The dead are in demand in Colombian town

Cemetery Manager Henry Cárdenas in Puerto Berrio, Colombia, points to the crypt of an “NN” or “no name.” Such tombs are eagerly sought by locals who want to “adopt” the bodies.
Cemetery Manager Henry Cárdenas in Puerto Berrio, Colombia, points to the crypt of an “NN” or “no name.” Such tombs are eagerly sought by locals who want to “adopt” the bodies. For the Herald

Leidi de Jesus Garzón approached a 10-foot wall of cubby-hole crypts and placed an offering of rum and holy water at the mouth of a tomb.

Inside is one of the 11,104 unidentified bodies that the government of Colombia says are scattered across the country — coughed up by more than 50 years of civil conflict.

But Garzón says she knows exactly who’s inside: a man she calls Gabriel Gomez, who has helped her find a husband, pick lottery numbers and settle a property dispute.

To die alone, anonymous and far from home is among the darkest fates in many cultures. The forgotten dead are often relegated to paupers’ graves and forlorn, unmarked tombs.

But for decades, this sweltering and troubled village has revered the nameless corpses found floating in the Magdalena River or sprawled in fields.

Here, where so many have had loved ones disappear, there’s fierce competition to “adopt” and care for the abandoned souls. Known as NNs, for ningún nombre, or no name, they’re re-christened, and their tombs are often lovingly decorated and peppered with gifts. In exchange, many believe the NNs will grant favors — perhaps even miracles.

Colombia’s bloodletting has left the country with a macabre puzzle. The government says 61,825 people have been reported missing and there are records of more than 11,000 unidentified corpses. Civil society groups say both figures are much higher. But matching missing loved ones to far-flung bodies is a difficult — sometimes impossible — task.

While the missing and unknown are a national issue, few if any towns in Colombia “love their NNs” quite like Puerto Berrio, said the Rev. Ronald Sandoval, the local Catholic priest.

Part of the reason is the town’s troubled history. Located in central Colombia, the region is rich in oil and is a thoroughfare for the drug trade. For years, leftist guerrillas controlled the territory. But starting in the early 1990s, paramilitary groups, sometimes working in collusion with the armed forces, moved in. Massacres and dismemberments spiked and local fishermen began bringing home casualties along with their daily catch.

Revered Tradition

The devotion to the NN’s began as a “noble” tradition, Sandoval said.

“Families who had lost sons took in an NN, and that helped fill the void of their missing son,” he said. “And they also hoped that, in the same way that they had buried a son, that someone would bury theirs.”

Stories of lost relatives seem to be a Puerto Berrio birthright.

Shortly after her second uncle disappeared in 2008, Dalgy Helena Delgado, 41, found herself at the impromptu funeral for a young man whose corpse had been fished out of the Magdalena River — or what the priest called “Colombia’s largest cemetery.”

The man showed signs of torture and he was missing limbs. Delgado said she was so moved by the funeral that she made a pact with him.

“If God brought me to this service today and to your tomb today, I am never going to abandon you as long as I live,” she swore to him. She named him Miguel Andres Duque. Why that name popped into her head “is a mystery,” she says. But she visits Miguel Andres at least once a week to “keep him company.”

Delgado says she doesn’t ask Miguel Andres for favors, but she does hope that her care for him has a ripple effect.

“If I pray for [Miguel Andres] maybe his family is praying for my two uncles, wherever they might be,” she said. “That’s why I have to pray, because we’re all linked together.”

While the care for NNs is as old as Colombia’s long-running violence, the real craze began about 14 years ago, Sandoval said.

“I don’t know if it was just superstition or chance, but people who buried and mourned over NNs began to receive favors,” the priest said. When people won lotteries or saw windfalls they attributed it to their NNs.

“That’s when it turned into a fashion,” Sandoval said. “Everybody wanted to adopt an NN hoping they would be granted favors.”

NN Dearth

That has posed something of a supply and demand problem.

Over the past decade, Colombia has made huge security strides and the paramilitary groups — that often disfigured bodies or “disappeared” victims as part of their efforts to instill terror — have disbanded. While crime is still producing casualties, most of the dead are at least identifiable now.

Henry Cardenas, the cemetery manager, said that all of the known NN crypts have been chosen — sometimes by multiple people. But the demand for the bodies has also made it impossible to know exactly how many there might be in the cemetery.

When NNs are buried, investigators mark the tomb with an identification number to track the body. But some overzealous “adoptive parents” have installed plaques or painted names obscuring those numbers. To complicate matters, previous authorities have buried NNs under fake names to keep them from being adopted.

“For the families looking for those bodies, now they’re gone forever,” Cardenas said.

Since he started working at the site three years ago, only two NNs have come in. He’s hidden those bodies in a remote part of the cemetery to keep them away from the soul chasers, but he said not a week goes by when people don’t pester him looking for a body to adopt.

Day of the Dead

November is a special month for Puerto Berrio’s dead. Every night at midnight, a local spiritual leader, known as the animero, summons the souls from the graveyard and leads them on a meandering walk through town.

The animero, Hernán Montoya, dresses in a black poncho stenciled with a suffering Christ. He used to wear a cape emblazoned with a skull-and-crossbones but he said the priest made him change his outfit.

Montoya claims he communicates with the dead and that they do his bidding. He refused to be interviewed or photographed by the Miami Herald unless he was paid. When it was explained that it was against company policy, he said he would ask the souls of purgatory to make us “drop like coconuts.”

But talking to the dead isn’t uncommon in the town. Garzón, who adopted an NN in hopes of finding a new husband, said she often talks to spirits, including her son, a soldier killed in an ambush.

Her son has told her that in the afterlife, no one wears shoes because you have to wash your feet in a river when you enter and exit the heavenly realm. The main dietary staple is fruit. Unicorns exist.

But of all the souls in the cemetery, she says the NNs are the loudest and most pleading.

“They want their families to know where they are,” Garzón explained. “They don’t want to be here — they want to be with their loved ones.”