In Peru, authorities allowed secret burials of virus victims

IQUITOS, Peru (AP) — When Adriana Wong reached the field in the Amazon forest, she was confused. There were dozens of crosses planted in the red soil, but nothing to distinguish her father’s grave.

“Are you sure my dad is there?” the 9-year-old asked her mother.

Glendy Hernández had no answers.

Almost a year ago, her husband and dozens of others who died of COVID-19 were secretly buried in this field in Iquitos, a city in Loreto state in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. Local authorities approved the burials but never told the families, who believed their loved ones were in a local cemetery — and only months later discovered the truth.

In Peru, and in Latin America, it is the first known case of authorities concealing the fate of dozens of COVID-19 victims, and nobody is able to explain why the clandestine burials were held. The local government didn’t reply to several requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Family members told AP that at least 403 people were buried in that field.

The pandemic hit Peru hard in April 2020, and Iquitos was struggling -- to date, the country has seen more 52,000 deaths, 3,200 of them in Iquitos, a city of 550.000 people. In the early days, the area’s only two hospitals lacked sufficient space to attend COVID-19 patients.

In the early hours of April 30, camera repairman Herman Wong felt sick and struggled to breathe. Glendy took him at the hospital at 5 a.m., but the place was full of people and short of beds. She asked for help, but it was useless. At 11 a.m., he died on her arms.

Glendy fainted. When she awakened, a doctor told her to come the next day to pick up the body.

She did as she was told, bringing a coffin to the hospital. But she waited for hours until a hospital worker told her that her husband’s body had already been taken to the local San Juan cemetery and buried quickly to avoid more infections.

In March, the federal government had ordered the cremation of all coronavirus victims, one of the most stringent restrictions in the region. By the end of April, however, the rule had been softened, allowing some funerals with as many as five people in attendance.

At the time, the entire country was under strict quarantine. The army was prohibiting people from going outside their homes unless it was to buy food or medicine. The San Juan cemetery was 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Iquitos, and Hernández wasn’t allowed to go and say goodbye to her husband.

Other families in the area were told the same story – their loved ones were buried quickly in the San Juan cemetery to avoid an outbreak. And people believed it.

But then, on June 1, a front-page story in the local newspaper La Region shook Iquitos: “The dead without names and without their own graves,” the headline read.

The story quoted an anonymous local resident who said at least 330 people who died of COVID-19 were buried on a mass grave next to the San Juan cemetery.

The next day, at least 500 people – including Hernández — went out to the field where their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and children were supposedly buried, demanding the truth and their remains.

“We realized that they had lied to us,” Hernández said.

“They are ashamed that the disaster, the disorder, the lack of humanity with which they have buried our loved ones is known,” said Patricia Cárdenas, whose 80-year-old grandfather, Antenor Mozombite, also was buried without his family’s consent.

The government remained mum. But mourners kept going to the field, demanding answers.

Hugo Torres guards the field. He told the AP he helped unload bodies from some Navy trucks and put them into holes dug in the field.

“We buried 30, 40, one day 50,” he said. “The dead were in black bags”.

He said as many as three bodies were placed in the holes. At one point there were so many corpses that a bulldozer was brought in to dig bigger holes, he said.

The AP spoke with three others who confirmed Torres’ account, including one who was part of the operation with Torres. All refused to be quoted.

Ten days after La Region published its story, Loreto Gov. Elisban Ochoa signed a document promising to exhume the bodies. Nine months later, nothing has happened.

Ochoa told some lawmakers that it wasn’t a mass grave, but a new “COVID cemetery” arranged because “overnight there was a violent increase of the dead.” He said there was a list of the locations where each body had been placed, and that the authorities intended to give the information to the families.

But he didn’t explain why that hadn’t happened. The AP left messages in his office, but he didn’t reply.

The burial ground is larger than four soccer fields; when it was first revealed, it had been flattened, leaving no signs that there were bodies below.

For weeks, people came to place crosses where they thought their loved ones were buried.

Joaquín García, a 32-year-old accountant, said his father is there, somewhere. He was told first that his father was in a spot marked as D24, although days later they said the correct location was D22.

“I mean, have the dead walked?” he asked.

Families sued the local and state governments to force them to recover the remains, but a judge ruled last year in favor of the authorities, saying the law establishes that the remains can only be exhumed a year and a day after burial.

The families are appealing the ruling. But in the meantime, the graves of Herman Wong and so many others are unmarked.

When Adriana Wong went to the field the first time, she brought a pink backpack containing dozens of letters she had written to the father she had lost.

“I miss the virtual homework a lot, everything of what you taught me,” she read from one of the sheets she ripped from her notebook. “Where are you? I want to see you and give you a hug.”