Where the blood goes

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer Tim MacGab­hann Pho­tog­ra­pher Béné­dicte Des­rus

MEX­ICO HAS ONE OF THE HIGH­EST MUR­DER RATES IN THE WORLD, BUT ONLY ONE PER­SON QUAL­I­FIED TO CLEAN UP AF­TER THEM. HIS NAME IS DONO­VAN TAV­ERA.

THE AL­LEY IS LOUD FOR 1AM ON A MON­DAY. A STEREO BLASTS RAU­COUS BANDA MU­SIC, MA­CHINE-SHOP WORK­ERS SWAP GAGS OVER THE BON­NET OF A CAMRY, AND A COU­PLE OF SLEEP-DEPRIVED DOGS EX­PRESS THEIR UN­HAP­PI­NESS AT BE­ING KEPT AWAKE. PARKED ACROSS THE ROAD IS A BAT­TERED VOLK­SWA­GEN JETTA.

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Dono­van Tav­era is stooped over its open boot. Forty-five and with the hefty build of a boxer gone to seed, he is Mex­ico’s first – and so far only – gov­ern­men­trecog­nised foren­sic cleaner.

He re­moves a me­tal case con­tain­ing four coloured vials – just a frac­tion of the 370 chem­i­cal for­mu­las he has in­vented at his Tex­coco home-lab over the last 17 years. Each for­mula, whose chem­i­cal com­po­si­tions Tav­era guards zeal­ously, is cal­i­brated to erad­i­cate the trace of a par­tic­u­lar tragedy, from house fires and com­pul­sive hoard­ing to mur­der and sui­cide.

He lifts a vial and tinks a clean a fin­ger­nail against the glass. “Blood is dan­ger­ous,” he says. “Most clean­ers – un­of­fi­cial clean­ers – just deal with the stain. But even when that stain’s gone, you’ll find HIV, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, hep­ati­tis still live at a scene. And when the heart is dam­aged you’ll find peri­car­dial fluid.” He stops for a mo­ment, nod­ding to­wards the up­stairs win­dow be­hind us. “The man up­stairs died some­time be­fore he was found, so we will need this bot­tle.” He props an­other vial on its end. “Shoot­ings and stab­bings cut through mul­ti­ple tis­sues: blood, bone, vis­cera. You need a dif­fer­ent for­mula for each.” He shrugs. “The po­lice didn’t say what hap­pened to this man, so we can’t take chances.”

A lot of the mess Tav­era has to clean up tonight has been left by the po­lice: boot prints scuff the floor, and fin­ger­print dust coats the plate of stale tor­tillas on the kitchen ta­ble. The vic­tim’s son, a lawyer in his mid-30s, seems as shaken by his deal­ings with the of­fi­cer as he is by the ex­pe­ri­ence of find­ing his fa­ther’s body in a pool of blood in his bed­room. “We have no idea what hap­pened,” he says. “The po­lice told us so lit­tle, and hinted they might ar­rest us as sus­pects if we didn’t pay them off.”

Tav­era paces the up­per floors, tak­ing notes on the af­fected ar­eas. The air is thick with car­bon monox­ide, which is re­leased when bac­te­ria feed on dried blood. He has his haz­mat suit on, and blue booties cover his dress shoes. A ven­ti­la­tor mask hangs around his neck.

“You can stay, if you like,” he says to the client. “Watch­ing the clean­ing can be cathar­tic. It helps with the mourn­ing process.” The son’s eyes track over the black lake of dried blood stretch­ing from the cor­ner of the bed­room past the steel legs of his fa­ther’s bed. He shakes his head.

Alone in the room, Tav­era sets to work, slit­ting open the stained mat­tress with a box-cut­ter and wrap­ping the con­tam­i­nated fab­ric in a bag of its own. “The worst job I ever had,” he says, “was in La Del Valle. A rob­bery went wrong, and a whole fam­ily was mur­dered. I could imag­ine every­thing that had hap­pened from the stains the vic­tims left, like it was a film in my head.”

He bends to the blood­stain, spray­ing for­mula. When the dried blood be­gins to soften, Tav­era gets to his feet and scrapes at the stain us­ing a squeegee screwed onto a broom-han­dle.

“On the job, my emo­tions freeze,” he says, stoop­ing to the edge of the stain to scoop up a hand­ful of dead cock­roaches. “I don’t no­tice the time pass: there is too much to do. Once the con­tam­i­nants are gone, my job be­comes that of a nor­mal cleaner – mak­ing the room look as though noth­ing tragic hap­pened there.” He stands up. “‘Lib­er­at­ing the scene’, po­lice call it, when the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’s closed and I’m al­lowed in to clean. But what I do is the real lib­er­a­tion: not a smell, not a trace, not an atom left; the crime blown away, like a strange dream.”

The rim of his ven­ti­la­tor mask fogs over with sweat, and the haz­mat soon clings to his body. The tinny roar of Black Sab­bath rings from a pair of ear­phones that hop against his torso with ev­ery mo­tion of his shoul­ders. At the end, when he pops off his mask and sucks in a lung­ful of air, the mu­sic on his head­phones is Bach, and the room smells like new.

THE AIR IS THICK WITH C ARBON MONOX­IDE, WHICH IS RE­LEASED WHEN BAC­TE­RIA FEED ON DRIED BL OOD.

This page, from top Tav­era’s foren­sic clean­ing kit in­cludes around 370 for­mu­las he has de­vised to carry out his wor k. The chem­i­cal bases f or some of his f or­mu­las can c ost up to $ 8,000.

Clean­ing the scene of an un­solved homi­cide in Cuer­navaca, More­los, one of Mex­ico’s most dan­ger­ous cities. The vic­tim was a re­tired eco­nomics lec­turer from the lo­cal univer sity. The clean-up beg an eight months af­ter the death.

Out­side the house, the vic­tim’s son shakes Tav­era’s hand, his shoul­ders out of their slump, his pos­ture open. “My clients look worn out when I meet them,” Tav­era says. “You need a good bed­side man­ner in this busi­ness. I read a lot of so­ci­ol­ogy and psychoanalysis – Durkheim on sui­cide, Freud on mourn­ing – to be sure that I treat them right.”

Back in the car, driv­ing west to­wards the city cen­tre, he lights a cig­a­rette. “Night drives re­lax me,” he says. “If there’s an emo­tional toll, these drives solve it. Day­time, I stay home with my daugh­ter. She’s too young to be up­set by this work: she tells her class­mates, ‘My Daddy cleans up dead peo­ple.’ I like help­ing her with the home­work. We’ll play with the dog be­fore she goes to school, and then I pick her up in the evenings. Tex­coco is be­com­ing dan­ger­ous, so it puts my mind at ease to col­lect her my­self.”

Be­fore he was a foren­sic cleaner, Tav­era was a body­guard. When the work be­came too de­mand­ing, his wife pushed him to fol­low his dream of be­ing a foren­sic cleaner. “And so I did,” he says with a mat­ter-of-fact shrug. Al­most 20 years later, his work has taken him from low-rent neigh­bour­hoods in neigh­bour­ing states to sleazy mo­tels in Ti­juana and high-class ar­eas of the coun­try’s cap­i­tal.

“There’s very lit­tle aware­ness of foren­sics in Mex­ico,” Tav­era ex­plains. “To get clients, I have to travel to po­lice precincts and drop off cards. At first the of­fi­cers look at me like I have two heads. But once I ex­plain they get a fin­der’s fee, they tend to grasp it.” He shrugs. “I could go to the U.S. and charge $ 400 an hour rather than $ 400 per job, but Mex­ico needs this work. One day, when enough word is out there, my wife wants me to start a foren­sic clean­ing school. We have the ex­per­tise. We just don’t have the ex­po­sure.”

For now, the com­pany Tav­era founded, Limpieza Forense Mex­ico, is a fam­ily af­fair: Tav­era’s mother is the firm’s ac­coun­tant, his fa­ther and his un­cle are his as­sis­tants, and his younger sis­ter is em­ployed as a spe­cial­ist

in clean­ing up af­ter home fires. “I never had trou­ble ex­plain­ing my work to them,” Tav­era says. ‘I’ve wanted to do this since I was 12.” He re­mem­bers the mo­ment the idea took hold. “One day, I looked down from our apart­ment and saw a man’s body, his shirt off, blood pour­ing out of him into the gut­ter be­side a taco stand. When I asked my mother, ‘Where does the blood go?’ she couldn’t an­swer. So I de­cided to find out.”

With no for­mal train­ing avail­able, Tav­era be­gan to teach him­self, por­ing over old books, ob­scure man­u­als and the Sher­lock Holmes nov­els he could get at his lo­cal li­brary. “I spent my ado­les­cence in the li­brary and in our garage,” he ex­plains. “When my first for­mula worked in dis­solv­ing some cow’s blood I bought at the butcher, I knew that I had a fu­ture. I wrote to coro­ners and doc­tors with all sorts of ques­tions. The ones who replied be­came my men­tors.”

Since he launched his busi­ness back in 2001, Mex­ico has started to take the task of foren­sic clean­ing more se­ri­ously: pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties now en­joy a roar­ing trade in foren­sic en­rol­ments. Still, the ap­pli­ca­tion of these sciences is be­hind the pace of the vi­o­lence sweep­ing Mex­ico: last year, gov­ern­ment fig­ures recorded an av­er­age of 70 mur­ders per day.

Foren­sics bear the brunt of this sys­temic fail­ing, with mor­tu­ary freez­ers in Ecate­pec and Aca­pulco – two of the coun­try’s most vi­o­lent cities – some­times packed with four or five bod­ies per tray. For Edgar Elías Azar, pres­i­dent of the Mex­ico City Court Ser­vice, Tav­era’s work is a pi­o­neer­ing ef­fort “in a field that leaves a lot to be de­sired.” If the state em­ployed enough clean­ers, that would sig­nal it was tak­ing the is­sue of law and or­der se­ri­ously. “But for the mo­ment, Tav­era’s ex­am­ple is all we have.”

His cof­fee fin­ished, and the morn­ing traf­fic be­gin­ning to thicken, Tav­era climbs into his car and heads home, in time for his daugh­ter’s school run and a break­fast de­brief with his wife. “My fam­ily keeps me go­ing,” he says. “The nights where I don’t have work, I love to put my daugh­ter to bed and fall asleep in front of the news be­side my wife. I hear so many hor­ri­ble sto­ries at work. I’m lucky I can for­get them at home.”

He checks his phone at ev­ery traf­fic light, hun­gry for the adren­a­line high of his next job. “It could be any­thing,” he says, cruis­ing through the half-dark, eyes flick­ing be­tween his phone and the wind­screen. “Any­thing can hap­pen in this coun­try.”

This pageTav­era in­spects the scene be fore car­ry­ing out a f oren­sic clean­ing in Mex­ico City. The body of a man in his 50s was f ound on the floor of his mother ’s bed­room, days af­ter he had died of an in­testi­nal ob­struc­tion.

AboveTav­era pre­pares one of his se­cret for­mu­las in the util­ity room be­hind his kitchen of his home in Tex­coco, Mex­ico.

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