Bodies Piling Up: Mexican Morgues Crowded With Drug War Victims

March 9, 2009 - 3:36 AM
Bodies stacked in the morgues of Mexico's border cities tell the story of an escalating drug war. Slain policemen lie next to hit men in the rows of zipped white bags. Workers toil up to 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, to examine the remains.

Bodies awaiting autopsy crowd a walk-in refrigerator at the morgue in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Feb. 18, 2009. Drug violence claimed 6,290 people last year, and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (AP) - Death froze his exhausted face. The attackers lashed or punctured nearly every part of his body. Then they cut off the dead man's head, wrapped it in a plastic grocery bag and dumped it with his body between two tractor-trailers on a city street.
 
As with most murders in Ciudad Juarez, police found no witnesses, no weapons. Only the battered corpse on the steel coroner's table carries clues to who he was and how he died.
 
"Every organ speaks," says Dr. Maria Concepcion Molina, who gently removes packing tape from the head of her third decapitated victim in a week. The dead man's slack mouth and eyes still seem to pray for relief.
 
Bodies stacked in the morgues of Mexico's border cities tell the story of an escalating drug war. Drug violence claimed 6,290 people last year, double the previous year, and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009.
 
Each bullet wound or broken bone details the viciousness with which the cartels battle a government crackdown and each other. Slain policemen lie next to hit men in the rows of zipped white bags.
 
Workers toil up to 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, to examine the remains. When Tijuana coffin makers fell behind during the December holidays, the morgue there crammed 200 bodies into two refrigerators made to hold 80.
 
"There are times here when there are so many people, so many cadavers, that we can't keep up," says the Tijuana morgue director, Federico Ortiz.
 
In Ciudad Juarez, the border city with the most killings, Molina prepares to make a dead man talk. Investigators press each finger of the headless body on a pad for fingerprints.
 
Molina guesses from his face he was probably in his 30s.

Numbered boxes contain evidence gathered during autopsies at the morgue in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Feb. 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

She carefully lays out his bloodied clothing on a red plastic sheet. She pieces together his knife-shredded T-shirt picturing a wanted poster for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. She lays the tags showing the brands of his jeans and boxers flat before snapping photographs of each.
 
"Sometimes we show family these photos, and they'll say it's his clothing but it's not him," says Molina, a 41-year-old mother of five. "It's a defense mechanism."
 
Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million across the border from El Paso, Texas, has a modern, estimated $15 million morgue and crime lab thanks to international support after another notorious spate of killings -- the Women of Juarez. More than 400 women have been raped, strangled and dumped in the desert since 1993.
 
The morgue has seven doctors, including two hired in the last two weeks.
 
Still, the procession of the dead is staggering. Plans are under way to double the morgue's size next year.
 
Last year, 2,300 victims of violence and accidents were wheeled into the pungent, formaldehyde-infused morgue, where doctors work to Mexican love ballads and the whir of electric saws cutting through bone. More than 460 bodies arrived in January and February this year.
 
The morgue has stopped taking other death cases.
 
Nearly 40 percent of the dead last year tested positive for cocaine or marijuana. About 20 percent were never claimed by their families, many out of fear. Cardboard boxes with bloodstained cowboy boots, cell phones and bulletproof vests are stacked to the ceiling in the crime lab.
 
Drug traffickers know investigators use the cadavers to track killers. They have raided morgues and carted off bodies at gunpoint as shaking workers in blue smocks stood helpless.
 
Soldiers now guard morgues when a well-known trafficker is suspected among the dead.
 
Tijuana morgue workers show photographs to families identifying bodies from behind a protective window. Ortiz has asked for bulletproof glass, as well as fencing around the one-story building.
 
From 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, 17 bodies rolled into the Juarez morgue, including the city police force's second-in-command and three other officers.
 
"If this continues, we're going to have another record year easily. We're headed toward 2,000 deaths within 10 months," says Hector Hawley, the administrator of the crime analysis and forensics unit, as workers in white haz-mat suits crane-lift body bags onto steel shelves. "We need a lot more help."
 
In a white shower cap and blue medical robe, the bespectacled Molina checks her victim's neck, but there is no bruising. His head was cut off after he died.
 
"He's been decapitated, but I still have to determine the cause of his death," she says.
 
Her assistant, Ivan Ramos, 20, matches the head to the body. He holds it in place as Molina shoots a photograph, using a paper identifying the man by number to cover the gap in his neck. That makes it easier for loved ones who have to see the picture.
 
The doctor notes the rest of his injuries: broken left tibia, broken right humerus, severely bruised and cut abdomen, bruised left thigh, stabbed right thigh, sliced chin, knife punctures on lower right calf, lashes on his back. He has no distinguishable traits -- no moles, no scars, no tattoos.
 
Molina unwraps what appears to be a tourniquet on his left biceps. She speculates it was put there by the killers to stop the bleeding from a stab wound so he would not die before they finished their torture. His knees are bruised. He was forced to crawl at one point.
 
Molina holds the head on the examining table while Ramos shaves a section to measure a knife wound. He cuts the skin, saws open the skull, then photographs the brain before scooping it out and wiping away a dark pool of blood.
 
"That dark wine color on the brain, that shouldn't be there," Molina says. "That's a cerebral hemorrhage. Although they didn't crack his skull, he was beaten hard enough that it caused this."
 
Molina sees the carnage as a mound of medical evidence to be explored, a mechanism that helps her leave the gory images locked in the morgue when she heads home. Other doctors have quit after a few days.
 
She keeps looking, unsatisfied that the head injury caused the man's death.
 
Ramos drills through the rib cage to examine the organs. He started at the morgue as a volunteer when he was 17. While he couldn't eat at first, he's glad it led to a job in a recession-wracked city.
 
Molina examines the man's heart.
 
"Look, he had a heart attack," she says, pointing to white pearling on the organ. "But if I put heart attack as the cause, it will remove the responsibility from those who did this because it will be considered a natural death. So I'm going to leave that as a last resort."
 
She lifts each organ, noting how healthy the man was. No kidney stones, little fat, a healthy appendix, a normal-sized head.
 
"This could have been a productive person, and they are all like that, young men between 18 and 36 years old," she says, shaking her head.
 
After an hour and a half, she decides he was asphyxiated by the packing tape over his mouth and nose. His lungs are collapsed. His nails are a purplish blue.
 
Ramos gets a needle and twine, places the brain in the man's body cavity as standard procedure and sews up his chest. He closes the skull and replaces its skin.
 
"He's in good shape for being identified," Molina says.
 
As they zip the remains into a body bag to store in the refrigerator, the doors open and workers wheel in another slain man.
 
The next day, a stone-faced woman arrives among the families who gather daily outside the morgue, hoping to find missing loved ones.
 
A worker shows her photographs of the man's clothes. She says they belonged to her brother, 23-year-old Victor Alfonso Picaso, according to the morgue.
 
"She seemed to already know what she was coming for," says morgue psychologist Luis Mejia. "She just wanted to recover the body and get this over with."
 
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Associated Press writer Mariana Martinez in Tijuana contributed to this report.