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Bodies of Guatemalans buried by mudslides may never be recovered

MEXICO CITY—Hope faded Sunday for hundreds of Central Americans—mainly Guatemalans—buried by mudslides set off by five days of heavy rains following Hurricane Stan's assault.

"It's like the apocalypse coming. We can't believe all these disasters, first the tsunami, then the earthquake in Asia and all these hurricanes," said Civil Protection engineer Carlos Martinez, as he helped load trucks with food, medicine and blankets from Mexico City south to Chiapas state, which borders Guatemala.

"All this aid is going by land," he added. "There aren't enough planes or boats so it's going to take a long time to get there."

In Chiapas, the hardest hit Mexican state, business owners asked the governor for the right to carry arms to protect them from the hungry and homeless, including many refugees. The mayor of the inundated border city of Suchiate said violent gangs from El Salvador called the Mara Salvatruchas had invaded the city and asked Gov. Pablo Salazar to declare a state of siege.

"The situation is extreme. People are killing each other over food," said Alejandro Lizarraga, an official with Mexico's Federal Civilian Protection Agency. He said colleagues in the disaster area were reporting the violence. His report could not be independently confirmed.

Although only a Category 1 hurricane when it hit the Mexican state of Veracruz, Stan's torrential rains are blamed for at least 640 deaths in Central America since Tuesday. Guatemala, with 519 known dead and more than 300 missing, was the most devastated.

"Stan has battered more productive areas than Hurricane Mitch," Guatemalan vice president Eduardo Stein told reporters in reference to the 1998 hurricane that left 9,000 people dead in Central America, mainly in Honduras.

The Guatemalan town of Panabaj, about 100 miles west of the capital of Guatemala City, disappeared under mud and rockslides 15-to-20-feet deep on Wednesday. By Sunday, weary rescuers digging with picks and shovels had recovered 71 bodies, mostly of children. But there seemed little reason to go on and local officials were giving up.

"This has become an enormous cemetery," Diego Mendoza, mayor of the nearby town of Atitlan, told the newspaper Prensa Libre. "Our brothers are buried under tons of mud."

On the Mexican side of the disaster, "Even the shelters are flooding," Austreberto Perez Robledo, the vice mayor of Chicomuselo, a mountainous county on the Guatemalan border, said in a radio interview. "This emergency has lasted four days in the region and most municipalities don't have potable water, food or electricity."

In all, some 1.8 million Guatemalans and 1.9 million Mexicans have lost homes or livelihoods and will need aid, according to Mexican President Vicente Fox. Guatemalan President Oscar Berger estimated his country's agricultural losses at $135 million.

The big Mexican border city of Tapachula, home to 1.3 million on a plain between three rivers near the Guatemalan border, is now almost an island, dependent on just one bridge to connect it to the outside world. Reconstruction there and elsewhere in six devastated Mexican states will cost $28 billion, Fox estimated.

Salazar, the Chiapas governor, told Fox that damage assessment teams had reached only 15 counties thus far. "We don't know anything about 40 others."

In the remote Mayan regions, hundreds lined up for aid when rains cleared enough to allow helicopters to land. Residents stranded on roofs or tiny dry islets waved their soaked clothes at airborne rescue teams and screamed for help.

The United States, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Canada and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration have sent aid and helicopters and have pledged more help.

The Mexican government launched a vaccination drive after a reported outbreak of dengue fever and meningitis in the storm zone. A quarantine was ordered in the town of Huejutla, central Hidalgo State, where 180 are ill.

"We will overcome this tragedy. Please be calm," Fox told residents of Huixtlan, just north of the Guatemalan border, where 5,000 people were sheltered. "I promise we will rebuild."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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