Mexico: Cannibalism and Murder

Though she couldn't put her finger on it at first, there was something about José Luis Calva Zepeda that Soledad Garabito Fernández disliked from the git-go. The 55-year-old Mexico City housewife met the alleged killer of her daughter Alejandra Galeana in early September, when Alejandra brought Calva home one Sunday afternoon to meet her family over lunch. Alejandra's new beau struck her mother as creepy—too eager to please on the one hand and too much of a self-promoter on the other. "He said he was a poet, a playwright, a director and a singer. He said he earned $200 a day selling his written works, but I could tell it wasn't true from the quality of his clothing," recalls Mrs. Garabito. "Everything was 'me, me, me, me'."

When Alejandra failed to turn up for her work shift at a local pharmacy a month later, on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 5, Garabito instinctively suspected that Calva had something to do with her daughter's no-show. According to Garabito, the gray-haired thirtysomething Calva hadn't been pleased with Alejandra's recent transfer from a pharmacy near his apartment in the city center to another drugstore closer to the Galeana home in a northern neighborhood in the Mexican capital, and in the days leading up to her disappearance the aspiring novelist had badgered Alejandra, a 32-year-old single mother of two, with repeated phone calls threatening to commit suicide if she broke off their relationship. "I figured that maybe he had her tied up somewhere under the influence of some drug," says Garabito, "in order to stop her from going out."

But not even in her worst nightmares could Garabito have imagined the gruesome fate awaiting the light-skinned daughter she called "Blondie" or "Ale," for short. Neighbors of Calva's told Garabito on Saturday, Oct. 6, that they had seen him and a young woman resembling Alejandra enter his apartment building on the afternoon of her disappearance, and Garabito immediately alerted the authorities. When Calva allowed policemen to search his dingy fourth-floor flat in the wee hours of the following Monday, the scene that greeted them was straight out of a horror screenwriter's most lurid fantasies. Police say that inside one bedroom closet was Alejandra's dismembered cadaver—sans the right forearm and the right leg below the knee. The missing limbs turned up inside the refrigerator in the kitchen, where investigators also discovered a Corn Flakes box containing a bone covered in muscle tissue that had apparently been fried.

A place setting on the kitchen table held a plate with bits of fried meat, and other pieces of flesh and fat were found in a frying pan atop the stove. Alongside some chunks of the victim's flesh was half a lemon, raising the possibility that Calva had sprinkled the victim's forearm with the fruit's tangy juice before eating it. Authorities say that, under interrogation, Calva said he accidentally choked Alejandra to death during an altercation on the evening of Oct. 5, but investigators said they found a pair of sneaker shoelaces that Calva allegedly used to strangle her. He also denied having consumed any portions of the corpse and, according to the police, spoke instead of a plan to get rid of it over time by feeding cooked parts of Alejandra's body to stray dogs in Calva's inner-city neighborhood.

But some of the personal effects inside his apartment seemed to belie that claim. The police found an unfinished novel titled "Cannibal Instincts" that bore on its cover page a masked image of Hannibal Lecter, the man-eating killer of "Silence of the Lambs" fame. The book cover had been altered to resemble Calva's face. His video collection included the "Silence of the Lambs" sequel "Hannibal" and a French flick called "Cannibal Blood." The local press instantly dubbed Calva the "cannibal poet," and the case appeared to shock even hardened veterans of the Mexico City district attorney's homicide division. "In the little more than 20 years that I've been here, there has never been a similar case in this city where the murder suspect is believed to have eaten his victim," says prosecutor Gustavo Salas Chávez. "The guy's a psychopath."

The authorities also suspect that Calva is behind the slaying of a prostitute in April of this year and the 2004 murder of his then-girlfriend, Veronica Martínez Casarrubia, whose severed head and mutilated body were found in two cardboard boxes in a working-class suburb of Mexico City. As in the case of Galeana, the cause of death in both instances was strangulation. Calva has acknowledged entering into a romantic relationship with Veronica Martínez, but he denied any involvement with her murder or that of the still unidentified sex worker, whose dismembered cadaver was found inside a suitcase last spring at a location not far from Calva's apartment. Late last week the police arrested a former friend of Calva's named Juan Carlos Monroy Perez, who told the authorities in 2004 that he had been the murder suspect's homosexual lover at one time (a claim that Calva denies). Mexican investigators say Monroy was a coworker of Veronica Martinez's and that he had introduced her to Calva. According to Monday's edition of the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, Monroy, who was picked up on charges of being an accomplice to the murder of Martinez, has told the police that it was Calva who killed the divorced mother of three and then hacked her to pieces in April 2004 and that he had played no part in the slaying. If convicted of murder, Calva would face a maximum prison sentence of 50 years.

Investigators have assembled a psychological profile of the murder suspect that is nothing short of chilling. Prosecutor Salas Chávez describes José Luis Calva as a chronic alcoholic and heavy cocaine consumer who is prone to bouts of depression and attempted suicide. The profile depicts a man of average intelligence who craves social acceptance but never achieves it. Calva was living alone at the times when he allegedly killed the three female victims, yet he has a profound aversion to solitude. Both Alejandra Galeana and Veronica Martínez were single mothers of small children in their early thirties who worked as pharmacy clerks when he made their acquaintance. And for all his supposed social inadequacies, Calva certainly knew how to charm his way into the arms of a woman he fancied. Veronica's mother Judith says he showered her daughter with flowers, gifts and love poems, even though Judith, like Soledad Garabito, couldn't stomach his smug personality and endless braggadocio.

Calva's father died when he was two years old, and as an adult the self-styled man of letters frequently dropped his paternal surname and introduced himself as "José Zepeda." Salas Chávez describes his mother Elia Zepeda as a "domineering" woman who imposed a regimen of "harsh discipline" throughout his boyhood. In January 1975 the then six-year-old José Luis stumbled upon Elia and his oldest sister in a room of the family home as they were setting out gifts for a Mexican post-Christmas children's holiday known as the Three Wise Men. According to a report prepared by Dr. Rodolfo Rojo Urquieta, head of the expert services division of the Mexico City district attorney's office, Elia smacked José Luis and shattered the toy she had bought for him as punishment. He ran out of the house and began shining shoes in the neighborhood to save up enough money to buy a toy truck as a replacement gift for himself. When he came home, Elia grilled José Luis about the little truck—and upon learning how her son had obtained the item, Calva told investigators, she flew into a rage, beat him again and destroyed the newly purchased toy.

Relations with his family remain strained to this day. As the police began their search of his apartment on the morning of Oct. 8, Calva tried to escape the premises and fell from a balcony of his building in the process, and neither Elia nor any of his five siblings has yet visited him at the hospital where he was admitted for his injuries later that day. Elia Zepeda told investigators she wanted nothing to do with her errant son, and his sister Claudia Fabiola declined to speak with NEWSWEEK. When contacted by phone last week, Jorge Calva Zepeda limited himself to one terse comment: "My only crime is to have been the brother of José Luis." If the authorities' accusations are proven in court, the same will never be said of his allegedly homicidal blood relative.