Families return to disaster-hit Mexico town to search for missing loved ones

Mud still covers La Pintada from torrential rains that punished Guerrero state

Paula Chouza
La Pintada -
A view of La Pintada (Atoyac de Álvarez) taken in Deecember 2013.
A view of La Pintada (Atoyac de Álvarez) taken in Deecember 2013.saúl ruiz

In La Pintada, the stench of death is everywhere. The town located in Mexico’s southern mountain range in Guerrero state was buried by massive mudslides on September 16 during the torrential rains that punished the nation’s east and west coasts for weeks.

Just days before Christmas, one tractor worked vigorously to remove the heaps of still moist dirt in this town which had 562 residents.

Following the destruction caused by Hurricane Ingrid and Tropical Storm Manuel, which packed a two-punch assault on both coasts, President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that his government would provide 7.2 billion pesos (some $552 million) to rebuild Guerrero, the state that was most severely hit by the storms.

The official nationwide death toll stands at 157, and more than 300,000 people remain homeless.

“They say that aid has arrived, but they haven’t given us anything,” said one desperate man as he continued to search for the remains of his loved ones who are thought to have been buried by the mud.

“We have found the remains of 57 people, but they are incomplete bodies; a lot of them cannot be identified,” said one official from the government’s Social Development office.

They say they are going to relocate us but we don’t know when or where”

María, a 37-year-old single woman who works in the coffee fields, showed a reporter the lot where her home once stood as well as the homes that belonged to her brother and mother. The mother died that day and, of her six siblings, only four survived the storm while a fifth is still missing. The storms also took the lives of her brother-in-law and niece.

“Money doesn’t matter to me now, even though we have nothing. I just want them to find them,” she said about the bodies of her family.

María’s aunt, María del Rosario García Gómez, 57, returned to La Pintada to begin picking up what’s left of her home — one of the few that survived the disaster. “I would like to go to one of those places where people can talk to the dead so that they can tell me where they are buried. I feel so helpless; I don’t like seeing my family suffer like this.”

While residents slowly begin to return, large sections of the town remain completely buried. In many areas, the stench of decomposing bodies permeates the air, making it impossible for residents to venture into these pockets of La Pintada. Demetrio Ávila Moreno, an elderly man who has lived in the town for the past 42 years, said that his loved ones as well as his life savings — about 235,000 pesos (some $18,000) — were buried by the mud.

“I would like my daughter to write a request so that I can go speak to the president and ask him to lend us money so that members of the cooperative can begin rebuilding this town,” said Ávila, who was staying with a son outside La Pintada the day the tragedy occurred.

Some 100 days after the disaster, he continues to live with him.

To date, some 45 people have returned to La Pintada thanks to the little reconstruction that has begun to take place and a temporary shelter that was built by the government to house 14 families.

“They say that they are going to relocate us but we don’t know when or where,” said Natalia Márquez, who was placed in charge of the shelter. “We hope that it won’t be here because we are afraid of the mountain.”

According to some experts, the possibility of another avalanche occurring in the near future is a real one.

The government’s New Guerrero Plan, which was announced in November, calls for the rebuilding of the state in three stages. First, the government will concentrate on constructing new infrastructure projects, including relocating homes that were affected by the mudslides and establishing new hospitals. A fiber-optic communications network will be expanded to include the remote towns in the state. Finally, potable water systems will be established in Acapulco, Chilpancingo, Iguala, Taxco and Zihuatanejo municipalities.

Still, the main Pacific coast highway that connects the resort city of Acapulco with Atoyac de Álvarez — a distance of some 80 kilometers — is still patched up with temporary repairs done two months ago. The mountain road in Atoyac de Álvarez municipality, where La Pintada is located, is still impassable in some areas.

Oxfam, one of the NGOs helping residents, say that many municipalities don’t have drinking water, remain disconnected from the rest of the country, and have become breeding grounds for infectious diseases.

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