Published On: Thu, Jul 21st, 2016

In hot Acapulco, too many bodies in morgue’s fridges


Morgue workers lifted a man’s dismembered body that was dumped on the street of a poor Acapulco neighborhood in broad daylight, then picked up his severed leg and a bag containing his head.

They placed the body parts in the back of a van and drove toward the Mexican Pacific resort’s only coroner’s office, a place overcrowded with scores of unclaimed corpses.

Inside the morgue’s cold chambers, bodies lay in pairs side by side on shelves meant to hold just one — a grim symbol of the drug cartel-related killings swamping the authorities in Mexico’s murder capital.

Officials granted AFP journalists last week a rare visit to the morgue, where a worker opened some refrigerator doors: Most bodies were inside grey body bags, but bare feet stuck out on a shelf. One red bag was marked “fetus.” A cockroach scurried at the bottom of a fridge.

In all, there are 174 bodies in the five chambers, which have a total capacity for 95. Three have languished there since 2012.

Flies buzzed around the three autopsy tables and the stench of death hung in the warm air half an hour after another decapitated body was examined.

A forensic staffer point to a corpse's foot in a morgue's cold chambers in Acapulco  Mexic...

A forensic staffer point to a corpse’s foot in a morgue’s cold chambers in Acapulco, Mexico, on July 13, 2016
Pedro Pardo, AFP/File

The morgue is “saturated because of the issue of violence and the bodies are not claimed,” said Carlos de la Pena, head of Guerrero state’s health department, which oversees the region’s three overcrowded morgues.

– Daily deaths –

Ten doctors work at the morgue in a once-glamorous city where 902 people were murdered in 2015 and 461 more in the first half of this year, according to official figures.

With a population of 810,000, that’s a rate of 111 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015, ranking Acapulco among the most violent cities in the world outside war zones.

Most bodies that go through the morgue are claimed.

But the fridges contain 53 murder victims and the bones of 16 others found in clandestine graves or remote parts of the city. The others are natural deaths, accident victims and remains from a crematorium that closed last year.

“There are relatives who know the bodies are here but they don’t claim them. We don’t know why,” said Carlos Estrada, the morgue’s coordinator.

Estrada, 61, said the morgue handled two to three bodies, mostly accidents, per day 20 years ago. Now it’s three to five, mostly murders.

A forensic staffer opens the door of morgue's cold chambers full of body bags in Acapulco  Mexi...

A forensic staffer opens the door of morgue’s cold chambers full of body bags in Acapulco, Mexico on July 13, 2016
Pedro Pardo, AFP/File

“It’s shocking because many times, we work on a body that’s unknown,” he said. “But it’s a job that has to be done.”

Officials are waiting for investigators to finish a backlog of paperwork to begin burying the unclaimed corpses in two months.

The bodies pile up despite the deployment of thousands of soldiers and police on the streets and beaches.

At least 10 murders were reported during a five-day visit by AFP journalists last week.

A woman was killed near the morgue. Two people were killed in a drive-by shooting at a strip bar. Three decapitated bodies were found.

“I’ve had shifts where I’ve had six, seven, eight bodies,” said Jose Esteban Anzastiga, a morgue van driver.

Roberto Alvarez, Guerrero state’s security spokesman, said 95 percent of Acapulco’s murders are linked to gang conflicts.

The main groups battling for control of the local drug trade are the Beltran Leyva gang and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, Alvarez said. Both are also plagued with internal strife.

With a population of 810 000 the Mexican tourist resort of Acapulco ranks as one of the most violent...

With a population of 810,000 the Mexican tourist resort of Acapulco ranks as one of the most violent cities in the world, with a crime rate of 111 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015
Pedro Pardo, AFP/File

He acknowledged that troops are not enough to solve the “security crisis” in Acapulco, saying that the economy needs to improve and that people must participate by reporting crimes.

– ‘The rhythm of fear’ –

The struggle to get witnesses to testify was evident at the July 14 crime scene of the dismembered body.

The body parts lay behind a stolen taxi abandoned with its trunk open on an avenue of the crime-ridden San Agustin neighborhood.

As people looked on, investigators took pictures of the torso covered in black plastic bag. The stumps of his severed legs stuck out. Another bag containing the head lay nearby.

A note held down by rocks was left behind, signed “La Verga Panda,” a small local gang.

An investigator asked a woman looking out the gate of her humble home’s garage, “Did you see someone?” She answered: “I saw nothing.”

Nobody ever sees anything, the investigator told AFP on condition of anonymity.

AFP journalists spoke to 10 other residents near the crime scene. All said they had neither seen nor heard anything. Some were not there when it happened.

“We have learned to live to the rhythm of fear,” said a 60-year-old man in front of a store, declining to give his name over security concerns.

“This no longer scares us,” he said, referring to the body across the road.

Last week, he ducked for cover during a drive-by shooting at a taxi stand.

Others said criminals have demanded money to allow people to have parties. Gangs have threatened to go door-to-door to collect money.

Many Acapulco residents are psychologically scarred by the violence.

Doctors Without Borders, the international charity group that helps victims of wars and natural disasters, launched a mental health program in January 2015 for people affected by crime.

Since then, more than 1,100 people have met with psychologists, including victims of threats, extortion, kidnapping and torture.

Most suffer from depression and anxiety, some from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“People are afraid to speak,” said Edgardo Zuniga, the MSF program’s coordinator. “We think there are more.”

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About the Author

Syed Ammar Alavi

- is Lahore (Pakistan) based journalist & writer with 25-year experience in print, wire and broadcast forms of journalism. His major fields of interest are politics, film,tv,sports, climate change and technology