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Honduran politicians give free coffins to poor

Tuesday, October 02, 2012 | 1:25 PM    

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In some countries political campaigns give out bumper stickers and yard signs. In others, they offer free lunches and supermarket debit cards. In Honduras, one of Latin America’s poorest countries and also its most dangerous, candidates dole out another kind of political swag: coffins for the destitute.

Charities organised by politicians scour poor neighbourhoods in search of families of murder victims who cannot afford funeral services or even a simple casket to bury their beloved. There are plenty of takers in this Central American country, where two out of three workers earn less than the minimum wage of US$300 a month, and more than 136 people are killed each week. 

The murder rate has more than doubled over the last six years due largely to an explosion in drug trafficking to the United States and a proliferation of violent gangs, many of which originated in US cities. The capital, Tegucigalpa, has grown so threatening that its streets empty after sunset, while its morgues fill up. 

Without a coffin, morgues are prohibited from releasing a body and instead bury the dead in mass graves. For the grieving family too poor to purchase a casket, that means not just the loss of their loved ones, but no way to honour them either.

That’s where the charities come in —  three, to be exact, which offer free coffins, and sometimes transportation and refreshments for the bereaved. The charities are run by three elected officials, two of whom are seeking the presidency next year and a third who is running for mayor of Tegucigalpa. All are members of President Porfirio Lobo’s ruling National Party. 

One charity, Helping Hand Up, won its congressional funding thanks to the head of the Honduran Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is running for president. Like the others, Helping Hand Up insists it is not trading coffins for votes.

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