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Guatemala halts recovery effort after mudslides

Guatemalan officials said they would abandon towns buried by landslides and declare them mass graveyards as reports of devastation trickled in from some of the more than 100 communities after killer mudslides.
Spanish firefighters use sniffer dog to search for mudslide survivors in Guatemala's Panabaj village
Spanish members of United Firefighters use a dog to look for mudslide survivors in Panabaj, Guatemala on Sunday. The firefighters were unable to find signs of life at the site, where up to 1,400 Maya Indians died when rains triggered by Hurricane Stan caused tons of mud and rocks to rip through the village.Daniel Aguilar / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Guatemalan Indian community, haunted by a government-sponsored massacre during the country’s brutal civil war, refused soldiers’ help Monday in recovering those killed in a week of flooding and mudslides and conducted its own searches instead.

Guatemalan officials were likely to give up searching for 384 missing throughout the region. They will likely be added to the 652 people already declared dead across Guatemala from torrential rains last week associated with Hurricane Stan, raising the total number killed to more than 1,000. Another 133 people were killed in El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.

In Guatemala’s isolated western township of Tacana, near the Mexico border, rescue workers on Sunday recovered more than 130 bodies from a mudslide that buried a shelter where people had taken refuge from rains and flooding.

In Panabaj, a community on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlan buried by a mudflow a half-mile wide and up to 20 feet thick, residents on Sunday blocked troops who had come to help dig out victims.

Resisting the soldiers
“The people don’t want soldiers to come in here. They won’t accept it,” said Panabaj Mayor Diego Esquina, who said memories are still too vivid of a 1990 army massacre of 13 villagers. In all, tens of thousands died in Guatemala at the hands of soldiers and death squads in the 1960-96 civil war.

“There is a very strong resistance in the name of maintaining their culture,” said Rodolfo Pocop, 35, a Santiago Atitlan resident who represents a national Indian rights group.

All the mudslide victims were Sutujil Indians. There are only about 100,000 Sutujil Indians in the country, and all live in communities on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Pocop said.

“It was a very severe blow to this ethnic group,” he said.

The Indians struggled Monday to reconcile the demands of tradition — which require that bodies be recovered and buried exactly 24 hours after dying — with the shifting fields of mud and rotting corpses.

Experts “have advised us not to dig anymore because there is a great danger” that the still-soaked earth may collapse again, said Uvaldo Najera, a Tacana municipal employee reached by telephone.

Esquina said community leaders have asked that the area be declared a cemetery.

“We are tired,” he said. “The bodies are so rotted that they can no longer be identified. They will only bring disease.”

Hundreds of Mayan villagers who had used shovels, picks and axes to dig for victims in previous days gave up their efforts Sunday, overwhelmed by the task.

Many of the missing will simply be pronounced dead, and the ground where the bodies rest declared hallowed earth. About 160 bodies had been recovered in Panabaj and nearby towns, and most were buried in mass graves. Many could not be identified, either because no family members were left alive or because the bodies were too decomposed.

Towns as cemeteries
Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein said steps were being taken to give towns “legal permission to declare the buried areas cemeteries” as “a sanitary measure.” In addition, the government asked the United Nations on Monday for $21.5 million in aid because its own emergency response funds would not be enough to cope with the crisis.

Indian residents of Santiago Atitlan, dressed in embroidered shirts and cotton, knee-length shorts with sashes, performed incense- and herb-laden rituals both to pacify the spirits of the dead and to ask to be spared from further disasters.

Also visible at the site were a series of iron rods tied with red plastic to indicate where sniffer dogs had located bodies.

The sun shone brightly Monday as government and foreign helicopters ferried in medicine and water treatment supplies to Santiago Atitlan’s town square, a stone courtyard fronting a 16th-century Roman Catholic Church.