IQUITOS, Peru – When Adriana Wong reached the field in the Amazon forest, she was confused. Dozens of crosses were planted in the red ground, but nothing to distinguish her father’s grave.
“Are you sure my father is here?” 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 the state of Loreto in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. Local authorities approved the burials but never told families who believed their loved ones were in a local cemetery – and did not discover the truth until months later.
In Peru and Latin America, it is the first known case of authorities hiding the fate of dozens of Covid-19 victims and no one can explain why the secret burials took place. The local government did not respond to several requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Family members told AP that at least 403 people were buried in the area.
The pandemic hit Peru hard in April 2020 and Iquitos had problems – to date the country has recorded more than 52,000 deaths, 3,200 of them in Iquitos, a city of 550,000 people. In the early days, the region’s only two hospitals didn’t have enough space to care for Covid-19 patients.
In the early hours of April 30th, camera repair man Herman Wong felt sick and had difficulty breathing. Glendy took him to the hospital at 5 a.m., but the place was full of people and no beds. She asked for help, but it was useless. At 11 o’clock he died in her arms.
Glendy passed out. When she woke up, a doctor told her to come the next day to collect the body.
She did as she was told and took a coffin to the hospital. But she waited for hours for a hospital employee to tell her that her husband’s body had already been taken to the local cemetery in San Juan and buried quickly to prevent further infection.
In March, the federal government ordered the cremation of all coronavirus victims, one of the strictest restrictions in the region. By the end of April, however, the rule had been toned down, allowing some funerals for up to five people.
At the time, the entire country was under strict quarantine. The army banned people from leaving their homes unless they wanted to buy food or medicine. The San Juan Cemetery was 11 miles from Iquitos, and Hernández was not allowed to say goodbye to her husband.
Other families in the area were told the same story – loved ones were quickly interred in the San Juan cemetery to avoid an outbreak. And people believed it.
But then, on June 1, a cover story in the local newspaper La Region Iquitos rocked: “The dead with no names and no graves of their own,” read the headline.
The story quoted an anonymous local resident who said at least 330 people who died of Covid-19 were buried in a mass grave next to the San Juan cemetery.
The next day, at least 500 people – including Hernández – went to the field where their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and children were allegedly buried and demanded the truth and their remains.
“We found out that they lied to us,” said Hernández.
“They are ashamed that the disaster, the disorder, the lack of humanity with which they buried our loved ones is known,” said Patricia Cárdenas, whose 80-year-old grandfather Antenor Mozombite was also buried without his family’s consent.
The government remained a mother. But the mourners continued to go out into the field and demanded answers.
Hugo Torres guards the field. He told the AP that he helped unload bodies from some Navy trucks and put them in holes dug in the field.
“We buried 30, 40, one day 50,” he said. “The dead were in black bags”.
He said up to three bodies were put in the holes. At one point there were so many bodies that a bulldozer was brought in to dig bigger holes, he said.
The AP spoke to three others who verified 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 Governor Elisban Ochoa signed a document promising to exhume the bodies. Nine months later, nothing happened.
Ochoa told some lawmakers that it was not a mass grave, but a new “Covid cemetery” set up because “there was a violent increase in the number of deaths overnight”. He said there was a list of the places where each body had been housed and that authorities intended to share the information with the families.
But he didn’t explain why that hadn’t happened. The AP left messages in his office but did not respond.
The grave site is larger than four soccer fields; When it was first revealed, it was flattened, leaving no evidence of any bodies underneath.
For weeks people came to place crosses where they believed their loved ones were buried.
Joaquín García, a 32-year-old accountant, said his father was there somewhere. At first he was told that his father was in a spot marked as D24, although days later it was said the correct place was D22.
“I mean, did the dead go?” he asked.
Families sued local and state governments to force them to recover the remains, but a judge ruled in favor of the authorities last year, saying the law states that the remains can only be exhumed a year and a day after the burial .
The families appeal the judgment. Meanwhile, the graves of Herman Wong and so many others have not been marked.
When Adriana Wong first went to the field, she brought a pink backpack with dozens of letters she had written to the father she had lost.
“I really miss the virtual homework, everything you taught me,” she read from one of the sheets of paper she had torn from her notebook. “Where are you? I want to see you and hug you.”