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In one of the deadliest countries in the world, there's one business thriving — the coffin industry

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A worker paints a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa, El Salvador.

A worker paints a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa, El Salvador.

Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

When we talk about all the children from Central America being sent to the US by their parents, alone across hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, you have to ask why.

Here's one explanation from El Salvador. The country is facing a record wave of murders — 22 killings a day, on average, in the first three months of 2016.

For years, the nation has been considered one of the deadliest on earth.

MORE: Author Óscar Martínez on why El Salvador is a 'good place to kill'

El Salvador's economy is in bad shape, too. But in the little town of Jucuapa with just 18,000 people, the coffin-making business is booming. Reuters photographer Jose Cabezas documented this on a recent visit. For Cabezas, who is used to covering violence in the country, he wanted to find a different way to tell the story.

A worker applies sealant to a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

A worker applies sealant to a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

"We though about the story [and wanted to] raise some consciousness about how violence is affecting our society," he said. "Since about 2009, we have a big increase in homicides in El Salvador. So we were taking pictures all the time of crime scenes or violent scenes in the country. But we started to take some pictures, or stories, not directly related with violence, some stories with no blood in the pictures."

A booming coffin industry is relatively new to Jucuapa, a former farming community for coffee and cattle. Only a couple of years ago there were three coffin factories in Jucuapa. Now, officially, there are 18.

A worker applies sealant to a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.
Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

"People are leaving the town, agriculture is not good business for them any more," Cabezas said.

Cesar Cruz, who helps run his father's coffin business in the area, says the rise in coffin shops is tied to the economic situation. "It's the area that generates the most jobs here," he told Reuters.

Cruz's business now has 16 workers and makes about 40 weekly shipments throughout the country.

A worker applies sealant to a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.
Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

People have found a way to survive in Jucuapa by making coffins — an industry thriving because of the violence. But people do reflect on this sad irony.

"They know the business is good because of the homicide wave in the country," Cabezas said. "Especially because they are exporting the product to Honduras and Guatemala which are very violent countries also, not only in El Salvador."

Cabezas said his mother is from the Jucuapa area, but he's personally never been to the town, which is 72 miles east of the capital, San Salvador. So, he traveled to Jucuapa as a stranger. People didn’t know him, which, in a country with as much violence as El Salvador, can make it difficult to gain the trust of the locals.

"We were in the street and we saw a pickup truck full of coffins in the back. So I started to take pictures of the pickup truck and the owner tried not to be photographed. We started to talk about [how] I was doing a story about the town and the coffin factories and everything. He was very nice. Not in the beginning, but this guy introduced us to other owners."

Children work on the lining of a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

Children work on the lining of a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

With that introduction, Cabezas found a way in and was able to meet workers at the El Nuevo Renacer factory. But that chance encounter was fortunate. The truck driver could have been a gang member and the situtation could have been drastically different.

"I was very lucky," he said. "There are ways to be safe in this country. The problem was with the workers. Some of them wanted to be photographed — they were very natural. But in some cases they say, ‘No, I don’t want to be photographed. I don’t want to be recognized.’ To see them in a publication — a newspaper, even on the internet and gang members can see them ... I didn’t have any problems, but I was lucky. To tell you the truth, I was really lucky."

Related: Why is El Salvador so deadly?

A coffin lies on barrels at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

A coffin lies on barrels at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

Women work on details of a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

Women work on details of a coffin at El Nuevo Renacer factory in Jucuapa.

Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

A pick-up truck transports unfinished coffins to another workshop in Jucuapa.

A pick-up truck transports unfinished coffins to another workshop in Jucuapa.

Credit:

Jose Cabezas/Reuters

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