After a long wait in the visiting room of the maximum security wing of the ‘Gib Lewis Unit’, Rosalio Reta finally arrived for our interview. He was only five feet tall, but even so projected an air of menace. The demonic face tattoos helped. That face was the last thing many people saw before they died, I thought. When he started talking, his voice was soft and mellifluous.

Until his arrest in 2006 Reta was a sicario, a hit man responsible for at least 30 murders in the USA and Mexico. He started at the age of 13, when he executed a man as an audition to join the Zetas. His fluent Spanish and American citizenship meant he could operate on either side of the border without attracting attention. Reta boasted to police that he enjoyed killing: ‘I volunteered. “Me, me, me, me, I’ll kill them!”’ Killing made him feel ‘like Superman’. He enjoyed the ‘James Bond game’ of tracking his prey. This is why I wanted to interview him: you don’t meet such openly enthusiastic killers very often.

Impressed, the Zetas dispatched the young killer to a camp in Mexico where for six months he received training in surveillance, tracking, hand-to-hand combat and the use of weapons. Then he returned to his hometown of Laredo, where he and two other teenage assassins lived in a fancy neighbourhood, awaiting the summons to murder. Reta and his pal earned up to $50,000 per hit and were also rewarded with big bags of coke. If the neighbours noticed anything, they kept quiet.

Now 23, Reta claims that his earlier tough talk was just bluster. He was only 16 at the time, he said, he was scared. His new story is that his criminal career was an accident: ‘I met this person who had a friend and his brother was working for some people in Mexico.’ According to Reta, this ‘person’ invited him out to eat, then left early. Reta, curious, hid in the truck and soon found himself at a ranch where men with assault rifles were executing people and burning bodies in 55 gallon oil drums.

‘I was so shocked at the scene that I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t hear anything.’ But the cartel head saw him. Reta says, ‘That’s when he gave me the gun. “If you don’t wanna be one of them dudes in the oil drums then shoot this person.” What other choice did I have?’

I asked if anyone enjoyed it.

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‘I remember this person. He was kinda young and he would always try and take their teeth out, cut their fingers off, cut their tongues off, ears, nose, everything. He liked torturing people. He was happy, like … that’s everything he’d been looking for all his life.’

Suspecting that Reta was talking about himself, I pushed for detail, but he became evasive. Whenever I touched upon an uncomfortable topic, he stopped talking or resorted to extreme vagueness. Reta is appealing one of his convictions, which would see him freed at the age of 50 instead of 80. Loose lips sink ships.

Reta was convinced he should be rehabilitated. ‘Why do I gotta be the bad guy? It was kill or be killed.’ I had felt sympathy before meeting him. We don’t judge Ugandan child soldiers, after all. But it’s difficult to be in a room with Rosalio Reta and stay sympathetic for long. He wouldn’t or couldn’t give a plausible answer as to why the Zetas selected him as a master killer. They had hundreds of other aspiring little thugs at their disposal. What did they see in him? He had no idea.

And then there were the gory stories. Originally Reta was placed in among the general prison population, he said, where he was stabbed. Then he was caught with a cache of weapons and placed in ‘administrative isolation’. He claimed he had confiscated them from his enemies and had no intention of using them. I didn’t believe him. When he botched a hit in Mexico, the Zetas took him to a room to kill him. Reta killed two of them instead and escaped. Reta has an affinity for violence.

And so the interview dragged on. How many people did you kill? Reta shook his head. What was your speciality? No answer. When he did talk, he only described facts already in the public domain. Yes, he saw people fed to wild animals; yes, he was present at raffles where top Mexican pop singers and soap stars were among the prizes. I asked how he spent his free time.

‘Read. Try to educate myself. You’ll be surprised. Everything. Strotsky (sic). Lenin. Marxism.’

‘What is it you like about Trotsky?’

A long pause followed.

‘I just like history… and I like to learn.’

Later Reta admitted that his true passion was fantasy. ‘You know, elves, goblins, that stuff. I just finished a 15-book series.’ He didn’t have much other option. There are no TVs in Texan prison cells, no internet connections. He was locked up 23 hours a day. The night before I met him, Reta’s neighbour tried to kill himself. Suicide attempts are common, said Reta, but he wouldn’t do it: ‘I love life too much.’

The guards allowed our interview to run over the allotted hour by 30 minutes, but it was only once the tape recorder was off that Reta relaxed. He became quite animated, talked about his love of Dungeons and Dragons, and segued merrily into an explanation of why he couldn’t tell me how many people he had killed. The cartel would fly him to cities where he would enter rooms full of victims, bound and gagged and awaiting execution: his job was to kill them, not to keep count. And it was in that easy transition from elves and wizards to mass executions that I realised what the Zetas saw in him.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated