On the southern outskirts of Guadalajara, early in the morning of 15 September 2018, a large container, the type normally attached to a lorry, sank into the soupy ground beside a rutted country road. The refrigerated container could store up to 18 tonnes of material, cooled to -40C. Across its white exterior, a cartoon polar bear in a blue work shirt smiled and gave a thumbs up.
A container like this was a common enough sight in the neighbourhood of Tlajomulco de Zúñiga. What attracted attention was the smell. Sitting there, slumped between cornfields on one side and dilapidated concrete houses on the other, it gave off a thick, cloying odour. Some said it reeked of rotting cabbage and fish, others mentioned putrid meat. But they all agreed: the container exuded death.
The container had been there since 7.20pm the previous evening, and by the morning, it had drawn a crowd. About 100 people assembled at the edge of the path or peered out of their houses, grimacing and covering their noses with their T-shirts. The state police had cordoned off the area, and officials wearing boxy suits mumbled into mobile phones, describing the scene to their superiors in conspiratorial whispers.
The most credible theory was that the container was full of dead livestock. That would explain the smell. But then why had the local press come to take pictures? It had to be something worse.
Tlajomulco is one of the most violent neighbourhoods in Guadalajara, the capital of Mexico’s Jalisco state. Just a month before the container turned up, authorities had discovered three mass graves a couple of miles away. Scores of bodies, many of them mutilated, had been brought to the surface. This was just the latest outrage in Mexico’s brutal drug war, which had begun 12 years earlier. In Jalisco, between 2006 and 2018, 13,578 people were murdered. The streets of Tlajomulco had become a convenient place to dispose of the bodies.
As the day wore on and the temperature rose, the smell from the container became suffocating and the crowd larger. A viscous liquid oozed from the cracks in the back door, dribbling on to the grass. The crowd turned angry. “Get it out of here!” they shouted. “That container is full of bodies!”
To their horror, they were right. Concealed behind the polar bear’s anodyne smile lay 273 decomposing corpses. Still, what they did not suspect was that it wasn’t the drug cartels who had brought this grisly cargo to their doorstep. It was the state government.
Sitting in his home in central Guadalajara, Luis Octavio Cotero was troubled. It was early 2016, and he had been the director of Jalisco’s Institute of Forensic Sciences for almost a year. He was in charge of the state’s nine mortuaries and he had run out of storage space. The documents on Cotero’s desk laid bare the situation: the forensic institute’s central morgue, located on the outskirts of Guadalajara, held 250 more bodies than it could legally store.
Cotero had practised law in the region for decades, chairing numerous legal associations and building an illustrious reputation. He had taken up this new post after being recommended for the position by the then-governor of Jalisco, Aristóteles Sandoval, who was a former law student of Cotero’s. Still, Cotero was under no illusions about the challenge he faced in his new role.
Since the start of the drug war in 2006, the rising number of homicides have stretched Mexico’s morgues to breaking point. Today, more than 38,000 unidentified bodies are stored in morgues or buried in municipal graves across the country. Most of them are still being sought by families desperate for news: about 70,000 people are registered as missing. “The current system wasn’t designed for the level of violence we are experiencing today,” Anselmo Apodaca, the former director of Mexico’s federal forensic science unit, told me. “It was planned for the Mexico of 20 years ago.”
At the time Cotero took up his post in Jalisco, cartel-related violence seemed to be out of control. In the first four months of 2015, Cotero’s staff had performed almost 1,200 autopsies, nearly as many as in the whole of the previous year. “It was complete chaos,” Cotero told me. “At times I didn’t know what to do.”
Cotero is a rotund, bearish man who moves with a lumbering gait as though stuck in wet cement. His voice is raspy and brings to mind sandpaper, and when he spoke he grimaced, as if the words hurt him. When I met him early last year, there seemed something apologetic in his manner, a sadness, as if he regretted having to speak at all.
In the past, someone in Cotero’s position might have incinerated unidentified and unclaimed bodies. When a body arrives at a state morgue, it should, in theory, be stored in a cold chamber before an autopsy. Forensic pathologists can then study it for identifying characteristics: dental abnormalities, tattoos, scars or peculiar injuries, as well as taking a DNA sample. But, of the 1,571 unidentified corpses incinerated in Jalisco between 2006 and 2015, DNA had been extracted from only 141 of them. Cremating the remains “deprived thousands of families of the possibility of finding information about their missing loved one”, concluded a report by a human rights organisation, the Centre of Studies for Peace and Development (CEPAD).
According to local investigations, cremations continued until mid-2015 – despite a nationwide law, passed in 2013, that banned the practice – but by early 2016, Cotero had stopped incinerating bodies and begun using a small storage room at Guadalajara’s central morgue for the overflow. The room’s conditions were far from suitable, and the corpses soon decomposed. “The liquids that they released began to block up the institute’s plumbing,” Cotero told journalists.
Cotero blamed the authorities almost as much as the cartels for the desperate situation. It had been almost 10 years since the start of the war on drugs, and coroners were still not receiving the support and the funding they needed to do their job. Cotero’s repeated requests to the state for burial sites or additional storage had gone unanswered. The situation so disturbed him that he would take pictures of the decaying bodies piled up in the city’s morgues and send them to regional government officials, demanding they take action.
In May 2016, the Fiscalía del Estado, or state prosecutor’s office, proposed a solution. They would free up 200 spaces at a gravesite in Tonalá, 10 miles from the centre of Guadalajara. These spaces were quickly filled, which is when a second, more unorthodox, solution was proposed. A district attorney suggested to Cotero that the prosecutor’s office hire a refrigerated container from a haulage company, park it in the loading bay of the central morgue and store the surplus bodies inside it.
Cotero says he wasn’t opposed to the idea. After all, mobile refrigeration units had been used in cases of morgue overcrowding in Guerrero, Durango, Tamaulipas and Baja California. Removing the bodies from the central morgue would also improve working conditions for his team.
Later that month, the prosecutor’s office contacted the owner of a company called Logística Montes, which leased containers to haul fruit, vegetables and other perishable foodstuffs. The owner – who did not respond to requests for an interview – was asked to provide a container to the forensic institute. The rate would be 1,000 Mexican pesos (around £40) a day for an indefinite period. He agreed. He later told investigators he did not find out the container would be used to store dead bodies until six months after agreeing to the deal.
In early May, the first bodies were removed from inside the central morgue and placed in the refrigerated container in the loading bay outside. Some of those bodies had been at the morgue for about a year. Despite the move, the question of who was responsible for the bodies – who should determine their final resting place, and who should conserve them before they got there – was still unclear. Cotero, with his legal background, knew these terms would need to be defined. The state prosecutor’s office agreed, and eight months later, on 2 January 2017, the rental of the container was formalised.
The contract stated that the two government departments – the state prosecutor’s office and the forensic institute – would hire a mobile refrigeration unit to take pressure off the morgues until space for the bodies could be found in municipal cemeteries. Both parties intended it to be a temporary measure; the container would remain at the central morgue for a year, at most. In that time, the state prosecutor would have to find a permanent solution.
In the first few months of 2018, Cotero watched with mounting frustration as the situation in Guadalajara deteriorated. The International Red Cross recommends for health reasons that the average forensic pathologist carries out no more than 180 autopsies a year. At the central morgue in Guadalajara, according to the testimony of its director, Eduardo Mota, each coroner performed more than 300 autopsies in 2018. Conditions were cramped and unsanitary. The morgue’s doctors later noted in interviews with the Commission for the Assistance of Victims that there was constant cross-contamination and staff ran the risk of outbreaks of tuberculosis and blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis or HIV. They had no access to specialist antiseptics, and bodies were often stacked up on the floor, covered with plastic sheets.
This disorganisation and chaos affected the families searching for the bodies of their loved ones. When Lucero Pichardo went to the morgue to reclaim her sister Sandi’s body in mid-2018, workers instructed her to return in a few weeks. They said they couldn’t find the cadaver in the mass of bodies stored inside the lorry container. After weeks of waiting, Sandi’s family eventually identified her by a tattoo on her right arm. “The rest of the body was too badly decomposed to show us in person,” Pichardo told me.
To Cotero, it was clear what was needed: proper investment in new facilities and training for the pathologists. It was just as clear that this would not be forthcoming. “No one was interested in reforming the forensic institute,” he told me. “There was no money in it, no political prestige.”
In early 2018, Cotero challenged the police and prosecutor’s office failures over a high-profile case in which three students studying film at a private school in Guadalajara were kidnapped and murdered. According to the state’s version, the students were killed and dissolved in barrels of acid by members of organised crime gangs. But Cotero disagreed, and he did so publicly. He couldn’t be sure, he told the press, that the men had been dissolved in acid because his forensic team had found no trace of the students in the barrels. Maybe, he seemed to suggest, the investigators had made a mistake.
Cotero’s remarks invited the kind of public scrutiny that his superiors were anxious to avoid. “They had already arrested two men who had supposedly confessed to the crime,” he told me. “This new finding posed questions about the state’s handling of the case.”
This was a dangerous thing to say in Mexico. It is often impossible to tell exactly who is behind a murder or kidnapping – the state or the cartels – and people who speak out risk reprisals from both. Since 2000, more than 120 journalists, many of them reporting on the links between politics and organised crime, have been murdered in Mexico.
On 9 July 2018, three months after his intervention, Cotero’s daughter went missing. Indira Cotero, 38, was last seen driving home from a restaurant with a friend. Both disappeared. The police had no leads. At first, Cotero criticised the police and the prosecutor’s office’s lack of progress. “The authorities have done nothing to find my daughter,” he told the local press. As the weeks dragged by, growing increasingly desperate, he made his own inquiries. He got hold of the police files and studied them for clues. “They were pure garbage,” he told me.
Shortly afterwards, Cotero’s family started receiving death threats. “They said they were coming for my other daughter. They said she would be next,” he told me. He had no idea where these messages were coming from, but he knew he couldn’t risk his other daughter’s life. He had to stop searching for Indira, and resign himself to not knowing, forced to share the feelings of the hundreds of helpless people who came to his workplace every day looking for their loved ones. “When you have experienced that type of loss, nothing else really matters,” he later told me.
When we spoke, Cotero would not speculate on whether his daughter’s disappearance was linked to his worsening relations with the state authorities. Cotero didn’t know who had taken Indira, he said, and there was no proof to suggest government involvement. He told me he thought he’d probably never find her, or discover who took her.
By mid-2018, the central and regional morgues in Jalisco held 1,468 bodies, according to the news outlet ZonaDocs. There was nowhere near enough room to store them all appropriately. The forensic institute’s central morgue contained a space intended to hold 100 bodies awaiting identification, but at this point, 444 corpses were stored there. Some had arrived more than two years earlier.
Cotero found himself between despair and extreme anger. He felt debilitated by the loss of his daughter, but free to say what he felt. Cotero felt it obscene to leave so many families with no information and no body to bury. He harangued his colleagues at the prosecutor’s office and his superiors in the state government. He sent more pictures of decomposing bodies and threatening messages. In a statement later given to police by a civil servant working for the prosecutor’s office, Cotero said: “If you don’t move this fucking container, I’m going to park it in front of the attorney general’s office or the governmental palace in Guadalajara.”
At the beginning of August 2018, senior members of the state prosecutor’s office, including the attorney general, met to discuss the problem. The prosecutor’s office was aware that the refrigerated container had been at the central morgue for more than a year. By now, they were supposed to have found an appropriate location for the 273 bodies stored inside. Space was scarce in the other municipal cemeteries, and instead of finding a permanent solution, the state prosecutor’s office and the forensic institute decided to rent a second refrigerated container.
But if they were to bring in a second container, they needed to find a new home for the first one. Space in the grounds of the forensic institute was limited. Two lorries parked outside the central morgue, both smelling of putrefaction – coroners told the local papers that the fridges were often turned off – might attract unwanted attention. The first container had to be moved. But where? And who would take responsibility?
On 31 August 2018, the original container carrying 273 bodies left the central morgue, destined for a large, privately owned warehouse 3 miles away in the neighbourhood of La Duraznera on the southern side of Guadalajara.
La Duraznera is a poor neighbourhood, and investigators from the state’s human rights commission would later speculate that authorities chose the site because of its marginal position in the city. Police statements from civil servants working in the prosecutor’s office alleged that no official paperwork to move the truck to the warehouse had been completed.
The container remained in La Duraznera for two weeks. But the conditions were inadequate for storing hundreds of bodies, and even though the unit was refrigerated, locals began to notice the foul smell. The mayor complained to the state government. The vehicle had to be moved.
The prosecutor’s office ordered that the container be taken to its evidence warehouse in Guadalajara’s industrial sector, about 20 minutes’ drive from La Duraznera. On 14 September, as the truck chugged through the city, passersby glimpsed the image of a jocular polar bear, unaware that behind the thin sheet of metal were hundreds of human bodies in varying states of decomposition.
According to statements from police files, as the lorry approached the entrance to the evidence warehouse at around 4pm, the driver and the container’s owner, who sat alongside his employee, realised that the container was too tall to pass through. Metal support beams that held up the door to the warehouse were too low. They would have to be removed.
Engineers were summoned and took measurements, but it started to rain, and they decided to stop work. The temperature outside was about 27C, and the lorry was parked in the street with little shade. A brown gummy liquid, like wallpaper paste, began to seep from the container.
The lorry’s owner offered to accommodate the container on a 25,000 sq metre lot that he owned on the city’s outskirts. He often stored things there, and, as he later told the police, “no people were living close by”. The lorry would stay there for as long as it took to alter the warehouse entrance. He said that when he proposed the idea, the prosecutor’s office approved it, and the truck headed south.
The lot was more than 18 miles away, but as the lorry neared its destination, it became stuck in mud on a country road. As the wheels spun and sludge flew out behind the container, the driver panicked and rang the prosecutor’s office for help.
One of the district attorneys sent for a tractor at about 9pm to tow the lorry on to firmer ground. It arrived an hour or so later, but even after the container was freed, the driver didn’t dare go any further along the muddy roads for fear of getting stuck again. He couldn’t retrace his route back to the warehouse compound because the engineers hadn’t yet removed the metal beams at the entrance.
By this time, disgruntled people were gathering nearby. They complained to the police about the stench and threatened to alert the press. In fact, the press had already got wind of what was going on. There had been rumblings for days about strange happenings at the central morgue. At 11pm, reporters and TV cameras arrived at the stranded lorry to see if they could confirm the rumour about it containing bodies. Their presence stirred up the crowd. “People started threatening to burn the trailer if it wasn’t gone by morning,” a police officer later told investigators.
Police waited beside the container all night. At 10.40am the following day, another tractor arrived. The crowd had returned, and shouted as the tractor hauled the container away down the rutted track. As it lumbered and bounced, copper-coloured fluid trickled from its back doors.
Forty-eight hours later, the prosecutor’s office determined that the only suitable place for the container was the forensic institute’s central morgue. It was duly returned and installed alongside the new container, in view of the dozens of relatives who came to look for their missing loved ones every day.
Even in a nation that has witnessed atrocity after atrocity, the scandal of Jalisco’s “death containers”, as they became known in the press, shocked Mexicans. Hundreds of people gathered outside the forensic institute and pleaded for justice. “They are not trash. They have a name!” and “They are not cows for the slaughter!” they shouted. The crowds came from collectives and charitable organisations across the country – from Veracruz, Querétaro, Hidalgo and Nayarit.
As the protests continued, on 21 September, Dr Anna Pamela Romero stood in front of the two looming white refrigeration units that now sat in the forensic institute’s grounds. Romero was a forensic anthropologist from UNAM, Mexico’s top university. She had arrived as part of the Commission for the Assistance of Victims, which had been called in by the state government to investigate the forensic institute in the aftermath of the scandal. She and her team were there to determine how a container of unidentified human remains could have ended up near a residential area of a major city.
When Romero and her team opened the doors of the first container, they saw a pile of bodies stacked in black plastic bags. The stench made them retch. A small passageway down the middle of the container gave access to the bodies piled on either side. At the midpoint, the stacks had collapsed, and the bodies were heaped like used teabags. The container floor was coated by a thick layer of putrilage: “There was so much our shoe protectors stuck to the floor,” Romero told me.
Eduardo Mota, then head coroner at the forensic institute, would later defend his staff’s practices in a statement to the Jalisco human rights commission. He said that the temperature in both containers was optimal for the preservation of corpses. The bodies had been well organised. The chaos Romero described, he said, was caused by the container’s journey away from the central morgue.
Romero believed that the containers should have been better prepared for eventual movement. She also noted that they were obscenely overcrowded. “A person doesn’t lose their right to dignity when they die,” Romero told me. “A corpse has to be treated with the same respect afforded to the living.”
In the aftermath of the scandal, state governor Aristóteles Sandoval and his team blamed “ineptitude” at the forensic institute. On 18 September, he relieved Luis Cotero of his charge as the head of the forensic institute. Two days later he also fired the state attorney general, Raúl Sánchez. He promised that a criminal inquiry would follow.
Hundreds of newspaper articles were published about the “death containers’’ in the following months, and much was made of the government’s investigation. However, more than two years on, only one civil servant from the prosecutor’s office has been taken to court. But they were not found guilty of mistreatment of the bodies, only of making undeclared payments for the lease and maintenance of the containers.
In the period since, there has been a change in state administration. Jalisco’s new government claims to have made significant advances in addressing the crisis in its forensic services. Last year, the forensic institute’s current director, Gustavo Quezada, told me that he had things under control and that there had been many improvements. The state government said that it had increased the institute’s budget by almost 30m pesos (about £1m), employing 92 new forensic experts and expanding the central morgue’s cold storage capacity from 100 units to 479. The institute claims it no longer has to rely on mobile refrigeration units in cases of emergency.
Meanwhile, unidentified bodies continue to arrive at the morgue. Cotero is one of the few to have spoken out about the mounting crisis of unidentified bodies, at significant risk to himself. I asked him if he regretted any of his actions – or if he felt culpable for the events of 2018. He deflected, saying that he bore no responsibility for the bodies after his coroners had examined them. He said he didn’t want to become the scapegoat. Cotero is still under investigation for the inhumane treatment of the cadavers. He denies all charges.
I wondered why Cotero had waited to be sacked. What had stopped him from resigning in protest at the situation he had observed while working for the forensic institute? He replied that he stayed those extra months because he wanted to be at the institute if his daughter’s body turned up there. It never did – or, at least, that’s what the records say. It is a grim possibility that it has been there all along, still unidentified owing to the lack of resources and the overwhelming number of victims.
The containers were cleaned and dismantled in mid-November 2018. Of the 322 bodies stored in the two refrigerated containers, 48 were eventually identified and returned to their families. The remaining 274 were buried in Guadalajara’s two municipal cemeteries. In theory, they could later be exhumed for a family burial. They will probably never be claimed.