A place that God forgot
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- Waiting for the body of Marco Antonio Rosales to be released, two men in cowboy hats eat potato chips. They rest their boots on a bench beneath a covered pavilion, standing outside the stone walls of the San Pedro Sula morgue. Below them is a black coffin, wrapped in plastic. Both have thick mustaches and wide belt buckles, and their faces bear the furrowed creases and burnt patina of a life in the fields. The older man, whose mustache is white, taps the wooden lid of the coffin they brought from home. His name is Ermogenes Reyes, and he's a family friend. He drove his beat-up Toyota truck six hours from their village to help. The younger man, Marco's brother, looks around with sad eyes.
"He got shot," he finally says. "The police shot him."
Nobody told them how long the autopsy would take. The mechanism of death in the murder capital of the world runs at its own pace -- neither rushed nor ruffled -- because the bodies don't ever stop coming. Twenty wait in a freezer to be claimed. Rain hammers the pavilion's tin roof. Everything gets soggy, damp. Six or so relatives wait with them, and six more relatives sit inside the morgue, which has a television. Outside near the wooden bench, a radio plays the second half of Honduras' first World Cup match, against France, which ended not long after it began when one of Honduras' best players got a red card.
"2-0," one of the mourners says.
They all listen, following the action, although nobody cares much anymore. Yesterday, this game seemed like the source of so much hope, a little light in the darkness of an endless present without the rule of law, or even basic safety. Cars drive past the morgue with blacked-out windows and no license plates. They know the dead man as Marco out here, but in the foul belly of the San Pedro Sula morgue, he is 1080-14, another number in a violent town.
The waiting room, just inside the rolling iron gate, is hot, too, stifling. An orderly in purple scrubs, Edwin Lopez, sits behind a desk. On the wall, families have taped photocopied fliers -- prayers, really -- of missing loved ones. All bear a gut-punch phrase: "We are searching." One boy stands out, too young to be on this wall, with big ears that probably got him made fun of at school. There's a phone number. The phone won't ever ring, and the family hung this flier to help hold the truth at bay: He's dead.
A television in the corner plays the game, and the Rosales family members sitting inside watch. Three or four teenage girls, related to the dead man still inside the morgue, alternate between the screen and their phones. The announcer's hyper voice seems out of place, and France breaks through Honduras' defenses -- 11 on 10 -- and punches another goal into the back of the net: 3-0.
"Dios," one of the mourners says.
She covers her face for a moment, then goes back to her phone. Outside, the rain slows. Twenty-seven minutes remain in the game, and nobody knows how much longer they'll wait on Marco Antonio Rosales, who lived for 43 years before getting shot in the heart on the night before Honduras started its World Cup.
Edwin Lopez, who had hoped for at least a tie in the game, steps outside in his purple scrubs, getting a break from the heat of his post and the grief of the family inside. No. 1080-14 arrived at 2 this morning, but he died the day before, which means that, for the first 14 hours of June 15, 2014, a little miracle of sorts has happened: No one has been murdered in San Pedro Sula and then been dropped off at the morgue. Everyone wanted to watch the game, which meant nobody had time to kill anyone.
"Today we didn't have any shootings," Edwin says, stunned.
"When is the last time nobody got killed in a day?" he is asked.
Edwin shakes his head and laughs.
"I don't remember," he says.
A tabloid photographer arrives outside the gate with his camera. "I cover the red story," Andis Lopez says, reveling in the blood and gore. "Maybe three or four a day. Sometimes, five or six."
Lighting a cigarette, he explains the rules of the streets. Powerful drug gangs run the city; the government cannot stop them; and, in many cases, the line between the government and the gangs is a formality. Vigilante justice is the only way to stay safe. When neighbors suspect a gang member has moved in nearby, they all know whom to call. The death squad pays a visit and asks some questions.
"If they don't answer correctly," Andis says, laughing, "they go in the river. Every night, you can hear the shootings. That's when they get rid of those guys."
He tells a story about his neighborhood. Three gangsters arrived, and the vigilantes put them into a car, took them to their family's home, said, "Learn how to raise boys!" and executed them, right in front of their mothers. Andis pulls himself up from the bench and mimes an execution, culminating in a "pow." Those bodies ended up here at the morgue, and their families waited on these wooden benches.
Other neighborhoods are already controlled by the gangs, who charge residents for security. They are good at their jobs. Checkpoints control access, and any visitors need to call ahead and announce their arrival. Residents get a sticker for their cars, and they know to roll up slowly to the checkpoint, headlights on dim. They flash the lights, crank down the windows and then, they are allowed inside.
Andis wanders over to the gate to talk to Edwin, and in the corner beneath the tin roof, Gilberto Zuman Cabrera runs the open-air shop he set up here two years ago: location, location, location. He makes copies of official documents, recharges cellphone minutes, sells Coke, Pepsi and cigarettes and, heartbreakingly, lollipops and children's candy.
"Today, nothing," he says.
They've made 500 lempiras on this matchday -- about $25 -- when, usually, they average about 3,000. He's 68 years old, watches the parade of mourners and tries to help when he can, learning more about life from seeing how and how often it can end than he did in school. As a boy, he wanted to be a professional, earn a degree and build a better life. Those dreams are dead. His family was poor and lived too far from a school. He nods at the morgue behind him.
"This is a school for me," he says. "Sometimes, you can see 100 or 200 people here waiting and asking for their relatives. They go in and out, and in and out, and in and out."
The murders will resume soon, he's sure, and the cigarettes and sodas will again fly off his shelves, and maybe a few lollipops, too. It's bizarre. Everyone just waits for someone to die: the photographer with his camera, the shop owner with his snacks, Edwin in his purple scrubs and the medical examiners inside, sitting in a break room, watching the World Cup. They won't have long to wait, although none of the assembled men know that yet: In the eight hours after the release of Marco Antonio Rosales, 10 dead men will arrive, six killed by a gun, one by a knife, one in a car wreck; two of the dead await autopsies. The next morning, 10 families will arrive at the morgue to begin a vigil beneath the shade of the rusted, tin roof.
The game enters its final minutes and word arrives from inside.
The family can come dress the body and carry Marco home.
The old man walks slowly across the street and cranks the truck. Jose Armando Rosales, the brother with the dark mustache, gathers his family, and together they load the empty coffin into the bed of the Toyota.
The gates open, and the truck pulls inside, driving down and around to the loading dock in the back. The family of the dead man walks slowly behind the truck, and the young girls in the waiting room tear themselves away from the phones to join the procession.
The game enters injury time as the truck and the family pass beneath the cashew tree throwing shade over the blacktop. Rounding the corner, the smell hits them, the unmistakable sweetness of decomposing bodies, making them gag when it hits the back of their throats. Three metal tables on wheels are parked beneath the outdoor fridge. The girls quickly come back up the hill. The game ends, and, in the waiting room, the television is switched to a soap opera.
A light rain falls.
Maybe 20 minutes pass, and the truck comes back into view, straining in low gear, climbing the hill past the seafoam-green walls of the morgue. The coffin is strapped into the back. Marco's brother nods, and the family climbs in with the coffin. Nobody sits down, and the old man pulls out of the morgue. He turns right, merging into traffic. The body of Marco Antonio Rosales passes the Mini Super and the wealthy gated neighborhoods, six hours away from a hole in the ground and a preacher talking about God, in a place that God forgot.