VERACRUZ, Mexico — Francisco had gone from one dead-end job to another, desperate for cash to buy medicine for his ailing mother. Finally he caved in and accepted an offer to join the Zetas, Mexico’s vicious paramilitary drug gang.
The pay: $1,800 a month, a fortune in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. It would be enough eventually, he hoped, to return to college, where he dreamed of one day becoming a chef.
But Francisco was shot dead in a late-night clash before receiving his first pay check. He was only 22.
“I’m telling this story because I don’t want his memory to be stained,” his girlfriend, too scared of reprisals to even give her first name, told AFP.
“He never kidnapped anyone, he never tortured or killed. He didn’t even know how to use a pistol. They were about to show him (how to shoot) and he already wanted to get out.”
Trembling and choking back the tears, the 22-year-old with short dark hair was determined to tell the world that her true love had been a good kid who was just trying to get ahead in life.
Much of eastern Mexico, including Veracruz state, is in the clutches of the Zetas, a drug cartel founded by ex-anti drug commandos known for decapitating and dismembering their enemies.
The Zetas were originally hired as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, but turned on their employers and have taken over their lucrative turf, which includes key land routes to smuggle drugs into the United States.
Francisco lived in one of the many small towns outside the port city of Veracruz, Mexico’s main Caribbean sea port, located 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Mexico City.
His town is in a lush valley close to the sea where farmers raise maize, beans and sugarcane.
Francisco’s father died before he turned 10, and money was always tight at home. Yet one thing was clear in his mind, his girlfriend said: Francisco was determined to succeed.
After high school he enrolled in a local college. Money was still tight, and his mother helped pay for tuition by washing clothes and cleaning homes. But after less than one year in school his mother was diagnosed with diabetes.
“She no longer had enough money,” said Francisco’s girlfriend. “Since Francisco was the only child, he decided to drop out of school to take care of her.”
Good jobs however are hard to find in the state. Francisco searched, and eventually settled for a job at a nursery earning about $200 a month, barely enough to pay for his food.
Then a childhood friend of Francisco, someone he had always looked up to, came calling. The friend had joined the Zetas and risen to a command position. He wanted Francisco to join.
“Francisco didn’t know how to answer,” the girlfriend said. “He wondered if he would be doing good or bad — he wanted to study, and make enough so his mother didn’t have to work and could recover.”
Hoping to make more money and help out more at home, Francisco quit the nursery and took a part-time job. But pay was also meager — now he couldn’t even afford his mother’s medicine.
The childhood friend appeared again and repeated the invitation. This time, Francisco accepted.
Days later a shiny van with tinted windows drove up to Francisco while he was walking home. Unknown men jumped out, forced him into the car, and zoomed off.
The next time the girlfriend saw Francisco he had a codename and carried weapons.
“They gave him a radio and sent him with some other guys. His job was to patrol places were drugs were being sold and coordinate with the hawks (informants) and provide alerts about any strange movements, especially from the authorities or suspicious vehicles,” she said.
His new bosses gave Francisco a pistol and an automatic rifle, and told him to follow orders without question, regardless of time or place. Any failure would result in severe punishment.
“They said that he had to be armed while on patrol, and that they’d teach him how to shoot later,” the girlfriend said. “He didn’t even know how to remove the safety catch, or if the weapons had ammunition.”
One evening Francisco was ordered to join a group of Zetas transporting weapons. “It was around 11 pm… we were talking on the phone, and he said he had to hang up because he got orders to leave.”
The next morning the girlfriend’s phone rang. It was a call from Francisco’s phone, but the voice on the line was not his.
It was a forensic medic at the morgue.
“The medic told me to come in to identify the body,” she said. He called her “because the last number Francisco had dialed was mine.”
Francisco’s young, slim body was surprisingly unmarked, “without bruises or anything, just a small hole in his cheek,” his girlfriend recalled. “They said it came from a point-blank shot.”
At the morgue she learned that the Zetas had come across an army patrol in a sugar cane field. There was a shoot-out and no prisoners were taken.
Locals terrified of being associated with a drug gang member did little to help Francisco’s distraught mother. “We had to ask people in town and acquaintances for help to bury him,” the girlfriend said.
The funeral was a rushed affair. The mourners were shaken by army and navy patrols that constantly drove by, perhaps hoping to catch a Zeta member.
The Zetas are accused of being behind some of the most heinous drug war crimes, including the slaughter of 72 migrants traveling to the US border in August 2010, and the decapitation and dismemberment of 49 people in May near the industrial northern city of Monterrey.