Insuring the Dead

Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, Steidl/Fuel, 2003

Inside the business of corpse-repatriation insurance

It is said, by people who would know, that at its peak, Colombia’s infamous Medellín drug cartel was spending $2,500 a month on rubber bands to wrap around bricks of cash. The arithmetic of human excess begins to acquire mythic status when money becomes nearly impossible to count and we are left to communicate chiefly through estimates and legends, like the one in which Pablo Escobar set fire to $2 million in cash to create a fire for his daughter when they were on the run and she got cold. During Colombia’s dark and bloody 1980s, the cartels’ pecuniary abundance was not only the stuff of legendary proportion. Death, too, became grimly innumerable—and at the intersection of cartel, guerrilla, and paramilitary violence was the question of how to respond to the ubiquity of death.

For communities that have been ravaged by violent deaths, the dignity of a burial and the indignity of a mass grave co-exist as parallel possibilities that seem arbitrarily assigned to victims. Family members of the so-called disappeared in countries like Chile, Argentina, and Colombia have fought for the identification and return of their loved ones, in some cases demanding exhumation of mass graves in order to bring what remains of the dead bodies back home to bury them according to local funerary practices.

Human grief and corresponding funerary traditions are sophisticated—we invented the Kübler-Ross model and can recite the five stages of grief by rote—but the existence of rituals around dead or dying bodies is not unique to our species. We are in the company of elephants, chimpanzees, mole rats, even honeybees. These animals have complex and varied ways of reacting to familiar deaths—covering corpses with sticks and leaves, moving a dead insect away from the hive to deposit their body elsewhere—and the communities of the living remain ordered. If dead bodies can be seen to represent, to borrow a term from anthropologist Mary Douglas, “matter out of place,” this suggests that there are spaces in which this matter, now dead, is meant to lie.

Since the 1950s, several funeral homes in Colombia had been offering funerary plans you could purchase in a state of prenecesidad, or “pre-necessity.” But this particular practice really got off the ground in the drug-torn 1980s with four funeral homes: Cristo Rey in Bogotá, Funerales del Valle in Cali, Funerales y Capillas la Aurora in Bogotá and Funerales la Esperanza in Medellín. The locations of these funeral homes are no coincidence. Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali had been seeing alarming numbers of civilian deaths due to the narco-conflict. And so it began to look like a market.

The plans are called previsión, something like “foresight” or “precaution.” At the national level, one out of two Colombians has opted into such a program. Coverage hovers at about 50 percent in Barranquilla and Cali, and 65 percent in Bogotá, the capital. One of the highest coverage rates, unsurprisingly, is 80 percent in Medellín, home to the Medellín cartel, once the epicenter of the global narco-­enterprise.

The need for pre-necessity as a result of drug-war violence brings us to the United States, to the Jackson Heights, Queens, travel agency owned by a large, warm man named Orlando Tobón, sometimes called “the mayor of Little Colombia.” Tobón moved to the U.S. from Colombia some 40 years ago, when he was 21. He started working as soon as he landed, first as a dishwasher at a Jackson Heights restaurant, eventually earning an accounting degree from a community college, then establishing a travel agency, Orlando Travel.

It was at Orlando Travel that Tobón began overseeing his first corpse repatriations. His neighbor died in a car accident, survived by a sister who was newly arrived in the country and spoke little English. Tobón accompanied her to the morgue. Once there, he was struck by the sight of unidentified corpses. He was told that they were Colombians who had died transporting drugs and nobody had stepped up to identify or claim them. They did not go by their real names, making it difficult to accurately identify them. And so they lay in the morgue. Matter out of place.

Since then, Tobón has organized the repatriation of more than 400 Colombians, many of them young women. They are known as mulas, or drug mules, so called because they are paid to carry drugs inside their bodies, in the cut-off fingers of latex surgical gloves or condoms packed tightly with cocaine. Chloraseptic numbs their throats so they can swallow the drug pellets whole, first practicing by swallowing large grapes to suppress their gag reflex, or inserting the pellets into their vaginas. Once they land, they’re taken to a guarded location and given laxatives to excrete the contraband. They don’t always make it this far. Sometimes the pellets explode inside their bodies and the women die immediately, painfully. Other times, they cannot excrete the drugs and they die in other, violent ways.

Law enforcement both in the U.S. and Colombia proved unhelpful in returning the young women’s bodies home, so Tobón decided to take care of things himself. He went around to nightclubs, churches, restaurants, local businesses, asking people in Jackson Heights to give a few dollars toward sending the girls’ bodies back to Colombia. Sometimes, when he was unable to locate living relatives or when it became clear there would not be a funeral, Tobón brought in a Jackson Heights priest to pray over the bodies. He would attend the service alone.

Tobón is in his 60s now and thinking about retirement. He shares his office with a young man named Mauricio Palacios, the U.S. director of Previsión Exequial, a for-profit company that offers Colombians in Colombia and in New York bicontinental funerary insurance. It has Tobón’s blessing. In Colombia, Palacios worked as a journalist and a consultant in political marketing. He is a gifted speaker. According to Tobón, he discovered Palacios after he got in trouble with his reporting and angered the wrong people. His editor—a friend of Tobón’s—offered his name as a candidate to head Prevision.

Repatriation, in the hands of Tobón, was about responding to emergencies. It was about charitable giving and pre-emptive reciprocity. It was about individuals. Repatriation, in the hands of Palacios, is about planning for tragedy. It is about entire families. It is also for-profit.

Dying in the U.S. is expensive and confusing, especially for vulnerable populations like non-English speakers and undocumented immigrants. Previsión handles every step in the repatriation funerary process, from U.S. permits, which vary state by state, to death certificates, coroners’ reports, health and sanitation licenses, dealings with the airlines. The entire process takes about four days, from first contact with Prevision to a final landing in a Colombian city.

A single repatriation from the U.S. to Colombia costs from $10,000 to $15,000. Previsión’s insurance rates start at $4.12 per person per month. There are two kinds of packages: $21.99 a month for four people, and $32 for eight. Although Previsión primarily deals works with New York-based immigrants, at least one family member still living in Colombia is included in their plans. Since 2005, more than 14,000 people have signed up. More than 330 have already been repatriated.

In a flier from 2010, a folk singer holds up his membership card. Shooting stars in red, blue, and yellow—­colors of the Colombian flag—float by his head, surrounding the numbers “1810–2010”. “It’s been 200 years of independence, passion, and love for Colombia,” the flier reads, “and for the past 5 years, we Colombians have been counting on funerary Previsión in the United States!”

The tie-in to the bicentennial is a savvy move, making the purchase of a pre-necessity plan a patriotic duty. Over the past 20 years, Colombia has launched initiatives to incorporate the Colombian diaspora into its national project: there was the right to a double citizenship (1991), the right for Colombians in the exterior to have their own representative in Congress (1991), the right to run for office as a representative from their home region (1997). Pre-­necessity plans in Colombia were born of the senseless ubiquity of death in its drug-ravaged cities and the public’s need to secure an easy funeral and burial for their families.

The repatriation of corpses from the U.S. began as a simple one-man effort to send back the bodies of young women whose bodies paid bore witness about the failures of their government to protect them, instead dumping them in the hands of a citizen and his colecta. The men and women purchasing the plans stateside do so for many reasons, chief among them the desire to be buried in their homeland. Repatriations require extensive paperwork and many of the clients acquire documentation from the U.S. at long last. The ongoing war on drugs provides a helpful lens through which to track the popularity and necessity of pre-necessity programs, granting disenfranchised citizens—drug mules, undocumented families—political afterlives.