Crime in Guatemala boosts funeral business

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LISA MULLINS: Violent crime is on the rise in Guatemala, and that has fueled a boom in one particular profession � funeral service providers. Jill Replogle has the story now from Guatemala City.

JILL REPLOGLE: Denis Enamorado doesn't spend much time in the office. Most of his days start here, on a busy street in front of the morgue in Guatemala City.

DENIS ENAMORADO: Yes, I stay here waiting until the family comes to identify. I talk to them and offer our service.

REPLOGLE: Enamorado is what Guatemalans call a [INDISCERNIBLE]. Someone who looks for calacas, or skeletons. His job is to hit the streets and drum up business to sustain his family's funeral parlor. Here in Guatemala, especially Guatemala City, that business increasingly comes from violent crime. Right now, the violence claims about 18 victims a day. That's led to a booming funeral industry, but Enamorado says his business is suffering because there's too much competition. He points out half a dozen men loitering in front of the black iron gates of the morgue.

ENAMORADO: All those guys over there, also there, that man who's coming � when there are a lot of cases, sometimes there's 15, 20 people from funeral parlors.

REPLOGLE: So Enamorado and others now have to battle for clients � at the morgue, outside of hospitals, and even at crime scenes. Many of Enamorado's competitors don't even have funeral parlors. They're informal brokers who contract out. They can offer dirt cheap prices because they pay no rent and no taxes. Armando Aquino is one of them. Like many calacenos, Aquino gets a good part of his business from officers at crime scenes. He says, �Often the firemen manage to get us addresses and names. That's half the job.� Armed with a name and address, the calacenos go to the victim's home. They're often the first to give family members the bad news about their loved one. Then they offer their services, and the officer who provided the original tip gets a commission. Aquino says, �It may not be very ethical, but we all have to eat.� This day, he's arranging for a burial of a 19-year-old woman who was shot in the head, execution-style, in a suburb of Guatemala City. Aquino helps load the coffin into the funeral car. It's a faded station wagon with the backseat removed. His son has already gone to the victim's home to set up for the wake. Aquino says, �We bring curtains, chairs, a picture of Christ, pedestals, flower vases, candles. My kids take care of all of that, so that when we bring the funeral car and the family, everything is perfect.� According to Guatemala's Public Health Ministry, there are 11 registered funeral parlors in Guatemala City, and 10 others that have filed for paperwork. But the ministry's Marco Venicio Tortula concedes the real numbers are much higher.

MARCO TORTULA: It's been really hard for us to regulate the situation. We know there are a lot of pirate funeral services, and we want to reign that in.

REPLOGLE: At this park near the city center, a bus driver has been shot and killed. Denis Enamorado arrived shortly afterward, and he has already offered his services to the owner of the bus who is standing nearby. Enamorado waits for a response at the edge of the crime scene. It's hard to tell how many other offers the bus owner has gotten; the calaceros tend to blend in with the crowd. Getting the contracts depends on patience, perseverance, and tact, they say. If they press too hard, they risk turning off the client. Sometimes they even get called names, like �vultures� and �dogs�. But Enamorado is philosophical about it. He says, �It's our way of life. The way we earn the beans.� For The World, I'm Jill Replogle, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

MULLINS: And this is PRI, Public Radio International.