SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala – Guatemalan officials weighed what to do with the site of a massive, acres-wide mudslide that might still hold hundreds of bodies and a surrounding area of largely untouched homes that has been declared uninhabitable.
Simply too vast to excavate fully, there may come a point — as in the past — where officials simply end digging efforts at the site and declare the area where the unrecovered bodies lie a de-facto graveyard, their buried houses becoming their final tombs.
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 neighborhood 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 neighborhood for 17 years in a house built by her husband. "Also that they're getting money together to buy us homes, but nothing concrete."
As the death toll rose to 152 late Monday, questions mounted about why people were allowed to build homes at the base of a dangerous hillside next to a small river.
Conred said it had warned of the risk Cambray faced since last year and had recommended that residents be relocated.
But Solorzano and 26-year-old Sonia Hernandez, who had 10 family members displaced by the landslide and five from another house missing, both said they were never warned of any danger.
"If we had been warned of the danger we were running we never would have bought" in the neighborhood, Hernandez said. "We practically bought our own tomb."
Many 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 were more focused on 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 neighborhoods 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.
On Monday, 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 coordinator Sergio Cabanas said five more bodies had been uncovered. 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."