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.
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