12/27/2019 2:27:00 PM Venezuela's poor struggle to bury the dead
MARACAIBO, Venezuela (AP) — The last time anybody in Nerio Garcia’s family heard his voice was on a crackly call from jail outside Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second city. He called from a borrowed cellphone, pleading to his brother for help.
“Tell Mother to bring me some food,” Garcia, 29, said in the 2 a.m. call, relatives later recounted.
Another call from a fellow inmate said Garcia had stolen a gun and escaped, drawing his mother, Juana Castillo, to the overcrowded jail in Cabimas. She was desperate for answers, but was instead told to go looking on the shoreline of nearby Lake Maracaibo. There, she found him shot between the eyes and floating in the water.
“I’m desperate,” Castillo told The Associated Press, while with her son’s body at a morgue near the jail. “I want to take my son home to bury him near me.”
While the family may never know the truth of his death, the grisly discovery set the grief-stricken mother on a scramble to rescue her son’s body from the water and to find enough money to bury him.
Death has become an overwhelming financial burden for many of Venezuela’s poorest, who already struggle to find dignity in life. They scrape together food and shelter needed to get through each day, and a relative’s death can become the breaking point.
The cost of transporting a body and buying a casket and burial plot for a funeral can run into the hundreds of dollars, or more. In Venezuela, most earn the minimum wage of roughly $3 a month as hyperinflation devours pay.
Some overcome the financial burden of a relative’s death by renting caskets, a cheaper option than buying. Others turn to amateur morticians, who embalm bodies at home and convert wooden furniture into coffins.
For many in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s economic crash in the last five years hit especially hard. Once a center of the nation’s vast oil wealth, production under two decades of socialist rule has plummeted to a fraction of its high, taking down residents’ standard of living.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido this year launched a campaign promising to oust President Nicolas Maduro and return the nation to its bygone prosperity. While the power struggle plays out, millions of Venezuelans remain caught in the middle. The poor and wealthy alike in Maracaibo live with rationed electricity, and despite the region’s abundant oil, they often wait in line for days to gas up their cars.
Among life’s struggles, too often comes the need to provide a relative with a funeral.
Community activist Carolina Leal has assumed the role of funeral director in her poor and often violent Maracaibo neighborhood of Altos de Milagro Norte, hoping to rid families of unnecessary misery she has seen too many times.
Leal said police only enter when they are coming to mete out deadly street justice, while too many others die from long, agonizing illnesses such as AIDS and tuberculosis. She has also witnessed deaths from malnutrition and poisoning from people eating garbage in the street.
“This slum here has turned into a living hell,” Leal said. “Some bodies were decomposing at home because officials we asked didn’t help. It’s infuriating.”