A week after a crematorium in the Mexican city of Acapulco was found to have stored dozens of corpses without cremating them, Emma Sanchez, a woman who thought she sent her son to be cremated more than a year ago, is now wondering what exactly resides in the urn that should be carrying his ashes.
Her son, Jose Luis Olea, was murdered in front of their Acapulco home in November 2013, at the age of 27. He was another casualty in the drug-related violence crippling what was once one of Mexico's most beloved tourist destinations.
Sanchez is one of at least 32 local residents who have reached out to authorities in the Pacific port city to share DNA samples, in the hopes of finding out if one of the 60 bodies authorities now say were found decomposing in the crematorium belong to her "Wicho," as her son was known.
Dozens of other Acapulco residents with missing family members ones have come forward in the hopes of finding a relative, but officials said that they will only investigate cases of families with records that show the crematorium would have handled their loved ones.
So far, none of the victims found in the crematorium — decomposing bodies that were for the most part dressed and embalmed — have been identified.
At the time of her son's death, Sanchez hired a funeral home, which in turn hired Cremaciones del Pacifico, the crematorium where the gruesome discovery was made, to incinerate his corpse.
"It was the most affordable one — about 13,000 pesos [almost $870]," Sanchez, who lives in an impoverished area nearby, told VICE News. "After the funeral, we went to the crematorium and they told us that we couldn't come in, that we should say goodbye to him there, and then they took him inside that place."
Now, all Sanchez has left is a small wooden box that contains a black plastic bag holding what are supposedly her son's ashes.
Sanchez said she had hoped to never have to open the box. But she received a call from her surviving son the day after the crematorium story came to light. Sanchez's son told her to check his brother's ashes, "because he saw the news, and the dates coincide."
She opened the bag for the first time on Monday, more than a year after Jose Luis's death, with VICE News present.
"I opened my cousin's ashes to see what they looked like," Sanchez said, referring to another dead relative. "And they don't look anything like these."
"This is just lime," the woman said, as she pulled her powder-covered hand out of the black plastic bag.
"I was just coming to terms with the fact that my son is resting. Who knows if he is one of the ones that has rotted in there," Sanchez went on, teary-eyed. "I just want to know if his body is there among the 60, to bury him, even if it stirs up emotion again."
Acapulco municipal prosecutor Fernando Fernandez told VICE News that nearly 100 people have come to ask if one of their family members are among the corpses found.
"Now, we are talking about a psychosis," Fernandez said. "I personally had to tend to people who came to tell me they have missing family members. I told them that we are going to focus exclusively on the people that had an incineration agreement with this crematorium. I wish I could help them, but they have nothing to do with this case in particular."
This "psychosis," however, is arguably not misplaced in Guerrero. Federal statistics show the state has one of the highest homicide rates and highest instances of forced disappearances in Mexico.
'A lot of those bodies were probably left there by the bad guys.'
Acapulco, formerly one of the most frequented tourist hubs in the country, is today considered the third most violent city in the world, war zones excluded. The resort city of under 1 million inhabitants has grown accustomed to shootouts, narco roadblocks, and unchecked murder.
The homicide rate in 2014 was 104 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, or almost five times the national average, which was 22 murders per 100,000 during the same period. The government acknowledges that there are more than 500 missing people in the state of Guerrero. More than 100 of these were "forcibly disappeared" with the participation of authorities, according to government data.
A key example of this is the case of 43 teachers college students who were forcibly disappeared with the direct participation of local authorities in September 2014, in Iguala, Guerrero, about 130 miles north of the crematorium.
Cremaciones del Pacifico is located on a dusty highway on the outskirts of Acapulco, which connects the popular coastal area with the poorer marginalized communities that surround it — "the poor man's Acapulco," as one resident described it.
Guillermo Estua Zardain, the owner of Cremaciones del Pacifico, is at large and being sought by Guerrero's authorities.
"Don Memo," as he is known among neighbors, built the crematorium 12 years ago, said a woman whose family members own the land on which the facility was built, Ninfa Perez.
"There used to be nothing here, which is why there was no problem with him burning the corpses," said Perez, a 40-year-old sun-beaten woman.
The Perez family said that the last time they saw Estua Zardain, "with his little cigarette, and in one of his four luxury cars," was in July 2014.
"One afternoon he came to try to negotiate with my brother, because he owed him about a year of rent, but they didn't get anywhere, and from there, he vanished," Perez said.
'Even I have received threats. Everyone has … There are dead people to spare here.'
Neighbors said they began complaining about a foul smell coming from the crematorium since about September of last year. But Perez, who lives behind the building, said the smell got unbearable in May 2014.
By then, Estua Zardain had asked the family to give him another chance.
"He said that his oven was broken, but that he had bought two filters […] in Mexico City, and that we should let him burn two muertitos [dead people] so that we could see it didn't smell," Perez said.
After the test burn, the neighbors and the Perez family said that the smell was just as bad as before. "Like dead fish, like rotting fruit, like decomposing fat — like dead people. That's what it always smelled like," Perez said. "But we never thought he was storing them."
The corpses were finally discovered thanks to a tip from neighbors, who told federal authorities that they could see four corpses piled on top of each other in the crematorium from a second-story window, witnesses said.
The bad guys
"A lot of those bodies were probably left there by the bad guys," said Lilia Alvarez, owner of one of 16 funeral homes in Acapulco, in an interview with VICE News. "That's how they operate: 'Burn them and shut your mouth, or bury them.' Everyone whose work relates to the dead has gone through something like that."
"Even I have received threats. Everyone has," Alvarez added. "There are dead people to spare here."
The man in charge of inspecting the city's crematoriums, Guerrero health secretary Eduardo Figueroa, told VICE News that Cremaciones del Pacifico's operating license was suspended in June 2014. Other reports said the crematorium was operating illegally since at least 2007.
"I saw him in April . I took a body to him myself," Alvarez said. "I went in and saw that he had a pile of seven bodies, but I couldn't ask him what they were doing there. I didn't want to get involved."
"He looked at me and said, 'Sorry, Doña Lilia, it's a mess. Just don't say anything'," Alvarez said.
Sanchez, meanwhile, will have to wait for DNA results to reveal whether her son is among the corpses.
"I always have," she said, about the wait. "There was no justice when my son was killed, nothing was investigated. I know there won't be this time either."
"All I want is that my son's body not be eaten by worms — that they give him to me," Sanchez said. "And I can go do everything all over again. That's the only way he'll be able to rest."
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter @Melissadps.