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Death, Acapulco-style

By Rafael Romo, CNN
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Dealing with Acapulco's violence
  • Morgue director Dr. Keynes García Leguízamo says butchered are bodies common
  • In November Garcia processed 18 badly decomposed bodies from shallow grave
  • New refrigeration unit doubles capacity to 30 bodies
  • Garcia and team sometimes reconstruct faces for purposes of identification

(CNN) -- From the outside, it looks like a small warehouse. But approach the building, and the smell of death is unmistakable.

The Acapulco morgue is located inside a government compound belonging to the Guerrero state Department of Health, not far from the main tourist area. Heavily-armed guards at the entrance are not welcoming, but that's not the case with Dr. Keynes García Leguízamo, the morgue's director.

"You'll get used to the smell in no time," says García, who has been in charge for about a year. García, 28, is a surgeon specializing in forensic medicine. In the morgue area where he and his team of eight forensic doctors carry out autopsies, he talks about the gruesome new realities of his job.

A couple of years ago, most bodies brought to the morgue showed injuries including gunshot wounds, severe trauma or stabbings, says Garcia. "We're still getting plenty of those, but we're now getting bodies that have been dismembered or beheaded."

Violence keeps spring breakers away
  • Mexico
  • Acapulco
  • Death and Dying

Last November Garcia and his team processed 18 badly decomposed bodies found in a shallow grave near Acapulco. The victims showed signs of execution. Authorities said at the beginning that they were all tourists from the neighboring state of Michoacan, but the motive has yet to be established.

In January, the morgue's task was to identify 15 headless bodies dumped outside a shopping mall. The victims, all men aged 25 to 30, were found near burning vehicles. The shopping mall, known as Plaza Comercial Senderos, is not an area frequented by tourists, but it's not far from the main tourist strip.

Sadly, García says, dismembered bodies are no longer rare. It is not uncommon for bodies to arrive "missing fingers, hands, cut up at the forearm, the shoulder, the head, ears or even those whose skin has been completely ripped off," says García.

No one foresaw this level of violence and cruelty stemming from a bloody turf war between drug cartels. Four dissection tables were enough just a couple of years ago, but not anymore.

Morgue personnel just finished installing a new refrigeration unit. It has room for up to 30 bodies, doubling the previous capacity. At the end of 2010 it became alarmingly clear that the morgue needed to expand. The year ended with 1,010 violent deaths, marking a steady increase. There were 843 deaths in 2009 and 724 in 2008. So far this year the morgue has processed the bodies of more than 300 people.

Morgue personnel say that one of the hardest things for them is to see people arriving daily in search of relatives or loved ones. The morgue's main door is plastered with pictures of missing people. Some bring flyers with handwritten descriptions of the people they're looking for. One of the handwritten fliers was posted by the family of 43-year-old Miguel Angel de Anda Solís, who went missing on January 4.

Garcia and his team sometimes have to reconstruct the faces of some victims when there are no tattoos, marks or other ways of identifying the bodies.

A father of two small boys, who lives in the area puts it this way:

"It's very difficult for me to see this violence, all of this, what awaits your children as they grow up. It's very difficult to understand the violence that these people generate."