Saturday, November 1, 2008

Mexico's funeral industry thrives on drug war killings

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico's drug wars are fueling a boom in the funeral industry near the U.S. border as undertakers capitalize on soaring murder rates and gruesome killings.

As Mexicans gather in cemeteries Sunday to place marigolds, candy skulls and candles on tombs for the Day of the Dead festival, a spike in drug violence means more bodies are bound for funeral parlors.

"We've seen a big increase in the number of clients because of the drug war, especially since September. It's gone from a few (bodies) a week to one or two every day," said Fernando, a funeral home owner in Tijuana across the border from San Diego, California. He declined to give his last name.

About 4,000 people have been killed in Mexico this year as gangs vie for control of the cocaine trade amid a crackdown that has thousands of army troops battling drug cartels on their home turf.

Drug cartel hit men have killed some 160 people in the past month in Tijuana, once a party town serving Americans tequila and sex that is being devastated by the war.

Gun battles and gangland mutilations are also boosting demand for facial reconstructions. Funeral parlors can charge more than $1,000 to make the dead presentable for their wakes.

And because of the rise in decapitations in the city, undertakers offer to hold the body and wait for the head to be found before proceeding with the funeral.

"No questions asked," said Fernando, standing by three caskets on display for potential clients.

FREE MAKE-UP

The trade carries risks, however. A funeral director was shot dead in front of his house in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas, in late October and several mortuaries have been sprayed with bullets.

Although the motives for the mortuary killing in Ciudad Juarez were unclear, funeral home owners say they face extortion from drug gangs and have been threatened after organizing funerals for some drug war victims.

Undertakers from central and southern Mexico are opening branches in drug-violence hot spots near the border, and some are offering special deals to attract more clients.

"We'll do the make-up on the body for free," said one mortuary employee as he handed out promotional flyers outside a rival funeral home in Tijuana.

Some families want a quick burial for fear of attacks by rival drug gangs. They can pay the minimum of about $1,000 and buy a thin, unvarnished plywood coffin for a spot in a municipal graveyard.

Others want the engraved bronze and gold caskets with silver handles and red satin interiors that cost $25,000.

Some families buy funeral packages that include huge, gaudy flower bouquets, banquets for guests, Mariachi musicians and stone mausoleums in private plots.

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