In Mexico, officials and citizens routinely announce the discoveries of clandestine graves baring skeletal remains from the gang violence that has convulsed the country for years.
The official count of the “disappeared” nationwide exceeds 30,000, and relatives of the legions of missing call that a low-ball estimate.
But the macabre saga of a roving government-contracted truck ferrying the corpses of scores of apparent murder victims from one town to the next in western Jalisco state has added a bizarre new twist to Mexico’s violent narrative.
The episode has become a major embarrassment for Jalisco authorities, who have been in a blame-shifting mode since word emerged last weekend, in the midst of national Independence Day celebrations.
Some social-media denizens have dubbed the body-filled trailer the “mobile pit,” after the many fosas, or pits, that regularly turn up with human remains.
Behind the episode of the itinerant truck and its gruesome cargo was a basic storage problem: Authorities in violence-plagued Jalisco say they have run out of space to put the ever-escalating numbers of unclaimed victims of violence. Current law bans cremation of the unclaimed bodies.
Consequently, officials opted to store the reported remains of more than 150 people in a refrigerated semi-trailer that in recent days was parked in various towns — angering residents who complained about fetid odors, dripping blood and gathering swarms of flies.
“The smell was horrible,” a woman holding her baby girl told Telemundo in the town of Tlajomulco de Zuniga, one of the places where the semi-trailer was parked, in a field outside a residential development.
The rented truck apparently set off late last week on its still-unexplained odyssey from morgue facilities in Guadalajara, the Jalisco state capital, to various densely populated suburbs.
Human rights advocates denounced the unseemly “abandonment” of the dead.
“We express our indignation for this degrading treatment,” declared one organization representing relatives of the disappeared, condemning the “re-victimization” of the missing and their loved ones.
On Monday, Jalisco Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval fired the state’s forensic chief, citing “grave omissions” and a departure from “protocol” in handling remains.
“We will be scrupulous in the treatment and management given to the bodies,” the governor vowed, pledging a thorough investigation.
But the sacked former morgue chief, Luis Octavio Cotero, responded in interviews that he was being made a scapegoat and feared for his life.
The trailer, and its grisly contents, have now been returned to the morgue grounds in Guadalajara, authorities say. Officials have not explained why it left there in the first place — without authorization, according to Jalisco prosecutors.
Officials say they are hastening to construct another morgue facility to handle the overflow of unclaimed bodies from the homicide epidemic. But residents near the planned new site have objected, delaying the project.
Many questions remain about the case of the “rolling morgue,” as it has also been called on social media.
It is still unclear who ordered the semi-trailer to leave the morgue grounds, and why it was parked and seemingly abandoned in at least two towns.
Media accounts have said the truck contained 157 bodies, all homicide victims. But authorities have not clarified exactly how many corpses are inside — and when and how the people perished.
Why the bodies have gone unclaimed is another mystery. Officials have taken fingerprints, DNA samples and photographs of each of the deceased individuals, according to Roberto Lopez Lara, the Jalisco state general secretary.
“We plan to investigate because this is outrageous,” Lopez told a radio interviewer. “These are people, these are bodies.”
Jalisco, like much of Mexico, is experiencing a major increase in violence.
During January-July this year, authorities reported 1,037 homicides — an increase of more than 43% compared with the same period last year.
In one notorious incident, three film students were kidnapped and executed outside of Guadalajara, and their bodies were dissolved in acid, authorities said. Officials blamed drug traffickers and called the slayings a case of mistaken identity.
Jalisco is home to a number of smuggling syndicates, notably the Jalisco New Generation cartel, considered among Mexico’s most powerful and ruthless.
Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed.