Panteón Municipal Arriaga

Ruben Figueroa leads us through the Cementerio Panteón in Arriaga, Chiapas. After about ten minutes of taking in both the grandeur and neglect of tombs, we’ve reached the spot: a plot of overgrown land that holds about 200 unmarked graves. We can’t be sure, Don Hugo, the groundskeeper, tells us, because “there is no precise data.” In the three years he’s worked here, 15 people have been buried, and that’s not just migrants, he assures us. The two people buried so far this year (when we went in August 2015) were not claimed by their families because of burial costs, Don Hugo guesses, as their old ages were not characteristic of migrants.

Sometimes authorities will take bodies to the morgue in Sintalapa (which actually offers refrigeration to help preserve the bodies, unlike the morgue closest to Panteón). There the bodies will wait for two to three months until they are either claimed or brought to Arriaga to be buried in their own unmarked box and land. Sometimes a small flag will be placed over the grave to signify their country of origin, if it is known, but those rarely withstand the forces of nature.

As it stands now (in August 2015), the mass grave looks like an unkept field, full of bright green weeds and flowers. If you look closely, you can see bottles and trash tucked away, too. The city takes care of the maintenance, but has yet to provide the usual supply of weed-killing chemicals. Come All Saints’ Day, or another holiday, the municipal authorities will cut the weeds and burn off the trash, exposing the deep holes visible from the burials of those still unidentified or unclaimed. The country is nowhere near being able to respond to the migratory flow, and countries of origin have minimal protocols, if any, in place for corpse identification. Many bodies found remain unclaimed. However, Don Hugo does share a couple stories of family members finally getting word from their governments that a loved one is buried at Panteón; and, once they have gotten there and exhumed the body, people are sometimes able to identify a person through his or her clothes.

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Interview with Don Hugo, the groundskeeper of Cementerio Panteón