Strewn with smashed headstones, empty whisky bottles and the odd spent bullet casing, Caracas’ 19th-century Southern Cemetery is a sprawling symbol of the violent crime engulfing Venezuela.
Grave diggers tell of attacks on mourners by gunmen from the surrounding slums, drug-fueled parties at tombs and night-time desecration of graves to steal bones for rituals.
Corpses of murder victims are brought in daily, mostly young men gunned down in gang fights.
“Violence is the modern fashion in Venezuela. Not just the killing, but the way they behave around the dead,” says Oscar Arias, 50, who has dug graves in Southern Cemetery for 33 years and recently buried his own nephew, who was shot in a nearby slum.
Arias and the other 44 members of his grave diggers’ cooperative are never short of work.
Both the official national rate of 39 deaths per 100,000 people last year and a tally of double that from monitoring group the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV) make the country an international leader in homicides, vying with gang-plagued nations such as Honduras and El Salvador.
A perpetually edgy city full of guns, Caracas’ murder rate is more than 100 per 100,000 residents, according to OVV. The government does not publish an official figure.
By comparison, the US rate is about 4.7 deaths per 100,000.
A decades-old problem in Venezuela, armed robberies, kidnappings and murders climbed during the rule of president Hugo Chavez from 1999 to last year, despite his anti-poverty programs.
Even official figures show the murder rate doubling in that time.
Critics blame a corrupt and broken judicial system, from the local police station up to the Supreme Court. “Chavistas” point to the influence of “capitalist evils,” such as drug trafficking and violent US TV shows.
Whatever the causes, Venezuelans across the political spectrum agree crime is their No. 1 problem and it is a major complaint fueling recent political protests and unrest.
Venezueland President Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded Chavez, has declared it the priority for his six-year term.
“Put your arms down! Stop the violence!” he thunders over-and-over in speeches.
HIGHER WEEKEND TOLL
As well as grave diggers, there is no lack of demand for undertakers, tomb-chiselers, flower-sellers, permit-handlers and a plethora of other mini-businesses purveying to death.
“Mondays are the busiest. They kill more people at the weekends,” says Jhonny Aguilar, 24, describing his work matter-of-factly as he picks up bodies from a morgue to wash and dress at La Central undertaker’s in west Caracas.
Upstairs from him and next to a huge oven on La Central’s top floor, Giovanni Vespoli bakes photos of the dead onto ceramic for use on marble headstones, at between 1,300-1,600 bolivars (US$206-254) each, in a country where many earn the minimum wage of about 3,300 bolivars a month.
“Having a funeral parlor is a money-maker. There are deaths here, there and everywhere, the situation is out of control,” says Vespoli, 28, who can bake 90 images on a busy day.
So terrified of crime are the middle and upper-classes that some affluent Caracas neighborhoods are like ghost towns from as early as 8pm. The few vehicles out tend to shoot through red lights in case of carjack, while friends and relatives call or text each other to confirm they got home safely.