POSTED: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - 1:26pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 - 9:35am
LAREDO, TX — Two American teens are in Texas prisons for life for their work as hitmen for the Zetas cartel in Mexico. They say they were lured by money and power. Ed Lavandera tells us how they got their start.
Look into the eyes of Gabriel Cardona and you see a baby-faced 26 year-old, then he blinks and you see something else, another set of sinister eyes staring back, these tattooed on his eyelids.
These eyes are a window into the should of a drug cartel assassin, Ed Lavandera, "In all how many people did you kill?"
Gabriel Cardona, "I have no idea."
Lavandera, "No idea? You lost track?"
Cardona, "I guess so. It's a violent world, man when you're in Mexico."
Lavandera, "Can you guess? Are we talking like 10, 20, 30, 50?"
Cardona, "I mean, between 20 and 30 I think."
Gabriel Cardona says he was 15 years-old when the Zetas drug cartel recruited him to kill. He was part of a secret crew of hitmen, made up of American teenagers living in Laredo, Texas, along with Rosalio Reta.
Cardona and Reta spoke with CNN from the Texas prisons where they're serving life sentences for murder.
Both men say they worked for Miguel Angel Trevino, the ruthless, violent leader of the Zetas who was recently arrested in Mexico.
Reta, "I've known this man and he's not going to tell you to do something he's won't do himself. And that's why a lot of people follow him."
Lavandera, "How much control do you think he had over Nuevo Laredo, and that whole area of northern Mexico?"
Reta, "Absolute control."
Reta says he was 13 years old when two friends brought him here to the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Texas.
He says his friends took him to a ranch on the outskirts of town and he says that what he saw there changed his life forever. In an instant, he went from being a 13-year-old, 6th grade student to a killer.
Reta, "He pulled up and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. People getting tortured, killed, decapitated. It was kind of hard to believe. I knew that day that my life would just changed forever."
Reta then says an argument broke out, Miguel Trevino, the boss, wanted to know why Reta, a stranger, was there. Reta says Trevino handed him a gun, they stood over a man; tied up on the ground.
Lavandera, "What does Trevino tell you?"
Reta, "To kill that person. I had to do it. What other option do I have? If i don't do it, I know what's going to happen to me."
Lavandera, "And after, you did it, you shot him?"
Reta, "Yes sir."
Lavandera, "How many times?"
Reta, "Multiple times."
A 13 year-old assassin was born.
Reta, "The first day I had to take somebody's life, that's a day that I'm never going to be able to forget. After that I didn't have no life."
Lavandera, "But you kept on killing after the first time at the ranch?"
Reta, "I had to. That's what a lot of people don't understand."
That's what Reta says now, but in this police interrogation video, the young killer relished the deadly power he wielded.
Reta bragged to a Laredo police detective that killing made him feel like "Superman." That taking the gun out of his hand was like taking candy from a kid.
How in the world did it come to this for two American teens?
Cardona and Reta grew up here on Lincoln Street, just a few blocks away from the Mexican border. This is the neighborhood where they became friends. Like many people around here, they each had family on both sides of the border in Mexico and the United States.. they could easily move back and forth between both sides. And as it turns out, that's exactly what the Zetas drug cartel was looking for.
Cardona says as a teenager he started stealing cars and selling them in Mexico, then he started carrying drugs and weapons across the border, working his way up the cartel ranks to become a hitman. Cardona dropped out of school in 9th grade.
"It was great."
Lavandera, "Did you feel like you could do whatever you wanted? Like you were untouchable?"
Cardona, "Yea, it gives you that sense that you could do whatever, without being touched and having that sense of power."
He says cartel leaders supplied him with thousands of dollars a week, a Mercedes and a house.
The money was seductive and intoxicating for these teens who came from the ramshackle streets of a Texas border town.
Lavandera, "You enjoyed the money, but did you enjoy the killing?"
Cardona, "You enjoy the money, but you don't enjoy what you're doing."
Lavandera, "But it didn't seem to bother you that much?"
Cardona and Reta say they would wait for the phone to ring. A Zeta member would give them a name and they'd go hunting, killing one rival in this car while the victim's wife and child watched
Each time, these men say they were paid $5,000 to $10,000 dollars, sometimes more depending on how important the target was.
Lavandera, "Did you feel like you were the king of the town?"
Cardona, "You think that it's not going to end, because at the time you think it's not going to end because it just keeps coming."
Eventually Laredo police caught up to them, Cardona was arrested in a raid, Reta fearing he was going to be killed while working a job in Mexico turned himself into American authorities.
Cardona, "I couldn't take it anymore. That's one of the risks I took. I just couldn't take it anymore. It was real hard for me. I wasn't living my life."
Both Cardona and Reta are locked away, but they leave an ominous warning, there are others, they say, just like them, ready to take their place, lured by the riches power drug cartels provide.