Guatemala declares mudslide-hit neighbourhood uninhabitable, opens investigation

Prosecutors in Guatemala said Tuesday they have opened an investigation into who allowed homes to be built in an unsafe area where a massive mudslide killed at least 161 people.

SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala — Prosecutors in Guatemala said Tuesday they have opened an investigation into who allowed homes to be built in an unsafe area where a massive mudslide killed at least 161 people.

Rotman Perez, secretary of criminal policy at the Public Ministry, said officials will seek to find out which officials gave authorization for the construction and determine their degree of responsibility.

Meanwhile, officials were weighing what to do with the site of the acres-wide mudslide believed to hold hundreds of bodies, as well as a surrounding area of largely untouched homes declared uninhabitable.

Simply too vast to excavate fully, there may come a point where officials simply end digging efforts at the site and declare the area a de-facto graveyard, the buried houses serving as final tombs for the dead.

Officials are also considering what to do with residents of the Cambray community on the outskirts of Guatemala City whose houses escaped Thursday’s massive landslide but whose neighbourhood has now been declared uninhabitable by Guatemala’s National Disaster Reduction Commission, known as the Conred.

“They told us they have to get organized, they have to buy land” for us, said Clara Elena Solorzano, 40, who had lived in the neighbourhood for 17 years in a house her husband built. “Also that they’re getting money together to buy us homes, but nothing concrete.”

As workers continued to search for bodies under the mud, questions mounted about how people got permission to build homes at the base of a dangerous hillside next to a small river.

The disaster reduction commission said it had warned since last year of the risk that Cambray and had recommended that residents be relocated.

But Solorzano and 26-year-old Sonia Hernandez said they were never warned of any danger. Hernandez had 10 family members displaced by the landslide and another five of her relatives still missing.

“If we had been warned of the danger we were running we never would have bought” in the neighbourhood, Hernandez said. “We practically bought our own tomb.”

Many surviving Cambray residents were staying in shelters. Some 187 people waited on cots inside the Salon Municipal, an auditorium the town usually employs for events and parties. Displaced families could find food, medical services, activities for children and psychological services there.

Most people there were homeowners, and said they built their homes with all the proper permits. They said they had worried more about the nearby river that occasionally overflows its banks than the hillside above them.

Disaster Reduction Commission Director Alejandro Maldonado said he had warned Mayor Tono Coro of the municipality of Santa Catarina Pinula that the river was eating away at the base of the steep hill.

Maldonado said he was waiting for a report from local authorities about what they had done in response to the warning.

Municipal spokesman Manuel Pocasangre said local authorities had warned residents about the dangers, but the inhabitants did not want to leave their homes.

Maldonado acknowledged there are many neighbourhoods like Cambray in and around Guatemala City that are at risk of flooding or mudslides.

“What happened in Cambray is just a tragic case of what could potentially happen throughout the city,” Maldonado said.

Backhoes continued to remove thousands of tons of dirt from the mudflow with practically no hope of finding anyone alive and increasing difficulties in rescuing whole bodies. Emergency services co-ordinator Sergio Cabanas said Tuesday the death toll had risen to 161. About 300 people remain missing, according to some estimates.

Maldonado said authorities are still committed to recovering the bodies of victims, but stressed “we are not going to risk more lives unnecessarily.”

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