In Remains Of ‘Pozolero’ Victims Dissolved In Acid, Tijuana Families Find Hope
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Photo by Erin Siegal
Investigators in Tijuana have made a gruesome discovery over the last week—but it is one that gives hope to families in Baja California whose loved ones have been kidnapped or "disappeared."
TIJUANA, Mexico In the impoverished neighborhood of Ejido Maclovio Rojas, in eastern Tijuana, most residents have neither electricity nor running water. There are no paved roads. On a street called Calle Cioac, at the peak of a steep hill, sits a small rancho known as "La Gallera."
La Gallera was supposedly a cockfighting ranch, but neighbors say no one has lived here for years. One man told me quietly the people who used to come to La Gallera weren't from around here.
"They drove new cars, and in this town you can't drive cars like that," he told me, in Spanish. "And those kind of cars were coming, like new trucks."
Two years ago, a decapitated corpse was found on the property, which was also said to have housed dozens of stolen cars. Now, state authorities have made a new discovery.
They've found what could potentially total hundreds of bodies. Corpses were dissolved in acid, then deposited into underground cells through a spigot. After authorities unearthed the first pit, they found a second.
La Gallera's hilltop location offers a panoramic view of the surrounding valleys, filled with modest homes. This slice of eastern Tijuana is one of the poorer parts of the city, isolated and largely left alone by police. Many surfaces are covered in gang graffiti.
"This is an excellent area for those people working in organized crime," Fernando Ocegueda noted. He is the founder of Baja California's United Association of the Families of the Disappeared.
"It's very important for us to know about this location," he told me in Spanish. "It represents hope for a lot of people. There are still families looking for their sons and daughters for five, six years now."
The number of people who remain missing in Mexico due to organized crime is estimated to be as high as 25,000. In the state of Baja California, Ocegueda has been leading the search for five years. His own son Fernando was kidnapped from their home in 2007.
The mass grave at La Gallera was revealed by Santiago Meza, the man known as El Pozolero or “the stew-maker.”
Meza worked for drug cartels including the Arellano Félix Organization in Tijuana during the height of the city's drug violence. His job was to dispose of bodies. He did so by liquefying them with chemicals.
"El Pozolero isn't the only one who dissolved bodies in acid," Victor Clark Alfaro of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights told me. He says the sites named by El Pozolero are just a few of many undiscovered mass graves across Mexico.
El Pozolero has confessed to dissolving 300 people. He has been quoted in the media as saying he would like to apologize to his victim's families.
He's also admitted to working for Teodoro García Simental, known as El Teo. El Teo was affiliated with the Arrellano Felix Organization, and later, the Sinaloa cartel. He was arrested in 2010 in Baja California Sur. El Pozolero was captured in Baja California a year before that, in 2009.
From La Gallera, looking out across the hilltops, it's possible to see "Ojo de Agua." That's the first location El Pozolero divulged. The second site, Loma Bonita, is also within sight from the third site, La Gallera.
And standing in front of La Gallera, said Fernando Ocegueda, a fourth as-yet untouched site can also be seen.
At La Gallera, soldiers stand guard behind yellow caution tape. The whole block is cordoned off. Federal officials supervise specialists brought in from Mexico City. They're carefully removing fragments of bone and teeth from the gelatinous mass of human remains. The specialists wear white full-body protection, with special gloves and gray booties. All wear masks over their faces to minimize exposure to chemicals.
Out front, a few cadaver dogs rest inside grey plastic kennels. One of the kennels has a hand-drawn skull and crossbones etched into its side.
Ocegueda has been here, at La Gallera, every day. Sometimes he just stands alone, smoking Marlboros and watching. Other times, families join him. The neighbors in Macolvio Rojas have brought over food, water and soda. They've fed both the families observing the excavation as well as the officials there.
After five years, the authorities know Ocegueda well.
At one point, they even allowed him onto the property to take pictures. He quietly showed me the images: photo after photo of teeth, slivers of bone, and a slimy substance that resembles thick jelly.
He doesn't know if his son is in any of these pictures.
As of Friday, the remains of more than 100 people had been found.
Outside the yellow police tape, others stopped by to observe.
Jessica Rodríguez Epinosa and her cousin Karina Landey lost eight family members to kidnappings. They were seized during a mass abduction during a carne asada in Colonia Independencia, Tijunana on Sept. 21, 2007. Both women's husbands were taken.
They've been visiting La Gallera regularly to watch the investigation's progress.
"We are here because our relatives have been gone for five years now," said Rodríguez Epinosa, in Spanish. "We're feeling bad. We wanted to find them alive. But because it's been five years already… no, no."
She trails off.
Although the excavation at La Gallera was supposed to end Tuesday, it will now continue through this week, due to the unexpected second pit of body parts.
Afterward, the remains will be transported to Mexico City, where they'll undergo DNA testing. The samples will be matched against those in a pre-existing DNA bank, with samples provided by hundreds of people with missing relatives. The process is expected to take months, due to the condition of the victims' bodies.
Standing in front of the site earlier this week, while a rare mix of rain and sun created a faint rainbow overhead, Ocegueda told me that he's hopeful.
"We are very happy that finally, at last, we have renewed hope," he said. "The hope is in the DNA."
La Gallera, he said, should become a monument to the people whose remains were found there. He envisions a place where loved ones can come to sit, remember, and pray.
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