EL PASO, TX - Sending bodies to the United States has become commonplace for Mexican funeral homes in Ciudad Juárez. At least twice a week, Jose Meléndez’s hearses cross the border. But the practice of sending the bodies of American tourists or seniors north has given way to a new phenomenon: the shipment of the remains of Mexicans to the United States.
Faced with violence plaguing the neighboring country, Mexican families in the United States are often afraid to return to their homeland, even to bury their loved ones.
In other cases, shipping bodies is simply a product of immigration.
"When the whole family lives in the United States, why bury the grandparent or the parents in Mexico if there is no one to visit the cemetery?" says Meléndez, funeral director of the Perches funeral home in Ciudad Juárez.
Located in the city with the highest murder rate in Mexico, Meléndez’s business has noticed another trend. In addition to requests to ship the bodies north, U.S. relatives of murder victims are asking the funeral home not to publicize where they are sending the remains.
“When they are cases of gunshots, the first thing they ask us is not to reveal the destination or the cemetery where they will be buried,” he said.
Mexicans whose remains are now resting in American cemeteries include the body of a young man who recently died at the hands of an armed squad at a birthday party with 15 other students in Ciudad Juárez, and the remains of a businessman who was shot outside his business in Chihuahua.
Meléndez, who operates one of the 14 funeral homes in Ciudad Juárez, says shipping bodies across the border is a growing business.
In the last three years, at least 124,000 residents of Ciudad Juárez have migrated to the United States, most of them to El Paso, Texas, according to the organization Observatory for Safety and Peaceful Co-existence.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in this city since 2008.
But when you’re dead, your legal status doesn’t matter, notes the funeral home director.
“They could be Mexican or Chinese. It doesn’t matter; they’ll cross the border in three days,” he says.
The shipping process takes three to 10 days and varies according to the client’s instructions, costing anywhere from $3,300 for the most economic service to nearly $5,000.
American consulates now offer an emergency hotline for the repatriation of bodies, according to Joseph Crook, press officer for the U.S. consulate in Baja California.
The Department of Justice reports that 48 Americans were killed in Mexico between January and June, 16 of them in Ciudad Juárez. But this does not account for the total number of bodies shipped north.
The bodies are sent in baggage compartments on commercial flights, and the business has become so commonplace that some airlines, like Delta and Jet Blue, provide special hotlines to answer questions about shipping human remains.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine requires that the bodies be embalmed and have a death certificate translated into English, with a statement from a coroner that the person did not die of a contagious disease.
Authorities also need to see a report of the deceased’s criminal record. “If the authorities are looking for them, they take their names off the list,” Meléndez says.
The funeral director is also required to send the sealed coffins along with instructions describing how the coffins were built and what they are made of.
Ironically, it’s more complicated to repatriate Americans than it is to send bodies of Mexican citizens, said Meléndez.
In the case of Americans, consulates of both countries have to issue a confirmation of the death and, sometimes, require an X-ray of the person who died.
"The repatriation of bodies of immigrants to Mexico has always been our main business, and the sudden increase in funeral shipments to the U.S. took us by surprise. They’re not comparable in number, but more Mexicans are now being buried on the other side. I think it’s the violence; this is all because of the violence,” said Meléndez. “They no longer want to risk it, even to come bury their people.”