Photos By Mauricio Palos
Yovani extracting fluids from a body.
Every day I ride a tram back and forth between my house and office. I’ve taken it for years now. The route goes through some of Mexico City’s nicest neighbourhoods, like Colonia Roma, but it also passes one of its roughest: the Doctores, where each street is named for a famous physician. Last year, on an April morning, I was gazing out the window of the tram when I spotted two oversize trailers backed up to the door of what looked like a nondescript residential house. A large group of photographers were snapping pictures around the trailers as soldiers stood around the perimeter, blocking off the street. It was an unusual sight, but it didn’t provoke any Roswellian suspicions.
Later that day, as I was watching the news, I learned that the house I saw on the tram is something like a stopover to the afterlife – like a mum-and-pop-shop mortuary.
The scene kept replaying in my mind until curiosity finally got the best of me and I decided to return to the house and see who was inside. I knocked on the door, expecting some creepy, vampire-looking old guy to answer. Instead, I was welcomed inside by a sweet and soft-spoken young man named Yovani González Solís, who is the sole employee of La Embalsamadora la Piedad (Mercy Embalmings).
The first thing I asked Yovani about was the trailers I’d seen while riding the tram, one of which was currently docked to the house from the sidewalk. He told me that the trucks were full of bodies, and that they were being delivered to him. Autopsies in Mexico are handled by the Forensic Medical Service (SEMEFO), a government agency tasked with identifying bodies and investigating violent deaths. But people like Yovani are relied on for the cleaning and embalming. It’s mortuary outsourcing, basically.
When I asked Yovani where the stiffs on the trucks came from, he said they were transferred from Tamaulipas’s infamous narco mass graves – victims of a series of brutal drug-cartel executions that happened last year. I was shocked and thought it best for me to leave to reflect on what was going on at Yovani’s house, but I asked him whether it was OK to come back some other time to talk more about his work. He said yes.
Soon I was spending long afternoons with Yovani, talking about decomposing bodies, the mysteries of death and his life. While many kids in Mexico City celebrate their 15th birthdays with huge parties that are on par with bar mitzvahs, at 15 Yovani was forced to start working as an embalmer out of necessity. Even though he’s only 27, Yovani has such a good reputation in the embalming industry that he has gained the loyalty of big-time clients like SEMEFO and the Heróico Colegio Militar (an academy that trains Mexico’s military officers).
Yovani posing inside the embalming chamber after a hard day of work.
Yovani spends almost every hour of every day inside his bunker of death, and much of the Doctores neighbourhood is in the body business: two public hospitals can be found on a single block, countless funeral homes and coffin shops are scattered about, and the SEMEFO headquarters is nearby as well. It’s a goth teen’s paradise.
It’s tough to have a social life when you live inside an embalming facility, as Yovani does. He can’t even take time off because the work is endless and he’s been unable to find a full-time assistant who’ll put up with the incredibly demanding and olfactory-challenging work. He runs the place entirely on his own. It’s ironic that in a country where young kids readily sign up with the cartels to become sicarios and kill people for less than 50 bucks a head, no one is willing to take a job cleaning up the mess.
As Yovani points out repeatedly, every body arrives in a different condition, and some require much more work than others. Murder victims are first sent to SEMEFO before they can be readied for a coffin and, if they’re lucky, a funeral. After the authorities perform a necropsy to determine the exact cause of death, the bodies must be embalmed in a specific way called legal. The corpse is injected with at least two liters of formaldehyde – first through the jugular vein, then the carotid arteries in the neck and the subclavian vein in the chest, and finally the femoral arteries in the legs. When the body arrives at the embalming house, the innards (heart, liver, intestines, kidneys, etc.) are put inside a plastic bag. This helps delay decomposition.
Yovani unwraps a body before placing it on the surgical table.
If a person dies in a particularly nasty way, Yovani will cover the wounds with a formaldehyde powder that turns the blood gelatinous, which ensures that the previously injected liquids won’t squirt out during the funeral. All other bodily fluids need to be extracted as well. To suck the water out of the abdominal cavity, Yovani measures three fingers up from the navel and pierces the body with his trocar, a vacuum-powered spike that is the embalmer’s signature tool. When I asked him what the hardest part of the body to pierce is, he said, “The heart.” Figures. “When the bodies leave here they look as if they’ve just come out of the shower. We wash them, we dye them and occasionally we apply makeup to them, too.”
His workshop contains all the tools you’d expect – scalpels, forceps, medical thread, a couple of slabs to lay the bodies on – along with a few personal additions. “I can’t work without superglue, because when I have to close the holes in the neck I suck the fluids out of, I don’t like using stitches. It’s not pleasant for the relatives to look at in the funerals; if you just glue the skin, it looks much cleaner.” He also keeps lipstick and powder on hand for similar reasons.
Sometimes, though, families request things that are beyond even Yovani’s talents: “When people bring bodies of very old women, they are very picky. They always give me photos of dead women when they were young and had hair, but there’s only so much I can do. I’m not a magician.”
As I watched Yovani suck liters and liters of blood, piss, water and less-identifiable matter out of corpses, I wondered what he did with all that stuff, as well as the bloodstained sheets and other assorted detritus. He told me that all the fluids get flushed into the sewage system, but not until he drops in a chemical that breaks down the gross mixture into “water.” Really, water? That sounded like alchemy. “Well, not exactly drinking water, but it gets rid of the odor and the colour of the fluids. And once it’s done its work, I turn the lever, and the liquids go down the drain.” As for the solid waste, that gets picked up by a garbage truck that primarily collects trash from hotels. Of course, he gives them a generous tip for their help.
Trying to take in the scope of his operation, I learned that Yovani has prepared hundreds – if not thousands – of bodies in his time. But the most famous body he has embalmed by far was former Mexican president José López Portillo. He also worked on Espectrito Jr., a midget wrestler who, in an incident tailor-made for the tabloids, was found dead in a hotel room along with his brother and fellow midget wrestler La Parkita; allegedly, they were drugged by two prostitutes who robbed them.
The most legendary – and gory – work Yovani has ever done involves the bodies inside the trailers I saw from the window of the tram. The corpses were found in a town called San Fernando, in the northern state of Tamaulipas, an area known as a crossing point for illegal migrants from Central America on their way to the US. Reportedly, the Zetas cartel were kidnapping busloads of people, holding them for ransom or trying to force them to work for them. It has been rumoured that some were even forced to fight one another to the death, and many of the abductees went missing until the mass graves were discovered. When word got out about the situation, all the embalming houses in the Doctores sent the bodies they were working on to other neighbourhoods and came together to form a kind of impromptu corpse-treatment squad to handle the sudden influx of the dead.
“First there was a batch of around 80, but the next day we received maybe 75 more,” Yovani said. “Most of them arrived in a very bad state of decomposition; they were mostly unrecognisable. In some cases, all we could do was to put the bones and chunks of skin in formaldehyde. We formed a team of ten embalmers, and we split in pairs.” I asked about the stench. “I can’t tell. About two years into this job, I lost my sense of smell.”
After weeks of conflicting information about the final body count in San Fernando, the government released an official statement reporting that 193 bodies were found in 47 clandestine mass graves. The regional embalming shops in the north of Mexico were simply not able to handle the volume, so the cadavers were shipped to Mexico City in refrigerated trucks. Once embalmed, the dead were sent back to SEMEFO. According to the PGR (Mexico’s equivalent to the Department of Justice), only 34 have been identified.
Before delivering a body to its final destination, Yovani makes a final inspection to make sure it looks nice and clean.
This was not the first time Yovani had to work on such a large quantity of corpses. In September 2010, his shop received 56 bodies, the lion’s share of 72 victims executed by the Zetas in San Fernando. That massacre is one of the most infamous events in recent history, since most, if not all, of the victims were innocent migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Brazil, and even one from India, who were simply seeking a better life as so many others had before them.
According to SEMEFO, by the time the second massacre occurred in 2011, 14 of the 72 migrants had yet to be identified, and thanks to the discovery of fresh bodies, the unidentified corpses from the first batch had to be moved to the nearby city of Toluca. One of those bodies was later reclaimed by relatives, but in June of last year, the remaining 13 had to be buried, ironically enough, in another mass grave, this one a legally sanctioned site in Mexico City.
Clandestine gravesites in Mexico are nothing new, but narcofosas (narco mass graves) have become something of an epidemic since 2006, the same year that the government of Felipe Calderón took power and declared war on the cartels. Between 2006 and 2011, 174 mass graves containing 1,029 bodies have been found scattered across 19 states (with higher concentrations in Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Durango and Chihuahua). Estimates of the total number of drug-related murders over the past five years vary widely, and who knows how many bodies have yet to be uncovered. Official numbers released by the PGR in January put the death toll at 47,515, but Semanario Zeta, a weekly political journal based in Tijuana, reported that the number is more than 60,000, and the organisation Mexico United Against Crime claims it’s actually 80,000.
There is a silver lining of sorts: As long as the bodies keep piling up as a result of this war between the government and the cartels, businesses like Yovani’s will thrive. I feel fortunate to have found a trustworthy friend like Yovani, whom I can talk with for hours about life, death, and the new season of one of our favourite shows, The Walking Dead.