'Death evictions'? Guatemala's violence takes an unusual toll

Guatemala has one of the world's highest murder rates. The two largest public cemeteries in Guatemala City are so cramped that relatives must pay rent on tombs – or risk family members' 'eviction.'

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
Vultures fly over a broken cross in the municipal cemetery in Guatemala City, November 26.

The epitaph on a simple bronze-colored tombstone in Guatemala City’s main national cemetery reads: “Pray for your eternal peace.”

But peace is hard to come by in Central America’s largest city – even in death.

Along with a rapidly growing population, Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Last year, the crime-ravaged capital of Guatemala City averaged 40 reported homicides a week, according to the United States State Department.

As a result, the capital’s two largest public cemeteries are so cramped for space that relatives must rent tombs for their deceased. If they fall behind on payments, cemetery workers “evict” the dead and move the remains to mass graves. The rental process isn't new, but now more and more of the city’s dead are being taken to several mass graves on the outskirts of the main cemetery, where the air reeks of a neighboring garbage dump and the wings of vultures beat in the sky.

The practice of grave rentals and evictions speaks to many of the challenges facing this beleaguered country: violence, the rift between rich and poor, and unemployment are but a few. The shadow of a 36-year civil war that left more than 200,000 dead still hangs over the impoverished nation. A 1996 peace accord provided little respite before street gangs, and more recently Mexican drug cartels moved in.

Today’s drug violence is exacting an even greater toll on the average Guatemalan than the brutal civil war, says Steven Dudley, co-director of Insight Crime, which studies organized crime in the Americas.

“It is more urban,” Mr. Dudley says. “It is happening in their neighborhoods on a daily basis … via extortion, physical violence, and psychological violence.”

Edgar Leonel Bosch Castro, administrator of public cemeteries in Guatemala City, estimates 15 to 20 victims of unnatural deaths – everything from traffic accidents to violent crime – are buried there every day.

A hefty sum

The wealthy in this predominantly Catholic country opt for private plots. But for those that must use the public system, about $25 pays the first six years of grave rent. Another four years costs $23. A new bill comes due every four years after that.

In a country where many struggle to buy food, it can be a hefty sum.

“Of course, most in the mass graves are poor,” says cemetery worker Carmen Lopez as he rests in the shade of a tomb. “The rich can buy private mausoleums. We poor people, we have to come here.”

Mr. Lopez’s younger brother, Jorge, also a longtime cemetery worker, says: “The economic situation is very difficult.… People can’t pay because there is no work.”

Mr. Bosch says the government recently sent out 3,600 telegrams warning relatives of impending exhumations, including some 1,500 for the graves of children. The exhumations take place generally twice a year.

Bosch says the exhumation practice isn't new, but these days, because there are more people being buried in the public cemeteries, the number of unpaid bills has gone up, leading to more exhumations.

The process has been refined, however, to afford the dead what dignity is possible, Bosch says. 

During the recent Day of the Dead celebrations – as mariachi bands played and vendors hawked cotton candy in the lively cemetery center – a few curious passersby lingered at the common graves. Several plastic soda bottles overflowed with fuchsia and yellow flowers. A pink heart-shaped note, with a child’s handwriting in misspelled Spanish, read: “We love you, grandma.”

A couple of days later, the Lopez brothers wait for customers who might pay to have a gravesite cleaned. Asked his thoughts on the mass exhumations, Carmen Lopez says: “I think that we don’t remember how to be human beings.”

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