Photographers' Blog

Reburying the dead

Guatemala City, Guatemala

By Jorge Dan Lopez

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

The clock had only just struck seven in the morning and the sound of heavy hammers pounding cement had already begun to interrupt the silence in Guatemala City’s General Cemetery. As the sun’s first rays dipped the graveyard in light, they cast shadows on the wall from exhumers.

A grave cleaner uses a maul to break the cover of a crypt as a fellow grave cleaner works standing on a ladder during exhumation works at the Cemetery General in Guatemala City January 29, 2014.  If a lease on a grave has expired or not been paid, grave cleaners will break open the crypts to remove and rebury the bodies.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The men were opening and cleaning graves after people had stopped paying the lease or the lease had expired. The bodies, or what was left of them, were pulled out one by one by the grave cleaners and placed in clear, plastic bags.

The team began breaking the crypts’ lids and bricks. After a few minutes, I glimpsed the corner of a rotten casket and, eventually, I got a distinctive view of skin, bones, and an almost-preserved face, grimacing indescribably. But the grimace did not scare or repulse me; it reminded me of the ephemerality of life.

A grave cleaner holds the mummified body of a woman during exhumation works at the Verbena cemetery in Guatemala City April 17, 2013.  Any remains that have not been claimed are packed into plastic bags, labelled and stored in mass graves.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

By nine in the morning, the day of exhumations was over. In total, the remains of 40 bodies were removed from their graves, placed in bags and labelled with their sex and year of death, or a code to identify the crypt in which they used to reside.

Grave cleaner Harold carries a mummified corpse at the Cemetery General in Guatemala City February 5, 2013. Bodies that have been stored in the upper crypt are exposed to dry and sunny conditions which means they do not decompose and instead become mummified. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Bags that weren’t collected by relatives were forklifted in piles and lowered into 30-metre-deep mass graves, which were then shut and secured with a lock. The grave cleaners said that before closing the pit, warlocks would sometimes retrieve bones to perform magic.

Faced with the hand of death

Guatemala City, Guatemala

By Jorge Dan Lopez

Lately, I’ve begun to think about death in a different way. Maybe it has something to do with taking photographs at the central cemetery every day for the last four months. It has become part of my daily routine, like getting up in the morning and brushing my teeth. Sometimes when I go, I don’t even take a picture, I just listen to the workers or enjoy the cemetery’s own sounds.

The other day it became quite cold during the night, temperatures dropped more than ten degrees Celsius and continued to descend. It was the coldest night of the year so far and while I was sitting at the cemetery, I thought I should take some photos about the cold weather. It was a frivolous thought, especially when I heard a little later that a person had died of hypothermia. I received the tip from a firefighter about the first dead person to have died due to the cold weather.

The body was found in the conflicted neighborhood Zona 18. It has been practically militarized by the Fuerza de Tarea Maya, a joint force made up of soldiers and police officers.

Where the people rule

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

By Jorge Dan Lopez

I was listening to the alarmed voice of a radio commentator. Once I realized what he was talking about, I began to worry about how long it would take me to get to the location.

Within minutes, all local radio and TV stations were talking about the man who had killed two children inside a school in Tactic and who was lynched by exasperated and outraged villagers. It took me three hours from Guatemala City to get to Tactic. In those three hours, the climate changed several times and so did the language.

While driving I started to remember the stories that are told in this part of Guatemala, in Alta Verapaz and Quiche, where people are predominantly of Mayan descent. Where “the people rule” and Mayan law is applied.

Flies and politics

It took villagers in Guatemala’s El Aguacate 25 years of living with clouds of flies on the streets, in their homes, on their faces and on their food, before they decided to act. According to them, the source is the Rosanda 2 chicken farm that began to operate in the entrance to their village the same year the flies appeared. After just my first hour in the village, I too was repulsed by the sensation of the hundreds of flies that crashed into me.

Residents speak with rage and impotence of the flies, which they blame for sickness and even death. Even to a casual visitor it quickly becomes incomprehensible how economic interests supersede the health of a population, and how it’s easier to accept rising infant mortality rather than enforce basic sanitary rules on the farm. It’s especially puzzling now during election season when at each political rally and written on each street poster are promises of improvements for society.

It was a radio news story about a group of armed men standing guard at the entrance to the village that brought me to El Aguacate for the first time. My first photo was probably my favorite of all I had taken in the few weeks since moving to the country; a man who looked both surprised and ashamed wore an old clown’s mask and thick gloves, while patrolling with a rusty shotgun.

Spitting into the sinkhole

It’s not the first sinkhole the size of an entire block in Guatemala City.

A giant sinkhole caused by the rains of Tropical Storm Agatha is seen in Guatemala City May 31, 2010.  REUTERS/Casa Presidencial/Handout

I had covered an even bigger one in 2007. Two seemingly bottomless, perfectly round holes, swallowed up an intersection and buildings, and in one case a family eating dinner at their dinner table. They both happened at night, both in the rain. On May 29, 2010 I was transmitting late night pictures from the last two sleepless days, covering a volcanic eruption that blanketed the city and country with a cloud of black sand-like ash. Then came Agatha, the first tropical storm of the season, which pounded Guatemala with so much rain that hillsides collapsed on villages and overflowing rivers washed houses away. More than 150 people are counted as dead so far, but they are still searching, digging through the mud to find more.

Workers clean up ash from the Pacaya volcano during tropical storm Agatha in Guatemala City May 29, 2010.  REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

The night the hole was created, it was still raining heavily. We kept the news blaring on the radio. “A giant hole has opened up in Ciudad Nueva!” Again? This time it was closer to my house — less than 2 miles according to the city map. I jumped on the back of my wet motorbike. It would be tough to stay dry. I was there quickly but the police line was already up.

Struggling under the weight of the cameras, tangled with duct-taped plastic bags, a backpack with a laptop in it — all covered with a heavy rain poncho — I ducked under the yellow emergency tape. Standing about 100 meters from the hole, I could tell from the look on the ranking police officer’s face I wasn’t getting anywhere near that thing tonight. I couldn’t even see it. But, what I couldn’t see, I could hear. A great rumbling sound followed by a crash. The sides were crumbling. The hole was unstable and I would be allowed no closer until it settled. Neighbors and evacuees huddled under their umbrellas in the rain. Their faces full of astonishment and worry.

Migrants are deported to Guatemala

The mood was somber in Arizona as deportees filed up the stairs to the plane that would take them back to Guatemala. I remember a woman crossing herself as she looked up at the plane. Later I learned it was the first flight she’d ever taken.

Migrants deportation from Carlos Barria on Vimeo.

Most of the migrants I talked to had crossed the border into the United States on foot. One woman told me of being abandoned by a ‘coyote’ during the crossing after she injured herself. She said she had wandered for two days before U.S. border agents found her, dehydrated and weak. She also told me how one of the agents had cleaned and bandaged her feet– a kindness that clearly moved her.


When the plane landed in Guatemala, the deportees let out a subdued cheer and smiled nervously. It was a journey that would reunite them with families, even if it meant the end of a dream to get ahead in the United States. For others, it was a setback. Several told me they would try to run the border again.

The emotional toll of covering violence

The police scanner says there was a shooting in Zone 7, very close. We arrive right behind the firemen. Two men on a motorcycle had been shot with the same bullet. Neighbors start to gather as I make a few pictures of the rescue crew loading the victims into the ambulances and rushing off to Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City. The neighbors are angry and start taunting the police, accusing them of incompetence.


Out of the corner of my eye I see family members arriving. You can tell who they are by their faces. Their confusion and disbelief stands out even through the dozens of people scuttling around. They are not crying yet…They still don’t know exactly what is going on. Eight-year-old Erica Estrada, dressed in shades of pink and burgundy, follows her grandmother. She draws my attention. Her hands are in her pockets and her face is twisted, but her eyes are still dry. Her grandmother screams as she realizes that her grown son, Erica’s father, was wounded badly and her husband, who was sitting on the back of the motorcycle, wasn’t expected to live.


Erica is half everyone’s size. Dropping the camera from my eye, I lower it to my waist, to her level. She is surrounded by strangers who have formed groups around her and her grandmother and who in their own horror seem to completely forget the young girl. Erica finds my eyes and stares at me in pain.

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