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Insurer Covers Final Journey Home

A Mexican firm with a Lynwood office sells low-cost policies to Latin Americans in the U.S. wishing to be buried in their native countries.

June 08, 2005|Will Weissert | Associated Press

They live and die in the United States, but for the families of many Latin Americans, burial must be in their home countries. It is a journey that can be delayed for months by the expensive and confusing process of negotiating international borders.

Now a Mexican insurance company is selling low-cost policies to Latin Americans, promising to pay to embalm a body, get it to even the remotest of hometowns and pay funeral costs.

With offices in Lynwood and Mexico City, Grupo Servicios Especiales Profesionales offers three-year policies for $30. Since first offering policies more than three months ago, Grupo Servicios said it had attracted 30,000 clients and sold 80 to 90 policies every day.

"We will take them to the cemetery where their grandparents or parents and all their loved ones are and the cost is zero," said Gabriel Monterrubio, vice president in charge of the company's Mexican operations. "The families are sad, but they are not debilitated economically."

Dozens of other companies have offered similar transportation services, but not in the form of insurance. They can charge thousands of dollars to ship a body home.

All Latin American migrants are eligible for coverage, even if they enter the U.S. illegally. Still, the company sells the funeral insurance only in the U.S., an effort to avoid covering those crossing illegally -- who are at a higher risk of death.

"The river, the desert -- there are many ways to die crossing," Monterrubio said.

There is no count of how many Latin American migrants die each year in the U.S. But of the 10 million Mexican natives thought to be living north of the border, as many as 1,000 die every month, Grupo Servicios estimates. It says accidents are the biggest killers.

None of the company's clients have had to use their policies yet.

"The migrant population is normally very young," Monterrubio said. "We can say an average of 25 or 27 years old. So obviously the probability they are going to die at that age is very small."

Although higher-paying jobs and better living standards draw millions of Mexicans north, a love of their homeland rarely fades. Being buried where one was born is important throughout the region.

Compelling examples can be found from the war in Iraq. Mexican-born U.S. soldiers have been flown to their native land for burial instead of being laid to rest in the nation they gave their lives fighting for.

Porfilia Reyes, who bought a five-year policy in Los Angeles, slipped into California to work in a clothing factory in 1975 and is now a U.S. citizen. But she still wants to be buried in western Mexico's Nayarit state, where she was born.

"I'm not home if I'm not in Mexico," the 51-year-old said.

Governments often send bodies home, focusing on the impoverished. But they tend to pay everything only in high-profile cases, where people fall victim to an unusual fate.

Mexico's Los Angeles consulate negotiated favorable prices on repatriation with five funeral homes that shipped 200 bodies back last year, spokeswoman Mireta Magana said. But she said she did not know of any other insurance plan like SEP's Grupo Servicios'.

Fernando Castillo, Guatemala's consul general in Los Angeles, said his foreign minister recommends the funeral-expense insurance because the government can afford to help only a few.

An estimated 700,000 Guatemalans live in the Los Angeles area, and Castillo said his office sends 10 to 15 bodies back to Guatemala a week.

Monterrubio said Mexican President Vicente Fox's government approached Grupo Servicios -- which specializes in high-volume, low-cost insurance in Mexico -- about selling life insurance to migrants in the U.S.

Fox aides have explored ideas for migrant insurance with various companies since 2001. Monterrubio said U.S. regulations made formal life insurance impossible, so the company turned to funeral coverage.

Mexico's Foreign Relations Department confirmed that it had been in contact with the insurer.

To generate publicity, the company paid $12,000 to return the bodies of Emilio Santiz, 19, and Salvador Diaz, 21, from Temecula to San Juan Chamula in Mexico's Chiapas state. Neither were policyholders.

The Tzotzil Mayans, who crossed into the U.S. illegally and took landscaping jobs, died in a car crash. Their bodies made the long trip home by plane, hearse and sport utility vehicle.

"This isn't the first time we lost friends," said Narciso Diaz, a migrant who knew the victims.

"One never knows when destiny comes and your time ends. But to know you can make it home, for us that means a lot."

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