An efficient system for killing without a trace
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Colombian cartels make assassinations so easy, even a kid could do it. Tragically, they do for up to thousands of dollars per murder — if carried out abroad.
It’s all part of a complex network of killers-for-hire that have spread terror across Latin America, which has some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Typically the assassins, or sicarios, are boys armed with pistols who ride on the back of motorbikes — a method that took shape during the reign of drug lord Pablo Escobar.
It’s a cheap, effective method of committing murder with an easy getaway.
The Colombian city of Medellin has a homicide rate of more than 37 per 100,000, which is a little bit higher than Baltimore but actually represents a dramatic 30-year low. The murder rates are several times higher in Venezuela’s major cities — where killers carry out hits in the same fashion.
We know less about how the assassins carry out their hits and their organizational model. Now thanks to an informant who spoke to Argentina’s Clarin newspaper, we have a better grasp of how Colombian cartels operate in that country.
Here’s how it works. Note this involves Colombian assassins operating in Argentina. Colombian criminal syndicates rely on Colombians for killings everywhere but Mexico, where they rely on Mexican nationals.
The first thing thing that happens is that a cartel agent in Argentina makes the decision to assassinate a target, and phones his bosses in Colombia for permission.
If granted, the cartel dispatches a sicario to a series of houses where they 1) receive money for travel costs and 2) travel documents. After a shower, shave and a few hours, the killer is on a plane to Argentina.
Upon landing, he takes a taxi to a pre-arranged location, hops into a cartel-provided car and goes to another house where he receives instructions. “At that point, the sicario will finally be shown a photo of the victim and will be provided with a weapon, a motorcycle, and a driver,” Clarin reported.
These motorcycles are most often Honda Tornado 250 and Yamaha DR 350s — cheap trail bikes common in South American cities. Locals act as middlemen for buying the motorcycles, as Argentinian law prohibits Colombian non-resident nationals from purchasing them while in the country.
As they motorbike team approaches their target, the shooter stabilizes himself on the driver’s back, opens fire and kills the person … and the pair speeds off. The network then sprints the assassin out of the country in an unlicensed rental car.
The murder typically occurs the same day the assassin arrived. It’s like the victim is killed by a ghost.
The killers are often teenagers — with the average lifespan topping out at 25. Any mistake, such as a missed target, can result in the assassin’s death at the hands of the cartel.
“The sicario knows that if they arrive to that address even five minutes late, they could lose the job and be sent back to Colombia where they may be killed for their simple mistakes,” Clarin reported.
As a result, a pair of men riding on a motorbike can be a scary sight in some Latin American cities. This also applies to muggings, which can turn lethal in an instant. Medellin has periodically banned the practice during certain hours — either ride solo or don’t ride at all.
“Other commonalities among the minors were that they all grew up in dangerous neighborhoods, they had all been abused physically or sexually, and none had education past the second grade,” OE Watch, a publication from the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, noted.
This makes the boys potential recruits — they don’t have many other choices in life. Besides, modern Colombian syndicates prefer to stay discreet.
Two of the more powerful drug trafficking organizations in the country, the Urabenos and Rastrojos, emerged from cartels and paramilitary groups that fragmented in the 1990s. They’re much different than their predecessors.
Importantly, they prefer to control particular regions or elements of a drug trafficking network — where more traditional cartels had far broader goals — and they would rather avoid direct clashes with governments.
Hence perfecting the practice of motorbike assassination.
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