Insurance firm eases burden when Mexican migrants die in the U.S.

SACLAMANTON, Mexico—Emilio Santiz Mendez, 19, and Salvador Diaz Diaz, 21, two Mayan Indians from Mexico's poorest region, were typical of hundreds of thousands of their countrymen who flock to the United States for work, faithfully sending most of their earnings home to this dirt-poor village with no potable water or electricity.

But their homecoming April 20 was anything but typical. After they were killed in a car accident April 5 in Temecula, Calif., their bodies were flown to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Mexico's Chiapas state, then driven by hearse to San Cristobal de las Casas, then taken by ambulance to their home village.

Their families paid nothing for the repatriation of their bodies. The costs were picked up by a Mexican insurance company that says it paid the expenses to publicize its insurance policies covering the price tag of returning loved ones' bodies from the United States.

"Latin Americans in the United States want to return home, even dead," said Gabriel Monterrubio Vasquez, president of Grupo SEP insurance company, in an interview from Lynwood, Calif., where the company opened an office in September. "Repatriating a cadaver devastates poor people. They sell burros or huts. They become homeless. Families disintegrate. Children drop out of school, get sick and many die."

There are no official figures for how many Mexican migrants die in the United States. The Mexican Foreign Ministry said 4,500 deceased Mexicans were repatriated last year, at costs ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 each, depending on the destination. Families are required to pay half those costs.

Monterrubio said he thought 12,000 Mexicans died each year in the United States. Repatriation policies cost $30 for three years of coverage, $50 for five years.

"My family has been dedicated to the poor for decades," said Monterrubio, whose father heads the insurance company. "It's only natural we fill in this ... void."

Monterrubio said his company began offering the policies at the request of President Vicente Fox, who's fought for migration-policy changes and better treatment for some 4 million undocumented Mexicans who are working in the United States.

"Fox went to California in October 2001 and migrant groups accosted him, wanting help for the growing number of dead," Monterrubio said. "Fox then came to us."

The insurance program has been endorsed by funeral associations in both the United States and Mexico.

Mexican government officials say the program is a welcomed one—and much needed.

"Repatriation is really a big growing problem," said Gerardo Alvino, who heads the Mexican government program that aids Mexicans living in the United States and confirmed that the insurance company had acted at Fox's request.

"Last year, a man died in Oaxaca. It took us three months to find him in a morgue, another couple of months to finish paperwork through consulates and send the body home," said Alvino, president of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad.

"I don't know if this insurance will work out, but it's clear our government doesn't have the resources," he said. "Charities, consulates and the government don't have the means or resources. Immigration just increases. Logically, so do the deaths."

The policies, which can be purchased over the phone, are selling at the rate of 40 a day, Monterrubio said. Each buyer must give a U.S. address and a contact person. Relatives in Mexico receive a copy of the certificate.

Monterrubio has sold more than 20,000 policies, and business has picked up since the news of the repatriations of the bodies of Santiz and Diaz, whose deaths he learned about from radio broadcasts seeking donations to send the bodies home. The next day, Monterrubio offered the company's services for free.

Repatriation is a nightmare for families who can't afford it. There are embalming costs, caskets, health certificates, transportation and piles of paperwork. And there's concern that family members who are in the United States illegally will be found out in the process.

Monterrubio said his company protected the identities of anyone who might be in the United States illegally. "I don't ask or care if they're legal or illegal. Whether they died evading immigration, crossing the border or in drunken fights, they deserve dignity," he said.

Santiz and Diaz were making $10 an hour in Temecula, a relative fortune compared to the $4 daily wage they might have made in Mexico.

It was Santiz's fourth trip to the United States. His older brother, Mateo, recalled that their first two trips north had taken them through Arizona, but that they came to prefer crossing into California because immigration officials, known as la migra, were kinder.

"In California la migra only locks us up for about four or five hours," he said. "They're so nice. They take us only to Tijuana. So we try again. Why go through Arizona?"

Relatives say that while their Spanish was poor—the area they came from is populated by isolated villages where more than 30 indigenous languages are spoken—they were proud they were learning English.

On April 20, Saclamanton, a village of less than 1,000 Tzotzil-speaking Mayans, was in an uproar as a crowd greeted their bodies. Monterrubio, whose company videotaped their return, cried describing footage of relatives kissing the hands of his representatives.

"You were our last hope to get our children back," relative Natalio Perez Perez told an insurance official.

"Thanks to you, they returned like nobility," said another.

Santiz's body was left in the one-room cement-block house built with money he'd sent to his wife, Pascuala, who has a 3-year-old son. He was clothed in princely Mayan ceremonial attire: a black hand-woven wool poncho and red, yellow and green ribbons—symbols of prestige—around his chest.

Community legal secretary Marcelina Alvarez remembered the two as happy toddlers, helping their family sow corn. Grown, she said, they were the latest of 1,000 people who had left the area.

"It's so sad to see our people return in coffins," she said.


(Schwartz is a special correspondent in Knight Ridder's Mexico City bureau.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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