.”
The boy was five years old, and he remembered the vermillion and navy blue of a swallow, whose tail parted scissorlike behind it as it dipped and soared over a wet ditch. It was his first memory.
They returned to Mexico that night. The next day, they crossed into America again, and Julia left him there. She crossed back into Mexico alone, and she vanished from his life forever. The action she took that day haunted her conscience for the rest of her life, and she spoke of it to no one. She returned to Culiacán and went to work for her father who owned a small restaurant that served menudos and mariscos, and there she stayed until she died.
Santiago was found by a woman who turned him over to the authorities. The authorities held him for awhile, but no one claimed the boy, and ultimately he was remanded to the care of a foster home in San Diego.
His life there was miserable and unhappy, in part because of his own actions, for Santiago found himself drawn to crime. He stole and he lied, and he was caught at both of them, and punished, so that he became an angry child, tyrannical like his dead parents, and subject to overwhelming and passionate outbursts of violence and anger.
When Santiago was eight, his ferocity was noticed by a man with an eye for criminal genius. The man’s name was Julio Rodríguez, and he was an ex-convict and a man of foresight. He saw his own days of criminal activity to be dead and gone, so he set himself up as a recruiter and talent scout for a cartel in Tijuana. He saw in Santiago’s eyes and actions a boy who could be groomed for crime.
Julio Rodríguez invited the eight year old back to a restaurant, Don Pedro’s, where he spent his time. There were two other youth there, brothers, and a number of adults as well. The men would sit outside Don Pedro’s drinking beer, smoking, and laughing. They talked of old times, past crimes, and breathed regular life into aging vendettas. They had ties to the Camino Verde Cartel which operated out of Tijuana.
Julio introduced Santiago to Aarón and Alex Molinary, two brothers aged fourteen and fifteen. The Molinary brothers wore jeans and skate shoes. Alex wore a gold necklace with a golden bullet as its pendant. Aarón had a golden tooth.
“I’ve got a new friend for you,” said Julio. “Take care of him.”
“This kid?” asked Alex, looking skeptically at the eight year old.
“Yeah,” said Santiago.
The men at Don Pedro’s were sipping from their beers and smoking.
“I’m not a baby-sitter,” said Alex.
Santiago cursed at the older boy, and he told him where to go.
Alex’s face darkened.
The men laughed.
Then Alex, looking at them, laughed too.
“Avispón,” Alex said, which means hornet in English.
For the next two years, Santiago, or Avispón as they called him, distinguished himself through his brutality and aggressive flair.
Between the ages of eight and ten, he fought no less than once a week. He began skateboarding, drinking, and smoking cigarettes and marijuana. His eyes grew lean and sharp. He stole money and food from his foster home. He stole clothes from local shops. He grew into a boy more wicked and mature than his years suggested. He did anything and everything asked of him by Julio Rodríguez, Aarón, and Alex, and the men at the restaurant soon began to treat him like a ferocious pet, one whose startling temper was to be chuckled at, but with amused respect.
During this time, Julio felt realized that he had discovered a child prodigy so far as crime was concerned. Accordingly, he informed a captain in Calle Verde Cartel. Nothing happened for months. Then one day an order came down that the leadership of the Calle Verde Cartel wished for a test of Santiago’s mettle.
A foolish fresa—which translates directly to strawberry, but which refers to a rich, soft kid—wanted to be perceived as hard, and he’d gotten himself involved in the Camino Verde Cartel. He had money but no brains, no street smarts, and he simply wasn’t good at doing things right. His name was Sergio Rosa. The cartel, realizing that he was both expendable and willing, selected Sergio for the murder of a beautiful woman, Alexis Hernández. Alexis was the wife of a cartel member, Israel Hernández, who had been arrested and who was agreeing to a plea bargain with the feds. Israel’s talking threatened the leaders of the Camino Verde Cartel and their narcotics logistics, so the cartel needed to send a warning. That warning would be the murder of Alexis Hernández, the imprisoned man’s wife. Any more talking, the cartel would say, and Israel’s children would be next.
Thus Sergio Rosa was dispatched one night with orders to murder Alexis Hernández in her penthouse home in San Diego. Sergio was given a gun and instructions to throw it into the Pacific Ocean once the murder was completed.
The cartel had recognized in this upcoming murder an opportunity. They would send Santiago Ramírez into the penthouse apartment after the murder was committed. If that fresa Sergio bungled the murder, then Santiago could report back, and the Camino Verde Cartel would send in a professional to finish the job. If Sergio had done the job right, Santiago would have a first hand opportunity to see murder up close, and he could be desensitized to it from a young age. Julio, thinking through the cartel’s plan, reasoned that the risks were small. If Santiago was found on the scene, he was only ten years old. Nothing would go onto his permanent record, and any time in juvenile detention would be short.
On the night of the murder, it was a warm, clear night in August. Sergio Rosa arrived at Alexis Hernández’ apartment building with trembling hands and a look of frightened determination on his face. The gun was concealed in a shoulder holster. He carried a hot pizza in a cardboard box, as if he were a pizza delivery boy, and the guard let him up. Sergio punched the elevator for the top floor. The elevator was located against a vertical glass window that let Sergio look out over the city of San Diego as the elevator rose. The city spread out before him, like a carpet of lights and shadowy buildings until those lights reached the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and the sea gave way to darkness. The elevator came to a smooth stop on the fourteenth floor.
Sergio Rosa exited the elevator, and he walked to the only room on the floor. He knocked, and when Alexis Hernández opened the door, he pushed his way in. He dropped the pizza on the ground. She screamed. He pulled the pistol from his shoulder holster, but it caught on his jacket. The woman attacked him, screaming. Sergio got the pistol unstuck, falling back against the closed door. He shot her once, in the top of the shoulder. Alexis screamed again, and she fell back. He shot her twice more, once in the chest, once in the belly. She lay on the floor, moaning. Sergio fled from the room, not bothering to shut the door. When he was in the elevator, he looked up, and he realized that he was looking at a camera. He put his head into his jacket, and he began to cry. He was still crying when he reached the lobby floor, but Sergio looked the other way as he walked out, and he did not respond to the guard’s goodbye. Sergio had parked four blocks away, and he ran the entire distance, increasingly cognizant and frightened by how many cameras there were along the sidewalk. He reached his car, and he realized that he had parked it beneath yet another video surveillance camera. He dented the car behind him as he backed out of the parallel parking, then he sped away.
Fifteen minutes later, Julio Rodríguez dropped Santiago Ramírez off at the penthouse apartment. The ten year old was dressed nicely, and his hair had just been cut. Santiago smiled at the guard, and he told him that he was there to see his Aunt Alexis.
The guard gave the boy a warm smile, and, with kind eyes, he pointed the boy to the elevator and told him to punch fourteen.
“I think she’s got some pizza waiting up there for you,” the guard said.
“Pepperoni and sausage’s my favorite,” replied Santiago, and he walked to the elevator.
The elevator doors opened, and Santiago got in them. They closed behind him.
“Cute kid,” said the guard.
When Santiago reached the fourteenth floor, he found the door ajar. He went in to the apartment. There was Alexis Hernández, still alive on the floor. She was crawling toward the couch, and a trail of blood lay behind her.
When the boy came in, she turned her head. Her eyes were wide in terror. She thought the man had come back to finish the job. But her expression changed to relief when she saw Santiago. He was a boy, nicely dressed. In her pain, she did not wonder what he was doing there.
“Help me!” she said. “Help me get my phone.”
“Where is it?” asked Santiago.
“Near the couch.”
Santiago walked past her to the couch where her phone lay. He did not touch it. He merely looked at it.
“Bring it to me,” she said.
Santiago looked up.
It was then that her face changed to horror again. She suddenly wondered what the boy was doing in her apartment. And the boy’s face seemed evil.
But Alexis couldn’t give up hope, and she couldn’t completely trust her ominous premonition.
“Bring me the phone,” she said.
But the boy did not move. He’d been told to check on the apartment, and to see that Sergio had not left any evidence behind. He’d been told that, if the girl was still alive for any reason, to call Julio, and Julio would call someone in the Calle Verde Cartel.
Santiago looked around the apartment. The lights were on. The place was strewn with the woman’s dirty clothes. It was a fancy, wealthy apartment. The tables were made of glass and gold. The couch was white leather. The kitchen had marble countertops.
Santiago wondered if anyone could see into the apartment with its lights on. He went around the room, and he turned off all the lights. Alexis watched in horror, then she started slowly dragging herself towards her phone again.
Santiago came back from the kitchen where he’d been turning off the lights. He had a strong, sharp kitchen knife in his hand, and he used it to stab Alexis in the back. And from that wound she died.
Santiago looked around the room, and he looked at his hands. They had blood on them. He washed his hands calmly in the sink with soap and water, and he looked at himself in the mirror. He liked what he saw. Then the boy left the apartment, and he shut the door softly behind him until he heard it click. On the way down the elevator, he put his hands in his pockets, and he never looked up once toward the camera. He smiled and waved at the door guard as he left. On the street, Julio was waiting for him in the car, its engine idling.
Julio gave the boy a searching look as he got into the car, but he only reminded the boy to buckle his seat belt. Then Julio eased the car away from the curb, and he drove out, going no faster than the speed limit, back to Don Pedro’s restaurant.
“What’d you find?”
“She was still alive,” Santiago said evenly.
Julio’s face whipped around. His face was a mask of wrath and anger. “I told you to call me—”
“I finished her off,” said the boy coolly.
Julio’s jaw dropped. His features looked amazed. “You did what?”
“I knifed her.”
“Tell me everything,” Julio said.
The boy told him everything.
The next day, Sergio Rosa was arrested for murder, and, though the police searched for the ten year old boy who was caught on camera and seen by the door guard, they never found him. Sergio Rosa said that the boy must have knifed the girl, but the police did not believe him. Sergio’d been caught on camera putting a pistol back into his shoulder holster, and there were bullets in the dead girl’s body. He was going to be up for life. Men who were rumored to be associated with the Calle Verde Cartel paid Sergio Rosa’s bail. Two weeks later, four campers found a corpse in a shallow grave in the Mojave Desert. It took forensics specialists a month to determine that the body was that of Sergio Rosa, and his parents were unable to provide a definitive identification.
Santiago Ramírez, when he next appeared at Don Pedro’s, was no longer treated as a ferocious pet. He was treated with a mixture of fear and respect. Aarón and Alex deferred to him. On his eleventh birthday, the men at the restaurant poured drinks for the boy and lit his cigarettes.
Three weeks after his eleventh birthday, Julio Rodríguez asked Santiago to step into Don Pedro’s restaurant because there was someone who wished to see him.
Santiago went inside. The bricks were cool, and the fans were turning slowly.
Sitting in a booth was a woman in a plain black gown which covered her entire body except for her neck and head. She had a curious expression on her face and penetrating brown eyes.
Julio gestured for Santiago to sit at the table with her. Santiago sat across from her, but he said nothing.
The woman waved Julio away. Julio left. Santiago was all alone with the lady.
“Don’t you even say Good afternoon?” said the woman.
“I do to those I wish it to,” replied the boy.
The woman said nothing for a few moments. The boy felt that he was being tested or appraised. The woman’s face remained stony.
“You’re an orphan,” she said.
“Is it a question?”
“No,” she replied coldly. “But I can offer you a family.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Alma Madero Díaz,” said the woman curling up her lip in a way that was at once haughty, proud, and beautiful. Her face seemed to sharpen in its angularity. She brushed black hair off her forehead, and Santiago saw rings of gold upon her fingers.
“I don’t know the name. And I have a home.”
“You have a foster home. You hate it.”
The boy said nothing.
“Many folk would kill to live with me, if only for the power that I possess,” the woman said softly. “You don’t seem to be so much as intrigued.”
“I’ve killed for nothing,” the boy replied, his voice just as soft.
The woman smiled then, a soft, enigmatical smile, as if his response had amused her, and as if he had just passed his appraisal. “You will come with me,” she said. “My family controls the Camino Verde Cartel. Or, rather, I control the Camino Verde Cartel. I have no children. I cannot. And I have never before wished to adopt. But I like the look of you, my dear boy. You can call me Mother.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then I’ll cut your throat myself.”
Santiago Ramírez smiled. Alma Madero Díaz smiled back at him.
Moments later, Santiago left Don Pedro’s restaurant with Alma Madero Díaz, and he never returned. The nearest that he ever got to Don Pedro’s again was to pass it in the streets. He never even said goodbye to Julio Rodríguez. A black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows was waiting behind Don Pedro’s, and Alma Madero Díaz got into the backseat with Santiago. A man shut the door for them, then got into the passenger seat. He was armed with an assault rifle, and he wore Kevlar beneath his clothes. The Escalade was cool and quiet, and there was a driver behind a tinted partition. They drove out of San Diego, to a hacienda in the desert. The hacienda had a white fence surrounding the property, taller than head height, topped with glass and razor wire. They entered the hacienda grounds, and they drove down a dirt drive that was longer than a quarter mile. The hacienda itself was a dwelling that was low and white, Spanish colonial style, with a broad porch on which five men with assault rifles, CB radios, and sunglasses patrolled. None of them smiled at Santiago, and he smiled at none of them. The hacienda opened up into a brick courtyard with a fountain, hanging plants, and desert plants. There were full sized statues. Maids wore uniforms and moved softly about.
The woman, Santiago’s new mother, walked with him in these first few moments, then she left him in the courtyard. A while later, a maid came out with a lunch of enchiladas verdes on a white porcelain plate, carried on a silver salver. Santiago ate the lunch alone on a tile table in the hacienda courtyard, sitting on a black steel chair. The sound of the water pouring from the fountain into its pool was the only sound that could be heard. The air felt cool and pleasant in the courtyard, despite the dry heat without.
He spent the day exploring the grounds.
That night, a maid showed him to his room, and he saw his new mother for the second time.
She came to tuck him in. She sat on the edge of his bed, and she pulled the white cotton sheets beneath his chin.
“I have high hopes for you, mi avispón,” she said softly to him. The room had an arching brick ceiling and twelve inch wooden beams spanning it. The windows had no glass, only wicker shutters. There was nothing in the room except for the king sized wooden bed, which sat on a frame of oak stained black, the mattress and its white sheets, and a small end table on which sat a white porcelain pitcher filled with water, along with a nearby glass.
His new mother kissed his forehead. She brushed his hair with her hand. She smiled at him. “One day you’ll control the cartel I’ve fought so hard to establish and maintain. But before then, you’ll need to learn the business of drugs and death.”
“I’ve killed one person already,” he said.
“I know, my darling,” she smiled at him. “That’s why you’re here. I’ve had my eye on you awhile. But one murder is just a beginning. We’ll make a real killer of you yet.”
She kissed him, and she left the room, turning the light off behind her and closing the door.