In "Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man," former Tijuana Cartel enforcer Martin Corona traces his rise through the ranks of the hegemonic crime group during the 1990s, but includes surprisingly few revelations about the organization itself.
Corona joined the Arellano Félix organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel, in the aftermath of its botched 1993 attempt to assassinate Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán at the Guadalajara airport, in which gunmen for the group accidentally murdered a Catholic cardinal, mistaking his car for Guzmán's.
This was a chaotic time in which the organization had to contend both with international outcry (and the resultant redoubled efforts by law enforcement) and its provoked and emboldened rivals, namely Guzmán and Amado Carrillo. Corona was part of the cartel's effort to build its ranks by poaching soldiers from street gangs in southern California, a tactic that calls to mind the Juarez Cartel's reliance on the Barrio Azteca Texas gang street gang for manpower in recent years.
Corona provides some granular descriptions of his day-to-day work. He describes spending his days at a command center, ready at a moment's notice to strike out against the cartel's foes. He notes his schedule -- five days on, two days off -- and his pay, a $500 a week regular salary, topped off with irregular but enormous bonuses. He also explains the weapons training they received, and the rules that governed their drug and alcohol consumption.
All this amounts to a peek behind the veil of a drug trafficking organization. We see the type of soldiers they recruit, the sorts of conflicts that emerge and the reasons for both Corona's initial enchantment and his subsequent disillusionment (respectively, pride at joining a big crime group and fatigue at the constant murder of victims whose offenses were dubious). This presents an invaluable window into the sort of organization whose operations remain largely a mystery.
SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel News and Profiles
Nonetheless, the book suffers from its structure. Clocking in at 300 pages of good-sized print, it has just enough space to deliver a comprehensive, infantryman's-eye-view of one of the world's most infamous cartels.
But the first 190 pages deal almost entirely with Corona's career as a California gang member engaged in petty pursuits. After a brief description of his tense home life as a Marine brat, the author embarks on a seemingly interminable recitation of his experimentations with a parade of different drugs, women, jails and gangland associates.
This portion of the story is not without its appeal. It provides a genuinely thought-provoking portrayal of the process of institutionalization of prison inmates, as well as a first-person account of how the Mexican Mafia exploits its control over the California prison population.
But needless to say, for a book whose title purports to provide the mea culpa of a cartel killer, the absence of anything resembling a drug cartel for two thirds of the book is problematic.
And what we do see of the Tijuana Cartel seems abbreviated. Nearly a third of that section describes Corona's recruitment and his first mission, the assassination of a rival gunman hiding in San Diego. There is little overarching discussion of the organization's business function, beyond a cursory description of the plaza system. Corona was personally acquainted with Ramón Arellano Félix, but we have little idea of the cartel's founder as a person, which seems a stunning oversight. The book's back cover tells us Corona's testimony was a key factor in the cartel's downfall, which would surely have been interesting if more than a page had been devoted to it.
Corona's portrayal of his romantic endeavors deserves special mention. Corona introduces us to, among many others, Tiny ("a neighborhood girl, a runaway"), Bonnie ("a crazy girl"), Kahleo ("a knockout body"), Heather ("a really cute white girl"), and Tammy ("a petite blond ... whose favorite pastime was getting naked at the beach"). Those are just a few of the named characters; there are also two unnamed ladies with whom the author spent a 48-hour stretch in a Southern California hotel room ("I was a porn star"), and a procession of lonely military spouses during a stretch living with his family in Hawaii ("I was going home with a different Marine wife almost every night of the week").
Some readers may find offense at the objectification of the female body, and others may cringe at the clunky language deployed to describe them. Both reactions are understandable.
But perhaps a greater problem is the lightness with which Bonnie and Heather and so many others flit in and out of the narrative, typically without any sense of why they are there. The same is true of the scores of homeboys, whose names and nicknames challenge the memory. Similarly, Corona includes long digressions about episodes and people that do not appear to have had any deep impact on his life, nor do they offer any insight into broader criminal dynamics, nor do they have any intrinsic entertainment value. They're just there, which is a poor argument for their inclusion.
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Perhaps this is a fair representation of a tough kid's conversion into a cartel warrior; for years, Corona ambled along from one scam to the next, growing tougher and smarter along the way, and making a lot of contacts that drifted in and out of his life. His criminal career, such as it was, was more impulse than calculated ambition: He has friends who have access to drugs, which he sells to other friends. Or they have ideas of stealing retail goods, so he tags along and enjoys the booty. Eventually, and somewhat randomly, this brought him into the employ of Ramón Arellano Félix, whose organization was a more coherent entity than the sporadic associations that sustained Corona as a youth.
But even if it is a faithful reflection of Corona's life, that doesn't make it any more interesting for the reader. As Corona races through his account of Arellano Félix ranks, one can't help but wonder if the book would have benefited from a more rigorous consideration of exactly what story the book sought to tell, and who really matters to that story.