Morgue workers lifted a man’s dismembered body that was dumped on the street of a poor Acapulco neighbourhood 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 “foetus.” 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.
The morgue is “saturated because of the issue of violence and the bodies are not claimed,” Carlos de la Pena, head of Guerrero state’s health department, which oversees the region’s three overcrowded morgues, told AFP.
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. In March alone, Acapulco had 98 of the 182 homicides in Guerrero state, where the city is located.
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.
Guerrero state had a homicide rate of 57 per 100,000, according to government statistics. Fighting between cartels and criminal organisations has driven the violence in Acapulco and Guerrero at large, catching criminals, security forces, and civilians alike in the crossfire.
Most bodies that go through Acapulco’s 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,” Carlos Estrada, the morgue’s coordinator, said to AFP.
Estrada, 61, said the morgue handled two to three bodies, mostly accidents, a day 20 years ago. Now it’s three to five, mostly murders.
“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.
Grisly discoveries on the streets of Acapulco and the surrounding neighbourhoods are a common occurrence. On one Tuesday in June, five people killed by gunfire were discovered. On multiple occasions already in July, dismembered bodies have been left on Acapulco’s streets.
Clashes between and within Acapulco’s criminal organisations are driven in part by the fragmentation many of Mexico’s criminal groups have experienced in recent years. The BLO, for example, has withered in the years since it broke with the Sinaloa cartel in 2008.
Now, according to some reports, the BLO is backed by the ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel, which is trying to make inroads into Guerrero’s lucrative heroin trade.
In addition to drug-cultivation areas in Guerrero’s highlands, Acapulco and other coastal areas offer access to valuable smuggling routes. For cartels trying to move heroin, meth, South American cocaine, and other illicit goods, such areas are worth fighting over.
“If you’re trying to move product from anywhere — from out of Mexico, into Mexico, or vice versa — these areas are logistically strategic, both for legitimate and illicit businesses,” David Shirk, a professor at University of San Diego and director of the school’s Justice in Mexico program, told Business Insider earlier this year.
Roberto Alvarez, Guerrero state’s security spokesman, told AFP that 95% of Acapulco’s murders are linked to gang conflicts.
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, contained in two black bags, lay behind a stolen taxi abandoned with its trunk open on an avenue of the crime-ridden San Agustin neighbourhood.
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.
The violence has had a chilling effect on business in the city, which relies heavily on its well-known tourism industry.
Criminal organisations have moved strongly into extortion and kidnapping, and are known to run extortion rings throughout the city, particularly in popular tourist areas. On an Acapulco beach earlier this year, a street vendor was killed by a gunman who approached the beach on a Jet-Ski, in what some suspect was a warning to other businesses.
Acapulco’s businesses, saddled with monthly extortion payments of $500 to $800, have called on the government to reduce “the total of the taxes so that all of us Guerrero residents are able to pay the quota that organised crime is asking of us,” said Laura Caballero, president of the Coastal Commercial Association (ACEC).
Caballero added that between mid-2015 and early 2016, 200 businesses in the tourist sector had closed because of violence, leaving 1,200 people without jobs.
Businesses in the area, led by the ACEC, have also called on criminal organisations to come to an agreement with civilians to reduce the bloodshed.
‘People are afraid to speak’
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.”
(Laurent Thomet reported for AFP from Mexico)
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