October 9, 2005

Anger at slow aid to Guatemala mudslide village

By Frank Jack Daniel

PANABAJ, Guatemala (Reuters) - Aid trickled into a
Guatemalan village devastated by a mudslide that killed some
1,400 people, and Maya Indian residents complained on Sunday
the government was far too slow to react to the tragedy.

Peasants from neighboring villages brought clothing for the
victims, rowing canoes across Lake Atitlan to Panabaj. The
village was buried under a deadly slick of mud, rocks and trees
that slid down a volcano after rains from Hurricane Stan.

A federal deputy from western Guatemala said 300 people had
died in another mudslide in the town of Tacana, near the
Mexican border, but that could not be confirmed.

In Panabaj, Spanish firemen arrived to look for bodies
under a quagmire that is up to 40 feet deep in places and
Guatemalan soldiers brought water in a truck.

But government help was little and late, local officials
said. They were angry that President Oscar Berger had not
visited the village four days after one of Latin America's
biggest tragedies of recent years struck.

"I feel totally sad, morale is very low. We want to see the
president, we want to see him here," said Diego Esquina, mayor
of Santiago Atitlan municipality, which runs Panabaj.

Stan's rains triggered the mudslide as Panabaj's residents
slept early on Wednesday. Mud-covered roads prevented rescuers
from reaching the site for two days.

No senior government official went to the village and the
mayor said racism against the Mayas might be to blame.

"It's like they are giving a message that it is because we
are indigenous. That is the point. A lot of my people are
saying it is because we are indigenous," Esquina said.

Santiago Atitlan was a hot spot during Guatemala's 36-year
civil war, which ended in 1996. Years of abuses by soldiers
helped leftist rebels recruit Indians in the town and tensions
peaked in 1990 when drunken soldiers killed 13 locals.


A supply of beans, rice and pasta sent by the capital's
city hall was handed out but peasants said the federal
government was negligent.

"The government didn't send anything here. There is
nothing," said Francisco Boron, 43, dressed in traditional
calf-length white pants and carrying a machete.

Rescuers with hand tools struggled to find bodies in the
brown grunge covering Panabaj and local officials said it would
likely be left as a mass grave.

Firefighters poked long poles into the mud in search of
victims but feared sinking into the quagmire themselves.

"It is very difficult. Most of the people are where the mud
is thickest and we haven't been able to work there because of
the danger," said firefighter Max Chiquito.

The fire department put the death toll at around 1,400
villagers and Esquina said between 1,000 and 1,500 had died.
Only 76 bodies have been found.

The storm killed some 300 people elsewhere in Guatemala and
103 others in the rest of Central America and southern Mexico.

Julio Cesar Lopez, an opposition deputy from the western
department of Huehuetenango, told Reuters some 300 people died
on Thursday when a mudslide hit the town of Tacana, in the
neighboring San Marcos region.

"I am in telephone contact with Tacana. People were using
two churches as shelters but the hill fell down on top of
them," said Lopez, of the Guatemalan Republican Front party.

Guatemalan newspaper reports said about 2,000 were missing
in San Marcos and Defense Minister Carlos Aldana told Reuters
the armed forces were trying to reach the stricken area.

"San Marcos is the place where, from today, we are giving
most importance because it has not been dealt with at all due
to the weather conditions and the road access." he said.

Southern Mexico was reeling from floods and the government
said it would spend 20 billion pesos in emergency aid for
victims to reconstruct stricken states.

"We are going to support everyone to recover their goods
and rebuild their homes that were destroyed, to compensate
agricultural producers for the loss of crops, and in finance
plans for businesses," President Vicente Fox said.

Pope Benedict offered condolences for the hurricane victims
during his weekly blessing in St. Peter's Square. "I ask the
Lord for the eternal rest of the dead," he said.