Image: Bodies awaiting autopsies
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP
Bodies awaiting autopsies crowd a walk-in refrigerator at the morgue in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
updated 3/8/2009 2:02:45 PM ET 2009-03-08T18:02:45

Death froze his exhausted face.

The attackers lashed or punctured nearly every part of his body. Then they cut off the dead man's head, wrapped it in a plastic grocery bag and dumped it with his body between two tractor-trailers on a city street.

As with most murders in Ciudad Juarez, police found no witnesses, no weapons. Only the battered corpse on the steel coroner's table carries clues to who he was and how he died.

"Every organ speaks," says Dr. Maria Concepcion Molina, who gently removes packing tape from the head of her third decapitated victim in a week. The dead man's slack mouth and eyes still seem to pray for relief.

Escalating drug war
Bodies stacked in the morgues of Mexico's border cities tell the story of an escalating drug war. Drug violence claimed 6,290 people last year, double the previous year, and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009.

Each bullet wound or broken bone details the viciousness with which the cartels battle a government crackdown and each other. Slain policemen lie next to hit men in the rows of zipped white bags.

Workers toil up to 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, to examine the remains. When Tijuana coffin makers fell behind during the December holidays, the morgue there crammed 200 bodies into two refrigerators made to hold 80.

"There are times here when there are so many people, so many cadavers, that we can't keep up," says the Tijuana morgue director, Federico Ortiz.

In Ciudad Juarez, the border city with the most killings, Molina prepares to make a dead man talk. Investigators press each finger of the headless body on a pad for fingerprints.

Molina guesses from his face he was probably in his 30s.

She carefully lays out his bloodied clothing on a red plastic sheet. She pieces together his knife-shredded T-shirt picturing a wanted poster for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. She lays the tags showing the brands of his jeans and boxers flat before snapping photographs of each.

"Sometimes we show family these photos, and they'll say it's his clothing but it's not him," says Molina, a 41-year-old mother of five. "It's a defense mechanism."

Morgue employs seven doctors
Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million across the border from El Paso, Texas, has a modern, estimated $15 million morgue and crime lab thanks to international support after another notorious spate of killings — the Women of Juarez. More than 400 women have been raped, strangled and dumped in the desert since 1993.

The morgue has seven doctors, including two hired in the last two weeks.

Still, the procession of the dead is staggering. Plans are under way to double the morgue's size next year.

Last year, 2,300 victims of violence and accidents were wheeled into the pungent, formaldehyde-infused morgue, where doctors work to Mexican love ballads and the whir of electric saws cutting through bone. More than 460 bodies arrived in January and February this year.

The morgue has stopped taking other death cases.

Nearly 40 percent of the dead last year tested positive for cocaine or marijuana. About 20 percent were never claimed by their families, many out of fear. Cardboard boxes with bloodstained cowboy boots, cell phones and bulletproof vests are stacked to the ceiling in the crime lab.

Drug traffickers raid morgues
Drug traffickers know investigators use the cadavers to track killers. They have raided morgues and carted off bodies at gunpoint as shaking workers in blue smocks stood helpless.

Soldiers now guard morgues when a well-known trafficker is suspected among the dead.

Image: Evidence boxes
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP
Numbered boxes containing evidence gathered during autopsies are stacked against a wall at the morgue in Ciudad Juarez.
Tijuana morgue workers show photographs to families identifying bodies from behind a protective window. Ortiz has asked for bulletproof glass, as well as fencing around the one-story building.

From 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, 17 bodies rolled into the Juarez morgue, including the city police force's second-in-command and three other officers.

"If this continues, we're going to have another record year easily. We're headed toward 2,000 deaths within 10 months," says Hector Hawley, the administrator of the crime analysis and forensics unit, as workers in white haz-mat suits crane-lift body bags onto steel shelves. "We need a lot more help."

In a white shower cap and blue medical robe, the bespectacled Molina checks her victim's neck, but there is no bruising. His head was cut off after he died.

"He's been decapitated, but I still have to determine the cause of his death," she says.

Trying to make it easier for loved ones
Her assistant, Ivan Ramos, 20, matches the head to the body. He holds it in place as Molina shoots a photograph, using a paper identifying the man by number to cover the gap in his neck. That makes it easier for loved ones who have to see the picture.

The doctor notes the rest of his injuries: broken left tibia, broken right humerus, severely bruised and cut abdomen, bruised left thigh, stabbed right thigh, sliced chin, knife punctures on lower right calf, lashes on his back. He has no distinguishable traits — no moles, no scars, no tattoos.

Molina unwraps what appears to be a tourniquet on his left biceps. She speculates it was put there by the killers to stop the bleeding from a stab wound so he would not die before they finished their torture. His knees are bruised. He was forced to crawl at one point.

Molina holds the head on the examining table while Ramos shaves a section to measure a knife wound. He cuts the skin, saws open the skull, then photographs the brain before scooping it out and wiping away a dark pool of blood.

"That dark wine color on the brain, that shouldn't be there," Molina says. "That's a cerebral hemorrhage. Although they didn't crack his skull, he was beaten hard enough that it caused this."

Some doctors quit after a few days
Molina sees the carnage as a mound of medical evidence to be explored, a mechanism that helps her leave the gory images locked in the morgue when she heads home. Other doctors have quit after a few days.

She keeps looking, unsatisfied that the head injury caused the man's death.

Ramos drills through the rib cage to examine the organs. He started at the morgue as a volunteer when he was 17. While he couldn't eat at first, he's glad it led to a job in a recession-wracked city.

Molina examines the man's heart.

"Look, he had a heart attack," she says, pointing to white pearling on the organ. "But if I put heart attack as the cause, it will remove the responsibility from those who did this because it will be considered a natural death. So I'm going to leave that as a last resort."

She lifts each organ, noting how healthy the man was. No kidney stones, little fat, a healthy appendix, a normal-sized head.

"This could have been a productive person, and they are all like that, young men between 18 and 36 years old," she says, shaking her head.

Death by asphyxiation
After an hour and a half, she decides he was asphyxiated by the packing tape over his mouth and nose. His lungs are collapsed. His nails are a purplish blue.

Ramos gets a needle and twine, places the brain in the man's body cavity as standard procedure and sews up his chest. He closes the skull and replaces its skin.

"He's in good shape for being identified," Molina says.

As they zip the remains into a body bag to store in the refrigerator, the doors open and workers wheel in another slain man.

The next day, a stone-faced woman arrives among the families who gather daily outside the morgue, hoping to find missing loved ones.

A worker shows her photographs of the man's clothes. She says they belonged to her brother, 23-year-old Victor Alfonso Picaso, according to the morgue.

"She seemed to already know what she was coming for," says morgue psychologist Luis Mejia. "She just wanted to recover the body and get this over with."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Mexico Under Siege

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  1. A tattooed man stands on a hill overlooking Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, on Dec. 20, 2008. Cartels have launched a wave of violence against the government of President Felipe Calderon since it began a crackdown on organized crime in 2006. According to the attorney general’s office there were 5,370 drug-related homicides in the year to Dec. 2, 2008. That is double the 2007 number. Juarez alone saw an estimated 1,600 such slayings. And the deaths can be horrific – victims have been tortured, beheaded or dissolved in acid. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Inside the car where Marisela Granados de Molinar was killed on Dec. 3 alongside her boss, Jesus Martin Huerta Hiedra, a deputy prosecutor in the Mexican city of Juarez. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Federal police search cars at an impromptu checkpoint near the U.S. border on Nov. 10, 2008. In the late 1980s the United States stemmed the flow of cocaine from South America through the traditional trade routes in the Caribbean. Looking for alternate ways into the U.S., South American cartels began to run drugs through Central America and Mexico, and now the vast majority of illegal drugs flow through this corridor. Facing the recent slew of deaths and corruption scandals among all levels of the police, the government has deployed 45,000 soldiers to fight the cartels as well. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Missing person signs litter the walls of local police stations in Juarez. Kidnapping is integral to the drug-running business and the general lawlessness accompanying it. Before the latest surge in drug violence, Juarez was infamous for another gruesome string of crimes – the kidnapping and murder of young women. There have been 508 such incidents since 1993, according to the state government. When the bodies do show up, many have been raped and mutilated. Many believe that most of these deaths are related to gang initiation rituals. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. El Diario newspaper's Armando Rodriquez was murdered outside his home while warming up his car on Nov. 13, 2008. The 40-year-old crime reporter was killed in front of his 8-year-old daughter who he was about to drive to school. Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 2000, 25 have been killed there. In addition, seven journalists have disappeared since 2005. Many reporters refuse to put their bylines on stories, and many newspapers have stopped covering the drug gangs altogether. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The body of El Diario's Rodriquez -- killed in his car outside his house while his family watched in November 2008 -- is taken away in a body bag by an ambulance. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. official stands beside a recently discovered cache of drugs on the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border crossing. In December, the United States delivered $197 million to Mexico, the first stage of a $400-million package to buy high-tech surveillance aircraft, airport inspection equipment, and case-tracking software to help police share intelligence. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Men and boys shoot heroin in a "picadero," or shooting gallery, in Ciudad Juarez on the banks of the Rio Grande, just across from the United States. Thousands of picaderos, some serving as many as 100 customers a day, are said to exist in Juarez alone. Drug use and addiction among Mexicans has exploded recently, with the number of known addicts almost doubling to 307,000 in six years. Most experts assume these numbers dramatically undercount the problem. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Patrons and workers mingle at Hollywood strip club in downtown Juarez. With American sex tourism on the decline due to the dramatic increase in murder and violence, the few remaining strip clubs have become common hangouts for narcotics traffickers, or ‘narcos.’ (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A man walks in front of 24-hour funeral parlor. The death industry is booming in Juarez where an estimated 1,600 people were murdered in 2008. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Neighbors and family of slain Alberto Rodriquez, 28, watch and cry as the authorities descend on the crime scene. Rodriguez was killed in his car outside his house while his family watched. (Shaul Schwarz) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A bus carrying women and children drives by the site where David Rodriguez Gardea, 42, and Antonio Bustillos Fierro, 38, were gunned down on Nov. 12, 2008. The agents had led an investigation resulting in the arrests of gang members suspected in dozens of murders. The cartels are killing police officers at an unprecedented rate, especially at the border. Gangs have been breaking into police radio frequencies to issue death threats. "You're next, bastard ... We're going to get you," an unidentified drug gang member said over the police radio in the city of Tijuana after naming a policeman, Reuters reported recently. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A U.S. border patrol officer stands behind bullet-scared bullet-proof glass on the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border. Although border agents do not get shot at often they are self-described "sitting ducks." The cartels and drug traffickers send messages of terror through such examples. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The casket of David Miranda Ramirez, 36, is carried by fellow police at his funeral on Nov. 13, 2008. An estimated 50 of Ciudad Juarez’s police officers were killed in 2008 in incidents blamed on drug gangs. Many officers have quit out of fear for their lives, often after their names have appeared on hit lists left in public. While some police have been killed, others are being lured into cooperating with the cartels. Theses gangs have “enormous economic power, and behind that, enormous power to corrupt and intimidate,” says Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Family of slain police officer Miranda Ramirez mourn his loss at his funeral. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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