Arts and Crafts

Business from the Grave

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There are no obvious signs of gang activity in Jucuapa, a municipality in the El Salvadorian department of Usulután, 115.7km east of San Salvador. Early in the morning, children walk to school through the streets lined with colorful, small yet tidy houses. It’s life as usual; if one were to take a quick glance, this small city would seem average at best.

A man carries a bucket filled with tar to give a protective layer on coffins. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Six years ago, there were merely 3 coffin factories in this town. The largest one had over 50 employees, but it closed shop after 60 years in the business. Ever since the truce between El Salvador’s biggest rival gangs (Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18) and the government there was a dip of nearly two thousand violent murders in the country’s homicide rate. Recently, however, there’s been a surge on violent murders in the small Central American nation as the truce has broken down: according to an article published in La Prensa Gráfica, there were over 6640 murders in El Salvador during 2015 alone. This, in turn, has lead to a rebirth in Jucuapa’s coffin industry.

An old man in Jucuapa watches over the window of Funeraria Rivas, Jucuapa, El Salvador. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Some workers have their lunch break on the sidewalk in front of their shop. Just two years ago, this place used to be a bakery. As the homicide rate went up again, its owner saw his profits plummet and figured that producing coffins was a more profitable endeavour. He tried juggling both businesses for a while, but paint would get into the freshly baked bread, which left it essentially unsellable. Nowadays, these workers enjoy their meals next to half a dozen freshly painted caskets left drying under the sun.

Paranoia has also become commonplace. For instance, some of the workers quickly hide inside their factory when someone tries to take a picture of them out of fear of being targeted by the gangs. One of them explains that murder was rampant in town during early April, and it was nearly impossible to walk safely down the street. “About a week ago here, you couldn’t go out without thinking you would be killed”, he says.

A young man gives finishing touches with tar, before sending the casket to painting. Jucuapa, El Salvador. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

That is just one of Jucuapa’s 30 coffin factories. The largest one in town is Funeraria Nuevo Renacer, which has grown considerably out of the newfound need for caskets. According to its manager, the workshop owns four different properties dedicated to carpentry, sealing, painting and detailing. They don’t really own a showroom for their caskets because they prefer to sell them directly to the larger funerary homes across the country. According to their manager, they employ 16 different workers who get paid around $10 USD per coffin. Some of them are children who help add some of the finishing details of every piece -it’s a family run business after all. They produce between 30 and 40 caskets every week.

Most of the coffins produced in big factories like this one are made out of wood starch. Experienced carpenters add fine details to the wood and seal the casket with tar. Lastly, it’s sprayed with car paint. According to local producers, the simplest caskets go for an average market price of anywhere between $100 and $350 USD.

A man measures the glass hole on a casket in order to precisely cut a piece of glass. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Not all coffin manufacturers in town cater to to the needs of those affected by the violence in the streets of El Salvador, however. For instance, a former mayor of Jucuapa, Gustavo Rivas, owns a luxury coffin factory which has been operating for over 80 years right on the town’s main street. Funeraria Rivas, as it is called, boasts expensive coffins made out of real wood which can go for up to $1500 USD. He employs only four workers who produce four coffins a month for a weekly pay of $90 USD. It’s a smaller operation that does not aggressively promotes itself. “I hope that the person who has a deceased comes here to look for the coffin he needs”, he explains, “I’m  not there selling my funerary services when you have a corpse. I’m very respectful”.

Earlier this year, the gangs sought to reach another agreement with each other and the El Salvadorian government. However, this new government is taking a tougher and unapologetic stance on the fight against crime. Just to make a point of it, they even arrested those who negotiated the original gang truce a few years ago, government officials included. And so, as the bloodletting carries on, businesses in Jucuapa continue to thrive.

A coffin painter sprays a sealing layer on a casket inside a what was once a poultry house. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A woman coats the interior of a coffin in Jucuapa, El Salvador. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A woman walks past a coffin factory in Jucuapa, El Salvador. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

 

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