California’s Homegrown Serial-Killing Sicario
El Mano Negra describes to me his narco hits across the USA
Cartels carry out the vast majority of their murders south of the Rio Grande and try to avoid leaving bodies in the United States where they make billions of dollars selling drugs. But there’s been a series of narco killing sprees on U.S. soil which I will cover in this newsletter. An overlooked case is that of El Mano Negra, or Black Hand, from Central California, who journalist Christian Cipollini has gained unique access to over six years for an upcoming book. Martinez’ confession is brutal but it’s crucial to understand how cartels operate in the United States and where it could lead. IG
Drug dealers robbing drug dealers is a peril of the business, but the masked men who stormed the home in Volusia County, Florida, in October 2006 and grabbed ten kilos of cocaine had picked the wrong dealer - a man connected to the Sinaloa Cartel. The victim phoned a “compadre” who was a big operator and who sent a seasoned hit man, Jose Manuel Martinez, alias El Mano Negra, on a plane from California to Florida.
Martinez scoped out the alleged perpetrator, a 20 year old with a masonry business called Javier Huerta. He then lured Huerta and his partner Gustavo Olivares Rivas by pretending to be a new home owner who needed work done. They went from a restaurant to a rental home.
“The two idiots followed me inside the house,” Martinez tells me. “Once inside, I locked the door. Then, as I turned back toward them, I took both guns out. ‘Get on the floor motherfuckers, now!’ I zip-tied them both.’ ”
The guy whose cocaine was robbed came out to watch the torturing. “I got up, went over to Gustavo and pulled the zip-ties as tight as I could,” Martinez says. “Gustavo was screaming, crying and yelling. ‘This is the way I work,’ I said.”
Martinez would squeeze $210,000 out of them as payment for the coke and be allowed to keep $70,000 for himself, one of his best ever pay days. Once he had the cash he promised to drop them home. But then he shot them and dumped them in a black pick up on State Road 19 in the Ocala National Forest.
“Before I got out, I shot them again - just to make sure they die.”
It took 13 years before Martinez stood trial for those murders in Florida. By that time he’d already been convicted of ten homicides showing he was one of the most prolific killers for Mexican drug traffickers to ever operate in the United States. He’d already got nine life sentences plus 50 years, but Florida prosecutors wanted the death penalty.
The defense however brought out Martinez’ family who described how he’d had an abusive childhood and how he was a good father and grandfather. And perhaps more persuasively, a neurologist showed he was the product of incest and had suffered brain damage. The jury ruled that Mano Negra was guilty but be allowed to live.
I first got in touch with him in 2018 in the run up to the Florida trial and have been in contact with him in the years since, through jail visits, phone calls and letters. He’s given me a wealth of case and autopsy reports, photographs, sworn statements, and a lengthy hand-written account of his life.
Martinez describes how he operated for over three decades without getting caught and details not only the dozen murders he’s been convicted of but two dozen others. While inmates with nothing to lose can boast about crimes they didn’t commit, investigators concede he knows inside details about the killings but there is little incentive for prosecutors to bring back 1980s cases against a man already doing life.
His confession sheds light on how Mexican traffickers operate north of the border and he describes a meeting he had with El Chapo. And in a stunning revelation, he says he was part of the attack on the drug-ballad singer Chalino Sánchez in Coachella in 1992. Yet he’s also careful in not revealing close info about his cohorts, referring to his main boss simply as Mr X and being clear he didn’t rat anyone out
Martinez has a terrifying thousand-yard stare you can see in his mugshot. Yet in person, he throws you off with a friendly grandpa look, spectacles nestled on his balding forehead, a toothy grin with a missing incisor, a Bugs Bunny chuckle, chewing gum as he speaks slightly-broken English. He has quite a sense of humor and is charming, unassuming. But then he switches to describe savage murders with detachment and this drawing below shows how he sees his trade.
Some media accounts portray him as a serial murderer like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. But his motives were very different, and perhaps more concerning. He murdered some in pay back for attacks on females in his family, what could be described as “honor killings.” Yet the majority were in the service of drug traffickers; he was a domestic Dr. Death on call, a cog in the wheel of of the cartel distribution networks. And that sets a dangerous precedent for those who could follow in his footsteps.
Life of Crime
Born on June 13, 1962 in Fresno California, Martinez was literally conceived by violence. At his Florida trial, forensic neurologist Geoffrey Colino testified that his mother was raped by an uncle, and the incest affected his central nervous system and brain. He was also hit in a motorcycle crash at young age and suffered brain damage that would affect his judgement and control. Colino went on that he’d suffered malnourishment which affected his development.
Martínez lived his youth between California and Mexico, near Cosalá, in southern Sinaloa by the border with Durango. Sinaloa is the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking and his area is the turf of kingpin Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Sinaloan traffickers moved across northwest Mexico establishing fiefdoms in Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales and Ciudad Juárez and into California, where they set up distribution hubs around the state.
In California, he was raised on ranches among other migrant worker families and spent a lot of time in Tulare County, a sweep of dusty farm towns that is the top agricultural producer in the entire United States. Yet he had little interest in sweating in the fields, seeing the riches in organized crime.
His mother found a stepdad who could provide through trafficking and when Martinez was 13 he sent him on a Greyhound bus to Indio for a package of heroin. A year later, the DEA raided the ranch where he lived seizing over $2 million worth of dope and putting his stepdad in prison.
Martinez claims he committed his first murder at 16 in the summer of 1978 to defend his family. His older half-sister went missing and her body was discovered near the Salton Sea. The badly decomposed remains left the autopsy with an undetermined cause of death, but he was sure it was a homicide. “I knew who did it,” he wrote.
The teenager grabbed his stepfather’s M1 rifle and enlisted a cousin to ride along for the trip from Tulare County to Riverside County, where, as he puts it, “an little ugly house” stood surrounded by a landscape of fields, almond trees and date palms. There, he says, he found three men playing cards - and shot all three. They dragged the bodies out back and buried them one on top of the other in a hole dug where the dirt was softer.
His sister’s case remains officially unsolved, and there appears to be no case file on the dead men. It’s unclear if the victims were even reported missing, and it’s one of the mysteries Martinez holds close to the vest. He told investigators about the crime, implied the victims were gang affiliates and even drew some rudimentary maps, yet he remains cryptic on how he knew they were responsible or where to find them.
Yet there’s even a corrido, or drug ballad, about the killing which mentions Martinez by name. Gangsters usually commission singers to pen their ballads and give them information to include. “He swore to avenge her death and very soon it was avenged,” the song goes. “Killing them one by one. That’s how it all began.”
A Killer Point of View
While he did his first murder for family, he did his next for money.
(Continue reading on Martinez’ recruitment by Sinaloan traffickers, his meeting with El Chapo, his involvement in the Chalino hit, and his arrest and confession)