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Hope Dwindles For DNA Evidence At Tijuana Body Dump

The site known as "La Gallera" in Tijuana where Santiago Meza said he dissolved 60 bodies in lye, Aug. 22, 2014.
Jill Replogle
The site known as "La Gallera" in Tijuana where Santiago Meza said he dissolved 60 bodies in lye, Aug. 22, 2014.
At Tijuana Sites Where Cartel Dissolved Bodies, Hope Dwindles for DNA Evidence
Hope Dwindles For DNA Evidence At Tijuana Body Dump
More than 22,000 people have gone missing in Mexico since the country declared war on drug traffickers in 2006. Some family members of the missing hoped to find answers at a body disposal site in Tijuana. But so far, they have only frustrated hopes.

Roosters crow from their pens in a dusty, semi-rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Tijuana. Many of the residents here raise the birds for cockfighting, a popular sport in this border town.

But on one hilltop plot here, investigators uncovered a vastly more sinister business. Fernando Ocegueda points out a small brick building that he calls “the kitchen.” Here, a man named Santiago Meza dissolved bodies for drug cartels and pumped their remains, which had become a kind of sludge, into two septic tanks downhill.

Ocegueda heads the group of Baja California residents that helped investigators find this site. The group is made up of mothers, fathers, sisters and uncles of people who have been kidnapped or gone missing.

Their dogged quest for information led them to this rooster ranch turned body dump. But so far, they have found few answers.

Santiago Meza was captured at a resort in Ensenada in 2009, and when investigators asked him to state his occupation, he answered, “pozolero,” or “stewmaker.” He explained that he had been dissolving bodies for nine years for a series of Tijuana drug barons.

Meza took investigators to his most recent operation, not far from the former rooster ranch, where he answered questions from reporters.

He told them that the victims were already dead when he got them for disposal. He said he cooked the bodies in lye for 24 hours until they dissolved. He said he was paid $600 a week for his work.

Meza also told investigators that he disposed of around 60 bodies at the former rooster ranch, but he only vaguely described its location. It took authorities, with the help of Ocegueda’s group, several more years to find the place.

They excavated it in December of 2012 and found dozens of teeth, pieces of bone and surgical hardware, like knee screws. Investigators took all the evidence to Mexico City to analyze it, and to look for DNA in the hopes of identifying some of the victims.

Fernando Ocegueda heads the association, United for Missing Persons of Baja California, Aug. 22, 2014.
Jill Replogle
Fernando Ocegueda heads the association, United for Missing Persons of Baja California, Aug. 22, 2014.

Mexico’s federal human rights prosecutor Eliana García, said forensic scientists had pieced together evidence of at least 22 bodies at the site. But she said they had been unable to extract any useful DNA samples.

“We don’t want to generate false expectations that revictimize the families,” García said in a phone interview, speaking in Spanish.

She said authorities from the federal prosecutor’s office had carefully explained their attempts and failures to identify the remains found at Meza’s body dumps.

Lye destroys most of the bone and human tissue from which DNA could be extracted. But others have been able to get DNA from these kinds of remains — in San Diego.

Here, a gang called Los Palillos used lye to dispose of several bodies in 2007. Madeleine Hinkes, a forensic anthropologist and Mesa College professor who worked on the case, said she and other experts were unsure, at first, whether they could extract DNA from remains that had been so transformed.

“We hadn’t seen anything in the literature about it,” Hinkes said. “And oftentimes when the chemistry of the bone is this altered, the DNA just isn’t any good.”

But the DNA expert working on the case did find a usable sample — from a clump of tissue — which she used to positively identify one of the victims.

“The technology is there,” she said.

More than 22,000 people have gone missing in Mexico since the country declared war on drug traffickers in 2006. Few cases have been solved.

Fernando Ocegueda said he was frustrated with the lack of results from the federal government’s investigation at Santiago Meza’s body dumps. But he’s even more critical of local authorities, who he said have shown little interest in investigating missing persons cases and drug-related murders from years past.

Tattered photos of missing persons at one of the sites Santiago Meza used to dissolve and dispose of bodies in Tijuana, Aug. 22, 2014.
Jill Replogle
Tattered photos of missing persons at one of the sites Santiago Meza used to dissolve and dispose of bodies in Tijuana, Aug. 22, 2014.

“It would be politically inconvenient for them” to bring attention to the hundreds of cases of unresolved missing persons, Ocegueda said.

Plus, he added, local authorities tend to assume that those who went missing during the bloodiest years of Tijuana’s drug war, which peaked in 2008, were criminals.

The Baja California state prosecutor’s office didn’t respond to several requests for interviews.

Ocegueda’s association has documented around 350 missing persons since 2006. Only eight of them have been found, he said.

“I’ve taught myself to be patient,” Ocegueda said, leaning against the wall inside the small brick “kitchen,” as he called it, where Santiago Meza did his gruesome work.

Ocegueda’s son, a 23-year-old engineering student, was kidnapped in 2007 and he hasn’t stopped looking for him.

“I feel the same rage now that he did then,” Ocegueda said. The ones who kidnapped Ocegueda’s son are in jail, he said, but they’ve refused to say what happened to the young man.

So Ocegueda — and other family members of the missing — keep searching for answers. They get anonymous tips through Facebook and email about where to look for evidence. They form search parties, knock on doors, talk to neighbors. Then they share their tips with federal investigators, who bring in professional search teams.

The septic tanks where Santiago Meza hid the remains of his bosses’ victims have been tiled over with mandalas, a Hindu and Buddhist symbol for the universe. Ocegueda wants the site preserved as a memorial.

At the same time, he plans to keep pressuring authorities to turn over something to family members — a tooth, a bone, or at least some information about what happened to their loved ones.