Ghosts of Tijuana

Ghosts of Tijuana

(Tijuana) Martín de la Cruz Roja washes the inside of a Ford van in front of the morgue. Nobody accompanies him to fetch the corpses of the city tonight. Since he started his service at the end of the afternoon, he has already brought ten homicide victims to the morgue. It has been a year and a half since Martín’s employer, the Baja California State Attorney’s office, decided to delegate all the other levies to private funeral companies, and that for a good reason. For the past two years, the freezers of the morgue of Tijuana have been overflowing.

With the help of Caesar, who is on duty that night at the morgue, Martín lays four bodies on metal trays in the autopsy room. All of them were shot in the head with a small caliber pistol, the weapon of choice for quiet murders, and stripped of their identity papers.

Caesar searches in vain for some room in the refrigerators dedicated to “new arrivals”, but they are already full. In each compartment, at least one body out of two bears the mention “unknown” scribbled on a slate. Upstairs, Dr. Melina Moreno, deputy director in charge of mass graves in the Tijuana morgue, confirms that the rate of identification of murder victims barely reaches 50%. Caesar sighs. “Fortunately, we’re going tomorrow to the mass graves.”

With more than 1,500 violent deaths in just six months, 86% of which related to drug trafficking, this border town of a million and a half inhabitants is now one of the most deadly cities in the world. But far from the images of war and the macabre staging that Mexico has seen since the beginning of the War on Drugs in 2006, it is in the shadows that the victims of the cartels perish in Tijuana.

“Nobody, including the belligerents, has any interest in seeing the violence come to light”, says journalist Luis Alonso Perez Chavez, known to have documented the expansion of the cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). For the past two years, this criminal organization has been trying to wrest control of the city from the hands of the Sinaloa cartel, resulting in a number of homicides never seen before.

“This cartel is known almost everywhere else for its spectacular violence, but here in Tijuana, its victims are left out, hidden, in outlying areas, and it has become even more difficult to identify them.” The next morning at the morgue, about fifteen bodies piled on the ground wait for a place in the freezers. Caesar was supposed to go home long ago. Instead, he was requisitioned to bring forty corpses to mass graves. It is the third excursion of this kind in only two weeks.

“We would like to make more room by increasing the number of burials in mass graves, but the State attorney is slowing us down, as if he was trying to lower homicide statistics,” says Dr. Melina Moreno, deputy director in charge of mass graves in the Tijuana morgue, as she climbs into the van loaded with corpses.

The victims Melina and her colleagues were carrying were killed three or four weeks ago. Since it takes too long for the State attorney’s Office to deal with the administrative procedures, the morgue’s personnel do them on the go. In the sweltering heat of July, the stench of putrefaction spreads at every stop. Three hours later, the team finally reaches the 12th Tijuana Municipal Cemetery, a gigantic site inaugurated in 2004, already populated by 30,000 dead.

For lack of means and personnel, the employees of the mortuary have to dig the pits with shovels under the blazing sun. The bodies are then piled up at the bottom of the trench, a dozen per section. All around them, a myriad of nameless white crosses covers several hills. In each of the 495 pits opened in Tijuana since September 2015, more than 3,000 individuals lay anonymously. In 23 of them, “only the heads and babies” are buried.

Back at the morgue, Maria, a secretary, presents her records for the month of July. In fifteen days, only ten murder victims have been identified. Mélina and her colleagues will have to keep going to the mass graves, but the procedure remains slow, lasting one month on average.

Unidentified bodies often stay in the freezers for more than six months before being buried. The body of a Guatemalan citizen even congested the main freezer for a year because of endless DNA data round-trips between Mexican and Guatemalan authorities.

“There is no systematic sharing of genetic information, both nationally and with neighboring countries”, says Fernando Ocegueda, president of “United for the Disappeared”, the main regional collective searching for missing persons, “Many deaths are not identified simply because they come another country or from another region of Mexico.”

President-elect Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, due to take office in December, has made justice for the victims of criminal violence a national reconciliation issue. His office has organized “listening forums” for relatives of missing people in violence stricken cities.

Olga Sanchez Cordero, who has been appointed to take up the post of Minister of Justice, has sworn to bring out the “truth” for every case of disappearance, but healing this national trauma is a titanic task. 37,000 are currently still missing in the country, and the list is growing day by day.

The difficulty lies in the lack of resources put into action, but also in the identification of the oldest missing persons, whose relatives are sometimes no longer there to put a name on the rare remains. According to Jan Jarab, who represents the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico, this problem is structural, and concerns the entire country.

“Despite some efforts, the results have been insufficient to cope with the need to identify victims and investigate criminal violence”, he says. “There is a need for investment to hire more staff, improve infrastructure and training, adopt new procedures and enshrine the autonomy of forensic experts. For that, Mexico should think of other solutions, including international cooperation.”

However, Tijuana’s case might prove even more desperate than that of other Mexican cities, due to the extreme techniques used by local criminals to get rid of the bodies. At the top of the hill in the Maclovio Rojas district, in the eastern part of the city, Fernando Ocegueda returns once again to the Gallera, a former rooster-breeding farm where the Arellano-Felix cartel used to liquify its victims in caustic acid.

At the height of the war between this criminal group and the Sinaloa cartel in the mid-2000s, dozens of facilities like this one worked day and night for the sole purpose of dissolving corpses. “The bodies were dissolved, and the body fluids buried”, says Ocegueda, pointing to two large underground tanks discovered in 2009. “In each of the two pits, we found 9000 liters of organic emulsions, and a total of 20,000 bone fragments and teeth.”

In 2011, all the remains discovered were sent for forensic analysis to Mexico City, but the acid is so damaging that only a handful of victims have been identified so far. Among them, the son of Fernando Ocegueda, gone missing at the age of 23. For him and the other victims of the Arellano-Felix cartel, the “United for the Missing” association has begun the construction of a memorial on the Gallera but the macabre discoveries keep postponing the time of mourning.

“According to a report, dissolved victims were also buried on this hill in front of us, but we haven’t had the time to go search the premises yet,” says Fernando Ocegueda, “there would also be under the small garden of palm trees, at the entrance of the building “. In 2017 only, more than 37,000 additional bone fragments were discovered in 27 different pits at the Gallera.