Juarez Medical Examiner Catches His Breath, Enjoys Lull in Violence

Jorge Villa Sr., M.D., coordinator at the Chihuahua state forensic lab in Ciudad Juárez, knows what it’s like to be knee deep in his work – literally.

During the peak of the violence in 2010, when 3,622 were murdered in the drug war, Villa said he would have up to 40 autopsies a day, leaving all of his stainless steel examination tables occupied and forcing his staff to lay the overflow of bodies in thick zippered plastic bags on the floor. The room also had to be expanded.

You always knew who was killed in drug-related violence because of the number of gunshot wounds. They are never shot just once.

— Jorge Villa Sr., M.D., Coordinator at Forensic Lab in Ciudad Juárez

“It was overwhelming during that time,” Villa said. “We couldn’t do autopsies of people who died of natural causes and had to send them to the general hospital for processing.”

The stench of death penetrates the thick odor of industrial strength disinfectant solution in the autopsy room, where some tables and chipped floor tiles still have splatters of dried blood. While the numbers of murders are dropping, the gory history of the room is inescapable.

Villa, a short, slightly built man, calmly described the challenges and distinctions of the drug war casualties he saw on a daily basis.

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“You always knew who was killed in drug-related violence because of the number of gunshot wounds,” Villa said. “They are never shot just once.”

He said it would not be unusual to have cases with more than 50 gunshot wounds, which had to be meticulously identified and tracked for the entrance and exit locations, and the slugs removed from the body for the ensuing investigation which rarely reaped a suspect, let alone a conviction.

“I still had to do my job and keep accurate records,” Villa said, with no illusions of what the outcome of a case or justice for the naked victim lying in front of him would be. In a city long synonymous with violent deaths, Villa can finally catch his breath.

In 2011, the murder rate dropped 45 percent and continues to drop in 2012, leaving his autopsy room virtually empty with an average of about six cases per day.

For Villa, the Drug War is not over – it is just experiencing a lull. He dryly says one explanation for it may be that there just isn’t anyone else to kill.

There may be morbid accuracy to this statement since, according to law enforcement officials, the days of the Vicente Currillo Fuentes/Juárez Cartel may be over, with the Sinaloa Cartel, run by the elusive Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, claiming victory of this previously hotly contested drug plaza into the U.S.

For the veteran medical examiner, Ciudad Juárez has always had its forensic challenges, which were recently alleviated with the establishment of the state-funded forensic complex in the city.

Dating back to the mid-1990s, when unidentified women were found dead in remote locations around the city, Villa has fought to improve the technology and resources to clear a caseload of 2,000 skeletal remains stored in the forensic lab.

Forensic anthropologists have been able to put a dent in this backlog in recent years. Villa said his office has cut that number down to 300 unidentified remains.

But defining identification is somewhat ambiguous. A case is cleared if they can identify the gender, age, height, weight and cause of death of the victim. Identifying names is daunting. Many of Juárez’s dead were migrants from southern Mexico and even Central America, who came to the city with the promise of jobs in the maquiladoras.

Even accomplishing these basic goals is difficult for the anthropologist because not all of the remains were found with the victims.

“We have to determine what person certain bodies parts belong to,” Villa said. This has been the cases when mass graves are discovered and the victim’s remains need to be reassembled.

Like many officials in Ciudad Juárez, Villa said the tragedy of the murdered women over the past 20 years has attracted unwarranted attention to the city.

“The world had and still does have an eye on us,” Villa said. “The media has globalized what has happened here.”

Villa cited statistics saying that the number of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez is less than 10 percent of the total number of murder cases there.

He admits there have been high profile cases but not dramatically different as those seen in some U.S. cities, such as the 11 women found on the West Mesa of Albuquerque, N.M. and more than 10 female victims found around Gilgo Beach on Long Island, N.Y.

“We are seeing more women killed since 2010, because there are more getting involved in the drug trade,” he said.

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