This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico. Leer en Español.
Eight years have passed since the day Mexican authorities detained a man named Santiago Meza López. At that time, President Felipe Calderón’s administration began referring to Meza as El Pozolero ("The Stewmaker"), a reference to the fact that he was believed to have dissolved some 300 people in caustic soda.
In a press release distributed by the Attorney General's office on January 25, 2009, Meza López was portrayed as one of the most ruthless drug traffickers in the game, and the official description of him suggested he'd be subjected to a severe sentence. Almost a decade later, the reality is quite different.
Information obtained by VICE News en Español via the Federation of Judicial Power —which is in charge of imposing sentences in Mexico—revealed that to date, Meza López still hasn't been formally sentenced, despite admitting to these horrible acts and being convicted of crimes.
For now, he remains incarcerated in the Almoloya de Juárez prison in the State of Mexico, where he finished a primary school education and learned how to write.
As can be read in his file, around mid-2015, a formal prison sentence was handed down due to Meza López's involvement in organized crime and illegal deprivation of freedom. But his defense attorney has managed to lodge various stays that have been accepted by judges, pushing back the official date for sentencing.
Nevertheless, in the northern part of the country—the farthest point from the capital—lies the border city of Tijuana, where human remains keep being dug out of the earth, presumably those that were dissolved by Meza López.
They appear every time it rains, every time the wind moves the soil, every time a group of family members of the disappeared shows up with a pick axe and a shovel to look for the remains of their children, fathers, and grandsons.
According to Fernando Ocegueda, president of the association United for the Disappeared (Unidos por los Desaparecidos, in Spanish), 16,500 liters of organic matter have been extracted thus far.
The most recent excavations were conducted between the months of August and October of this year, on the land where Meza López dismembered and dissolved in acid the bodies of people who were kidnapped by the Arellano Félix and Sinaloa Cartels, the groups that historically controlled drug trafficking in that city.
The most important excavation to date, which occurred in an area known as "The Chicken Coop," took place several weeks ago in a house just outside city limits. The event came eight years from the day that Meza López was detained, opening a new door for families of Mexico's disappeared. Authorities had informed families that DNA could not be extracted from the organic remains, but in mid-August, Fernando Ocegueda and other family members discovered new graves in the Chicken Coop, extracting 250 kilos of bones and bone fragments.
The Chicken Coop
The story of the Chicken Coop begins around 1996, when Meza López worked for the Arellano Félix Cartel, taking care of horses and doing masonry work.
Efraín Pérez and Jorge Aureliano Félix 'El Macumba', the heads of the organization, invited him to see an "experiment." They poured liters of water and other substances into a drum and asked Santiago Meza López to drop in a leg of beef. They told him he should let it sit for two hours. "Move it, and the meat dissolved," Meza López recalled himself.
"It was probably about six months later that they called me again and Efraín told me that now they were going to experiment with human flesh. 'I'm going to send some guys to train with you.' In other words, [so] that they learn the job," Meza López recounted in a statement to authorities.
The first body was dissolved one night in 1996, in a drum with 200 liters of water. They undressed him, put him inside, turned on the gas burner, and left it there all night.
"It left the water thick with foam," Lopez said. "We put the barrels in the pick-up and took them to throw them [away] in the canyon. It was still dark when we threw them in. Three months later, I did it again."
"I told them I didn't want to do it anymore," Lopez added in his statement.
Years passed and Santiago Meza López stuck with the job, and did teach the method to others; in his statement, he explained that, in one of the locations, which may or may not have been the Chicken Coop, he installed drainage where the dissolved human remains were dumped.
"It was the devil to move them (the human remains) because they weighed a lot. After everything was cleaned up, we stored the barrels. We also washed the drain with hot water because the remains stuck to the pipes," he recalled.
Meza López said he worked in the Chicken Coop itself for just a year and a half, and that, on some occasions, military forces showed up, but never discovered anything. He said the Cartel brought more than 70 bodies to that site to dissolve them in the caustic soda.
He described the Chicken Coop as a very rural place that "was along the free highway to Tecate (a neighboring city of Tijuana), I don't know in what kilometer; a path went up past the front of a gas station and led to a brick wall. We called it the Chicken Coop because they raised chickens there."
VICE News en Español was at the most recent excavation at the Chicken Coop. Here's what we saw.