SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala — One year after a huge landslide killed at least 280 people near Guatemala’s capital, the neighborhood once known as Cambray II remains a grim wasteland.
The wrecked walls and foundations of homes are half-buried in the mud. Abandoned shoes, toys, appliances and clothing litter what is, literally, a graveyard.
Despite two weeks of digging following the Oct. 1, 2015, disaster, when an unstable hillside collapsed on the squatter community, at least 70 people still remain missing, presumably buried forever under soil considered too unstable for further digging.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You can watch survivors of the mudslide recount the fateful day on the Associated Press photo blog .
Officials estimate there are 8,000 places in Guatemala where the threat of floods, mudslides and other disasters make it too risky to live. Yet none of those communities has been successfully relocated in the year since the disaster.
The government budgeted about $2.6 million to build new homes for the survivors of Cambray II on land that was seized from a drug trafficker. But only about 30 of 181 planned homes have been constructed so far.
Despite a mandatory evacuation order, a half dozen families remain. They scattered when journalists approached, apparently fearful of losing the only place they could afford.
Sonia Ramos lives only about 50 yards (meters) from the edge of the mudslide, and has been told her house is unsafe.
“We have no place else to go,” Ramos said. One year ago, the yard of her home became an impromptu morgue. Now it’s a patch of dust or a pit of mud, depending on the rains.
“Sometimes, I’m afraid,” she said, but shrugged, as if to say there is nothing to be done.
Human solidarity seems to have replaced official response.
Ramos took in 18-year-old Carlos Cac Pedroza, whose mother and siblings died in the mudslide. She’d seen him go to the barren spot where his family’s house once stood, lie down and toss dirt on himself, saying he wanted to die.
Cac Pedroza could have stayed with other relatives, but didn’t want to leave. He stared at the ground when asked why.
“I would be lost if I left,” he said. “I don’t know how to live anywhere else.”
Officials blamed a current and former mayor for diverting a river that runs along the base of the hillside, saying it eroded the slope. Both have denied responsibility and are out on bail.
For survivors, the psychological scars have not faded.
Samuel Morales, 43, lost his wife and three children in the mudslide.
Unable to find the body of his son, Kevin Samuel, after hours of digging with a shovel, Morales watched as backhoes and bulldozers were brought in.
He saw his son’s body brought up by a backhoe.
“The boy came up whole; he was hanging on the claw of the backhoe,” Morales recalled. “But when the machine pulled him out, his head shattered,” leaving the father to pick up the remains of the skull with his hands.
Morales had buried his family, he thought, when the national forensic agency contacted him six months after the tragedy, saying that more pieces of his wife’s body had been found.
He buried those in a second grave niche, next to the first.
“It has been a very hard year, of crying and crying,” Morales said.