MEXICO CITY — On April 1, Víctor Hugo Orellana placed a wooden crucifix on his mother’s chest and wrapped her body in a thick blanket as a group of government officials waited outside to collect her. Rumors of disappearing remains and mismatched corpse records were going around, and Orellana was worried.
“If our mother’s body is lost, this might help us identify her,” Orellana said during a telephone interview, explaining his thinking that afternoon.
Thirty-five days later, Orellana still doesn’t know where to find the remains of his mother, Célida Piedad Solórzano.
Guayaquil, a coastal city in Ecuador, was the first Latin American city to be brought to its knees by the coronavirus. As public services struggled to keep up with the multiplying number of victims last month, body bags piled up inside local hospitals and cadavers were dumped on sidewalks. People were forced to cohabitate for days with dead relatives before anyone came by to retrieve the bodies.
Now, rather than accumulate, the bodies are getting lost, sending hundreds of families scouring around the city’s hospitals, morgues, and cemeteries and escalating political tensions with the central government.
On April 11, the mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, tweeted at Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, asking him to reveal where the missing bodies were. Last week, the city got a partial answer when the bodies of 131 unidentified people were discovered in shipping containers outside a local hospital.
Kony Martillo believes her grandmother, Rosa Elena Alvarado, is in one of those containers.
When the 82-year-old Alvarado began to have trouble breathing at the end of March — her family thought it had to do with an uneasy stomach — Martillo took her to a clinic. Staffers there said they had no oxygen available and turned them away.
With Alvarado’s breathing growing more labored, they went to the Guasmo Sur General Hospital. While she waited to have her vitals recorded at the triage station, Alvarado died. Martillo says hospital staff took her body without bothering to register her.
Martillo, 21, hurried to get Alvarado’s death certificate ("pneumonia by coronavirus," it reads), buy a coffin, and enlist the help of a funeral home to try to retrieve her grandmother’s body. Once that was done, Martillo’s aunt went back to the hospital and started looking for Alvarado’s body in the morgue. There, she found a chaotic scene: people kicking bodies as they ran over them trying to identify their own dead relatives. A nauseating smell filled the room. Police dispersed them, Martillo said her aunt told her.
After a few days, Martillo returned to the hospital in another attempt to recover Alvarado’s body. To her surprise, staffers there told her that the corpse had been taken to a nearby cemetery — but when Martillo went there, the man in charge told her that Alvarado’s name was not on the list of bodies there.
Martillo went home and typed in Alvarado’s ID on a government website that purports to list the locations of the recently deceased. It came up blank.
Desperate, Martillo tweeted at Jorge Wated, who was until recently in charge of the task force to dispose of the dead. He didn’t respond.
“My grandmother is lost,” Martillo said, "and we have so many questions." The coffin she bought is gathering dust at a neighbor’s house. The family, meanwhile, is waiting for an anthropologist to perform fingerprint tests on the bodies discovered in the shipping containers to see if one is a match to Alvarado’s.
It is unclear why Guayaquil has been hit so hard by the coronavirus. Ecuador’s government closed its borders to foreign travelers on March 14 and a few days later declared a nationwide curfew. Viteri has been even stricter, blocking the city’s airport runway and forcing several commercial flights from Europe, which were due to pick up stranded Spaniards, to turn around and land in Quito, the capital city.
Still, Ecuador has some of the highest rates of contagions and deaths in Latin America. There have been 31,881 confirmed cases and 1,569 deaths, according to the Public Health Ministry.
Given limited testing and the state’s inability to register the deceased properly, the number of dead is likely to be much higher: In Guayas, the province where Guayaquil is located, there were 8,288 more deaths in April than what is expected during “normal times,” revealed Wated.
Wated’s office did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News. Viteri’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.
Meanwhile, Guayaquil continues to set an example of how not to handle the health crisis. Last month, a local hospital came under investigation after it had told relatives of Alba Maruri that the 74-year-old woman had died while in the intensive care unit and handed them her remains. Days later, hospital staffers arrived at the family’s house and told them that there had been a mixup: Maruri was still alive.
Stricken families continue their searches for their loved ones around the city. Countless times a day, Orellana refreshes the government website listing locations for the dead — nothing. He’s been to the cemetery where he heard people who died at home have been taken — nothing. His wife has been to the morgue and the hospital — nothing.
It’s as if his mother’s body has vanished into thin air. “Imagine what this is like,” he said. “We are destroyed.”
Orellana won’t stop searching until he finds his mother. And then he will have her exhumed, he said. He needs to make sure the cross he placed on her chest is still there, so he knows it’s really her.