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

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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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