Soraya Díaz had waited for this moment for two excruciating months.
On March 25, Díaz’s mother died in hospital of COVID-19, which had likely dragged a patrol through her city. Then her body disappeared. Díaz was desperate. Not only did she lose her 85-year-old mother, Enriqueta Razo, but authorities lost her body. Díaz had neither a place nor a place to mourn.
Then, on May 27, Díaz received a text message from a forensic anthropologist in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil who said they had found her mother’s body and wanted her to identify her. But when she visited him and expected to see her mother’s body, she looked at photos of the body on a computer screen.
Something is wrong, she thought. “I’m not a doctor, but if bodies have been decomposing for so long, why are my mother’s cheeks still pink?”
Díaz requested to see the physical remains, but the anthropologist, who analyzes human remains to determine their identity, informed her that they had already been sent to the forensics office. When she went there, staff waved her away and said her mother’s body was in the prosecutor’s office. The body, Díaz recalled, wasn’t there either. Ninety-eight days after her mother’s death, Díaz has yet to recover her body and properly bury her, albeit socially distant.
Despite the increasing number of contagions, many parts of the world have started to relax lockdown restrictions and people are slowly returning to some sort of normality and pouring back into malls and bars. The pandemic, which appears to have been decided collectively and unofficially, is now behind us.
But for hundreds of families in Guayaquil, where catastrophic state mismanagement resulted in corpses piling on sidewalks and in hospital corridors at the height of the crisis, the ordeal is far from over. At least 126 bodies are still waiting to be identified. They are held in shipping containers at the Guayaquil Office of the National Forensic Medicine and Forensics Service. On the surface, the city is buzzing almost like it did before the pandemic, but an unhappy group of residents are stared at their phones in shopping malls, on public buses, and in their living rooms, forcing a government page showing the final resting place of the COVID-19 – Sacrifice hoping to see the names of their loved ones on them.
For many of them, most of whom live in the city’s impoverished neighborhoods, that moment may never come.
“We saw a war,” Guayaquil Mayor Cynthia Viteri told BuzzFeed News. “Many corpses do not appear because they have already been cremated.”
The others have since been decomposed beyond recognition.
During the first For days in April, a line of trucks with empty coffins formed outside General Guasmo Sur Hospital, Ecuador’s largest public hospital, while families waited to find their dead relatives. Grief led to anger as the days stretched into nights and hospital staff refused to bring out the bodies.
By then, Guayaquil had become the epicenter of the pandemic in Latin America. According to Viteri, around 10,000 people have died in the city of around 2.6 million people since the beginning of the pandemic.
At the entrance to the hospital, an employee saw a business opportunity with the desperate relatives. According to witnesses, he told people that he would let them walk through the gates and get their loved one back for $ 300.
Díaz’s niece, Nayet Villota, volunteered. The family agreed with the clerk that they would only pay the $ 300 if they found and retrieved the body. When Villota, 22, came out she was pale and visibly traumatized, Díaz said.
“It’s impossible,” Díaz recalled when she described hundreds of bodies sticking out of body bags piled on puddles of blood. Some were strewn across the hospital lawn and others were stacked in shipping containers. People stepped on limp arms and legs as they searched desperately for their loved one amid the stench.
With just a handful of ambulances in town, corpses in homes also rotten. Due to the nationwide curfew, people had to spend days next to infected corpses. Heartbroken but fearful of the virus, many took the bodies onto the streets when emergency calls went unanswered.
When the officers finally picked up the bodies, they gave the families a number that they could use to find their loved ones in an online database. But overwhelmed, these officers sometimes did not properly attach the dog tags to the body bags and many were lost. Soon people started traversing the city, from hospitals to morgues to cemeteries, asking to see the lists of bodies admitted to each.
There was such chaos that officials told some families that the remains of their missing relatives could be found in three different locations at the same time, according to Viteri.
“There was the little box you had at home of ashes, the name on a tombstone, and the body that was lost in a shipping container,” Viteri said, which meant the relatives were confused as to whether they could put their relatives in the Hand when they did were buried in a cemetery or missing on a pile of bodies. As tensions between the city and the national governments intensified, Viteri tweeted Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner and asked him to reveal the location of the missing bodies.
Those who had registered their missing relatives with the government waited for calls. Instead, they received messages on WhatsApp.
Roberto Escudero, one of three forensic anthropologists in the country, communicated with the families of many of the 216 agencies he was responsible for identifying through the messaging platform. His messages lit up their cell phone screens with questions about scars and tattoos or the clothes their relatives wore on the day they died.
The families and Escudero exchanged photos of identifying physical tags to see if they matched. His work, he said, was part science, part chance.
During a sleepless night last month, he tuned in to CNN in time to see the anchor interview a woman whose loved one had disappeared – Villota. A photo came on TV: It was Razo, Díaz’s mother. Escudero remembered working on a corpse with a similar mole on its forehead and reached out to the family on Facebook.
Escudero spoke to dozen of troubled families around the clock. Even on the phone, “you could feel her pain,” said Escudero. “You call, you write during the day, at night, at dawn.”
For weeks, Escudero and his colleagues appeared to have bumped into a wall, and the families of the missing became restless. Corruption scandals broke out across the country: prosecutors discovered a criminal ring that was selling body bags to hospitals for more than twelve times the actual price. The prefect of Guayas, the province where Guayaquil is located, has been arrested for corruption in the acquisition of medical care. and former President Abdalá Bucaram was taken into custody after authorities discovered thousands of coronavirus test kits in his home.
These scandals made families searching for the remains of their relatives even more suspicious of the authorities.
“With so much negligence, with so many lies, how am I supposed to believe them?” asked Marjorie Raza, whose 70-year-old father, José Gonzalo Raza, was hospitalized on March 26th because of likely COVID-19 and has been missing since then.
After receiving her father’s death certificate, Raza, a seamstress, raised $ 200 from family members and asked a friend for a $ 400 loan to arrange his funeral in one of the city’s cemeteries, including a coffin, to pay. For a moment, she became hopeful that his body had been identified: one of the anthropologists called her to say they had found a man in his seventies wearing a white t-shirt, just like her father that day when she dropped him off at the hospital.
But when she saw the photo, Raza saw a political party emblem on the t-shirt. It couldn’t have been her father.
Now she’s waiting for officers to take a sample of her DNA and see if it matches the as-yet-unidentified remains.
“I feel humiliated. We were hit twice: no medical care and no body of our father, ”she said. “Imagine how I felt on Father’s Day.”
Like the falls The number of missing bodies grew in March and April. Zaida Rovira, Vice President of the Ombudsman’s Office in Ecuador, started collecting her data.
Their stories added up to a picture of utter chaos throughout the city.
Alba Maruri Grande: Your family received a body that supposedly belongs to Maruri and immediately cremated it. After a month with the ashes, health workers visited the family home and told them that Maruri was still alive and had recovered at a local hospital.
Teófilo Velasco Ortiz: The family was not informed that Velasco Ortiz had been transferred from Guasmo Sur General Hospital to another hospital. Instead, the medical staff notified his family that he had died and gave them a carcass of another patient.
Yin Reynaldo Barrezueta: After being diagnosed with COVID-19 and trying to get help in two different hospitals, Barrezueta died at home. The police took away his body but did not tell his family where they were going to take him. You then lost the body.
The poorest communities are hardest hit, said Rovira. Many of the people there do not have the money to travel to the city from the suburbs to report a missing relative. She said the number of bodies transferred was likely higher than reported.
On May 18, Rovira filed a complaint against the Ministries of Health, Defense and Home Affairs, National Police, Social Insurance Institute and three public hospitals for mismanagement of corpses during the coronavirus crisis.
In it, she called on the state to investigate the locations of the missing remains within 10 days, reimburse families for funeral expenses paid and unused, provide psychological support to relatives and publicly apologize to the victims’ families.
“We are fighting against the most powerful institutions in the state,” said Rovira, saying the lawsuit was unprecedented in Ecuador. “These families deserve to close the chapter and live out their sorrows.”
Several hearings took place on the lawsuit, with relatives testifying before a judge. Meanwhile, families were holding sit-ins in front of various government offices in Guayaquil. Many held up handmade posters with photos of their missing loved one: “Where is his body?”
As the date of the final hearing approached, the families said they were getting calls from the group of anthropologists, said their loved one had been found and asked them to go in and identify them. They were surprised to be shown photos rather than the remains themselves.
Last week, the judge overseeing the hearings issued a ruling indicting the Department of Health, the Social Security Institute and the three hospitals named in the lawsuit of violating the “right to human dignity” and calling for a verdict to issue public apology. He also directed the national police to return the bodies of the missing persons to their families.
Many families were disappointed that several institutions, including the Ministry of the Interior, appeared to have been relieved. And they fear that it is not yet clear how the government will return the bodies of their loved ones to them.
Díaz ponders it alone at home. She wonders if the scientists who claimed to have identified her mother simply took a picture from her Facebook page or social media and tweaked it a bit before showing her so she could give up her fight.
“What if I get ashes?” Díaz wondered during a recent call. “I will never be sure that they belong to my mother.” ●