Guatemala City’s main public cemetery overlooks a massive garbage dump in zone 3 of the capital. I drove there with another fellow, Brazil-based photographer Lianne Milton, on a Saturday morning a few days into the reporting trip. She’s working on a story about the 56 girls who died in the Hogar Seguro fire in March of last year.
Lianne wanted to find the tombs of the girls who were interred there. But when we arrived, we learned that the registry was closed, which made our task of finding their plots more difficult. So we walked over to speak with a gravedigger near the entrance to see if he knew anything. His name was Romero, and it just so happened that he was on shift during the week when they brought several of the girls into the cemetery. He offered to walk us over to where he and his fellow workers interred them.
The cemetery is largely laid out on a grid. After driving through the yellow arched entrance, the first sections are filled with individual tombs. Some crumbling with age, others well kept. One in particular was the size of a small house, styled to reflect an ancient Egyptian tomb. It was polished, sharp and in perfect condition. Our fixer Lucia told us that it belonged to the Castillos, one of the wealthiest families in Guatemala.
But as we walked deeper into the cemetery with Romero, our driver tailing us closely for security, the mausoleums gradually disappeared. Instead we found ourselves among rows and rows of burial walls. Scanning the niches for interment dates on or shortly after March 8, 2017, the date of the fire, we found a cluster of four on the far end of one of the walls. One of them was covered in what looked like a child’s artwork, sprinkled with hand-painted flowers and butterflies in bold colors.
I was already struck by the difference between how the rich and the poor in Guatemala are put to rest. But then I started to notice that some of the niches were marked with red paint. I asked Romero what it meant, and he told me that they were scheduled for exhumation. He went on to explain that when the family of the deceased fails to pay a regular fee for the niche, the bodies are removed and unceremoniously thrown into a mass grave adjacent to the garbage dump. In the General Cemetery of Guatemala City, the poor are literally thrown away, with little or no record kept to identify or remember them.
– Katie Schlechter