Confessions of a Colombian drug assassin
'Gustavo' is 26, supports Wigan Athletic and one day hopes to become a police detective. He also earns £350 a month performing contract kills for the Colombian mafia.
In a sparsely furnished but tidy flat in a pleasant, middle-class neighbourhood in the city of Medellin, Colombia, a 24 year-old called Gustavo is telling me how he likes to spend his hard-won earnings.
Along with designer clothes and hi-tech Japanese motorbikes, he is a big fan of English Premiership football and he subscribes to cable television to watch all the matches he can.
"I support Wigan because they have Colombian striker Hugo Rodallega," he says. "I appreciate that Manchester United play good football too. But I don't like Arsenal."
His dream job, he adds, would be "to be a police detective investigating murders."
This last ambition could prove tricky. For when Gustavo isn't dancing to salsa music - or politely offering his guests drinks - he is a paid assassin for one of Colombia's most notorious cocaine traffickers.
In his homeland, he is known as a sicario - or a drug cartel hit man.
I was expecting someone butch, imposing, but with his bone-thin frame, boyish face and stooping posture, Gustavo cuts a far from threatening figure.
Indeed, his demeanour is so warm and friendly that I keep forgetting that I am talking to a man who has murdered more people than he can count and who continues to kill for money.
Sicarios such as Gustavo are wreaking havoc across Latin America.
Back in the Eighties, the region was torn apart by fighting between Left-wing guerrillas and Right-wing dictators. Now most ideological wars are over, but the number of murders keeps rising as rivals fight over the billions of pounds in profit from the cocaine, marijuana and heroin produced in these fertile lands.
In Mexico, more than 18,000 people have been shot dead or had their heads hacked off in drug-related killings in the last three years; in Guatemala there were 6,000 murders in 2009.
Medellin, a city of three million that climbs up the northern Andes mountains, became the most murderous city in the world in the early Nineties under the rule of cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, its most famous son.
After police gunned down Escobar in 1993, the murder rate subsided. But the violence exploded again last year with 2,899 murders.
The corpses pile up as gangsters battle for cocaine routes both to the United States and to the growing market in Europe, especially Britain, where cocaine is still being snorted everywhere from stockbroker bars to northern council estates.
While Latin American sicarios draw so much blood, who they really are, and what drives them, is still a story that's largely untold.
Many take their secrets to the grave, themselves gunned down by rival gangs. Others keep their mouths firmly shut, honouring the cartels' code of silence and avoiding giving away secrets about their trafficking organisations that could earn them a death sentence.
Researching a book on the drug war in Latin America has taken me from bullet-ridden barrios to marijuana-growing mountains, but finding gangsters who will talk to a British journalist is not easy.
I have spent weeks in rotting prisons and drug rehab centres only to get scraps of information from young men who smuggled marijuana on their backs or cocaine in their stomachs.
In Colombia, I teamed up with the German photojournalist Oliver Schmieg, who has spent 11 years developing contacts in the criminal underworld and has photographed cocaine plantations and laboratories.
Working through his network of former soldiers, police informers and street thugs, we finally make contact with Gustavo, who says he is prepared to speak with us, on the condition that we do not use his full name or reveal compromising information about his organisation.
We also have to promise we will not pass any information on to the Colombian National Police, who fight a bloody war with the cartels and their soldiers. In the Latin American drug war, journalists cannot afford to act as eyes for law enforcement.
The small but airy apartment he shows us into, looking out upon palm trees and fountains, must be a far cry from his childhood home.
Gustavo was born in 1985 in one of the slums - or comunas - that climb up the steep mountain slopes overlooking Medellin.
The neighbourhoods of unpainted breeze block homes with tin roofs were squatted by thousands who swarmed to the city from Colombia's peaks, valleys and jungles.
Some had fled the bombings and firefights between the government and communist guerrillas. Others just came looking for enough money to feed their families.
For many young men here, working for the cartels is one of the few ways out of the ghetto.
Dressed in a trendy green short-sleeved shirt, Hawaiian shorts and bright-green canvas baseball boots, Gustavo is strikingly thin, with light brown skin and hair shaved to a crew cut.
He shares the flat with a bulky childhood friend who is pacing around with his shirt off, revealing tattoos on his back.
We sit at a wooden table and, pinning his bony elbows to its surface, Gustavo begins to talk.
Gustavo was the second of three brothers, his father a construction worker. He tells me his father made enough for them to eat most days but not enough to escape the comuna, where shoot-outs rattled the streets and gangsters ruled.
When the Medellin cocaine baron Pablo Escobar had become the planet's biggest drug trafficker, mentioned as a billionaire on Forbes' rich list, Gustavo was just seven years old. By then, Escobar was such a legend in the slums that even children talked about him.
"Up in the comunas Pablo was like a king. He was bigger than the Colombian president,' Gustavo says.
The assassin speaks with the melodic accent of the Medellin slums and uses many terms from the vocabulary created by the cartels, who have words for pistols (irons), rifles (guitars), cocaine (parrot) and murder victims (little girls).
But despite the slang, he pronounces his words carefully and holds back from swearing.
Escobar nurtured his support by handing out truckloads of Christmas presents to children in the comunas and building entire neighbourhoods of new homes for its poorest residents.
He also filled the pockets of many enterprising young men by giving them $2,000 for every policeman they killed. But his war against the state and lust for political power proved to be his downfall.
The Colombian government threw everything at him and were joined by the Pentagon and CIA, who were looking for new missions after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In December 1993, Colombian police were posing for photos next to Escobar's lead-filled corpse.
After Escobar died, the top Medellin traffickers all met to discuss business - in an underground car park in the suburb of Envigado.
From this infamous meeting, the so-called "Office of Envigado' was formed - an organisation to oversee crime in Medellin. To avoid the endless bloodshed, the Office would make sure all debts between traffickers were paid - and collect 33 per cent for the service.
At the head of the Office was Diego Murillo, alias Don Berna, who had been the chief of a gang of sicarios. Don Berna ruled that for anyone to commit murder, the Office had to authorise it.
Each barrio had its "commander' who responded to the capo, or captain. On the street, the organisation was also known as the mafia. American agents called it the Medellin cartel.
As Gustavo became a teenager, his father tried hard to steer him and his brothers away from the mafia, but it was difficult to convince them that the honest life paid off.
"You see your father sweating hard all day and just making a few pesos. And sometimes he was out of work for months. And then guys in the barrio working for the Office are driving brand new cars and motor bikes and have five girlfriends.'
Gustavo began to hang around on the street with older boys connected to the mafia, provoking his father's ire. Eventually, his father caught him smoking marijuana when he was 13 - and kicked him out of the family home.
"It was a bit severe,' Gustavo remembers. "Here we are in the cocaine capital of the world and my dad throws me out for smoking a spliff.'
Gustavo slept on friends' floors and even, sometimes, on the dirt streets of the slum, kept warm by the tropical heat. He also moved deeper into the arms of the mafia.
As well as smuggling drugs, the Medellin gangsters ran protection rackets and sold stolen vehicles. Gustavo first made his name as an able car thief - the same trade that Escobar himself apprenticed in crime.
"I would go into the centre of town and steal cars or motorbikes. I could find a way into anything. I used to love stealing. It became like an addiction.'
Despite robbing day and night, Gustavo managed to stay in school until he was 17. By then, he was earning more than most adults in his comuna and he dropped out to work full-time for the mob.
Gaining the trust of the bosses, he would get jobs moving "bricks' of cocaine or packages of money - sometimes dollars and sometimes euros.
The white powder came from plantations and labs to the north and west of Medellin. But it was the bosses in the city who controlled it and tons of it passed through the slums on its way to Pacific or Atlantic ports.
"I tried snorting cocaine but I never liked it that much,' Gustavo says. "Some of my friends would love it. I always preferred smoking grass.'
Gustavo drew closer to the top dogs in the Medellin mafia and on one delivery he met kingpin Don Berna face to face.
"He was very friendly. Obviously, he was a very powerful man. But he wasn't arrogant. He just acted like a regular guy,' Gustavo remembers with a touch of awe in his voice.
By this time, Don Berna had become more than just a criminal mastermind. He was also the head of a paramilitary army.
Boosted by producing cocaine themselves, the Communist guerrilla group known as the FARC was fighting its own way into the slums of Medellin and swathes of countryside nearby used for churning out the white disco powder.
Seeing the FARC as rivals and Godless communists, Don Berna joined an alliance of Right-wing militias and recruited thousands of young men to hit back at the guerrillas.
"Some young guys would join the paramilitaries just to get a wage,' Gustavo says. "Others would go because they thought that it would be exciting to be fighting in a real war. But then a lot of them got killed.'
Gustavo himself didn't need to risk his life in the trenches to make his living. Now 18 and known as a reliable operator, the mafia bosses began his training as an assassin.
Medellin sicarios carry out their hits using gunmen with pistols on motorbikes. This tactic bears a marked difference from the Mexican hitmen who drive up in jeeps or Hummers and fire hundreds of rounds from automatic rifles.
This Mexican technique wastes bullets and often kills bystanders, while the Colombians get closer to their targets and dispose of them with a few shots.
"We normally hit with one team on a motorbike and another in a car. The bike has one driver and one shooter. The car blocks the victim in and the bike gets right beside the target. Then the shooter unloads fast and passes the gun into the car where it is put in a secret compartment,' Gustavo says, staring intensely.
Gustavo first learnt the art by driving a bike for his mentor, an older sicario.
"He taught me how it was done, how you have to keep steady, keep focused and above all not miss the target. How you shoot in the head and heart to make sure you kill. When I did my first hit, I got a little too close and shot too many bullets into the body. Then the blood and guts exploded out all over me. I had to throw away my clothes and wash hard to get it off. That night I had bad dreams. I kept remembering shooting the person and the blood spurting out.'
Gustavo did more hits and the bad dreams stopped. Every few weeks he would be given a new target. Mostly he killed in Medellin, but he was also sent to other cities across Colombia such as Bogota and Cali.
Soon he had killed 10 then 15, then 20 people. Then he lost count.
I ask him if he thinks about his victims. He shakes his head. "I keep focused and do my work,' he says. He has even developed a routine to prepare himself for the murders.
"Before I go out I pray to Jesus and clear my mind. I never take drugs or drink before a job as I need my five senses. When I come back I will relax and smoke a spliff and listen to music.'
Gustavo says he doesn't know or ask who the victims are. A target is selected and another team will follow the person's movements to find the best time to strike. Then the sicarios will be called in.
"I get a call saying: "There goes the little girl. Take care of her." They will give me a photo of the target. And then we will go and hunt.'
While Don Berna and the Office kept the peace between the traffickers, most of Gustavo's victims were people who crossed or stole from the mafia.
But then as part of Colombia's peace process, Don Berna got his paramilitary army to lay down their guns and handed himself into justice. In 2008, he was extradited to the US and convicted of conspiracy to traffic cocaine.
"The Colombian government used the paramilitaries to defeat the communists and then betrayed them and handed them to the Americans,' Gustavo says angrily.
With no supreme leader, the Office dissolved into two rival factions. Gustavo's boss was one of the key players fighting for control of the empire and suddenly Gustavo was ordered to kill other sicarios. The mafia was turning on itself.
Executions and shoot-outs rattled the slums of Medellin with up to 20 murders in a day. "The city is divided in two and there are a lot of areas I can't go into now,' Gustavo says. "It has become a war and cocaine finances the war.'
This increase in killings means more cash for Gustavo. The sicario says he gets a base salary of about £350 a month plus a payment of between £1,000-£3,000 for each hit he carries out.
While such money is a far cry from the billionaire traffickers with their mansions and fleets of private planes, it makes him vastly wealthy by the standards of the Medellin slums.
Furthermore, with a 22 per cent unemployment rate for Colombians under 26 years old, it is possibly the best job opportunity he has.
"Some people murder because they get pleasure out of it, because they actually enjoy killing and get addicted to the blood. But I do it out of need,' he says.
As well as renting himself an apartment, Gustavo has bought his family a house outside of the ghetto. Teenage arguments he had with his parents are long forgotten and he now sees them several times a week.
His older brother is also in the mafia but they are paying to put their younger brother through private school in the hope he will find a decent, legitimate job.
Gustavo has several girlfriends but doesn't want to get married yet. "I might make a commitment when the time comes. The girls in Medellin love gangsters. They look for boyfriends in the mafia as they know they have money to spend,' he says.
He enjoys dancing to romantic salsa music but avoids the Medellin nightclubs in case he bumps into rival assassins. "I prefer house parties. It is safer in a private home and I can relax,' he says.
He is also a fan of electronic dance music and went with a cousin in Bogota to see British DJ Carl Cox.
"Everyone in the club was just drinking water and dancing like crazy. So I asked my cousin what was going on and she said they were all taking the drug ecstasy. But I didn't want to take it as I was worried it might be too strong.
'I heard LSD is crazy as well. I have respect for people who take that but I don't know if I want to risk it myself,' Gustavo says.
There is no simple way out of the assassin's lifestyle for Gustavo. Being a cartel hit man does not involve any retirement plan.
"The bosses don't let you leave because you know too much. When people try and get out they can kill them. The only way is to just disappear without saying anything,' he says.
Gustavo claims he is not scared of prison and has already done one short stint for being caught with a stolen car. "My boss looked after me. I got decent food delivered and had conjugal visits from girlfriends every week.' He also took his high school exams behind bars and passed with decent grades.
He knows that his work may well lead to his own murder, especially with the current war raging. But he tries to keep any fear tucked deep inside.
"I need to keep strong and focused. I can't spend all my time worrying if they are going to kill me or not. Everyone dies in the end.'