Pubdate: Sun, 08 Mar 2009
Source: Augusta Chronicle, The (GA)
Copyright: 2009 The Augusta Chronicle
Author: Julie Watson, Associated Press 


CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - Death froze his exhausted face. The attackers
lashed or punctured nearly every part of his body. Then they cut off
the dead man's head, wrapped it in a plastic grocery bag and dumped it
with his body between two tractor-trailers on a city street.

As with most murders in Ciudad Juarez, police found no witnesses, no
weapons. Only the battered corpse on the steel coroner's table carries
clues to who he was and how he died.

"Every organ speaks," says Dr. Maria Concepcion Molina, who gently
removes packing tape from the head of her third decapitated victim in
a week. The dead man's slack mouth and eyes still seem to pray for

Bodies stacked in the morgues of Mexico's border cities tell the story
of an escalating drug war. Drug violence claimed 6,290 people last
year, double the previous year, and more than 1,000 in the first eight
weeks of 2009.

Each bullet wound or broken bone details the viciousness with which
the cartels battle a government crackdown and each other. Slain
policemen lie next to hit men in the rows of zipped white bags.

Workers toil up to 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, to
examine the remains. When Tijuana coffin makers fell behind during the
December holidays, the morgue there crammed 200 bodies into two
refrigerators made to hold 80.

"There are times here when there are so many people, so many cadavers,
that we can't keep up," says the Tijuana morgue director, Federico

In Ciudad Juarez, the border city with the most killings, Molina
prepares to make a dead man talk. Investigators press each finger of
the headless body on a pad for fingerprints.

Molina guesses from his face he was probably in his

She carefully lays out his bloodied clothing on a red plastic sheet.
She pieces together his knife-shredded T-shirt picturing a wanted
poster for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. She lays the tags
showing the brands of his jeans and boxers flat before snapping
photographs of each.

"Sometimes we show family these photos, and they'll say it's his
clothing but it's not him," says Molina, a 41-year-old mother of five.
"It's a defense mechanism."

Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million across the border from El Paso,
Texas, has a modern, estimated $15 million morgue and crime lab thanks
to international support after another notorious spate of killings -
the Women of Juarez. More than 400 women have been raped, strangled
and dumped in the desert since 1993.

The morgue has seven doctors, including two hired in the last two

Still, the procession of the dead is staggering. Plans are under way
to double the morgue's size next year.

Last year, 2,300 victims of violence and accidents were wheeled into
the pungent, formaldehyde-infused morgue, where doctors work to
Mexican love ballads and the whir of electric saws cutting through
bone. More than 460 bodies arrived in January and February this year.

The morgue has stopped taking other death cases.

Nearly 40 percent of the dead last year tested positive for cocaine or
marijuana. About 20 percent were never claimed by their families, many
out of fear. Cardboard boxes with bloodstained cowboy boots, cell
phones and bulletproof vests are stacked to the ceiling in the crime

Drug traffickers know investigators use the cadavers to track killers.
They have raided morgues and carted off bodies at gunpoint as shaking
workers in blue smocks stood helpless.

Soldiers now guard morgues when a well-known trafficker is suspected
among the dead.

Tijuana morgue workers show photographs to families identifying bodies
from behind a protective window. Ortiz has asked for bulletproof
glass, as well as fencing around the one-story building.

From 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, 17 bodies rolled into
the Juarez morgue, including the city police force's second-in-command
and three other officers.

"If this continues, we're going to have another record year easily.
We're headed toward 2,000 deaths within 10 months," says Hector
Hawley, the administrator of the crime analysis and forensics unit, as
workers in white haz-mat suits crane-lift body bags onto steel
shelves. "We need a lot more help."

In a white shower cap and blue medical robe, the bespectacled Molina
checks her victim's neck, but there is no bruising. His head was cut
off after he died.

"He's been decapitated, but I still have to determine the cause of his
death," she says.

Her assistant, Ivan Ramos, 20, matches the head to the body. He holds
it in place as Molina shoots a photograph, using a paper identifying
the man by number to cover the gap in his neck. That makes it easier
for loved ones who have to see the picture.

The doctor notes the rest of his injuries: broken left tibia, broken
right humerus, severely bruised and cut abdomen, bruised left thigh,
stabbed right thigh, sliced chin, knife punctures on lower right calf,
lashes on his back. He has no distinguishable traits - no moles, no
scars, no tattoos.

Molina unwraps what appears to be a tourniquet on his left biceps. She
speculates it was put there by the killers to stop the bleeding from a
stab wound so he would not die before they finished their torture. His
knees are bruised. He was forced to crawl at one point.

Molina holds the head on the examining table while Ramos shaves a
section to measure a knife wound. He cuts the skin, saws open the
skull, then photographs the brain before scooping it out and wiping
away a dark pool of blood.

"That dark wine color on the brain, that shouldn't be there," Molina
says. "That's a cerebral hemorrhage. Although they didn't crack his
skull, he was beaten hard enough that it caused this."

Molina sees the carnage as a mound of medical evidence to be explored,
a mechanism that helps her leave the gory images locked in the morgue
when she heads home. Other doctors have quit after a few days.

She keeps looking, unsatisfied that the head injury caused the man's

Ramos drills through the rib cage to examine the organs. He started at
the morgue as a volunteer when he was 17. While he couldn't eat at
first, he's glad it led to a job in a recession-wracked city.

Molina examines the man's heart.

"Look, he had a heart attack," she says, pointing to white pearling on
the organ. "But if I put heart attack as the cause, it will remove the
responsibility from those who did this because it will be considered a
natural death. So I'm going to leave that as a last resort."

She lifts each organ, noting how healthy the man was. No kidney
stones, little fat, a healthy appendix, a normal-sized head.

"This could have been a productive person, and they are all like that,
young men between 18 and 36 years old," she says, shaking her head.

After an hour and a half, she decides he was asphyxiated by the
packing tape over his mouth and nose. His lungs are collapsed. His
nails are a purplish blue.

Ramos gets a needle and twine, places the brain in the man's body
cavity as standard procedure and sews up his chest. He closes the
skull and replaces its skin.

"He's in good shape for being identified," Molina says.

As they zip the remains into a body bag to store in the refrigerator,
the doors open and workers wheel in another slain man.

The next day, a stone-faced woman arrives among the families who
gather daily outside the morgue, hoping to find missing loved ones.

A worker shows her photographs of the man's clothes. She says they
belonged to her brother, 23-year-old Victor Alfonso Picaso, according
to the morgue.

"She seemed to already know what she was coming for," says morgue
psychologist Luis Mejia. "She just wanted to recover the body and get
this over with."

Associated Press writer Mariana Martinez in Tijuana contributed to
this report.
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