Mexican president to hold bilateral talks with Trump on July 8

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will hold bilateral talks with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on July 8 in Washington, where he will underline his commitment to trade and investment, Mexico’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has not left his country since taking office in December 2018, and paying his first foreign visit to Trump is politically risky because the U.S. Republican president is widely disliked in Mexico.

The Mexican president has described the planned visit, which is intended to celebrate the start of a new North American trade deal on July 1, as a matter of economic necessity.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Lopez Obrador would hold bilateral talks with Trump on the afternoon of July 8. Trilateral matters that include Canada will be on the agenda on the morning of July 9, he added.

Mexico wanted to stress its commitment to trade, investment and social welfare at the Washington summit, Ebrard told a news conference, standing alongside Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador floated the idea of talks in Washington to mark the July 1 start of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is replacing the 26-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Mexico has urged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take part in the meeting, and Ebrard said he expected Canada’s government to detail its plans soon.

So far, Canada had not responded to the invitation to participate in Washington, Lopez Obrador said.

Many Mexicans have held Trump in low regard since he described Mexican migrants as rapists and drug runners in his 2015-16 election campaign and vowed to make Mexico pay for his planned border wall.

He has also made repeated threats against Mexico’s economy to pressure its government to stem illegal immigration.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

First coronavirus case found in sprawling migrant camp at U.S. border

By Julia Love

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – An asylum seeker has tested positive for coronavirus in a sprawling encampment steps from the U.S. border in Matamoros, Mexico, underscoring the challenges migrants face in protecting themselves from the pandemic.

After showing symptoms of the virus last Thursday, the migrant and three family members were placed in isolation and tested, Global Response Management (GRM), a nonprofit providing medical services in the camp, said in a statement.

When results came back Monday, the migrant who had displayed symptoms tested positive and the relatives had negative results.

Two others with symptoms of the virus are also in isolation, GRM said.

Since cases of coronavirus in Mexico began to rise in March, advocates and government officials have been intensely worried about the potential for an outbreak in the camp, where an estimated 2,000 migrants live in tents on the banks of the Rio Grande river.

“The presence of COVID-19 in an already vulnerable population exposed to the elements could potentially be catastrophic,” GRM said in a statement.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Many migrants living in the camp are U.S. asylum seekers who were sent back to Mexico to await the outcome of their cases under a controversial Trump administration policy known as “Migrant Protection Protocols.”

To prepare for the virus, GRM sought to improve sanitation in the camp by setting up 88 “handwashing stations,” distributed multivitamins to boost migrants’ immune systems and built a 20-bed field hospital.

Luz, a 42-year-old asylum seeker from Peru who asked that her last name not be used due to safety concerns, said she has tried to isolate as much as possible, though she sometimes ventures out of her tent to seek some relief from the fierce Matamoros heat.

“I truly am not afraid, though I try to be cautious,” she said. “But you can’t stay in your tent all the time… It’s too hot.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; Additional reporting for Ted Hesson and Kristina Cooke; Editing by Chris Reese)

U.S. Supreme Court spurns environmental challenge to Trump’s border wall

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge by four environmental groups to the authority of President Donald Trump’s administration to build his promised wall along the border with Mexico.

The justices turned away an appeal by the groups of a federal judge’s ruling that rejected their claims that the administration had unlawfully undertaken border wall projects in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas harmful to plant and animal life. The groups had argued that the 1996 law under which the administration is building the wall gave too much power to the executive branch in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The groups that sued are the Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the Southwest Environmental Center. They said the wall construction efforts would harm plants, wildlife habitats and endangered species including the jaguar, Mexican gray wolf and bighorn sheep.

The border wall is one of Trump’s signature 2016 campaign promises, part of his hard line policies toward illegal and legal immigration. The Republican president has vowed to build a wall along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-km) U.S.-Mexico border. He promised that Mexico would pay for it. Mexico has refused.

The 1996 law, aimed at combating illegal immigration, gave the U.S. government authority to build border barriers and preempt legal requirements such as environmental rules. It also limited the kinds of legal challenges that could be brought.

The environmental groups argued that the law was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to the executive branch – in this case the Department of Homeland Security – to get around laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act without congressional input.

Progress toward building the wall has been limited because Congress has not provided the funds Trump has sought, leading him to divert money – with the blessing of the Supreme Court – from the U.S. military and other parts of the federal government.

Trump on June 23 visited a newly built section of the wall along the frontier with Mexico in San Luis, Arizona, autographing a plaque commemorating the 200th mile (320 km) of the project.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

Armed attacks in Mexico’s Sinaloa state leave 16 dead

By Jesus Bustamante

CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) – Two armed attacks in the violence-plagued western Mexican state of Sinaloa, home of notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, have left 16 people dead, the head of the state’s public security ministry said on Thursday.

Security forces found the bodies of seven supposed cartel hitmen on a dirt road, strewn next to a bullet-riddled pickup truck, apparent victims of a shootout.

“There are seven bodies, most of whom were wearing tactical clothing and vests, apparently only one firearm was found,” said public security minister Cristobal Castaneda. “Clearly this is a fight between gangs or organized criminal groups,” he added.

A separate attack on a small town left another nine fatalities, seven of them supposedly local residents and the other two bodies have not been identified.

One of the unidentified bodies had an AK-47, said Castaneda.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador assumed the presidency in December 2018 pledging to pacify the country with a less confrontational approach to security, but violence has continued rising and murders hit an all-time high last year.

(Reporting by Jesus Bustamante; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Michael Perry)

Major quake hits southern Mexico, triggers local Pacific tsunami

By Julia Love

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A powerful earthquake of magnitude 7.4 struck the coast of southern Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least one person, buckling paved roads, and setting off a tsunami in nearby Pacific coastal areas.

One person died in the state of Oaxaca, Governor Alejandro Murat said, after the quake hit the Pacific coastal state mid-morning.

The country’s seismological service said a tsunami on the Oaxaca coast was ongoing, with the sea level having risen 60 centimeters (2 feet) at Huatulco beach, a popular destination for U.S. and Canadian tourists.

Mexico’s civil protection agency recommended that residents move away from the coastline. Videos on social media had earlier shown the ocean’s water receding in Oaxaca, a mountainous state that is also home to coffee plantations and Spanish colonial architecture.

Miguel Candelaria, 30, was working at his computer in his family home in the Oaxaca town of Juchitan when the ground began to tremble. He ran outside with relatives, but they had to stop in the middle of the street as the pavement buckled and rocked.

“We couldn’t walk… the street was like chewing gum,” said Candelaria, 30.

Neighbors screamed in terror and some shouted out warnings to run from the electricity poles that looked poised to fall, said Candelaria, who works in telecommunications marketing.

Quakes of magnitudes over 7 are major earthquakes capable of widespread, heavy damage. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck central Mexico in 2017 killed 355 people in the capital and the surrounding states.

Tuesday’s quake set off a tsunami warning for the Pacific coasts of Mexico and Central and South America. Waves of up to one meter (3.28 ft) were possible on the Mexican coast, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned.

Buildings shook in Mexico City, hundreds of miles away.

Helicopters flew low over the Roma and Condesa districts of the capital, apparently looking for damage in streets where many buildings still show the scars of the 2017 quake.

The city’s mayor said there were two people injured but no major damage from the quake, which hit as millions of people were at home in lockdown due to the coronavirus.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake was located 69 km (43 miles) northeast of the town of Pochutla.

It was very shallow, only 26 km (16 miles) below the earth’s surface, which would have amplified the shaking.

Near to the epicenter, Magdalena Castellanos Fermin was in the village of Santiago Astata when the quake struck, sending large rocks tumbling down from the hillside and alarming residents, she told Reuters by telephone.

“It was really intense, really strong,” she said.

(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Julia Love, Adriana Barrera, Stefanie Eschenbacher, Dave Graham and Anthony Esposito in Mexico City and Sandra Maler in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

As Mexico focuses on coronavirus, drug gang violence rises

By Drazen Jorgic and Uriel Sanchez

MEXICO CITY/ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) – The coronavirus is threatening to hamstring Mexico’s fight against some of its most vicious drug gangs, as police and officials fall sick, security forces are diverted to guard medical centers and military barracks are converted to COVID-19 clinics.

The powerful Jalisco cartel and its rivals are exploiting a security void to step up the fight for control of the drug trade in Mexico, security officials and analysts say.

The number of murders nationally has risen to record levels even as the amount of other crimes have tumbled due to most of the country staying at home to avoid the coronavirus.

In recent weeks, gunmen abducted and killed seven police officers, murdered 10 people in a drug rehab center and dumped 12 bullet-riddled bodies of a rival crime outfit, all in areas where the Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) cartel operates.

The military, a central part of Mexico’s anti-cartel fight, has been drafted to help stem the coronavirus, converting barracks into COVID-19 treatment clinics.

Police officers who are overweight or have underlying health conditions have been taken off the streets in some regions because they are regarded as being at high risk from COVID-19, Mexican officials say.

In Guerrero state, where about 40 armed groups including the CJNG operate, the police have been debilitated by outbreaks of coronavirus in its ranks, a senior Guerrero police official said.

When one officer gets sick, on average four more have to isolate for two weeks, he added, complaining that some officers were also turning up with dubious sick notes to avoid work.

In rural Guerrero, a mountainous state on the Pacific coast that governments have long struggled to control, armed vigilante groups that analysts say have links to cartels have imposed curfews and barred residents from leaving villages to try to contain the virus, residents told Reuters.

With an official tally of over 18,300 fatalities, Mexico has the seventh-highest coronavirus death toll in the world.

Coronavirus is straining the federal government’s bandwidth to deal with organized crime, another senior security official said.

“Coronavirus is the priority right now, no doubt,” the official said. “You can feel that.”

Nationally, 4,700 National Guard security personnel, out of a total of 90,000, have been tasked with guarding hospitals, medical equipment and health workers, the federal security ministry told Reuters.

The Mexican government did not directly answer a request from Reuters for comment about whether combating coronavirus is holding back the fight against cartels but a senior security ministry official said the government remains focused on its duties.

The official said only a small percentage of the National Guard militarized police force has been reassigned to coronavirus duties and that the majority maintain their crime prevention and combat functions.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said this month that Mexico is “not going to stop responding to and confronting organized crime.”

MURDER RATE GROWS

CJNG’s push for dominance helped drive homicides rates to an all-time high in the first four months of 2020, dealing a blow to Lopez Obrador. A record 34,582 people were murdered in 2019.

Lopez Obrador this month said about 70% of the homicides this year were cartel-linked.

Mexico has been in lockdown due to the coronavirus since March 23, when it ordered schools, business and government offices to shut.

But drug turf battles pushed murder rates higher in March, when 3,000 homicides were recorded. That was the second-highest monthly tally ever, and the biggest since Lopez Obrador assumed power in Dec. 2018.

The daily murder rate was near-identical in April, government data showed and on June 7, Mexico suffered its most violent day of the year with 117 murders.

“There are shootouts that you can’t miss almost daily,” said Jose, a student in Aguililla, one of many towns in the state of Michoacan where local cartels are fighting to keep the Jalisco gang out.

CJNG, led by former policeman Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera who has a $10-million U.S. bounty on his head, has faced stiff resistance from smaller gangs in its quest for control of smuggling routes for methaphetamine, heroin and fentanyl to the United States. Last month police in Michoacan found 12 bodies of suspected CJNG members in a truck.

A note draped over the bodies, purportedly signed by The Familia Michoacana cartel, taunted a CJNG regional chief.

Cartels have long fought for the control and drug trafficking routes across the large strip of land known as Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Land” region of western Mexico, encompassing the states of Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico.

Even before the pandemic, federal and state authority was often absent from rural areas across the region.

“There are areas where the government doesn’t enter…and crime groups have total control,” said Gregorio Lopez Jeronimo, a Roman Catholic priest better known as “Father Goyo” in the Michoacan town of Apatzingan, part of the Tierra Caliente.

Adding insult to injury, gangs are trying to take over some of the role of government to ease social needs during the pandemic.

In several regions they are lending money to hard-up businesses in areas where people have taken an economic hit due to the shutdown, according to a government document detailed by local newspapers.

Videos of gun-toting fighters from several gangs doling out groceries to impoverished local populations during the lockdown have driven home the government’s loss of territorial control.

“The pandemic has completely exposed the gaps in the government’s control over certain territories,” said Mike Vigil, a former U.S. Drugs Enforcement Administration agent.

“Those voids are being filled, unfortunately, by the drug cartels.”

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Uriel Guerrero; additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. extends non-essential travel restrictions with Canada, Mexico

By Mica Rosenberg and Frank Jack Daniel

NEW YORK/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Tuesday it would extend existing restrictions on non-essential travel at land ports of entry with Canada and Mexico due to continued risks from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This extension protects Americans while keeping essential trade and travel flowing as we reopen the American economy,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement, without specifying an end date to the extension.

The travel restrictions had already been extended several times and were set to expire on June 23, according to a related U.S. government notice. A DHS official said the latest extension would run for 30 days.

Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a tweet on Tuesday that the travel restrictions across the country’s border with the United States would continue for 30 days.

The United States said it was in “close contact” with both countries on its northern and southern borders about the restrictions, which were first imposed in mid-March. The Trump administration had already extended indefinitely a separate set of pandemic-related rules that permit rapid deportation of migrants caught at U.S. borders.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday said in a statement it was again postponing hearings for thousands of migrants who have been waiting in Mexico for U.S. immigration court hearings.

The Justice Department, which runs the immigration court system, said the hearings for those in the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols program would be on hold until July 20.

“This will alleviate the need for travel within Mexico to a U.S. port of entry while pandemic conditions in Mexico remain severe,” the Justice Department said. The controversial program has stranded migrants – many of them seeking asylum in the United States – in Mexico for months.

Hundreds have been living in squalid tent camps near the U.S.-Mexico border, which health experts and immigration advocates have said leaves them vulnerable to coronavirus infections.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington D.C.; Editing by Paul Simao and Steve Orlofsky)

Mexico overtakes U.S. coronavirus daily deaths, sets records

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico overtook the United States in daily reported deaths from the novel coronavirus for the first time on Wednesday, with the health ministry registering a record 1,092 fatalities it attributed to improved documenting of the pandemic.

Latin American has emerged in recent weeks as a major center for coronavirus. Brazil, where the virus has hit hardest in the region, also reported a record number of deaths on Wednesday.

The Mexican government had previously predicted the pandemic would peak in early May and under U.S. pressure has begun reopening its vast auto industry, which underpins billions of dollars of business through cross-border supply chains.

However, plans to further relax social distancing measures this week were put on hold in recognition of the fact that infections had not yet begun coming down.

Wednesday saw a record 3,912 new infections, with the number of daily deaths more than twice the previous record of 501.

The total number of known cases in Latin America’s second-largest economy is now 101,238 and its tally of deaths is 11,729, making it the seventh country with most deaths from the virus, according to the John Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell attributed the sharp jump in numbers to a new mortality committee established by the Mexico City government to better identify which deaths in the capital were caused by the virus.

“Over the past 20 or 25 days, we have had various cases that were slowly passed on to the registry, for various reasons,” he said. “A technical committee has specifically been carrying out complementary methods.”

The committee was established after growing criticism that Mexico’s very limited testing rate meant most cases and deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, were not being registered. A Reuters investigation concluded that fatalities could be 2.5 times higher than reported.

Mexico’s government has previously admitted the real number of fatalities was higher than the official count.

It was not clear if the inclusion of more deaths registered by the Mexico City committee would push daily numbers higher in future.

Mexico, with just over a third of the population of the United States, is at an earlier stage of the pandemic curve than its neighbor and the government has acknowledged that deaths could eventually surpass 30,000.

U.S. daily reported deaths were 1,045 on Wednesday, government data showed.

(Reporting by Mexico City Newsroom; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney)

Oldest and largest ancient Maya structure found in Mexico

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists using an aerial remote-sensing method have discovered the largest and oldest-known structure built by the ancient Maya civilization – a colossal rectangular elevated platform built between 1,000 and 800 BC in Mexico’s Tabasco state.

The structure, unlike the soaring Maya pyramids at cities like Tikal in Guatemala and Palenque in Mexico erected some 1,500 years later, was not built of stone but rather of clay and earth, and likely was used for mass rituals, researchers said on Wednesday.

Located at a site called Aguada Fenix near the Guatemalan border, the structure measured nearly a quarter mile (400 meters) wide and nine-tenths of a mile (1,400 meters) long and stood 33 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) high. In total volume, it exceeded ancient Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza built 1,500 years earlier.

There were no signs of sculptures depicting high-status individuals, suggesting Maya culture at this early stage was more communal and only later developed social inequality and a hierarchical society led by royalty, the researchers said.

“Because it is so large horizontally if you walk on it, it just looks like natural landscape,” said University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata, who led the research published in the journal Nature. “But its form comes out nicely in lidar.”

Lidar, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is a remote-sensing technique that employs a pulsed laser and other data obtained flying over a site to generate three-dimensional information about the shape of surface characteristics.

Nine large causeways and a series of reservoirs were linked to the structure. Some parts of the rural Aguada Fenix site today are covered with cattle ranches. Other parts are wooded.

“It is probable that many people from surrounding areas gathered for special occasions, possibly tied to calendrical cycles,” Inomata said. “The rituals probably involved processions along the causeways and within the rectangular plaza. The people also deposited symbolic objects such as jade axes in the center of the plateau.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Mexican funeral homes face ‘horrific’ unseen coronavirus toll

By Drazen Jorgic

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Like many people around the world, Mexican funeral home owner Salvador Ascencio did not believe at first the coronavirus outbreak was going to be a big deal.

Then calls from grieving relatives began to pour in.

During the first 11 days of May, his small funeral parlor in a run-down part of Mexico City dealt with 30 bodies, a more than four-fold spike in daily funeral services compared to the same period last May.

“I have never experienced a situation like this,” said Ascencio, 52, encircled by shiny wooden coffins in the cramped parlour of a business his family has operated since 1973.

“The truth is that what we are experiencing is horrific.”

Reuters surveyed 18 funeral homes and crematoriums across the capital, including several belonging to Mexico’s two biggest chains. They also reported rocketing demand for their services during the pandemic.

The findings suggest that official statistics in Mexico may be far underestimating the true death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Mexico’s government has acknowledged that the real number of fatalities is higher than the official tally of 5,666 coronavirus deaths nationwide, though it says it has limited tools to measure accurately how much higher because Mexico has the lowest testing rate among OECD countries.

Hugo Lopez-Gatell, Mexico’s coronavirus tsar and deputy health minister, said earlier this month in response to media reports about Mexico undercounting fatalities that people often arrive at hospital too sick for a timely laboratory test.

The federal government has also acknowledged there is sometimes a lag between coronavirus deaths and their inclusion in daily official figures due to delays in certifying deaths and processing information from hospitals and morgues.

Complicating efforts to estimate the true impact of the pandemic, Mexico has no real-time statistics on deaths nationwide: the most recent published mortality data is from 2018.

That makes it difficult to calculate ‘excess mortality’: a term used by epidemiologists to estimate the increase in deaths, versus normal conditions, attributable to a public health crisis.

Based on information from 13 funerals homes in the capital belonging to Mexico’s two biggest chains, the excess mortality rate in the first week of May could be at least 2.5 times higher than the government’s official coronavirus tally during that period, according to Reuters calculations.

While death rates could vary according to neighborhoods and over time, infectious disease specialist Alejandro Macias, an academic and Mexico’s national commissioner for influenza during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, was explained the news agency’s findings and said a calculation of more than twice the announced number of deaths sounded about right.

“In these times, saying double doesn’t sound too much to me,” said Macias, adding that it may be “even a little bigger.”

One of the funeral home chains, J. Garcia Lopez, told Reuters it had registered a 40% increase in funeral services in early May in Mexico City compared to last year and was handling an average of 50 fatalities per day. The other chain, Grupo Gayosso, saw a 70% spike.

Based on the last three years for which mortality data is available, Mexico City saw an average of 6,048 deaths in May between 2016 and 2018, or a daily rate of 195 deaths.

Taking the more conservative J. Garcia Lopez funeral data as a guideline, a 40% increase in deaths would equate to an average of 273 people dying daily in the capital in the first week of May – equivalent to an additional 78 deaths per day above the average of 2016-2018.

That would be roughly two and a half times the government’s official COVID-19 death tally in Mexico City, published on Monday, of 32 fatalities per day in the first week of May.

Excess mortality figures are a recognized means of determining the impact of a pandemic, he said, adding Mexico’s “severe underestimation” of the death toll did not indicate a conspiracy by the government to suppress numbers. “It’s a consequence of not doing enough tests,” Macias said.

Data from funeral homes and death registries has contradicted official coronavirus death tolls in other nations across the globe, including in Italy and Indonesia.

Although the Reuters estimate was only an approximation, it was broadly in line with a survey of death certificates by Mexican non-profit MCCI published this week that found three times as many confirmed, probable or suspected COVID-19 deaths.

Asked by Reuters about its findings and whether the death toll could be significantly higher than officially reported, a spokesman for the Mexico City government, Ivan Escalante, said a scientific commission established last week by the local authorities to bring more transparency to the pandemic death numbers would seek to determine that, including by examining suspected cases.

Officially, 1,108 people had died from the coronavirus in Mexico City by Monday. Mexico on May 12 reported its most lethal day yet with 353 coronavirus fatalities.

OVERFLOWING MORGUES

In the Izaz Cremaciones crematorium in Iztapalapa, the epicenter of Mexico City’s outbreak, black smoke billowed from chimneys last week whenever a coronavirus victim was cremated. The thicker smoke was due to extra layers of plastic wrapped around the bodies, workers said.

Izaz cremated 239 people in the first 11 days of May, compared with the 188 people it cremated during the whole of May last year. The increase was due in part to the government advising cremation for all suspected coronavirus cases.The company has introduced 24-hour shifts to operate its two crematorium ovens.

More than a third of Izaz’s cremations at the start of the month were confirmed or “probable COVID-19” cases, according to death certificates in the crematorium registry.

Funeral home J. Lopez Garcia also said more than a third of the daily cases in the same period were “COVID and/or atypical pneumonia.”

Workers using hearses to ferry the bodies of coronavirus victims to crematoriums around the capital have taken on the look of astronauts, sheathed in hazmat suits and gas masks.

“We had to call almost seven crematoriums to find a space,” said Francisco Juarez, whose family run a funeral business on the other side of Mexico City from Izaz.

“It’s something I’ve never seen, the hospitals are full,” he said. “The areas holding the bodies are now completely filled up.”

The surge in demand for funeral services has coincided with many public hospitals overflowing. By Monday evening, 47 of 64 hospitals in the Mexico City metropolitan areas were full and 13 were near capacity, government data showed.

Figures from Grupo Gayosso, which operates 21 funeral homes in 13 cities, point to rising coronavirus deaths elsewhere in the country too.

In the northern border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, they more than doubled, said Alejandro Sosa, the chain’s operations director.

Ascencio said he keeps receiving calls from people who suspect their relatives have been killed by the coronavirus.

If the toll keeps rising, he said, he won’t be able to handle them all because the city does not have enough facilities to cremate the bodies of the victims, he said.

“Unfortunately, there are not enough ovens,” Ascencio said.

(This story has been refiled to change to ‘Macias’ from ‘he’ in paragraph 20 to establish who is being quoted)

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Daniel Wallis)