They call him El Pozolero (“the Stewmaker”), a macabre tribute to his grisly trade. Arrested last week in Tijuana, Mexico, Santiago Meza López has admitted to dissolving some 300 bodies in acid over the past 10 years. His victims, he said, were the enemies of a drug lord who paid him $700 per week for his work. In a bizarre statement, Meza López claims he only dissolved men, refusing to dispose of female bodies this way.
It’s the latest gruesome story to emerge from Mexico, which is in the grip of a brutal drug war. On Jan. 18, the severed head of a police chief was found in an ice cooler outside a police station near Ciudad Juárez (across the border from El Paso), reportedly left there as a warning between rival cartels. It was one of 15 execution-style killings in the area within 24 hours, the Mexican newspaper El Universal reported. On top of that, in December, eight soldiers and a police chief were found beheaded in Guerrero state.
Elected in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made cracking down on the drug trade a priority. As his campaign has escalated, though, so has the backlash: more than 5,400 people died in drug-related violence last year, double the number from 2007. If it isn’t contained, experts caution, Mexico could become a failed state. Outgoing CIA director Michael V. Hayden has named the problems in Mexico and Iran as among the most urgent for the new U.S. government. And the U.S. Joint Forces Command has singled out Mexico and Pakistan as two states at risk of “rapid and sudden collapse.”
Police say many of Meza López’s victims were not in the drug trade, and were kidnapped for ransom. Relatives of the missing are now hoping to show him photos of their loved ones, to see if they can be identified. “I’ll be at peace when I know where my son’s body is,” one man told reporters.