Many were buried while they slept, covered when a mountainside gave way under heavy rain. The president told their families the bodies would never be recovered.
But within the last two months, nearly 100 victims of a 2005 landslide from hurricane rains have been unearthed, and Jose Suasnavar, deputy director of the independent Forensic Anthropology Foundation, believes at least 50 more will be uncovered by the end of March.
On Saturday, Maria Tiney Xicay, 40, watched as anthropologists carefully uncovered her sister, her sister's husband, and their four children.
"I came and even built altars, but I didn't know where my family members were," she said. "Now, I'm at peace. I can bury them."
At least 800 died
Rains triggered by Hurricane Stan inundated Guatemala in October 2005 killing at least 800 people in the poor Central American nation.
The worst hit area was around the small, lakeside town of Panabaj, which was buried by a landslide leaving at least 250 dead.
At the time, Guatemalan authorities made a weeklong effort to find any survivors and bodies that could be reached with picks and shovels. But the enormous, still unstable mudslide was dangerous and difficult to search without heavy machinery that could have mangled buried bodies. Decomposing corpses threatened to spread disease.
President Oscar Berger and the government called off searching the 27,000 square meter (32,296 square yards) disaster area -- nearly the size of six football fields. The area would become a burial ground, he said.
But family members protested, and asked for the foundation's help. Anthropologists who have carried out countless excavations looking for victims of Guatemala's 36-year civil war began working in Panabaj in November.
Many victims were found perfectly conserved, their bodies still wrapped in the sheets they were sleeping in at the time of the early morning landslide.
"Some we still found in their beds," Suasnavar said.
As new victims are found, relatives hold massive burial ceremonies, delayed funerals that force the living to remember their pain.
During one such ceremony on Saturday, dozens of mourners wept in front of several coffins, as curious tourists snapped photos of the funeral. Panabaj is a village on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlan, a town popular with visitors interested in Mayan culture and the breathtaking views of volcanos circling Lake Atitlan, 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of Guatemala City.
Hundreds of survivors lost their homes, and many are still living in makeshift shacks. The Guatemalan government had begun to build 90 concrete homes, but abandoned the project after state officials determined the houses were in an area that was at risk of another landslide.
Some survivors have ignored the warnings that the area is unstable, moving into the half-built concrete homes because they are tired of living in crowded, temporary shelters.
"I'm ashamed to change my pants in front of my daughters," said Francisco Ixbalan, the leader of the group of squatters living in the abandoned project. "That's why I came to the cement home."