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20/01/2011 | Mexico - Morgue in Acapulco, city of grisly killings, has seen it all

Tim Johnson

For all the determination of Mexico's hit men to behead and hack apart their enemies, the chief of this city's morgue is just as determined to sew the bodies back together for dignified burial.


It's the least that can be done, said Dr. Keynes Garcia Leguizamo, to give grieving relatives some succor amid the violence rattling this Pacific resort.

So Garcia and his team of forensic experts busily tend to the relentless flow of bodies that arrive at the morgue, stitching severed limbs to bodies, cleaning signs of mayhem and dispatching the corpses to funeral homes.

"It is not so disagreeable," said Garcia, a soft-spoken 28-year-old surgeon with light green eyes and a wispy blonde Vandyke chin tuft and moustache. "Corpses arrive all the time. If it disgusts you, you would get no work done."

Acapulco, set on a stunning emerald Pacific bay, has been shaken by a frenzy of violence so gruesome that one must reach far to find parallels. The depravity of some of the killings and dismemberments is all the more chilling because some of the victims are minors.

Garcia's matter-of-fact manner allows him to take a broad view of the violence in his city, seeing the spike as temporary.

"These violent deaths are really ugly. But they have occurred elsewhere as well," he said.

The same thing happened in Spain when the Basque terrorists of the ETA "killed so many people with bombs," Garcia said. "It is just something that is happening here."

Garcia reached for a blue log and conducted a careful tally of the homicides, which already had surpassed 60 this year. He then focused on the more macabre.

"January's not even over, and it's up to 19 beheadings and two victims who were carved up and quartered," Garcia said.

Acapulco is a hot spot in Mexico's drug wars. Tourists, mostly Mexican, still come to hotels along the beach, sometimes unaware of the gun battles, executions and abductions that take place up in the verdant hills or the corpses that can be found hanging from bridges at dawn.

The city, a crucial smuggling port, is a battleground among as many as four drug gangs, some ascendant and some in decline. The cartels include the Beltran Leyva group, La Familia Michoacana, the Sinaloa Cartel and a new group that calls itself the Independent Cartel of Acapulco.

No group yet claims the clear upper hand as the pace of killings quickens. The city chalked up 730 murders in 2008, 837 in 2009 and 1,009 in 2010.

Mexican drug gangs are far from the first to employ macabre violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, Colombian gangsters would toss the bodies of cartel turncoats into rivers after giving them "neckties," a grisly torture involving their tongues.

In Acapulco, the gangs employ terror to ensure loyalty among low-level enforcers - and to be seen as the most fierce and cruel.

"They want to show their enemies just how far they will go. Psychologically, they try to get you to think, 'These bastards are so loco,' " said Javier Cartagena, a worker with the Porcayo funeral home.

On Jan. 8, 15 headless bodies were dumped on a sidewalk outside Plaza Sendero, a shopping mall not far from the airport. The heads were piled nearby, the single-day record for decapitations in modern Mexico.

Such executions appear targeted, and residents take solace in the knowledge that most of the victims are thought to have ties to drug gangs.

"They are not shooting up the streets indiscriminately. If it were like that, it would be 10 times worse," said Dr. Carlos Chupin, a psychiatrist who teaches at the Autonomous University of Guerrero, the state that includes Acapulco. Still, he added, "It is a situation of barbarity, of cruelty and even of savagery."

Outside the morgue, workers from some of the city's 23 funeral homes cluster under a shade tree, bantering with forensic technicians and detectives.

"When I started working here in Acapulco six years ago, there weren't so many deaths," said Cesar Roman, a 31-year-old forensic detective who collects bodies at crime scenes, a task with some peril because gunmen can lurk as they wait to finish off victims clinging to life.

"If two or three trucks start coming around, we work really fast," Roman said. "In a couple of minutes, we get the bodies out of there. ... There's always some fear that they will attack us."

Every week seems to bring a crime scene with new variants.

"It keeps getting uglier," said a forensic technician, Gilberto Alarcon, 28. "Just cutting off heads no longer satisfies them. They chop up limbs."

The technicians related how forensic experts who arrived at the Secret karaoke bar on Dec. 27 discovered two bodies dismembered into 27 parts. The faces of the victims had been skinned off and left hanging on posts, and the perpetrators spelled the name of their gang on the sidewalk with viscera.

Seated at his desk before a forensic tool kit, Garcia explained that technicians often must match severed body parts to heads and torsos.

He takes out scissors and cuts a piece of paper jaggedly.

"No cut is the same. It's like when you cut a piece of paper. You see? The two sides fit back together," he said, adding that technicians match heads to bodies by checking skin color and texture, and the way vertebrae or bones are cut.

When the bodies roll into the morgue, one thing is obvious. Most of the victims are young. Of the 15 victims of the Jan. 8 beheadings, six were teenagers, Garcia said, and the rest in their 20s. He added that the perpetrators were probably the same age.

Roman said adolescents from poor neighborhoods around Acapulco repeated an adage that rhymed in Spanish: "We prefer to live five years as a king than 50 years as an ox," he said. "Five years. That's the average life span of a hit man."

Opportunities for poor teenagers in dysfunctional families are slim.

"If you give a 17-year-old kid a weapon, a car and a certain amount of money, he feels like he's on top of the world," Roman said.

Garcia said the adolescent gang members knew that they themselves might end up in pieces on a stainless steel slab in the morgue.

"They know that it might happen to them because they have seen the videos," he said, referring to Internet videos of beheadings in Mexico. "And they see it in real life."

The threat of violence even reaches to the funerals. Jittery relatives worry that a rival gang may shoot up the service even though the drug lord who employed their loved one may send guards with AK-47 automatic weapons.

"They want a fast burial," said Cartagena, the funeral worker.

Unlike the morgue director, Cartagena said Acapulco's bloody wars might unfold for some time yet.

"They will keep doing this until one group dominates," he said. (Canada)


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