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Guatemala Landslide: A Tragedy Waiting to Happen

At least 131 dead and hundreds still missing as hope of finding survivors evaporates and rescue efforts focus on recovering bodies.

by Jeff Abbott
Oct 6 2015, 7:06am

Imagen por Moises Castillo/AP

Carlos Aguirre clutched photographs of his two children as municipal workers sealed their tomb. The 38-year-old deliveryman had stood in the same spot to watch his mother's coffin also disappear behind concrete the day before.

"When rescue workers found my children, they found my son in a position protecting his little sister," Aguirre told VICE News, before breaking down in tears. "This is great pain."

Aguirre's relatives perished in last Thursday's landslide on the outskirts of Guatemala City that buried about 125 homes and killed at least 131 people, with hundreds still unaccounted for.

"Everything is beneath the mountain," Aguirre said. "Everything is destroyed."

Photo by Jeff Abbott

The steep tree-covered hillside that collapsed on top of the Cambray 2 neighborhood of the town of Santa Catarina Pinula, about seven miles from the old center of the Guatemalan capital, now counts among the country's worst such disasters.

The closest recent comparison was a huge landslide triggered by the torrential rains of Hurricane Stan in 2005 that buried the village of Panabaj near the tourist center of Lake Atitlán, leaving an estimated 400 dead or missing.

But though there has been persistent heavy rain in Guatemala City in recent days, the Cambray 2 disaster is not associated with a major meteorological event. Nor was the landslide itself particularly large.

The death toll is so high because the hill tumbled down onto an urban area nestled at the bottom of a ravine that should never have been there in the first place, or should have been relocated.

Guatemala's disaster commission said it clearly identified the area as one of many high-risk zones in and around the capital in a report last November.

"There are movements of earth down the slopes leading to the river that are obstructing and blocking its flow," the report said, referring to a river that runs along the bottom of the ravine. "Fractures can be observed that could indicate future landslides."

The report went on to recommend the relocation of residents.

Municipal spokesman Manuel Pocasangre told local media that the local authorities had warned residents about the dangers, but the inhabitants did not want to leave their homes.

Residents, however, say they were never informed of the risks of living in the mostly lower middle class community of taxi drivers, gardeners, and mailmen that had grown quickly in recent years, with cement block houses creeping up the surrounding hills towards the homes of the wealthy located at the top of the hill.

Speaking in an emergency shelter set up in a community hall in the center of the town, several survivors told VICE News they had settled in the Cambray 2 because of the relatively low cost of rent and land. Some stressed that they were also attracted to the area because of its low levels of criminal violence that contrast with many low income barrios in Guatemala City.

Though some mentioned noticing rocks tumbling down the hills in the past, as well as concern about the river flooding, they said they never imagined that a hill would collapse on top of them.

"There was never a sign or anything that this would happen," Aguirre told VICE News. "I don't understand how this much land could fall."

The huge death toll was also a matter of bad luck. The landslide happened after 10pm when most people were in their homes. It happened so suddenly that they had little chance to get out alive.

Aguirre survived because he had yet to return from work. His wife was at a church event elsewhere in the same general area, but away from the danger zone. Aguirre's father, however, escaped almost certain death by a matter of seconds.

Angel María Aguirre had just left the house on an errand when disaster struck. His wife of 39 years had left to go with him, but he had sent her back into the house where she would die with their grandchildren.

Photo by Jeff Abbott

"The light posts began to move, as if they were sheets of paper," the 65-year-old gardener recalled. "Then there was a big noise."

The next few seconds are a bit of a blur. "Before it happened I had been beside a gate," he said. "When I finally reacted, and when I got up, I was behind a wall."

The Aguirre children and their grandmother were dug out of their buried home early on in the rescue effort that began on Friday and has involved over 1,000 rescue workers.

By Monday hopes of finding survivors had all but evaporated. Instead the authorities are now focused on recovering bodies with the help of mechanical diggers that are reportedly removing about 119 tons of earth in a day.

The bodies, and in some cases severed body parts, are being taken to a makeshift morgue in the centre of the town. Local media reported relatives waiting on line at the morgue for new finds to come in.

For those who do recover their loved ones, the next stop is mostly the two feet square and seven feet deep tombs stacked five high and painted in vibrant colors that run the full length of one side of the town cemetery. Today there is little time for the cement on tombs to dry between funerals.

Alejandro Maldonado, the head of the disaster commission, told The Associated Press that the landslide should serve as a warning.

"What happened in Cambray is just a tragic case of what could potentially happen throughout the city," he said.

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo

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