Hurricane Stan

Under Mud and Despair, Guatemala Looks Abroad for Help

Photo courtesy of Dr. Francisco Mendez.

The villagers of Santiago de Atitlán, on the banks of what British author Aldous Huxley called “the most beautiful lake in the world,” have yet another reason to mourn.

Landslides the week before last caused by the rain from Hurricane Stan in the Caribbean wiped out a town next to Santiago called Panabáj, burying more than 500 people under mud and rock that fell from thousands of feet above them. By last weekend, recovery efforts were abandoned, and desperate locals who had been digging with shovels, and tools as simple as brooms and tree branches, were asked to stop. “Panabáj no longer exists,” Mayor Diego Esquina of Santiago admitted to reporters, and the town was declared a mass grave.

As if that’s not enough, two months from now these same unfortunate souls will remember the 15th anniversary of the day the Guatemalan military massacred 13 of their fellow townspeople. Their outcry and successful campaign to kick the military out of a nearby base gained international attention and was a crucial step in stopping this country’s brutal civil war in 1996.

Ironically, when military forces arrived last week for the first time since 1990, this time on a humanitarian effort, with food, water and supplies in tow, they scared away many of the people they were trying to help. The scars of the 36-year internal conflict, which killed or “disappeared” 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians from the western highlands, are still very real among the Guatemalan people. Those forced to build makeshift houses on the edges of mountains and volcanoes out of sheet metal and sticks undoubtedly feel kicked when they are already down.

President Oscar Berger arrived in Santiago in a helicopter last week and promised that building materials would arrive soon. “I declare Santiago Atitlán to be the symbol of the reconstruction of our country,” he said. But words, alone won’t fix the dire problems this country will face in the coming weeks.

Four thousand residents of Santiago and Panabáj are now homeless. That number approaches 150,000 nationwide. Guatemala’s official death toll was approaching 700 at the end of this week, but will certainly skyrocket into the thousands once all the missing are included in the tally.

On the Web

Lago Atitlan Relief Group — Photos and stories about the conditions at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

To make matters worse, Guatemala’s two major arteries to the west, the Central American Highway, which runs above Lake Atitlán, and the Pacific Highway to the south, are impassible. Whole sections of the former are missing, courtesy of the mudslides, and flooding rivers destroyed several bridges crossing the latter. Populated western cities like Quetzaltenango and Retaluleu are running out of food, supermarket shelves are empty, and bread sales are already being rationed.

Developed countries have offered food and supplies; the United States Southern Command has sent Chinook helicopters to aid relief efforts; and countries like Cuba and Venezuela have sent doctors to tend to the injured. But Berger is already eyeing other options. His government appealed to the State Department on Thursday to freeze the deportation of Guatemalan citizens for a period of months, given that four out of 10 families here rely, in part or in full, on family members living in El Norte, many of them illegally, for money. Washington granted El Salvador a similar favor when an earthquake ravished that country in 1998.

A source of income for many Guatemalans living around Lake Atitlán, for years, has been tourism. These beautiful azure waters inside a sunken volcano are a key destination for any travelers passing through Central America: the shops of Mayan handicrafts in Panajachel; the reggae nightclubs in San Pedro; the sun-tanning cliffs and indigenous saunas in San Marcos; the altar to Maximon, the god of sin; and the memorial to the massacre in Santiago.

But weeks, and maybe months, will pass before Lake Atitlán receives any new visitors. Approximately 400 tourists were evacuated out of the towns around the lakes soon after Hurricane Stan hit. They were sent to Panajachel by motorboat and hiked for miles, uphill, with police escorts, until reaching the Central American Highway.

The few that stayed, like Dean, an Englishman who runs a restaurant near the boat dock in San Pedro, did so to help the local refugees. His restaurant, Dinoz, functioned as a soup kitchen for an entire week after the disaster hit. When the food inevitably ran out, he and his girlfriend evacuated and headed for Antigua, a wealthy safe haven near Guatemala City.

The death and destruction they witnessed along the way were appalling. San Marcos lost its school and church to mudslides. San Pedro, where tourists once played, is a refugee camp. Panabáj is history. In Panajachel, which is the transportation hub of Lake Atitlán, the sewer system is now part of the lake, making cholera and hepatitis imminent. And in Santiago de Atitlán, where 450 cases of cholera were allegedly diagnosed on Friday, the mourning has just begun.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Jacob R. Wheeler.