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CARACAS, Venezuela – Grief flooded back for Ivonne de Gutierrez when she brought flowers to her son's grave at a cemetery in Venezuela's capital, only to find that the grave markers of several relatives were gone.
The pieces cast with bronze letters and religious symbols that identified the graves of a nephew and two aunts had disappeared since her visit a week earlier.
"Almost all of them have been taken," Gutierrez said, standing among the vandalized graves at Cemetery of the East, one of Caracas' most cherished final resting places.
While thieves have been targeting the capital's necropolises for years, robbing unsuspecting mourners or ransacking tombs for metal objects and even human bones used in occult ceremonies, the crime wave has worsened as the country has been consumed by economic and political crisis.
An avalanche of complaints on Twitter and Instagram in late May prompted the cemetery's administrators to acknowledge the surge in stolen plaques and their plan to replace them with a cheaper, plastic material less attractive to thieves.
Some inscriptions have been removed, but no replacements have appeared, leaving relatives clueless about whether the grave markers of loved ones have been put in safekeeping or taken away by looters.
"That was early May, and still today we know nothing," said Gutierrez.
Several people said cemetery administrators have not responded to their inquiries, and they did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press.
Oil-rich Venezuela was once among Latin America's most prosperous nations. But nearly two decades of socialist rule have thrust it into an economic tailspin with severe shortages of food, medicine and other goods.
Runaway inflation has plunged many into poverty, forced to survive on monthly minimum wage that adds up to pennies — or turn to crime.
For years, thieves have scavenged in Caracas' streets, cashing in sewer grates and copper telephone wires as scrap metal on the black market.
In recent months, robbers have made off with roughly 6,000 headstone markers from the Cemetery of the East, said Nora Bracho, an opposition lawmaker who heads a congressional committee overseeing public services.
This is a small percentage of the 200,000 graves in the cemetery, but it has been a nightmare for affected relatives.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," Bracho said, noting that the living are also afflicted by deteriorating public services including widespread electricity blackouts, shortages of water and a broken-down public transportation system.
The Cemetery of the East, perched on terraces overlooking Caracas' high-rises and slums, has long been an oasis from Venezuela's noisy capital. Peregrine falcons and blue-tailed macaws soar through the cemetery's cypress trees.
But relatives say the calm they once cherished has been spoiled.
"Crime is everywhere," teacher Nidia Guzman said during a recent visit.
Gutierrez said that so far looters have skipped over her son's headstone, located for nearly a decade in a highly visible corner of Cemetery of the East.
But a fear it could be vandalized or his remains tampered with for witchcraft has her considering more drastic measures.
"I'm thinking about exhuming his body and having his remains cremated," Gutierrez said. "It's no longer safe here."
Yolanda Lezama has watched grave markers go missing one by one on weekly visits to the grave of her daughter, Barbara, who died at age 21 in a traffic accident.
"Here in Venezuela, there is no respect for the living — and much less for the dead," she said.