Looking for more reading on MS-13 in El Salvador? Check out The Redemption of MS-13 by Danny Gold.

As a result of gang violence between MS-13 and Barrio 18, El Salvador has the highest murder rate per capita on the planet, “enough for the World Health Organization to classify it as an epidemic.” But even in senseless death, there is profit to be made. At Bloomberg Businessweek, Matthew Bremner reports on how the entrepreneurial have “abandoned their bakeries, butcher shops, and sugar cane fields to enter the funeral industry.”

The Pachecos are undertakers working in El Salvador, a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Together they’ve embalmed more than 500 bodies in less than two years. They’ve sewn together dismembered limbs, reconstructed caved-in heads with inflatable plastic balls, and embalmed cadavers so putrefied that their flesh appeared to be melting. But although the Pachecos are relatively new to the funeral business, they grew up around death. They’re from Jucuapa, a small city of about 18,000 people and about 30 coffin factories. Manufacturing the “wooden pajamas,” as some locals call them, has become such big business in Jucuapa that families have abandoned their bakeries, butcher shops, and sugar cane fields to enter the funeral industry.

Cárdenas, like several other coffin factory owners around Jucuapa, acknowledges discomfort with profiting from his country’s biggest problem, but says it’s the only thing keeping him fed. “If all of a sudden the gangs were to stop killing, our business would be very affected,” he says, and besides, 16 competitors ensure he’s making a profit of only $10 to $20 per económico. “We’re not rich here.”

No matter how many bodies he’s embalmed, Carlos Stanley says, he often struggles to believe that the lump of skin and cartilage he works on had, in fact, lived; that he or she had made people laugh, had woken up in the morning and eaten breakfast, vomited, or had sex. Staring down at the bloated, ashen corpse, he sees life as so improbable sometimes. Then again, his own path seems that way, too. He pauses his work with the scalpel and nods toward a large, dusty oven. “That’s what we used to do,” he says.

Before the bodies, the Pachecos traded in bread. Their father, Carlos Sr., had run a bakery on the same site for decades. When the family struggled to make ends meet in 2010, as gangs extorted local businesses for protection money, it was the middle son, Carlos Humberto, who suggested starting a coffin factory. With the forests nearby there’d be no shortage of wood, and the closure of a massive factory called Funeraria Flores a few years earlier had left the town full of expert laborers who could use the work. And, of course, there was the steady supply of murder victims, including four of Carlos Sr.’s own bakery employees. The Pachecos closed the bakery and started knocking out coffins.

Read the story