In the background, radio announcers rattled off reports of long lines for bread and inflated egg prices, interrupted by news from around the country. Almost a foot of rain had fallen in Champerico, a coastal community accustomed to seeing that much water in a full month. A mudslide had killed four children in the town of Santa Catarina Pinula, just outside the capital. The announcer warned that the price of chicken was rising, and told listeners to call in and denounce merchants looking to profit on fear. The radio warned the worst was to come.
Instead, the rain stopped sometime late that night, leaving many in Xela with their stockpiles of rice and powdered milk. Those in towns unreachable by road and buried in mud quickly exhausted their supplies. We learned later that the winds were, by meteorological standards, mild. But 46.6 mph and 20 inches of rain in 36 hours proved enough to move mountains.
By the time the storm broke, Agatha had killed at least 174 people in Guatemala. On June 9, CONRED, the agency tasked with the coordination of disaster response and reduction in Guatemala, reported 113 still missing. According to local news sources 162,857 people around the country were evacuated from their homes during and immediately after the storm. Thirty-nine people died in Sololá, one of the hardest hit among the country’s 22 departments. The Latin American Herald Tribune on June 6 put the cost of repairing the damage at $475 million. A week later President Álvaro Colom adjusted the estimate to between $600 million and $1 billion. On July 2 the estimate was revised to $982 million by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The work is expected to take five years to complete.
The tragedy proved dramatic enough to interest even those outside the country, coming as it did on the heels of the eruption of Pacaya, the volcano 25 miles south of the capital that halted air travel for a week in late May and covered hundreds of square miles in a layer of black ash.
But the deaths, the devastation, the mudslides and the volcano, were quickly eclipsed by news of a 100-foot-deep and 60-foot-wide sinkhole that dropped in the center of Guatemala City. The surreal image of the perfectly round pit raced virally across the World Wide Web. “It’s huge,” David de Leon, the spokesman for CONRED, told the Christian Science Monitor on June 1st. “It doesn’t seem real.”
Many who gawked at the gaping hole in the ground passed over the reports of hundreds dead, thousands evacuated, and millions of dollars in damage. While stubs from the Associated Press offered updates (the number of houses lost, bridges destroyed and people killed) experts were courted for in-depth analysis on the sinkhole.
I came across a piece in National Geographic on June 3 that included comment from Sam Bonis, a geologist at Dartmouth College, currently living in Guatemala City. This paragraph struck me:
“In fact, Bonis thinks calling the Guatemala City chasm a sinkhole is a misnomer—a true sinkhole is an entirely natural phenomenon. There is no scientific term for what happened in Guatemala, he said . . .”
While there may be no scientific term for what happened in Guatemala City, there certainly are political explanations. The gaping maw that opened in a capital city, swallowing a three-story building whole, was not an act of nature, or of God, but a problem of infrastructure. At the bottom of the hole was the same story of government mismanagement, deforestation, structural neglect, poverty and longstanding societal trouble that helped turn a bad storm into a mass crisis. The outrageous sinkhole is an apt metaphor for a country where preventable tragedy is often labeled a natural disaster, but few outside Guatemala caught the meaning.
The first Guatemalans reported killed by the storm died in the town of Almolonga, a 20-minute bus ride from Xela. Four family members — a mother, father, and two children, six and two — were crushed when a boulder dropped upon their small cement house on the hill above the town. The fifth, a boy of 12, survived.
The following day the national civil police came to dig the bodies out. Four white crosses were painted on the home’s grey wall. The boy disappeared into a network of family and friends in the town of 19,000 people who share names and blood and cousins. Pieces of his life remained strewn on the mountain. A wardrobe lay across what was once the path to the house. A hard, speckled green squash lolled in a kitchen basket. A multi-colored umbrella still lay crushed under the collapsed roof.
This indigenous farming community was not the hardest-hit town in Guatemala, or even in the department of Quetzaltenango. But people paid attention to the tragedy because the rain brought the threat of fungus and damaged crops. The onions, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce that grow on the patchwork family plots feed much of Xela, and are trucked as far as El Salvador, which is why they call this relatively well-off indigenous town, built on the curved backs of local farmers and U.S. remittances, “la hortaliza de las Americas.”
It was in Guatemala’s garden that my trip began to divide into scenes, each as instructive and enigmatic as that moment in El Portal. During my three days in Almolonga, because this is Guatemala became an increasingly valid way of understanding what I saw.
We hadn’t meant to stop in Almolonga. Nadia and I were on our way to Las Fuentes Georginas, thinking we would take advantage of the dry spell to visit what our Lonely Planet called “the prettiest, most popular natural spa in Guatemala.” But the road through Almolonga was damaged, making it impassable to the wide, brightly painted school-busses that make up the backbone of the Guatemalan public transportation system. They let us off a few blocks from the municipal market.
We had almost reached the end of town before we realized the extent of the damage. A little boy was propped on top of a pile of sandbags, watching the teeth of a 416 Caterpillar backhoe bite into the dirt road in front of him. Behind him was a five-foot drop to where his mother stood, on a porch that once sat at street level, peering at the feet walking by. Only then did I realize Almolonga’s main thoroughfare was not normally a dirt road. During the storm, the streets that descended from the hill had become channels for hundreds of thousands of pounds of volcanic soil that slid from the mountains, pushing through windows and doors before settling to coat the asphalt in a layer almost two meters high. In the bright sun, it was rapidly hardening.
At the intersection on the edge of town, we saw a man with a video camera on his shoulder. Next to him another man stood with a microphone, flagged for TV. The men worked for an Almolongan cable station. They said they were waiting for the First Lady to arrive.
Fifteen minutes later, she did, preceded by a train of Toyota Hilux pickups, carrying men strapped with AK-47s in their beds. First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom stopped onto the street. A huddle of guards formed around her, followed by TV cameras and a cadre of short, stocky men in cowboy hats, whom we would see again a few days later in the mayor’s office. She wore sturdy shoes and heavy blue eye shadow. Pinned to her shirt was a piece of woven cloth, the intricate fabric of greens and blues reminiscent of the ropa tipica still worn throughout much of the country. Next to her, the mayor wore sunglasses and a dress shirt, its dusty pink mirroring the flush on his suntanned face.
Mayor Antonio Genaro Xiap Siquiná held a list of requests for the primera dama to take back with her to the capital. Almolonga needed 35,000 lines of tubing to repair the potable water system, Q500,000 for the families who had lost their crops, gas for the seven pieces of heavy machinery that had, since early Saturday morning, been digging the 6 feet of mud off the main road and seven miles of asphalt to lay down when they finished. It would be about 14 million quetzales he said, slightly under 2 million dollars. The country’s per-capita GDP, according to the CIA World Factbook, is $5,200.
They went back and forth for the cameras, exchanging deferential pleasantries and talking about the suffering of their citizens, their cities, Guatemala. Despite the challenges, she said she had faith in the townspeople. “La gente de Almolonga es muy luchadora y muy trabajadora,” said Torres, staring into the eyes of the cameras at the small-town press conference in the middle of the muddied road. The people of Almolonga are fighters and workers.
“We’re united in the fight,” said Sra. Torres de Colom. A man with a paper mask around his neck asked if the town would be getting money to pay the seven men who had been working since Saturday to clear the road. The primera dama and the alcalde exchanged glances. “We’ll have to see,” she said.
Other than that, the first lady promised to deliver on nearly everything requested, except the asphalt.
We returned to Xela for dinner that night with our stories of mud five feet high and no running water and looming disease and men bent on the side of the road washing bushels of carrots in dark slow-moving water. Sandra, our host, listened to our story while she stacked fresh rolls, alternating the direction of each row in the big plastic bin. “Almolonga will be okay,” she said when we had finished. “La gente de Almolonga es muy trabajadora, muy luchadora.”
At first the echo sounded like propaganda consumed and propaganda repeated. But like those gaping at the sinkhole, I had missed the point. Both Sandra, the first lady, and Sandra, our host, believed Almolonga would be okay because they understood something I did not at the time.
The first lady can come and make promises. The people can listen politely and make requests. But underneath, both understand the promises are a gesture rather than a guarantee. The people survive, in part, because they don’t wait for help to come, though they hope it will. They survive because they take out their shovels and dig.
Sandra put the top on the bin of bread, which she placed on top of the refrigerator. Tomorrow the pan would become sandwiches, refracciones of ham or egg or chicken, which she would sell to the workers in Xela’s Zone 2 as a midmorning snack. Then they would return to push more of the mud from their shops and survey the damage.
When we got off the bus the next morning in Almolonga, men were stacking clear 5-gallon water bottles along the low white building that houses the community’s centro de salud. The clinic had not had water or electricity for four days.
In the clinic waiting room, women in woven huipiles sat hip to hip with sick babies and restless toddlers in the clinic waiting room. A little girl chewing through a tiny bag of spicy chips began to poke and ask us questions. Nadia took her picture, and then one of her mother, and her brother. The girl laughed, then went bashful when she saw the little black rot in her front tooth reflected back at her in the camera’s view screen.
A man walked over and sat down next to me. He was there for a sore throat. I told him I was a reporter. We began to talk. I asked him why he thought Almolonga was hit so hard.
Deforestation, he said matter-of-factly. I asked him if the local government was worried about deforestation.
“They’re worried,” replied Josue Andres, “but they’re not doing anything about it.”
We spoke for a while longer. I asked him if there was anything else. “We need help, if we want to survive all of the catastrophes that will come,” Andres said. “We can’t do it alone.”
Guatemala lost more than 17 percent of its forests between 1999 and 2005, according to the U.N.’s Economic Commission of Latin America. That history is evident in the patchy cultivations on the volcanic hills around Almolonga where agriculture has crept high up the mountains. Deep creases are visible from the town, showing where the erosion has begun to cleave the mountainsides. The loose earth slips down daily. Heavy rains can turn the slow slide into a muddy deluge.
Deforestation is no secret in Guatemala. Plots of crops and rows of corn sit precariously high on steep slopes throughout the country. The 1996 Peace Accords that ended the civil war gave significant power to municipal governments to manage their forests. And there have since been some efforts to incentivize the private sector to prevent deforestation. The World Bank in 2003 lent $6 million to Interforest, a Bahamas-based logging company, to develop sustainable practices. Patches of young trees dot hills, testaments to carbon-offset programs from up north. But the rate at which the country replaces trees still lags behind the rate at which it cuts them down.
In Almolonga, we were told, the disappearance of the forest has as much to do with agriculture as with logging. The U.S. Department of state estimates 50 percent of this country’s population subsists through some manner of farming. Families need land, and when the plots in the valleys have been claimed, they begin to clear the mountains.
On our last day in Almolonga, we learned that a boulder high on the mountain had fallen on top of the town’s main water source, cutting off the flow and causing the tank to fill with sand. More than 60 percent of the town would have to go without water for weeks. To repair the water system would cost at least Q4.5 million. That would add to the nearly Q10 million needed to fix the damage to the roads, crops and infrastructure brought on by rain, government mismanagement and naked hilltops.
As we sat with Mayor Xiap Siquina in his office, rows of photographs of mayors past offered permanent audience. The alcalde answered our questions in short sentences. The government had promised aid, but he did not know when or if it would come. The town waited a year and a half for aid after Hurricane Stan in late 2005. Yes, they would take some measures to try to avoid that the same happens again. I asked what he was doing to address some of the underlying issues such as deforestation.
“I’ve always…reminded people not to cut the trees. Instead, on the contrary, to plant them” he said. “But, one of the problems here is that everyone wants to plant crops.”
The land high on the hill was private, he said. There was nothing he could do about that.
Before our meeting, while we waited for the mayor to see us, I had approached a circle of women engrossed in conversation on the patio of the orange municipal building. They were teachers from La Escuela de la Aldea de los Baños, a school a 20-minute walk down the road. The teachers had, a few minutes before, been packed into the mayor’s office with the mothers of their students. The meeting was one of many the teachers had organized in an effort to get the municipality to deal with what they said was a life-threatening problem.
Garbage tossed along the hills regularly swept down toward the building, blocking the drains that channel most of the water for the town. When it rained, the water rose, threatening to flood the school. They said they had come before to ask the mayor to send workers to clean the drains. That day, they came with parents. The women in their woven clothes proved compelling. The mayor promised to send ten men on Monday.
It was a victory, but a small one, they said. Clean drains would help stave off a flood, but the mountains that loomed over their school of 200 children, age four to 15, could still slide. Half the school had been wiped out during Hurricane Stan. The growing pressure from water and land had fissured the retaining wall behind the building. They had appealed to the mayor, and to CONRED, for a new wall. “They tell us there aren’t funds,” said one teacher. I asked if the danger came from crops on the hill, thinking I could tease out more nuance in the community’s tug of war between food and deforestation. “No,” one of the women told me. The hill in front of the school had been cleared for a new church. Behind the building, “they cut down a plot the size of a football field to build a hotel.”
There are many deeply impoverished towns in Guatemala. Almolonga is not one of them. The battle for land here is about growth — more carrots for the market in Xela, bigger churches to attract worshipers, new hotels to draw tourists. The community, arguably the country, is developing. But Guatemala’s capacity for self-governance is not keeping pace.
When I asked for her name, the women passed looks and laughed nervously. One of her colleagues ran her finger across her throat with a wry smile. To talk about problems is common, but to be quoted in print could still get you killed.
Her name is in my notes from Almolonga, along with the makes of cars, the number of people gathered on corners and the messages on municipal signs. But I did not bother writing down the defining thought that inscribed itself in my mind during our three days in the town: Sustained outrage is a luxury. Sustained outrage requires the conviction not only that the system should work, but that it actually will.
I met no one with that conviction in Guatemala. People instead relied on other kinds of faith. We left the mayor’s office and walked toward the main road, now more than half cleared by men who may or may not be paid for their efforts. A flood of women descended from the hill. Pom-poms in yellow and green adorned the ends of the folded cloths balanced on their heads. Some carried umbrellas to shade them from the sun. The town had turned out for the funeral of the family that had died in the storm. Wide moños circled the necks of the six-piece band in matching black suits, their white shoes gleaming on the dusty street. Men in wide-brimmed cowboy hats flanked the musicians, who paved the way for a slow-moving minivan that carried four bodies toward the cemetery of brightly-painted, raised tombs on the edge of town. The guitarron player led the dirge. The trumpeter wailed, the note lingering in the procession’s wake.
The people of Almolonga will somehow survive, I thought, perched precariously between the last disaster and the next, because this is Guatemala.