Venezuela's violent crime fuels the death business

Thu Feb 20, 2014 11:03am EST
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By Andrew Cawthorne and Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - 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 they way they behave around the dead," says Oscar Arias, 50, who has dug graves here 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 in 2013 and a tally of double that from monitoring group the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVA) make Venezuela 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 OVA. The government does not publish an official figure.

By comparison, the United States' current rate is about 4.7 deaths per 100,000.   Continued...

Atilio Gonzalez (C), a priest of the Southern Cemetery for the last 24 years, prays during a burial ceremony at the Southern Cemetery in Caracas January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins