Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
Santiago Meza Lopez, aka "El Pozolero" or "The Stewmaker," is escorted by federal police in Mexico City on Jan. 25. Meza Lopez allegedly helped a drug cartel dispose of about 300 victims by dissolving them in acid.
Santiago Meza Lopez, aka "El Pozolero" or "The Stewmaker," is escorted by federal police in Mexico City on Jan. 25. Meza Lopez allegedly helped a drug cartel dispose of about 300 victims by dissolving them in acid. Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
Mexican soldiers stand guard outside a Tijuana building that was used as a greenhouse to grow marijuana. Thousands of soldiers and federal police have been sent into Tijuana and other drug hot spots to confront the Mexican drug cartels.
Mexican soldiers stand guard outside a Tijuana building that was used as a greenhouse to grow marijuana. Thousands of soldiers and federal police have been sent into Tijuana and other drug hot spots to confront the Mexican drug cartels. Jason Beaubien/NPR
In Tijuana, investigators are combing through a crime scene looking for what remains of hundreds of human corpses.
Federal police have arrested a man known as El Pozolero, or "The Stewmaker," who has confessed to dissolving rival gang members' bodies in vats of acid.
The arrest is just the latest gruesome discovery related to a vicious and unrelenting drug war.
Santiago Meza Lopez, "El Pozolero," had a steady job working for one of the dominant drug gangs in Tijuana. He was paid $600 a week to make dead bodies disappear. And for nine years, he'd had plenty of work.
As he was paraded by federal police in front of the press, Meza said he had dissolved the corpses in barrels of acid. He said he stirred up to 600 bodies in vats of chemicals. Federal prosecutors say they believe it was closer to 300.
After El Pozolero's arrest, armed commandos shot up the local police station with AK-47s, apparently in retaliation for his capture.
In 2008, almost 6,000 people were killed as Mexican drug gangs fought each other and President Felipe Calderon's government. Violence flared, particularly along the border. And the Mexican cartels expanded their narcotics distribution networks throughout the United States.
Victor Clark Alfaro, who runs the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, says it looks like violence by the cartels is going to continue in 2009.
"I don't know who is going to win between them and against the government," he says. "The fact is that the high levels of impunity and corruption let these people work more easily on the streets of our city."
Since the beginning of the year, dozens of people have been gunned down in Tijuana, including five police officers. And nationwide, the body count since New Year's stands at more than 450.
Clark, who's also a lecturer in Latin American studies at San Diego State University, has studied Tijuana for decades. He says the current cartel members are younger, more brutal and more entrepreneurial than in the past.
And Clark says they're expanding beyond drugs, levying taxes on street drug dealers, running kidnapping rings and extorting "protection money" from bars, hotels and restaurants.
"So they are going to the formal economy to control sectors, and to control specific sectors of the informal economy related to drug selling on the streets," Clark says. "They are going to these economical spaces to charge taxes. It is a new phenomena in our city."
The violence has gotten so bad that many locals don't go out at night. Restaurants close early. And the flow of tourists from San Diego has dried up almost entirely.
Even the Marines at Camp Pendelton in Southern California, who used to take road trips to Mexico for the cheap beer and rowdy nightlife, have been ordered by their top officers not to cross into Tijuana.
Many people here used to turn a blind eye to the drug gangs. The view was that the cartels' product was heading north into the United States and their killings were confined among themselves.
But now, with people getting shot in broad daylight and kidnapping rackets flourishing, many ordinary residents are terrified.
Dr. Jose Manuel de Jesus Ortiz Ampudia, an orthopedic surgeon at an elite private hospital, says he has patients who've fled Tijuana.
"They had a chance to get a house on the other side of the border," he says, "and they've gone."
After two of his colleagues were kidnapped last year, Ortiz helped organize several protests by doctors demanding — from both the government and the gangs — an end to the abductions.
"Basically, the people who more or less can pay a ransom," Ortiz says, "these are the ones being kidnapped. Middle class and up. And when the kidnappers don't do their homework and they grab someone who appears to be able to pay but can't, they kill them."
The local police have given up trying to confront the heavily armed, well-financed organized criminals. This has been left to federal police and soldiers who race through the streets of this embattled border city.
Ortiz says he's not afraid of being kidnapped or gunned down because he's religious. Amid the current chaos in Tijuana, he says God will protect him.