La Pintada: the village wiped from the map of Mexico

Will Grant went to find out about the relief efforts to help stranded villages

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Margarito Hernandez is still numb with grief. Answering at times with barely a murmur, at others in great torrents of words, he recounts the worst night of his life: Mexican Independence Day 2013.

The 18-year-old carpenter is from La Pintada, the small village in the mountains of Guerrero which was last week almost completely destroyed by a mudslide caused by the torrential rains of Hurricane Manuel.

His father, his brother and his sister-in-law were all engulfed by the thousands of tonnes of rock and slick mud which tore through the village in a matter of seconds. They are among the 68 people missing, presumed dead.

"It happened in an instant," he remembers. "It was like an explosion, like a bomb going off. The mountain didn't take even a minute to reach the very centre of the village. It destroyed everything in its path."

Sinking mud

Margarito Hernandez: "It took bodies, cars, everything"

It was a public holiday, supposedly a day of celebration.

"People didn't have time to run. It caught us off guard. People were at home, eating."

Margarito describes how he desperately ran around the village, "shouting like a loco", his shoes lost in the confusion, looking for his father and brother, scrabbling fruitlessly with his hands at the mud.

"Everything was covered in mud, it was like a swamp. You couldn't do anything. If you stepped on it, you'd sink in too. We couldn't pull anyone out."

Soldiers clear mud to search for bodies in the village of La Pintada, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, on 20 September 2013. Dense mud is hampering recovery efforts in La Pintada.
A soldier takes a break during the search for bodies in La Pintada, Mexico on 22 September Rescuers have largely abandoned hopes of pulling out any more survivors.
Rescue workers carry a body recovered from the site of a mudslide at the village of in La Pintada, Mexico on 22 September Volunteers have vowed to search for lost villagers to give them a proper burial.

Reaching La Pintada is still only possible by helicopter. The only people at the site are military personnel and Mexican search-and-rescue teams, known as Topos.

As a group of the red-clad rescuers recover in the shade of some trees they describe how they have already pulled out several bodies. But the mud is thick and dense making their work slow-going and arduous.

"It's sad, almost all the town is destroyed," says volunteer Luis Alva. "Help is slow in arriving because all the roads are broken. Every day we are trying to rescue, well, recover people. That's the word, recover," he corrects himself. "We know that all the people are dead now."

There is no doubt that the flattened adobe houses of La Pintada - just some of the more than 30,000 homes damaged in Guerrero by the storm - are now little more than a mass grave.

But the Topos say they will keep searching through the ruins so that the lost villagers might receive a proper burial.

Elsewhere in the state there are many other mountain communities which are still cut off from the outside world. We were taken to one of them, San Cristobal, by the Mexican Air Force as they dropped in supplies of emergency aid.

The tinned goods and vacuum-packed foods were welcomed by the villagers. But this was only the second time they have received aid in nearly two weeks. And some are becoming desperate.

"The main thing we need is milk," says Magdalena Paso Gutierrez, surrounded by barefoot children who ran out to greet the helicopter as it landed. "We need eggs, tomatoes, fresh meat. Fortunately, we still have a little maize and beans, but it's running out."

Aid versus reconstruction

Many people in San Cristobal lost their small parcels of land, called milpas, which were washed away by the swollen river. However, other villagers don't see more aid as the priority.

"We need to re-establish communication," says villager Janek Baena Salgado. "There's no road links to the city, so we can't bring food in ourselves. We've been trying to reconstruct the paths and make provisional bridges."

But this is reconstruction work which needs civil engineers and heavy machinery. And for now, the military are focused on simply getting aid to the areas where it is most needed.

Survivors gather in a sports centre in Acapulco September 2013 Survivors of the mudslide have sought shelter in a sports centre in Acapulco

At an emergency shelter outside Acapulco, Margarito Hernandez queues patiently for a small stipend of around 150 US dollars the federal government is giving out to the victims of La Pintada.

Clutching his cash, almost everything his family currently owns, I asked how his mother was coping. "She's destroyed," he replies flatly, unable to fully express her pain at losing her husband, son and daughter-in-law in the same instant.

Earlier in the week, Mr Hernandez met President Enrique Pena Nieto, who visited the shelter. The president told the young man he would receive a grant for his studies and promised the government would rebuild the devastated village.

"I look forward to inaugurating the new Pintada," the president said.

"I'm not sure I would want to go back," says Mr Hernandez. "It would bring back too many bad memories."

In the meantime, the survivors are sleeping in a sports centre in a neighbourhood of Acapulco called 'Rebirth'.

It will be many years - if ever - before such a word can apply to La Pintada.

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