At Caracas cemetery, homeless mix with looters

Margioni BERMÚDEZ
·3-min read

Dragging a dead rat by a string, 11-year-old Jendry scoots on a single roller skate amongst the tombs and graves at a massive cemetery in the south of Caracas.

The morbid setting of human remains and broken coffins has no impact on Jendry, who's lived at the site in the Venezuelan capital for two years.

He's not alone. Several families live in the 19th century Southern General cemetery that was declared a national historic monument in 1982.

They also rub shoulders with tomb raiders.

- No respect -

Jendry and his nine-year-old sister Wineisis, get by begging. They live with their alcoholic mother, who is often absent.

His older sister Winifer, 17, is a neighbor having set up home with her 19-year-old husband Jackson and 5-month old daughter in a sort of chapel containing four tombs.

"You could say I've lived my whole life here in the cemetery," said Winifer, who can neither read nor write.

Some people have even built huts around graves, placed their mattresses on top of tombs and their bags and belongings between gravestones.

A pink bag with a smiling "Hello Kitty" image contrasts with the grey and sombre surroundings.

Some people are angry at what they see as the desecration of the graves where their loved ones have been laid to rest.

"You have to respect the dead, it's still painful for us," said a woman called Maritza.

She hit out at Winifer and her family for using the chapel where her murdered 21-year-old son and niece who died of cancer are buried, "like a kitchen."

Most of the graves in the cemetery have been desecrated or looted.

With Venezuela mired in deep economic crisis, looters are looking for jewellery, wedding rings, gold teeth -- anything valuable that might have been buried with the corpses.

Throughout the cemetery it's not unusual to come across a skull, a tibia or a femur just lying around.

- Opportunism -

One of the jewels of the cemetery is the mausoleum of former Venezuela president Joaquin Crespo (1841-1898.)

It resembles a palace in ruins with debris strewn all over the floor and a little staircase leading up to a cupola used by drug addicts.

Huge mausoleums built by the National Guard and the old Metropolitan Police force to house the coffins of their men have not been spared.

Funerary urns and niches in the police mausoleum have been gutted while the stairs down to the basement are covered with rubbish and excrement.

A photo of a young police officer killed in action remains intact on the floor.

While looters' main motivation is their thirst for gold, they don't miss any opportunities to make money.

Skulls and bones can be sold for use in Santeria ceremonies.

Santeria is syncretic saint worshipping religion first developed in Cuba by members of the African diaspora, and which has spread abroad.

A corncob and some eggs placed on a plate are testament to the Santeria rituals that have been conducted in the cemetery.

- Fighting back -

Not everyone feels powerless to protect the memory of their loved ones.

Some family members have clubbed together to protect the tombs of their deceased relatives, and pay residents with flour, beans or cash to guard them.

Luis, 40, looks after 37 tombs in exchange for money.

"I look after each tomb, I clean them and keep them clean. In exchange the families give you something on Sundays," he said.

Every Sunday, family members visit the graves. Sometimes they bring a picnic and play music.

But the desecration and looting angers them.

"Damn those that rob our dead. If I catch one, I'll kill him. Rats. Amen!" someone has written on one tomb.

On others, the resigned family members have simply left the message: "Already looted."

As for Luis, who previously spent 10 years in prison for drug trafficking and lost his home in a slum to a landslide two years ago, "it's better to sleep here than in the street."

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