Delfino was handpicked twice. At 18, he was chosen by the Mexican army to join its elite unit, the airborne special forces group known by its Spanish acronym, Gafe, where he specialized as a sniper.
Ten years later, he was recruited again – this time by the very people he’d been trained to kill.
Nowadays, the only outward sign of his military background is the camouflaged hat on his head, and the Panther .308 sniper rifle slung across his back.
Delfino belongs to what remains of a cult-like drug cartel called Los Caballeros Templarios, or the Knights Templar, whose original leaders blended extreme violence with pseudo-religious teachings and claimed a mandate from God.
Once a dominant force in the rugged western state of Michoacán, the group is now locked in a bitter war for survival with rival crime factions.
But Delfino describes himself as an instrument of divine justice.
“God has his will,” he said. “But he still needs people to do his work here on Earth.”
Over the past decade, Mexico’s drug violence has undergone a dizzying escalation, claiming more than 230,000 lives and last year pushing the country’s murder rate to the highest level since records began.
Security analysts and cartel sources agree that a key factor in the transformation of underworld rivalries into a full-throttle war has been the cartels’ recruitment of elite soldiers.
The leakage of Mexican special forces into organized crime began in the 1990s when the powerful Gulf cartel recruited a group of ex-Gafe troops to create its own paramilitary enforcement unit, known as Los Zetas.
They eventually turned on their masters, establishing the Zetas as a cartel in their own right. But other narco bosses followed suit, turning to the military for skilled recruits.
The scale of the problem remains unclear – not least because the Mexican government has been unwilling to release data, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University and author of Zetas Inc.
“It’s an inconvenient issue for the government, so they deny freedom-of-information requests. But what we do know is that special forces helped turn Mexico’s narcos into the paramilitary armed groups we see today.”
According to Mexico’s defence ministry, about 1,383 elite soldiers deserted between 1994 and 2015.
Defectors included members of units that received training in counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, interrogation and strategy from French, Israeli and US advisers, according to a 2005 FBI intelligence document.
Internal documents from Mexico’s attorney general’s office obtained by the Guardian also confirm accounts from sources in Michoacán that the Templars’ predecessor organization – known as La Familia Michoacana – sent envoys to Guatemala to recruit former special forces soldiers known as Kaibiles.
Members of the Kaibiles unit, which has received US training since the 1970s, committed some of the worst atrocities in Guatemala’s civil war, notably the 1982 slaughter of 201 civilians in Dos Erres.
Mexico’s military has also received US support: between 2006 and 2017, Washington provided just over $2.7bn in security assistance, including military and counter-narcotics support.
According to Kate Doyle, senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington DC, the US focus on military aid to the region has helped drive the militarization of Mexico’s drug conflict.
“That US military training and intelligence techniques ended up in the wrong hands is far from unusual. Its lethal spillage into the contemporary criminal context is one of the legacies of US security policy in Latin America,” she said.
Rarely, however, has a soldier-turned-narco gone on the record.
As he led the way up a steep path to a sniper’s nest of volcanic stone and brush, Delfino said he had his own reasons for speaking to a reporter. “We want the world to understand what we’re doing out here: protecting the communities against the enemies that come to rape and pillage.”
Below his lookout unfolded the scrubby plains and rugged canyons of Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente – the Hot Land. It was here that the former president Felipe Calderón first deployed the country’s armed forces against the cartels in 2006.
The military crackdown was eventually extended across the country, but its initial targets were the cartels of Calderón’s home state: La Familia Michoacana and its offspring, the Knights Templar.
For a time, it seemed that the strategy was working. When the Templars finally collapsed under the joint pressure of federal forces and an armed “self-defense” movement in 2013, the government claimed victory.
But for every fallen kingpin, there was a host of would-be successors: organized crime in Michoacán shattered into a patchwork of warring fiefdoms. And though now reduced to a fraction of their former strength and cut off from vital trafficking routes, the Templars are still in the thick of it.
In a desperate bid to cling to its remaining territory, the group has joined forces with a former rival: a fast-growing cartel called the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).
Their current enemies are a group of former allies, to whom Delfino refers contemptuously as “locusts”.
Up on the hill, he eyed the enemy positions through his scope. Locusts surrounded his position on three sides and had attempted to overrun the Templars several times in recent months.
But Delfino was dismissive of his counterparts, who he said were untrained boys sent into battle doped up on crystal meth.
“The difference between them and us is that we always take precise shots,” he said.
Most of Delfino’s own fighters were barely adults, but he still claimed to abide by the principles of his military training. “The strict rules, the way they prepared me psychologically, morally and practically – that stays with you forever,” he said.
Delfino’s training began not long after he joined the army in 1996. After selection for the Gafe, he underwent months of instruction, including courses in jungle survival and amphibious combat.
After specializing as a sniper, he was deployed in counterinsurgency operations in the southern state of Chiapas, where the indigenous Zapatista guerrillas had risen up in 1994.
Later, he was moved to the Pacific port city of Lázaro Cárdenas, where he became involved for the first time in counter-narcotics: his unit was tasked to chase speedboats bringing cocaine from South America.
But off-duty, Delfino and his fellow soldiers came into contact with narco bosses in local nightclubs. Before long, he was receiving expensive bottles of Scotch – and then job offers.
“They knew exactly what they were looking for: our knowledge, our professionalism, our loyalty,” he said.
Delfino resigned from the army, and in 2006, he joined La Familia Michoacana.
The cartel presented itself as the only force able to provide stability in a region long neglected by the Mexican state.
Delfino specialized in tracking down alleged kidnappers. “I just grabbed them and handed them over – that was my job. Others would then take care of the rest,” he said.
“The rest” was La Familia’s trademark brutality: alleged wrongdoers were killed, beheaded and mutilated, their bodies then dumped with messages justifying the murder.
Vigilantism helped win some local support; it also removed criminal competitors, and by 2009, the group had become one of the most powerful in the country.
But what set the group apart was its home-brewed ideology, which blended the language of self-help with fire-and-brimstone theology.
When La Familia’s ideological leader, Nazario Moreno González, was killed in 2014, the religious aspect faded. But Delfino still claims he’s following a divine mission.
“Technically it’s not correct to take somebody’s life,” said Delfino. But then he reached for a biblical justification: “Not a leaf moves without God’s permission.”
At the height of the cartel’s power, nothing in Michoacán moved without the cartel’s permission. It monopolized crime, but it also penetrated ordinary life, using the threat of lethal violence to arbitrate anything from land disputes to marital conflicts.
That soft power was fused with strategic sophistication, thanks to the influx of former soldiers, said Correa-Cabrera. “Their rapid expansion, the way they controlled territories, used communications and armament – they were now doing it like the army,” she said.
The involvement of veterans has enabled cartel combatants across the country to organize tactical responses to the deployment of troops and paramilitary federal police. More recently, the CJNG has become notorious for a string of ambushesthat have killed dozens of federal officers.
In Tierra Caliente, such head-on confrontations have given way to a constant state of low-intensity warfare. In 2017, 1,510 murders were registered in Michoacán, a state of 4.5 million inhabitants.
Delfino’s role in the bloodletting is no secret to his former brothers in arms. He remains in touch with soldiers on active duty, and even meets up to reminisce when security conditions allow, he said.
“We like each other, and they respect my decision,” he said, “but if they learn that I’m out here doing something which doesn’t square with our values – if I mess with innocent people – they will come for me. From them, there’s no hiding.”