CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - The kills started with a telephone call and often ended with a beheading, but they were all just jobs for the drug hitman, one of maybe hundreds that have scarred Ciudad Juarez's streets. He now says the tortured faces of the dead haunt him.
Recounting his years as a hired killer, he says most of his jobs began with a voice down the phone telling him where to meet. At the safe house he would find the weapons and the hit squad. They would pass around a photo of their target -- a police chief who owed money, a politician who got in the way -- and wait for the signal, sometimes for days.
The target can be at home, at the office, outside a mall, or on patrol, but the killers rarely struggle to find their prey. Bodyguards are regularly bought off.
Several shots to the back of the head or a tight ring of bullets through the car door and into the body is enough.
The killers are told to cut off the victim's head if he talked too much. They will saw off his arms and fingers if he stole drugs and cash. And they'll chop up his body if they've been told to.
"There are things people do that they shouldn't, and that is the punishment," the hitman and former Mexican police officer told Reuters from a secure location in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Fearing for his safety, he asked to have his identity kept secret. He spoke in almost a whisper, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. A row of broken teeth were just visible behind his bottom lip.
Hitmen working for murderous drug gangs are turning Mexico, a top U.S. oil supplier and trade partner and a prominent emerging market economy that has scored points for political stability, into a conflict zone that is alarming Washington, tourists and foreign investors.
President Felipe Calderon launched a military crackdown on the drug cartels in late 2006, sparking fresh turf wars and attacks on police, and more than 25,000 people have since been killed across Mexico, many of them tortured, beheaded or strung from bridges. June is on pace to be among the bloodiest months yet.
This hitman used to get up to $15,000 in cash for each murder. "They pay peanuts now," he said, waving his arm out of a large skylight over a group of abandoned houses in Ciudad Juarez, where a staggering 5,500 people have died in drug violence over the past 2-1/2 years.
Everybody is a cartel killer these days, he said. Drug dealers, addicts, low-level cops, teenagers. "They kill women and children, they're very careless," he said, insisting he was a professional since his first execution at age 17.
"I killed, cut off heads," he said coldly.
Now in this late 30s, he worked for years along the U.S. border, in the states of Baja California, Sinaloa and Sonora.
Well before the drug war escalated, he moved to Ciudad Juarez where top trafficker Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman from northwestern Sinaloa state sent his henchmen to take on the rival Juarez cartel and win over smuggling routes into the United States.
"I had a lot of work in 2008, sometimes several jobs a day," the hitman said, flinching, in a solemn reference to the explosion of violence in the manufacturing city.
He was paid to murder businessmen, local government officials and senior policemen, never small-time smugglers. The hitman apparently worked for Guzman, but refused to say the kingpin's name. "You know who I mean," the hitman said.
After 20 years in the business, he couldn't take it anymore and he got out. "I've changed my life." He holds a Bible, he is repentant, he is a born-again Christian and he has a wife. He says the past weighs on his conscience.
"So many times you see how the people end up, their heads shot to pieces. It gets ingrained in your mind, however evil the guy was who had to die, it stays in your brain."
He says at first he was nervous, shaking. He did it drugged, but he knew how to handle a handgun because he had been well-trained as a police officer in his home state of Durango, northwestern Mexico.
Durango, where many poor farmers have turned their land over for marijuana cultivation, is where middle-aged Guzman held a wedding ceremony with a new 18-year-old bride in 2007. It is 'narco' territory, and it's where the hitman learned the business.
A high-school dropout, he and his group of school friends smuggled marijuana down from the lush mountain farms to Durango city, passing through army checkpoints at designated times.
"There were arrangements," he said. He joined the police force a little later but only lasted a year, enough time to learn how to use an automatic weapon.
He witnessed Mexico's deep police corruption first hand in Durango and picked up what he needed to know about kidnapping, extortions, bribing officials and contract killings.
"That's when I became what I am, I was in Sinaloa, Durango, I was in charge of three areas with other friends, we managed criminal operations, persecutions, kidnappings."
Carrying various cell phones and always on the move, he learned to live a low-key lifestyle: drive an old car, never travel with weapons, and permanently on call.
"There are people in Juarez who handle us, distribute us between jobs. We come from all over, we just come in to do what we come to do, we make the kill and get out, disappear."
Editing By Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray