This article originally appeared on VICE US
When the state of Texas sentenced Gabriel Cardona and Rosalio "Bart" Reta—aka the Wolf Boys—to what would equate to life in prison, the American teenagers were simply labeled serial killers in the vein of John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Damher. It was true they had killed at least 50 people combined while still minors. But, unlike Damher or Gacy, the Laredo, Texas-born convicts weren't killing for sport. Rather, they were teenage assassins and child soldiers employed by the Zetas, one of Mexico's most notoriously violent cartels, whose blood money they wanted in order to stock up on nice cars and fresh kicks.
Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico's Most Dangerous Drug Cartel is a new book by reporter Dan Slater that examines cartel culture and the war on drugs from the nuanced perspective of its youngest constituents. The author spent four years researching the drug trade, during which he exchanged hundreds of letters with Cardona, learning how a bunch of American-born kids got involved with one of the most brutal crime syndicates across the border. A twisting and chaotic tale that switches perspectives between the young hitmen and the homicide detective who ultimately caught them, the true crime story details the reality that "under certain conditions, practically any child could be changed into a killer."
In the text, we get a vantage into why cartel leaders recruit underaged kids, American or not, and how they train them into becoming executioners. The more we get to know the Wolf Boys, the less they feel like deranged killers and the more complicated their situation feels on a moral level. Were they victims of intimidation, capitalism, and their destitute hometowns, and does that excuse their violent behavior? And what action, if any, can the US government take to not only prevent the recruitment of child soldiers, but also help rehabilitate them? We talked with Slater, whose book is already slated to be adapted into a full-length film, about the Wolf Boys's evolution from underprivileged kids trying to make some money to full-on assassins.
VICE: Many stories about drug dealers and cartels glamorize the kingpins at the top of these organizations, but Wolf Boys focuses on the foot soldiers at the bottom run. What interested you about child soldiers?
Dan Slater: I went to Mexico and visited a cemetery in the State of Sinaloa that was known, unofficially, as the "Cartel Cemetery." When you go to there, you see a lot of these big, gaudy mausoleums around the outside of the cemetery that were built by the families of guys who were higher up in the cartels. But in the middle of the cemetery were plain headstones for men who were extremely young when they died. I averaged out the dates on maybe 30 headstones and came up with an average age of death at about 18 or 19, though it wasn't uncommon to see headstones for people who died at 13 or 14. It was amazing for me to actually see that up-close.
I thought back to Gabriel [Cardona] and Bart [Reta], who I'd read about in the New York Times a few months earlier. I was finally able to put them into context, and they seemed to belong to a huge world of young men who really were the people fighting this war, the people who were dying at the greatest rate. That's when I became determined to tell their story and to see what was behind the headlines. Where did they come from, what was their neighborhood like, what were their family lives like, what sort of male role models did they have, if any? That was where the urge to humanize them originated from. I think it's important to humanize these particular kinds of boys and young men because they comprise such a huge segment of the drug wars.
What was it like visiting Cardona and Reta in prison, and what did you discuss in the hundreds of letters you exchanged?
I visited [Renta] in prison and we spoke for eight hours. He told me stories and was thoughtful, inquisitive, and manipulative. We wrote each other for three months. My experience with Gabriel was different. After I visited him in prison, he told me he didn't mind sharing his story, but that some media people approached him with lies. Over two and a half years, I wrote to him and we covered every phase of his life from childhood through incarceration. We persevered through misunderstandings, spats, and reconciliations. The letters became the basis for much of the book. The final chapter, 33, describes the reporting process, including my relationship to the boys and how it developed over time.
What circumstances led these young Mexican-American teenagers into the life of crime that the cartels offered?
Laredo is a very impoverished city, and the neighborhoods within Laredo that the Wolf Boys were from are particularly poor, so economics have a lot to do with it. Often times, [kids in the area] will be raised by single mothers, or there'll be a lot of elder men within families who set poor examples for the boys. It comes down to a lack of guidance, a lack of parenting, a lack of discipline, and a culture in which, frankly, families are immersed in the drug trade. It's not uncommon for family members to be involved with various aspects of smuggling and subsequently get their kids into it at a very young age.
Not everyone from these neighborhoods becomes a cartel member. There are many kids who go to college. But for the most part, it's very hard to get out of these places. In my research for Wolf Boys, I saw families dealing with losing a son or with having a kid get sent away for life in prison, and how normal that was there.
The narrative alternates between the teenage assassins and Robert Garcia, the cop who was chasing them. Were you also interested in Garcia before working on the book?
I wouldn't have been writing about Robert Garcia had it not been for the Wolf Boys. They were what originally drew me to the story and it was their lives that I originally set out to investigate and explore. I stumbled on Garcia a little bit later. I knew he was a crucial part in the investigation of the boys, sort of their nemesis or their foil, but it wasn't until later in the project that I saw how the book could be structured as a thriller that alternated between the good and the bad. I realized suspense could be derived from the feeling of Oh my God, when are they going to meet and what will happen?
Do you think NAFTA and the War on Drugs have actually helped turn the cartels into major conglomerates and wide-reaching organizations?
So much of American law enforcement is employed because of this war, but one of the reasons I avoid tying the origins or causes of the drug trade and drug war to any one thing is because I really don't see the world that way. I don't think we can say it was one thing or one policy. Certainly there have been many policies that have exacerbated the fallout of the war on drugs. NAFTA was an interesting version of that because it was an economic policy that was intended to enrich a lot of people, and it did at the expense of others—and that was sort of foreseen. What was unforeseen about NAFTA was the effect it would have on the drug trade—it essentially made the drug trade a lot smoother, and smuggling easier. So in that sense, NAFTA inflated the market and probably drew more people into the underworld as a result.
The media has labeled these teenage assassins as monsters. Yes, they did terrible things, but do you think they deserve these labels?
Do they deserve the labels? Well, they did what they did. The legal system in the state of Texas, for instance, doesn't think of them as cartel assassins or members of the Zetas. The state of Texas just sees them as serial killers. I think a lot of Americans would be surprised to see that label attached to them because when we say serial murderers we think of Jeffrey Dahmer, but these kids were, for all intents and purposes, doing the same thing. They were killing a lot of people. They were just doing it for money.
I think when you reduce it to that, they deserve whatever label people want to apply to what they were doing. I think it's the nature of people for their mind to go to very dark places when they don't see the whole picture. I certainly did that. When I first learned about these kids, I only had minimal information about them and the things I did know about the world they came from were its most brutal aspects. But the closer you get to something, the more human you're likely to see it. I think that helps change the perspective, but, of course, getting to know them better doesn't change what they did. I hope and I think every reader of Wolf Boys will come away with a slightly different perspective on them and what exactly they merit in terms of labels. I think some people will be empathetic to them and some won't. It will be interesting to see.
'Wolf Boys' is out now via Simon & Schuster. Buy it here.
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