October 11, 2005

Guatemala abandons search for victims

By Frank Jack Daniel

PANABAJ, Guatemala (Reuters) - Rescuers searching for up to
1,400 people buried when a landslide swept away a Maya Indian
village finally gave up on Monday, leaving the victims to lie
forever encased in a tomb of thick mud.

Five days after a river of mud wiped Panabaj off
Guatemala's map, firefighters called off the gruesome and
dangerous rescue effort.

"We're not going back tomorrow, it's just too contaminated
in there," chief firefighter Mario Ramirez told Reuters late on

A Spanish rescue team with sniffer dogs had earlier led a
final, futile search for survivors.

"It's a pity we were given bad information because we
thought there were survivors here waiting to be saved," said
Luis Munoz from the Spanish city of Zaragoza.

As the rescue efforts fizzled out, a fisherman in a dugout
canoe found the body of a 3-month-old boy in nearby Lake
Atitlan. The baby was washed into the lake by the landslide
last Wednesday as heavy rains from Hurricane Stan battered
Central America.

Panabaj sat between a volcano and Lake Atitlan's turquoise
waters in spectacular countryside that draws thousands of
American and European backpackers every year.

But it disappeared under a deadly slick of mud, rocks and
trees that poured hundreds of yards down the volcano. Now it
will almost certainly be declared a mass grave.

Some in the impoverished region lost dozens of family
members in the tragedy, one of Latin America's biggest natural
disasters of recent years.

"Thirty relatives of mine used to live there. None of them
have appeared," said Gaspar Mendoza, a peasant dressed in
traditional Maya Indian garb and holding a shovel.

Pointing to a tree sticking out of the mud, he said:
"Another 15 used to live there; only three managed to escape.

"And in this place," he said, signaling at a nearby patch
of mud, "about 10 others lived, two of whom got out."

The fire department put the death toll at around 1,400 and
the mayor of nearby Santiago Atitlan said between 1,000 and
1,500 had died. Only 77 bodies have been found and the exact
death toll will almost certainly never be known.


The official death toll in Guatemala stands at 652 but that
does not include hundreds of missing people. Rescuers say the
real number is somewhere in the region of 2,000.

More than 100 people were killed in mudslides and flooding
in the rest of Central America and southern Mexico.

U.S. military helicopters ferried aid to other stricken
areas of Guatemala on Monday, and the United Nations appealed
for $22 million in emergency assistance for hard-hit villages
and towns.

In the small town of Tacana, high in the mountains of
western Guatemala, the first rescue workers arrived late on
Monday, a full four days after a mudslide destroyed two
churches, killing 80 people sheltering from the storm.

"My house is there but my family is not," cried Nelson
Raymond, 18, who lost his mother, father and aunt. He covered
his grief-torn face with a baseball cap.

Residents pulled 48 bodies out of the rubble while another
32 were missing, believed dead. Rescue workers there said they
feared more deaths in remote villages surrounding Tacana that
had yet to be reached.

President Oscar Berger's government was widely criticized
for responding too slowly to the tragedy. Hardly any federal
aid has arrived in Panabaj or the surrounding area, which was a
hot spot in a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

The storms caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage
to Guatemalan agriculture, especially in coffee and sugar.

Southern Mexico also was reeling from floods and the
government said it would spend about $1.85 billion in emergency
aid for victims.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer and Eduardo