Many funeral homes in El Salvador are experiencing a veritable bonanza these days. One funeral home in the municipality of San Pedro Perulapan runs its business according to the following mantra: “Coffin made, coffin sold.” There are other funeral homes, in Soyapango and San Salvador, that have made death a verb: “muertean,” in which employees search for dead bodies, even if the victims died in gang-controlled territory. Now more than ever, death is a lucrative business in what could be the world’s most violent nation.
No one loves him, no one envies him, and certainly no one wants to be in his shoes. Juan makes a living from one of the most unpleasant of jobs: searching for dead bodies with bullet or stab wounds. These days, he has a lot of business, as El Salvador appears to have become the most violent country in the world.
Without losing his vivacious smile, Juan says he is a “muertero.” That is, he looks for dead people for his funeral home. He tries to find them before one of the many other funeral homes make an offer. These funeral homes have names like The Crown, Joshua 1:9, Saint Carlos, The Light, The Blessing of Jesus, Eben-Ezer, The Pardon, and New Dawn…
It is midday on Saturday, September 26. Even before the forensic team shows up, Juan is the first to arrive at the crime scene: a battered house located across from a cemetery in La Bermeja, a few kilometers from downtown San Salvador. Totally calm, Juan opens the tailgate of his pickup — where an empty casket is located — and sits down to observe the situation and wait. He crosses his legs and swings them like a child would.
In front of him, two dead bodies are covered in their own blood. The blood is the focal point of a whirlwind of flies, police, and journalists. Suddenly, Juan ends his reverie: he says that both were gang members and that their names are Erick Campos y Edenilson Cruz (who are 22 years old and 37 years old, respectively). He starts to question a grieving woman with thick glasses who appears to be a family member of the victims. Juan gives her his business card, and tells her that he can “take care of the two” in exchange for $1,600, a “bargain” that can even be paid on credit.
Juan tells her that he will wait for her decision. He walks back to his pickup, where there are already three of his “buddies,” each one from a different funeral home, in their own pickups.
The chatter is routine: “What’s are you up to, man?” one asks. “The lady didn’t send you away?”
“Almost, almost, but no.”
Is it profitable to “muertear” gang members? I ask.
“Yes, man, it’s profitable,” responds Juan.
The gang members keep them busy. Every new homicide could mean extra money; funeral homes typically charge between $350 to $800. And just this morning, the gangs have killed seven victims: five in Soyapango, one in Ayutuxtepeque, and another in Mejicanos.
Juan is aware that in El Salvador, finding a dead body can be as easy as finding a Coca-Cola, but he doesn’t hesitate in saying that this is the best job he has been able to find. Beyond the profitablity of this niche market, there are other questions: How did he know the names of the two victims? How did he find out at the moment of the killings?
“That is a little secret,” Juan says, ending this line of questioning.
San Pedro Perulapan is a town whose close proximity to the capital has not ruined its rural setting. It is small and green. A jungle appears to engulf the roofs of the buildings in the town’s center. Here are three blocks that have not witnessed a single homicide this year. With over 110 homicides, many says that San Pedro Perulapan will finish 2015 as one of the top ten most violent municipalities in El Salvador. Maybe this is why one feels a weak pulse in Perulapan. Few vehicles are on the streets, there are few shops and only one funeral home. It is called “Saint Peter,” a small establishment that is located on the same road as the cemetery.
“We are selling coffins like hot bread!” confesses a smiling, enthusiastic employee of the funeral home, who preferred to use the pseudonym Rogelio.
With his fingers covered in gray paint — a sign that he had been painting coffins — Rogelio says that for 13 of his 25 years, he “has lived for the dead.” He began by sanding coffins. He is now accustomed to how the cadavers riddled with bullet holes are prepared, like the gang member who recently arrived at the funeral home with 23 gunshot wounds in the chest, five in one hand and another five in the face. At this point, human entrails remind him of duck soup. It is surprising that he doesn’t feel repulsed.
The municipal cemetery in Panchimalco. Photo: Frederick Meza
Based on his count, this year “there has been good demand” for funeral services. He attributes this to the violence that has plagued the Perulapan countryside, where more than 35,000 people live at the mercy of “the mara of the letters and the mara of the numbers,” a reference to the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, and the Barrio 18 street gangs. Rogelio says that the bloodshed is so high that other funeral homes from nearby municipalities like San Martin, Soyapango, Cojutepeque or Ilobasco buy his coffins in order to satisfy the demand.
Eight years ago, when Perulapan was not as engulfed in violence, the “muerteros” of Soyapango and San Martin disputed over the dead bodies, at times coming to blows. The law of the jungle. Now, Rogelio says that only one funeral home in San Martin monopolizes the funeral service in the most dangerous cantons.
The big question: How does a muertero find out about a homicide just seconds after it has occurred?
“The contacts are the police,” Rogelio explains. “They get a commission that depends on the funeral home. There are some that pay $3 or $5 per call. Others pay 10 percent of the value of the funeral service, so if it costs $1,500, they [the police] get $150.”
Rogelio says this is an old practice that is carried out in all of El Salvador. Days later, Howard Cotto, deputy director of the National Civil Police, would say tersely that “[this practice] has been heard of, as a rumor.” He did not say that it is not possible, but said the police would look further into the matter.
Meanwhile, Rogelio boasts of not being a muertero. He sees no need. There are so many deaths that it isn’t necessary to look for them; they come to him. For example, on August 4, in the neighboring canton of El Rodeo, four men were gunned down in a bus. Shortly after, three were brought to Rogelio’s funeral home. He charged $700 for each one. Here, there is work.
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“We are working seven days a week,” Rogelio says. “Just today, three [of the workers] got 10 ‘boxes’ and tomorrow we are going for 10 more. We can’t keep up!”
Rogelio swears that in August, they made 30 extra coffins and sold them all in a heartbeat. They usually send caskets in three price ranges: the super economical, the economical and the “deluxe.” However, Rogelio confesses that they are practically the same: made with little wood and a lot of Durapanel. Just like a car, the price of each coffin is tied to its upholstery and decorations.
“Do the gang members pay funeral services?”
“Yes. They mostly pay the regular price [the economical] of $700,” Rogelio says.
For this price the funeral home guarantees the buyer a casket, transportation, a stack of chairs and a large crucifix.
Before bidding farewell, Rogelio says that the rise in sales has permitted him to think about his future, about his old age. He has started putting money into a social security and a pension fund. He wants to take advantage of what seems like a bonanza.
A few meters away, it’s possible to hear the polishing machines from another coffin shop. The demand is such that seven days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., 37-year-old Pedro Perez is working. He and nine other employees make 20 coffins per week. Pedro has no doubts that the increase in demand can be attributed to the violence.
It is the afternoon of September 25. The sky looks cloudy and sad. All the rain has made the cemetery in Panchimalco (a municipality of San Salvador) muddy. Here, underneath a gnarled fig tree, two gravediggers dig a tomb while a pair of police officers stand guard, their faces covered by ski masks.
“Are they going to bury here someone who was murdered?” I ask one of the gravediggers.
“Not today. We are going to bury a woman who died of old age. She had ‘God’s death.'”
The gravediggers says that many “Panchos” have met the same fate, and in the future, so will many more. They stumble upon a sinister death. Pure hatred. This was the case for five gang members who were gunned down in cold blood just over one month ago, and for the presidential bodyguard, who was shot dead in front of his family. While the army patrols the streets in ski masks, funeral homes from the capital swoop in, arriving at the undulating and bellicose countryside of Panchimalco.
The entrance to the Panchimalco cemetery. Photo: Frederick Meza
There are those who say these funeral homes from San Salvador have driven Panchimalco’s local funeral shops out of business. One such individual is “Tulio,” (a pseudonym) a jovial octogenarian who was the owner of one of the last funeral homes in “Panchi.” His funeral home included a crematorium, a shop for making coffins, and his own hearse. Currently, he resells coffins and crucifixes from his house. He says that he makes good money, but could be doing better. Tulio believes that 2011 statistics which named Panchimalco one of El Salvador’s most violent municipalities began to attract hordes of outsiders who could make better offers: basic coffins for $60 or full services for $350.
As he complains, a gang member appears. Tulio fixes his gaze on the skinny gang member. “This son-of-a-bitch is dangerous,” he says. “He just left prison; they call him El Caballo (‘The Horse’).” Tulio greets him: “How’s it going, papito?”
Gang members have bought coffins without haggling. But they have also “offered lead” at times if they aren’t given the coffins for free. Recently, gang members demanded four of the expensive coffins. According to Tulio, being buried in an expensive casket makes one feel a little more dignified, a type of post-mortem “happy ending.”
The tension quickly subsides. In a bend in the street appears a subdued funeral procession, which attracts glances, including that of the gang member. The “economical” coffin of the woman who died from “God’s death” is transported in a crystal urn, strapped to the top of a pickup truck. On the windshield is the label of New Dawn Funeral Home, next to a San Salvador telephone number. The procession stops in front of Tulio. Someone wants to buy a cement cross for $10.
While Tulio is selling, Antonio Lopez, one of the employees at the funeral home, says that he is not afraid to go to any part of Panchimalco to sell funeral services. It doesn’t matter to him if it day or night, or if the death was violent or an accident.
“Sometimes, when we go to neighborhoods like Azacualpa, some tattooed dudes with guns appear and stop us,” he says. “They ask us for our documents and tell us to take our shirts off. Then they let us go. He who owes nothing, fears nothing.”
Antonio goes on to say that in the funeral business it is important to sell coffins in emergency situations. That is, shortly after a homicide. He tells the customers they must pay half upfront. “This half guarantees us we won’t suffer losses,” he explains.
“And you’re not afraid of coming back to charge them the other half?”
“Not at all,” Antonio continues. “They almost always pay. We call them by telephone and go to pick up the money. It’s rare when they say they won’t pay.”
From a comfortable cafe in the capital, Harold Sosa thinks about Panchimalco. His mind also wanders to other municipalities like San Matias, Apopa and Jiquilisco.
“With so much violence, in many of these municipalities there are families that stop eating in order to pay for funerals,” Harold begins. “That is why I decided to sell coffins made of cardboard.”
Harold is young, 34 years old. He gets excited when talking about how reliable his caskets are. He says that he weighs 290 pounds, and that his coffins can support even more weight; he has already tested them. They are made of three layers of fortified cardboard. Up until now he has imported them from Argentina, where they are used for cremations, but he says he will soon be making them here. His price: $65.
In Panchimalco, it is possible to find more orthodox coffins for less money: $60. However, what Harold is offering borders on the cosmetic. A coffin has a high social exposure; it does not just encase a dead person, it reflects status.
Before a vigil, the cardboard coffin is placed laterally within another, more elegant casket. One made of wood, with ventilation and “the appearance of costing $1,500.”
“At the cemetery, they re-open the hard coffin’s hatch and take out the cardboard casket so that they are buried well-sealed,” Harold explains.
The wooden coffin is reusable: “the idea is to save and be ecological.” Harold says that soon he will visit the mayor’s office in Panchimalco. He will offer them a combo that includes a hard coffin for every 50 cardboard ones. Harold knows that mayor’s offices such as this one frequently offer free coffins to poor families.
But it is difficult to know how much of a demand there is for Harold’s cardboard coffins. Two employees deflect a request for this information. “The press and the private sector is engaged in trying to paint Panchimalco as violent,” they say. Politics.
Further west of Panchimalco is a hilly area, where Colon is located. Another municipality that stands out for its violence. In May, El Salvador’s forensic authority, Medicina Legal, ranked Colon third on the black list of homicides, behind only Perulapan and Jiquilisco. Some say the mayor’s office subsidizes 90 percent of the coffins that are needed for homicides committed in the area.
“The rise in violence leads to an increase in costs for the mayor’s office,” says Elmer Carballo. “This year, there have been 68 homicides and in 90 percent of the cases we have provided the casket.”
Elmer is the municipal trustee in Colon. He knows the territory well. Nonetheless, he doesn’t know why the local gang members almost never pay for the funeral costs, as they sometimes do in Soyapango, Perulapan or Panchimalco. He only knows that the dead are almost always very young and very poor.
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“When they are young and poor the last thing one thinks about is death, and their families are not prepared for the funeral costs,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter if they are gang-affiliated or not. The mayor’s office ends up covering the expenses.”
Elmer hasn’t added up the figures, but he says that the costs of the homicides are high: “Every month we have new deaths, which requires personnel, extra hours, transportation payments, and the most basic, paying for the coffins.”
The mayor’s office in Colon buys the majority of its coffins from The New Hope funeral home. The owner of the funeral home says they buy the “super economical,” which cost $80 each. Doing the math, from January to September the mayor’s office would have spent $5,000 on 61 super economical coffins. The price seems modest. In the capital, just one imported casket can cost more than $3,000.
At dusk, San Pedro Perulapan looks scary. The silhouettes of the forests and the pinnacles of the church turn black. There is an enormous statue of Pope John Paul II in the central park. Remembering that this town recorded 110 murders — almost all of which occurred between January and September — has the power of creating ghosts. One doesn’t know if the few pedestrians are to be trusted or if it better to take shelter or leave. There are many closed doors, but in the workshop of Pedro Perez one can hear the sound of hammers.
“Eben Ezer Funeral Home” in San Salvador. Photo: Frederick Meza
“This town is peaceful, the bad parts are in certain neighborhoods,” Pedro says, brushing off the paranoia as he hammers an octagonal casket.
It is past six in the afternoon but he continues “getting ahead of work.” He wants to finish the weekly request of 20 caskets. But being sincere, he doesn’t like thinking that he works at the expense of the violence in the cantons.
“Everyone likes to make money, but I am aware that I am feeding off the misfortune of others,” he says. He hammers away at the idea.
A few days ago, Pedro visited the local parish to pray to his namesake, Saint Peter. He believes that Saint Peter will understand.
The building has its own history. It is said that around 1839, when Central America was fractured between conservatives and liberals, there was a battle in the middle of Perulapan. A conservative had entered the temple and quickly shot at Saint Peter, confusing the statue with the leader of the liberals, Francisco Morazan. Myth or not, the current sexton confirms that the saint has a bullet in the middle of his chest.
“This saint is made of good wood, he has known bullets and suffering,” Pedro says. “I don’t care if it means I make less, I am going to ask him that not so many people keep dying.”
In the midst of all this violence, not everyone asks for the same as Pedro. Juan the muertero says that he feels no regret because of his work: “I don’t see it as bad at all. This country is full of dead people, and the dead people need a coffin.”
Hours earlier, Juan repeated his routine, seated on the tailgate of his pickup. The scene was different: in a corner of the San Jacinto neighborhood, in San Salvador, where blood was running. However, his gaze is locked on the forensic team that is reviewing a body that has as many holes as a colander.
“Why aren’t there other muerteros here?” I ask Juan.
“They already left,” he responds. “They got bored of waiting, the guy that was killed appears to have no documents, and no family member has come to identify him.”
“But you are going to wait longer?”
“Yes,” he responds. “I won’t leave here until I know his name. This guy is going to need a casket.”