Honduran politicians give free coffins to poor

Associated Press
In this Aug. 17, 2012 photo, charity employees wait for customers at the offices of the Funeraria del Pueblo, or People's Mortuary, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The charities that provide the coffins, and sometimes free transportation and soft drinks to the bereaved, are run using public funds by three elected officials, two of whom are seeking the presidency and a third who is running for mayor of Tegucigalpa. The charities say the coffins are not a pitch for votes, but an important service to constituents who cannot afford a coffin.  (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In some countries political campaigns give out bumper stickers and yard signs. In others, they offer free lunches and supermarket debit cards. In Honduras, one of Latin America's poorest countries and also its most dangerous, candidates dole out another kind of political swag: coffins for the destitute.

Charities organized by politicians scour poor neighborhoods in search of families of murder victims who cannot afford funeral services or even a simple casket to bury their beloved. There are plenty of takers in this Central American country, where two out of three workers earn less than the minimum wage of $300 a month, and more than 136 people are killed each week.

The murder rate has more than doubled over the last six years due largely to an explosion in drug trafficking to the United States and a proliferation of violent gangs, many of which originated in U.S. cities. The capital, Tegucigalpa, has grown so threatening that its streets empty after sunset, while its morgues fill up.

Without a coffin, morgues are prohibited from releasing a body and instead bury the dead in mass graves. For the grieving family too poor to purchase a casket, that means not just the loss of their loved ones, but no way to honor them either.

That's where the charities come in — three, to be exact, which offer free coffins, and sometimes transportation and refreshments for the bereaved. The charities are run by three elected officials, two of whom are seeking the presidency next year and a third who is running for mayor of Tegucigalpa. All are members of President Porfirio Lobo's ruling National Party.

One charity, Helping Hand Up, won its congressional funding thanks to the head of the Honduran Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is running for president. Like the others, Helping Hand Up insists it is not trading coffins for votes.

It is "just a desire to serve," said Congressman Renan Ineztroza, who manages Helping Hand Up. The average price for a funeral in Honduras is $1,000, with coffins at about $125.

But Melisa Elvir of Democracy Without Borders, a Honduran transparency foundation, said there's a fine line between good works and vote-buying, and in the case of the caskets, the line is too thin.

"The congressmen are running for re-election," she said. "When delivering the goods, they name the politicians who are responsible for the delivery. The charge could be made that they are funds for favors, with the objective of winning votes."

On a recent Friday at the gate of the Tegucigalpa Judicial Morgue, Luis Membreno was oblivious to the coffin politics as he wept over the death of his older brother, 19-year-old Marvin, shot three times in the head earlier that day. Luis did not have the money to bury his sibling, but People's Mortuary did.

The charity's Carla Majano offered a free coffin — the charity's 701st giveaway of the year. She regularly works neighborhoods and morgues to find relatives who need the People's Mortuary's help. The Membreno family qualified.

"This is a humble family that lives on the bottles they collect in the streets," she said. "They don't even have a sheet to wrap the body."

Nilvia Castillo, People's Mortuary manager, said that in its first year, the charity gave away 374 coffins, and now gives double that number for a total of 5,000 in six years.

The program, according to Castillo, "is part of the political campaign" of Tegucigalpa Mayor Ricardo Alvarez to help the city's poorest neighborhoods. Alvarez, who founded the charity and is a presidential hopeful for 2013, secured $230,000 in government funding for the program this year.

Alvarez did not respond to requests for comment about the charity.

Honduras is considered the world's most dangerous country, with 91 murders per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations and the Organization of American States — 20 times the homicide rate in the U.S. The violence permeates all facets of life, leading pedestrians to shun city streets. The poor stick close to home in neighborhoods ruled by Maras gangs, while the wealthier congregate in American-style, indoor shopping malls with heavily armed guards at the door. At night, motorists typically drive through traffic lights to avoid assaults.

Despite the precautions, thousands of people are murdered every year, creating an outsized demand for coffins and new opportunities to serve the poor.

Neither the political ties to the charities nor their government funding violate the law. Under the constitution, the Honduran congress may approve spending by other agencies but not spend money itself. In the case of Helping Hand Up, representatives created a social fund, which the congressional chief, Hernandez, distributes. He apportioned $127,000 to the charity last year.

Congressman Ineztroza, the manager, said that without the charities, yet more families would see their loved ones disappear into mass graves.

"Now it's easy for them to get the money," he said, "thanks to Juan Orlando Hernandez."

Funeral home directors complain that the free coffins may be good politics, but they're bad for business.

Jose Gutierrez, who works at the Santa Rita Mortuary, said that the charities are politically motivated, looking for votes. "They only come around before elections and favor people who can vote and come recommended."

At times, the coffin charities compete among themselves. At the Judicial Morgue the morning Luis waited for his brother's coffin, the relatives of two other murder victims shot that day searched for caskets.

The family of 19-year-old Joseph Jamaco received a coffin from a third charity, run by Congressman Tito Asfura, who hopes to become Tegucigalpa's next mayor.

"Tito Asfura does it better. He doesn't ask questions or ask for documents. He even gives you the gas money and sometimes food," said Felipe Leon, who helped recover Jamaco's body.

Meanwhile, the People's Mortuary collected Marvin Membreno's body from the morgue and trucked it to a church in one of Tegucigalpa's most marginalized neighborhoods, where Marvin's mother could barely stand for her grief. Johnny Osorio expressed his condolences on behalf of People's Mortuary and arranged to take the casket to the cemetery the following day.

His job, he said, "is humanitarian work. It is painful, it requires great flexibility and respect. It is a ceaseless wake, bathed in tears."

As Jamaco and Membreno were buried, other bodies continued to pile up at the morgue, so many that Public Minister spokesman Marvin Duarte said 25 had to be buried in a mass grave.

"Maybe no one knew they had died, or maybe their families didn't have money," said spokesman Marvin Duarte. "It's the third time we've had to do that this month."

And it is getting worse, said the spokesman.

"We are not only saturated at the morgue, we are running out of space in the cemetery."

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