The inhabitants of the Mexico City dump
As the garbage truck emptied its load of rotting meat, broken glass and used needles, two dead bodies were instantly visible – a middle-aged man with his throat slit and the bloated corpse of an unwanted newborn baby.
A mad rush ensued as scavengers tossed the murdered infant aside and feverishly tore the dead man’s bloody clothes from his corpse, searching for any flash of jewellery.
Spotting the commotion, nearby gangsters entered the fray, beating away the desperate scavengers with lead pipes and inspecting the corpse’s mouth, tearing out gold teeth with rusty pliers.
Welcome to the world’s largest rubbish dump, the final destination for the 20,000 tonnes of waste Mexico City produces every day, and home to over two thousand ‘trash people’ forced into slavery by the ‘Garbage King’.
‘We live like animals,' says Cristobal Cortez, who was born here and has spent a lifetime sorting through the waste produced by 21 million people.
‘When I need a new pair of shoes or my son needs a school uniform, I must scavenge through the garbage alongside the rats.’
Abandoned to perish in a Mexico City bin, Carlos, nine, was a baby who survived. After arriving at the dump in the back of a garbage truck, he was taken in by the ‘trash people’ community.
Today he scours the 25-metre high rubbish mounds for food and new clothes.
‘Everything I have comes from the garbage,' he told MailOnline.
Solid waste is dumped on the swampland to the east of the capital’s airport.
The area is a stormy sea of garbage: the hot air is fetid with the stench of decomposition, which is made to seem alive by the constant droning of flies.
Hairless cats and packs of emaciated dogs hunt rats whose tunnels burrow through the hills of garbage, into cardboard shacks inhabited by children who know no world beyond the barbed wire fences that surround the dump.
The large community of ‘trash people’ rarely leave the area, and sprawling shantytowns have emerged, constructed from the very mounds of trash on which they sit.
The trash people’s work consists of sorting anything of recycle value [ten per cent of the total] from the refuse. This material is exchanged with the vendors of the cartel that patrols the area.
A garbage heap scavenger can expect to earn an average of £1.50 a day - roughly the cost of a bottle of beer in a bar.
‘Metal is the best thing you can find,’ said Jose Garcia, who has constructed his tiny bedroom from plastic shopping bags and wood scavenged from the waste. ‘But there is a lot of competition.’
‘If you prick yourself on a used needle your hand will usually swell up,' he said, ‘we always joke that those syringes are filled with Botox.’
‘We are forced to sell to the vendors because no pepenador is permitted to remove any material from the dump,' he told MailOnline. ‘If we are caught taking material to sell outside, we are punished by the Garbage King.'
The head of the mafia controlling the dump, the Garbage King, decrees who is permitted to scavenge and charges a £5 monthly fee for the privilege. Those who misbehave, or do not pay their dues, are beaten by the cartel enforcers and banned from working for a set period of time.
Beatriz Romero, 60, and her daughter Carla, 23, cannot afford the £5 monthly fee for access to the area where the trucks deposit their loads, and are forced to search for cardboard and plastic on the dump’s fringes.
‘One kilogram of plastic bottles is worth 3p, but I can’t carry more than ten kilos at a time,' said Beatriz.
Mario Fernandez, 38, who MailOnline encountered in the process of burning the plastic coverings from a nest of wire, would receive just £1.20 for the two kilograms of copper rendered (an amount which would fetch around £8 at official rates).
‘Beggars can’t be choosers,' said Mario, who arrived in the dump at just five years old and was forced to work helping his parents rather than attend school.
‘I can’t read or write, so this is the only work I can do,' he told MailOnline. ‘It’s a vicious cycle, because my children have to help me earn money rather than go to school, so I don’t know how they will ever escape from here either.'
Maria Torres, 5, and her sister Leslie, 3, were born on the dump and say they have known no world outside its boundaries.
The young girls carry Barbie dolls with missing heads and painted their fingernails with nail polish found amongst the broken glass where they play hide and seek.
Their mother Linda Torres, 23, was cast out of her family home six years ago when she became pregnant with Maria, and says the dump was the only option left open to her.
‘People end up here for many reasons, but always as a final option,' she told MailOnline. ‘I came here looking for a community where my daughters could grow up, since my own family don’t want to know us any more.'
‘It’s a terrible place, but for my children and me, the world outside means only death. There is no pity in a place like this,’ said Linda.
‘I’m wanted in another state for a series of robberies,' said Homero Gustarobar, ‘but living here makes me think seriously about turning myself in.’
Addicted to heroin, which he calls his ‘sleepy soup’, Gustarobar, 38, works the night shift on the rubbish dump, when he said the lack of competition is a trade-off for the terrible attacks by malarial mosquitos.
Jesus Garcia, the municipal government’s coordinator for the garbage dump, says he takes little interest in the ‘trash people’ community.
‘There are people of all sorts here,' he told MailOnline. ‘Drug addicts, migrants, people on the run from the law.
‘I don’t care what their stories are,' he said at the entrance to the area, access to which is strictly controlled.
‘If you come here to work and you don’t make trouble, then there’s no problem.’
Maria Guadalupe, 60, has been living and working in dumps since she was 12 years old. Now the head of a family that spans four generations, she says that life in the dump can be very peaceful if you know how to cope.
‘A person can get used to any situation’, she told MailOnline. ‘I am learning to read from my three mobile phones, all of which I found in the garbage.'
‘It’s about seeing the silver lining on every cloud.'