Posted on September 25, 2018

‘A Smell of Death’: Mexico’s Truck of Corpses Highlights Drug War Crisis

David Agren, The Guardian, September 25, 2018

The first sign something was amiss came when an 18-wheeler lumbered into the dilapidated neighbourhood of Paseos del Valle on the outskirts of Guadalajara.

The truck itself was unremarkable – a white tractor unit pulling a refrigerated trailer emblazoned with a polar bear logo – but it came with a police escort. And as the massive vehicle pulled on to a muddy track between the last row of houses and a corn field, dogs across the neighbourhood began to bark wildly at the stench it released.

“It was a smell of death,” recalled Alejandro Espinosa, a hospital maintenance worker who lives nearby.

The truck was discovered by the public in the dilapidated neighbourhood of Paseos del Valle on the outskirts of Guadalajara.

A crowd quickly gathered, and when the truck became stuck in the mud, several youths pushed past the police and forced open the trailer doors.

Inside were scores of human bodies, wrapped in garbage bags, bound with duct tape and piled haphazardly on top of each other.

Local authorities eventually confirmed that 273 corpses had been dumped in the trailer after the relentless pace of violent crime left the local morgue without any space for new arrivals. For nearly two weeks, the truck had been drifting around the suburban hinterland of Mexico’s second city.

As the scandal escalated, Jalisco officials were forced to admit that they had been using stationary trailers to store bodies for at least two years.

The macabre discovery came on the country’s national holiday, and seemed to offer a damning comment on the state of the nation: in the 12 years since Mexico launched its militarised war on drugs, more than 200,000 people have died and another 35,000 gone missing.

Shockingly, Guadalajara is not the first city whose morgue has been overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead – although it is by far the largest.

“There are 20 other states with the same problem,” said Octavio Cotero, who was fired as director of the Jalisco Forensic Science Institute (IJCF) after the trailer’s discovery.

But the incident offered a perfect symbol for a crisis which affords no dignity to its victims – and which provokes indifference from the population, and mere expediency from the authorities.

“In other parts of the world it would be a bigger scandal. In Mexico it’s another crime story – this time on wheels,” wrote columnist Eduardo Caccia in the newspaper Reforma.

Guadalajara and the surrounding Jalisco state have seen a wave of violence attributed to a split within the upstart Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), which has also clashed with the Sinaloa cartel.

Local officials said that they were simply unable to keep pace with the bloodletting; as of last week, 444 bodies were awaiting identification. “I told the prosecutor: ‘I have nowhere to keep the bodies. They’re already stacked up,’” said Cotero.

So in 2016, the state government started storing bodies in refrigerated trailers. It was supposed to be a stopgap measure, until the completion of a new cemetery. Construction on the new facility began several months ago, but was stopped after complaints by local residents, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the first trailer was already full, and authorities were forced to move it, to make space for a second vehicle.

At first, the trailer was concealed in a warehouse in the nearby city of Tlaquepaque, but the building had been constructed without permits and the truck was discovered by municipal inspectors. The vehicle subsequently moved on to Paseos del Valle near Guadalajara airport, where it got stuck in the mud.

The trailer “is just the tip of the iceberg”, said a representative of a Jalisco collective of relatives of missing people, who estimated five state investigators assigned to handle missing persons cases each had around 400 cases files.

Independent congressman Pedro Kumamoto said Jalisco investigators had also been slow to adapt to judicial reforms that introduced oral trials and a presumption of innocence in an effort to steer law enforcement efforts away from coercion and torture.

“[The Jalisco prosecutor’s office] received an enormous number of warnings from the human rights commission,” he added. “It resolved cases through torture and not investigations.”

The “trailer of death” – as it was dubbed by tabloids – came as a final rebuke to the outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto who came to office in December 2012 promising to modernise Mexico, but seemed largely indifferent to the violence.

Jalisco state government – led by Nieto’s ally governor Aristótles Sandoval – faced similar criticism. “There was always an effort by the government to downplay the security problem,” said Diego Petersen Farah, a columnist with the Guadalajara newspaper El Informador. “They always wanted to hide the problems of security – but it became visible with these trailers.”

Despite its conservative reputation, Guadalajara has been the setting for some of Mexico’s most notorious narco crimes, including the 1985 murder of the DEA agent Kiki Camarena and the 1993 assassination of its cardinal, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampoat, at the city’s airport.

More recently, it has attempted to recast itself as the Silicon Valley of Mexico, and its city centre has seen a construction boom that some analysts have attributed to a surge in money laundering.

Mexican politicians are often accused of treating security as a public relations issue; after the fiasco of the trailer, officials in Jalisco defaulted to another familiar tactic: passing the buck.

Sandoval fired the IJCF director and the state prosecutor promised to speed up construction of a new cemetery for unidentified bodies. In turn, Cotero, the ousted forensic chief, blamed the prosecutor’s office for the incident.

“This problem of rising deaths has been going on for three years,” said Cotero.

Amid the row over the truck, Cotero revealed that his own family had fallen victim to Jalisco’s violence: his daughter Indira Cotero, 37, a lawyer, was abducted in July and has not been seen since.

In an interview at his personal office, Cotero seemed defeated. He said the investigation into his daughter’s disappearance had stalled, even though the suspects were known to the authorities.

“They opened a file, made a phone call – and that was it,” he said. “Organised crime rules here – even more than the official authorities. They have the subjugated the government itself.”