View this article in Spanish | bilingual

Tijuana: On the Pozole-Man’s Hill

1

A writer from Tijuana told me: “If you want to know what Tijuana is all about, you have to go there.” There was the village of Ojo de Agua, in a dusty valley on the outskirts of the city, that you reach after crossing the hills dotted with houses that appear in all the stories about Tijuana. On the top of a rise, like Dracula’s castle, stands the shack of Santiago Meza López, aka The Pozole-Man1 of the Arellano Félix brothers’ cartel. A man who has dissolved the bodies of 300 people in drums of caustic soda.

Half rural, half urban, the village of Ojo de Agua is the original no-man’s land. Sewage trickles down the hillsides. On its beaten-earth streets, the houses are made of scrap: sheets of corrugated iron, car tires, planks of wood. Wherever you look, nothing but rocks and dust.

The shack is a small brick-built affair, with two-meter-high walls around it. Inside there are holes dug in the ground, industrial drums with the remains of liquids in them, a wooden bench with various tools on it: protective gloves, knives, bowls, trowels. About two hundred crushed beer cans are scattered around the floor. The pozole-man liked to wet his whistle while he was carrying out his task.

In the upper part of the shack is a bedroom with no door. Meza López used to sleep on the floor, wrapped only in a blanket. The 600 dollars he received each week from the drug-trafficker Teodoro García Simental was never enough to permit him the luxury of putting a cot in his workplace.

On January 22, 2009, an army unit from the Second Military Zone got a call from a neighbor: in a house in the Baja Season’s neighborhood, armed men had been partying for several days. There was north Mexican music, vehicles with no license plates, hookers coming and going all the time. A military team raided the place. Five minutes earlier Teodoro Simental and thirty of his gang had escaped, running off down the beach. “When the army asked for backup from the state attorney’s office, someone gave them the tip-off,” says Adela Navarro the editor of the weekly magazine Zeta.

Meza López was so high he did not realize what was going on. When the soldiers forced him face down on the sand with his hands behind his neck, he told them: “You’ve no idea who you’re getting involved with. I’m El Teo’s pozole-man.”

Before coming down to earth, he had given them names, addresses, the extraordinary details of his activities. He was presented to the press as one of the FBI’s most-wanted persons. The army showed him off like a trophy. The reporter Luis Alonso Pérez recalls: “We were taken in three military vehicles to the shack in Ojo de Agua. The pozole-man was in a Hummer, covered in a blanket. Everyone came out to look as we went by. The soldiers took him out of the truck, led him to the center of the property, and ordered him to give a reconstruction of events.”

“Who did you dissolve here?”

“I don’t know who they were. I was just sent them.”

“Did you chop them up?”

“No, I threw them whole into the drums.”

“How long did it take them to dissolve?”

“Fourteen or fifteen hours.”

“What did you do with what was left?”

“I buried it.”

“Where?”

“Here.” (His eyes pointed at the ground beneath his feet.)

Luis Alonso Pérez adds: “We reporters in Tijuana have got used to seeing everything. But what we there saw left us frozen. All that remained of some corpses were the teeth. The worst of it was that Meza López somehow felt he was innocent. He was like a butcher who says: ‘I don’t kill the cattle, I simply cut them up.’”

Meza López was known in the cartel as El Chago. For many years he had been a brickmaker. “I got into organized crime through construction,” he said later. Early in the nineties he was recruited by Ramón Arellano. After his death in 2002, Meza López came under the command of Marco Antonio García Simental, El Cris, who ordered him to deal with the first bodies. “I learned to make ‘pozole’ with the leg of a cow. I put it in a bucket, covered it in liquid, and it dissolved. I started experimenting and became a pozole-man, I began to enjoy it, that was my mistake. I became interested in it, and kept on doing it,” he declared, the night he was arrested, to members of the SIEDO 2.

The Attorney General’s office had been aware of him since 2005. Regimiro Silva Pereida, a kidnapper detained in Mexicali, declared in dossier 3694/05/208:

“I got instructions from El Cris for me and someone else known as El Flama to take the lives of three people for whom ransom had already been demanded. El Flama and I put duct tape round their faces so they would stop breathing and suffocate, until they stopped moving. Afterward, someone else I know as Chago took them somewhere I don’t know, but I learned he turned them into ‘pozole’ using water drums. You weld one drum on top of another, add two hundred liters of water, then pour in two sacks of caustic soda. The dead body is thrown in without any clothes on, and after staying in there the fourteen or fifteen hours it takes the corpse to dissolve—although not completely, because there are still bones left—the pozole is poured down the drains or onto the hillsides.”

A second kidnapper, Iván Aarón Loaiza Espinoza, declared in the same investigation:

“When I got to Tijuana I met a man called Luis, alias El Sombrero. At first he asked me to look after some cockpits, but as he began to trust me he asked me to guard some secure houses where abducted people were being kept. He took me to a place known as Los Licuados because that was where they turned people into pozole, meaning they disintegrated the corpses of kidnap victims. My first job was to help weld the drums together, because you need two to fit whole bodies in.”

I stare at the gray panorama. The pits dug round the pozole-man’s shack. Everything looks the way it did the day he was arrested. In one corner there is even a pair of bloodstained jeans. As soon as she sees me, the woman from the house next door runs to shut herself in. I knock on her door. She doesn’t open it. Other people in Ojo de Agua tell me that at night covered pickups used to arrive, and water tankers. “We make gelatin here,” Meza López would say, raising his beer can. The smell of the bodies immersed in acid mingled with that of a nearby goat farm. As the Tijuana writer who recommended I come said: “This is not insecurity, it’s something different. Something that needs another word to describe it, because it is far more terrifying: it’s not only a question of being robbed, kidnapped, beaten, assassinated. At the same time, it’s something less than that, because the terror has become an everyday occurrence, you get used to it.”

2

The arrest in August 2006 of the last of the Arellano Félix brothers—Francisco Javier, El Tigrillo, brought about a restructuring of the Tijuana Cartel. A nephew of the historic leaders, Eduardo Sánchez Arellano, alias El Ingeniero, took charge.

“The dismantling of the group led to a struggle for control of the market,” says the attorney general’s representative, Martín Rubio Millán.

Control of the market does not simply mean a corridor for shipping drugs. The cartel also controls people-trafficking, kidnapping, the sale of stolen cars, high-level robberies, slot machines, betting, prostitution, clandestine gaming, and pirating of DVDs and CDs.

A former Arellano hitman, Teodoro García Simental, known as El Teo or El Tres Letras, took over one of the most violent cells. The power he accumulated in a short time allowed him to systematically break the rules laid down by El Ingeniero: he simply sent his quota to the cartel leader, but “the moment arrived when he didn’t even answer the ‘phone to him.”

On April 25, 2007, El Tres Letras was called to account. Eduardo Sánchez Arellano demanded a meeting to discuss the “unauthorized” kidnappings his group was carrying out. According to an investigation by Zeta, that night police telephones began to ring with warnings for them to stay off the streets “because it’s going to get ugly between them.” The gunmen of both groups were summoned by radio. “We’re going to escort a boss,” they were told. It was a Friday, and most of the gunmen (some of them municipal or federal police officers) were already out enjoying themselves.

The meeting was set for dawn on Guaycura Avenue. Twenty-two vehicles rolled up, packed with men armed to the teeth, and out of their minds on drugs. The police had vanished from the streets. Not just the municipal forces, but the federal and state patrols too.

El Ingeniero sent his lieutenant El 7-7 as his advance guard. El 7-7 told him by radio that El Teo had not shown up. There were only second-rank people in the cars, who said they had been told to take the message. “Get rid of them,” ordered Sánchez Arellano. El 7-7 shot Alfredo Delgadillo Solís, known as La Máquina, in the face. A fierce gun battle ensued, which left 15 dead (El 7-7 among them), and 22 wounded. More than 1,500 rounds were fired. The war declared that night left 337 dead in 2007 and 880 in 2008.

“There is evidence that Teodoro García Simental got support from the Sinaloa Cartel, who saw this battle as a way of staking a claim in Tijuana,” says the PGR’s Rubio Millán.

The result: a trail of decapitated, smothered, strangled, and shot bodies, which turned Tijuana into the city with the third greatest number of killings, after Culiacán and Ciudad Juárez.

3

In the days following the battle on Guaycura Avenue, an escort of the ex-governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel, the ex-commander of the state ministerial police, José Ramón Velásquez Molina, was abducted by gunmen working for the Arellano brothers. He was savagely beaten and tortured. Then his torturers sat him in front of a video camera. The interrogation he was put through was copied onto CDs that were handed to several media outlets. Velásquez Molina appears badly beaten and sweating, as submissive as a lamb trying to please its slaughterers.

“Who do you work for?”

“I work for a gang run by El Chapo Guzmán and Mayo Zambada. Before that I worked for El Mayel. Some time ago, El Mayel, through his lawyer in Almoloya, told me to go to Culiacán, where I was to meet his brother El Gil, to go and see these people, so the two of us went, we were there.”

“Louder!”

“We were in Culiacán, talking to El Chapo and El Mayo Zambada . . . we were there talking for about four hours . . . El Gil promised to work for them . . . he was involved with them until he was arrested.”

“And what’s going on now?”

“I was the one who took over the link with El Chapo. And last year (with) someone called Humberto Valdez, who’s known as El Pato Valdez.”

“And who is he?”

“I was told at the time that El Pato Valdez is an adviser to the attorney general.”

“Which attorney general?”

“Antonio Martínez Luna.”

“Speak up!”

“Antonio Martínez Luna, the state attorney. They told me he wanted to work with both El Mayo and El Chapo to combat the Tijuana people . . . and that they wanted to create a group of ministerial police, 10 ministerial police who had already quit the force, to make up a cell to combat the Tijuana people . . . I took El Pato Valdez to Culiacán, where he met El Chapo and El Mayo…They came to an agreement that the state attorney’s adviser would pass them information, all the information from Tijuana . . .”

“Hang on, hang on. Who’s the boss of that cell?”

“I’m the boss of the cell we formed in Mexicali.”

“Who else?”

“I was supported by El Pato Valdez.”

[. . .]

“You and him lead the group?”

“He leads the attorney’s office people, he’s in charge of the police group.”

“What group?”

“I know they’re part of that special intelligence group the state attorney set up.”

[. . . ]

“How do they operate, and who protects them?”

“How do they operate? They operate the way everyone knows: when they’re going to kidnap a victim, the police protect them, the one who protects us is El Pato Valdez, he knows everything about the operations, and he in turn tells El Blindado about them all.”

“What about the state attorney?”

El Blindado is the name he uses.”

“What’s El Blindado’s position, what’s his name?”

El Blindado is the state attorney.”

[. . .]

And who is the state attorney connected to?”

“The state attorney is connected to the governor.”

“What’s the governor’s name?”

“The governor’s called Eugenio Elorduy Walther, but I don’t think the governor’s mixed up in this. He does back it though. He’s backed it unconditionally. His six years are almost up, but he’s still backing it.”

The interrogation continues implacably. What is that guy like? How old is he? Remember, remember, you have to remember. Does the light bother you? Tell me about the jobs you’ve done. Come on, one by one. Who are El Chapo’s people here? Give me their names and nicknames. Don’t make any mistakes. Names! Turn this way, please. Look at the camera. How did you plan things, what was the job? What other police did you pay? Are they on the payroll? What about the municipal cops…what about them?’

José Ramón Velásquez was killed the moment the interrogation finished. His body was dumped outside the house of the state attorney’s girlfriend. The storm created by this twenty-minute recording was not strong enough to cost him his job. Martínez Luna declared he did not know and had never heard of El Pato Valdez.

A short time later, a fresh video recording revealed a strange conversation that took place in the state attorney’s office. Those taking part were El Pato Valdez, the state attorney’s private secretary Julio Lamas, and the head of the Specialized Unit Against Organized Crime, Víctor Felipe de la Garza Herrada.

Valdez outlined for the officials a possible strategy for capturing a member of the Arellano gang. But not just that: he asked for “expenses” for organizing the operation.

Again, the storm that engulfed the state attorney general’s office when this video was handed to the press did not affect the state attorney. Martínez Luna was kept on in his post until the end of the six-year term of governor Elorduy (2001-2007). The then head of the Specialized Unit Against Organized Crime, Victor Felipe de la Garza, did not think the video proved a thing. He shrugged his shoulders. “I used to see lots of people who brought information or wanted to report something. The reason for the meeting was to hear a report from that gentleman, who is a lawyer here in Tijuana. That’s all I know about him. There have been very important results from our investigations, and the reality is that the citizens trust us because of this.”

4

“The only reality in Tijuana is impunity,” says the editor of Zeta, Adela Navarro. “There is no solution to this impunity, no way out, because it is supported by the state itself. In Tijuana, nearly all the police have been bought: from the municipal forces to the PDR, all the officers obey the cartel first, the state second.”

At the end of March 2009, eighteen officers from the Tijuana Municipal Police, among them a head of intelligence, were arrested by federal forces. Another thirty-nine had been detained throughout the year. Each of them charged between 500 and 800 US dollars per month to collaborate with organized crime. The money was delivered straight to police stations. A high-ranking officer was the one responsible for distributing it.

“The cartel not only controls the police, it controls the judiciary too,” Navarro continues. Zeta has been systematically documenting this for thirty years. The magazine’s archives contain both the cartel’s organizational chart and the links it has established with the authorities from the moment it began to operate. Zeta has documented how our society was left an orphan, and how it lost its capacity for astonishment.

The president of Coparmex3, Roberto Quijano, says that Tijuana is the victim of a black legend created by the press’s sensationalist desires:

‘People live normal lives here. There is a war between criminal gangs, but ordinary citizens are not part of it. The people killed and executed are the criminals themselves. Although the social fabric was damaged by the failings of the Elorduy administration, in Tijuana the vast majority of citizens live peacefully.”

However, according to the fifth National Survey on Insecurity carried out by the Citizens’ Institute of Studies on Insecurity, Tijuana is the fourth most dangerous city in Mexico (after the Federal District, the conurbation of the State of Mexico, and Acapulco) and where the third most inhabitants feel insecure (after the Federal District and the state of Tabasco). Even though not so much as a leaf appears to stir on its streets, and at first sight the city looks as harmless as a Sunday on the beach, within it there are hidden cracks, bloodstains, bullet holes. Taxi-drivers, chewing-gum sellers, shoe-shines, waiters, newspaper boys, all form a network linked to drug-trafficking. The PGR calls them “hawks”; the people of Tijuana know them as “lookouts”. Their job is to report the arrival of any military convoys, suspicious vehicles, or strange visitors. All the comings-and-goings in governmental offices are immediately reported to the cartel members.

“You don’t see the narcos coming, but they are everywhere. It’s not something just invented. Drug-trafficking has become part of our daily lives. It’s part of us. It’s part of our culture,” says reporter Luis Alonso Pérez.

Beatriz Angélica Pérez Galindo did not see the narcos coming either. She had just separated, had a ten-year-old child, and desperately needed work. One evening she went out to eat tacos with a girlfriend. Her friend introduced her to a man: “Look, this is Leonardo.” Leonardo was wearing a metal badge at his belt. He said he was “commander in the Intelligence Unit of the PGR.” He asked Beatriz Angélica what she did. “Nothing,” she replied. The man suggested: “If you don’t have work, you should become a real estate agent. You find houses for rent, sign them up for me, and I’ll give you a month’s rent as commission.” Beatriz Angélica gave him her phone number. Leonardo would not give her his: “I can’t, because I’m in the police.” He called her the next day: “Find me a big house with a garage.” Beatriz Angélica started looking among the newspaper adverts. She found a house with an 800 dollar a month rent. When Leonardo called again, they agreed he would send her the deposit money. The contract was signed. He paid her commission.

A short time later, the commander got in touch again for her to find another house. “Some people are coming from Mexico City,” he told her. Beatriz Angélica called the estate agency and found a house with three bedrooms and an intercom. 800 dollars’ rent. Leonardo sent her a voter’s identity card in the name of someone called Liliana Ortiz. “Have the contract made out in her name.”

For several months she rented houses throughout Tijuana. Sometimes it was because Leonardo’s relatives were coming; at others because he was expecting “more people from Mexico City.” Almost all the contracts were made in the name of Liliana Ortiz, or occasionally Gustavo Guajardo.

Once he felt he could trust her, the commander began to ask Beatriz Angélica to take food to the houses she had rented. She always met armed men who were sitting watching TV. Some of them looked like active police officers, others like “madrinas 4.” They were all well-dressed. She did not realize how drug-trafficking had become part of her life. She did not see it coming, until the evening she was arrested taking a bag of food to a secure house for organized crime. She did not realize that it comes to meet you until, after reading over her statement, she confirmed it, and put her fingerprint to it. She did not know it until she was told she was now part of an official investigation: the PGR’s dossier UEDO/087/2000.

5

The president of Coparmex, Roberto Quijano, realized during governor Elorduy’s six years in office that crime had spread to new areas. The kidnapping of a business impresario showed him how far Tijuana’s society had been infiltrated.

“They had just abducted him. I called the State Attorney’s office and told them: “He’s being kidnapped”. Two hours later, the businessman was set free. I asked myself: “So is this how things really are? Are there authorized and unauthorized abductions?”

Quijano adds: “Every administration has its priorities. For Elorduy, security was not one of them. He did not appreciate how big the problem was, and by the time he wanted to do something, it was too late. The water was lapping round his ankles, the dynamics of crime had made Baja California sick. That’s the war we’re fighting now: how to cure a body that’s been sick for so many years.”

Outside in the street, patrols go by, sirens blazing, police operations with hooded men, convoys filled with armed men who at mid-day screech along Sánchez Taboada Avenue and Paseo de los Héroes. Every day there are fresh headlines of executions on the city’s street corners. TV news showing bloody corpses. Tijuana is a running battle.

A record kept by the Citizens’ Association Against Impunity shows that between 2007 and the present, 488 people have disappeared after being picked up by armed groups who were wearing police uniforms and credentials, carrying police weapons, and had police insignia.

Forty per cent of those abducted were shopkeepers, stallholders, small businessmen. They’re the most vulnerable group in society, because the drug-traffickers don’t usually kidnap rich people. They prefer to take the owners of pharmacies, stores, butcher shops people who have no influence or contacts. Some of the victims return home; others are never seen again,” explains the general secretary of the Association, Fernando Ocegueda.

On his desk, Ocegueda has a photo album with the faces of the disappeared. They were taken at parties, family reunions, solemn occasions or days out in the country. Each of these smiles has been wiped away by a horror story. “They burst into his house to get him,” “they picked him up as he was leaving work,” “they chopped up his driver’s body and dumped it on the doorstep so that the family would pay the ransom.” Almost 500 people in just two years. Some of them had got caught up in the nets of organized crime. Others no. They were simply victims.

When the pozole-man was captured in Baja Season’s, the members of the Association took the album to the SIEDO offices.

“We were hoping he could clarify what had happened to our relatives,” says Ocegueda. “But the pozole-man said he never saw any of the dead people’s faces. That they were handed over to him with their heads covered in duct tape, and he put them like that into the drums.”

The editor of Zeta says Tijuana is a cemetery. That for every corpse that appears, there is possibly another one buried in narco-graves or security houses.

“If you’re lucky, your body is found dumped somewhere. If not, it may be because you were sent there.”

There. A dog barks in the village of Ojo de Agua, close to the wall behind which Meza López lit fires so that the bodies in the drums would disappear more quickly. The wind blows across the slopes, raising swirls of dust, disturbing the tiny mounds of earth heaped alongside the graves littered with bones and teeth.

1 Pozole is a thick Mexican soup or stew usually made with grains of corn, chunks of meat and fresh vegetables.
2 Assistant Attorney General's Office for Special Investigations on Organized Crime.
3 Confederación Patronal de la República Mexicana, the Mexican Employers’ Confederation.
4 Nursemaids