Guatemala to Declare Communities Mass Graves

Guatemalan officials said they would abandon communities buried by landslides and declare them mass graveyards as reports of devastation trickled in from some of the more than 100 communities cut off from the outside world after killer mudslides.

Guatemala's (search) death toll from torrential rains last week associated with Hurricane Stan stood at 652; 384 were missing.

The worst-hit communities will be abandoned and declared graveyards, officials said, after they stopped most efforts to dig out increasingly decomposed bodies.

"Panabaj will no longer exist," said Mayor Diego Esquina (search), referring to the Mayan hamlet on the shores of Lake Atitlan covered by a half-mile-wide mudflow as much as 15 to 20 feet thick. "We are asking that it be declared a cemetery. We are tired; we no longer know where to dig."

Esquina said about 250 people remained missing. The bodies found were buried in mass graves.

Sniffer dogs trained to detect bodies didn't arrive in time, and "we don't even know where to dig anymore" in the acres of mudflows, Esquina said.

Hundreds of Mayan villagers who had swarmed over the vast mudslides with shovels, picks and axes relented Sunday and stopped digging for neighbors and family.

Vice President Eduardo Stein (search) said steps were being taken to give towns "legal permission to declare the buried areas cemeteries" as "a sanitary measure."

Thousands of hungry and injured survivors mobbed helicopters delivering the first food aid to communities that have been cut off from the outside.

Fleets of helicopters — including U.S. Blackhawks and Chinooks — fanned out across the nation to evacuate the wounded and bring supplies to over 100 communities still cut off by the mudslides and flooding.

"When the helicopters land, some of the people are so desperate they have begun fighting for the food," said army Maj. Luis Ernesto Barona Gutierrez. "Some communities haven't had food supplies in five or six days."

When the craft arrived in communities along Guatemala's Pacific coast, hungry villagers grabbed wildly at bags of flour, rice and sugar.

Meanwhile, scores of foreign tourists were evacuated by foot and by helicopter from isolated communities ringing Lake Atitlan, a popular destination for U.S. and European travelers.

Villagers in Panabaj, the worst-hit town, where hundreds are still missing, refused to allow in the army because of memories of a 1990 massacre there during the country's 36-year civil war.

But U.S. military helicopters from Joint Task Force Bravo based at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras joined the rescue efforts.

"We're still in search-and-rescue mode," said Army Major Bob Schmidt. "We're in the saving life and limb thought process."

In El Salvador authorities reported 71 deaths from the rains. Others were killed in Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica.

In southern Mexico, floodwaters began to subside, but many towns remained cut off from road access after scores of bridges were carried away by record-high flood waters.