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“Let me get in; it is my little brother who is inside”

3 km from the central park, where Guatemalans protested last year for a fair country without corruption and for justice, there is an appalling reality: the City Dump, where at least 1,500 Guatemalans work every day looking for objects for reuse and sell, has 60 people missing since yesterday by a new collapse. This is a report of how they are living this tragedy.

Cotidianidad

Clara Cabrera y su hijo esperan noticias de uno de los desaparecidos en el derrumbe en el basurero capitalino.

Fotos: Carlos Sebastián

Translated by Vera Rodas

It was nearly nine o’clock on Wednesday night when a group of people gathered in front of the entrance of the dump. A man told them that he would make a list of people who have not yet appeared, but that the relatives of Francisco could enter. A young man, of about 19 years old, opened his eyes and sweat began pouring from his forehead. “Francisco what?” He asked, “What is the last name?” When he was told, he knew it was not his relative, he passed his hand over his eyes and turned away from the door. They spent the whole Wednesday night, with the promise from rescue agents that rescue efforts would start over at 6:30 on Thursday morning, waiting for that at some point their beloved would leave the dump. They know it is dangerous to work in the place where six cities dump their trash and they know that if someone is buried under tons of waste is very likely that it will never be found.

In 2005 a fire was reported, it lasted an entire week. In 2008 a mudslide buried two garbage trucks, killed a woman and left more people missing; in 2012, the same happened and 4 people were killed; and on Wednesday April 27th there was a landslide that killed four people and 60 people remain missing.

In an underground entrance to the landfill (the official entrance is controlled by the municipality) Clara Cabrera cried helplessly. Her husband Oswaldo Cortez, known locally as ‘Bin Laden’ did not came back home. She says he left the house early on Wednesday: “He came early to work without having breakfast because he wanted to earn some pennies”.

“On Monday (four days ago) he came home early and gave me a ring he found in La Mina” she recalls. La Mina, is a huge swamp that is in the end of the dump. Many stories are told about “La Mina” like that in its background there is copper, gold, silver, a snake and human bodies.

Victor Hugo Monterroso, actor in films by filmmaker Julio Hernández, spent six years doing interviews for a documentary in this part of the dump and ended up murdered and dismembered by mafias in the place.

 

En el fondo del basurero de la zona 3 se encuentra La Mina.

En el fondo del basurero de la zona 3 se encuentra La Mina.

Along with Clara Cabrera was his 14 year old son. He could not help but mourn. He talked about his father while he covered his face with his hands and wiped tears with his BarÇa football team shirt. In the bottom of the dump some witnesses said they saw Cortez trying to escape from the mountains of garbage. But one day after the tragedy, no authority had given Clara and her family a clear answer to the whereabouts of her life partner.

Abner David Cos, 21, knew about the mudslide because he received a call from one of his relatives who survived. His sister was collecting plastic when she heard the shouting of the people who warned her about the slip, she escaped with her husband. But he knows that they will have to return: “All of us here know the risk we run, but [we must return] because we need to, and we cannot find another job”, he said when interviewed.

Abner’s family survived, he saw death passing by his side, but he is still waiting for the authorities to reopen the dump to return to work, looking for reusable and salable parts. He has no choice. Although last year he graduated from expert accountant; job opportunities for a young man like him seem far in Guatemala City. He looked for a job for months. “They never call back,” he says. The need to eat, buy medicine to his mother and survive everyday makes him walk towards the dump, to be there by 10 in the morning and get out at 7 pm with Q100.

Saida López, whose mother works at the site, says that for years they have heard that the Municipality intends to close the landfill: “If they no longer want any citizen among the garbage, then find a way to give them a job. There are graduates working here. My mother met a girl who graduated on a Saturday and that same day came to work and was buried” she says.

 

Familiares de víctimas esperan noticias sobre sus desaparecidos y sobre cuándo podrán volver a entrar a trabajar.

Familiares de víctimas esperan noticias sobre sus desaparecidos y sobre cuándo podrán volver a entrar a trabajar.

Abner David Cos, 21, knew about the mudslide because he received a call from one of his relatives who survived. His sister was collecting plastic when she heard the shouting of the people who warned her about the slip, she escaped with her husband. But he knows that they will have to return: “All of us here know the risk we run, but [we must return] because we need to, and we cannot find another job”, he said when interviewed.

Abner’s family survived, he saw death passing by his side, but he is still waiting for the authorities to reopen the dump to return to work, looking for reusable and salable parts. He has no choice. Although last year he graduated from expert accountant; job opportunities for a young man like him seem far in Guatemala City. He looked for a job for months. “They never call back,” he says. The need to eat, buy medicine to his mother and survive everyday makes him walk towards the dump, to be there by 10 in the morning and get out at 7 pm with Q100.

Saida López, whose mother works at the site, says that for years they have heard that the Municipality intends to close the landfill: “If they no longer want any citizen among the garbage, then find a way to give them a job. There are graduates working here. My mother met a girl who graduated on a Saturday and that same day came to work and was buried” she says.

Municipal alarm versus instincts

During all these 11 years of recent landslides and deaths, there is an authority responsible for waste management. The head of the municipality of Guatemala City from 2004 to 2020: Alvaro Arzú. He and his coreligionists have been in the municipal administration since 1986, without interruption.

It is supposed that in the Municipal Landfill has an alarm that alerts collectors when danger exists. Carlos Sandoval, a spokesman from the municipality, said that the alarm was activated. Collectors with whom Nómada spoke with, said they didn’t hear it, they rely more on instinct.

“I, thank God, I have been working here for five years and every time it rains I have to be more careful. I have to be aware of the ground because there is where I feel when a landslide is about to happen. Everything starts to shake and it feels more unstable. It is worst when it rains. In the collapses that have passed I have not been here, but I lost friends and people I know” he says.

Since 1999, the municipality has registered 2,800 people as landfill workers, but the workers’ organization estimates that in the site every day 1,500 people enter; and in total they are almost 5,000, according to a report from ONG Safe Passage which for a decade has provide nutrition and education to the children of the workers in the dump—, this work is done without regulation and safety. Despite the entry of children under 18 is prohibited, on Thursday Nómada could observe that there were children on trucks.

Mayor Alvaro Arzú responded only via Facebook: “I am deeply moved by what happened this afternoon in the landfill. I express my deepest condolences to the families of those who were affected.”

He was faced with complaints from neighbors for his lack of action, without taking responsibility Arzú responded: “Say it is the easiest. Imagine you have to find a new site. Who wants the dump to be next to his house? What municipality would receive it? Would those who now pay Q25 or Q30 for garbage extraction be willing to pay Q100 or Q200 just for garbage to be taken to a farthest place.

There are no plans yet about the possibility that the municipality could organize a professional collection system, to recycle and do not endanger the life of any Guatemalan.

 

Recolectores y policías municipales observan el basurero capitalino.

Recolectores y policías municipales observan el basurero capitalino.

The search for the missing

In previous years, collectors report that the rescuers have suspended activities days after the tragedies under the resignation that if victims are buried, gases and chemicals in the trash completely destroy their bodies.

“What is the purpose of bringing a million police, soldiers and firefighters if they do not even bring shovels and pickaxes to get people out ?” Says Saida Lopez upset and hurt. On Wednesday there were mobilized 45 volunteer firefighters and 15 rescue units. That way they recovered the bodies of four people dead and more than ten injured.

Stu Velasco, deputy director of Criminal Investigation of the Ministry of Interior, said on Thursday April 28 they were conducting shared rescue work with institutions such as Conred, the General Attorney, the Office for Human Rights and 350 national police officers (PNC).

Nómada noted that the rescue area had four machines among excavators and steamrollers—, and maybe fifteen people watching their work. In another of the entries of the dump a group of ten municipal employees, watched the work sitting on the ground. Dozens of police officers were guarding the main entrance to prevent relatives of the disappeared from entering the place.

Outside the entrance to the dump in zone 3, there were mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, husbands, friends, neighbors, couples looking for their loved ones. A woman cried in despair, “I was washing clothes, when people came to warn me, I knew nothing. My husband was 21 when he started coming here, now he is 48. Walter Alberto Alvarez is his name, I looked for him at the hospital and the morgue but nothing has happened”.

Beside her was a young twentysomething boy, also garbage collector. When he heard that a new list of missing persons would be done, he tightened his lips. He approached one of the police officers and insisted to let him go inside.

—You can only enter a family member per missing. You have already relatives there.

—Do me a favor, let me go in, it’s my brother who is inside.

On Thursday, from a mountain near the dump, three Nómada journalists were at least 40 minutes watching the rescue work. Four machines were working on tons of garbage. There was no firefighters, no police or rescue workers digging, as collectors prayed desperately searching for their relatives. The dogs howled, moved from one place to from another, while at least 15 people were close to the machinery, giving directions.

Maria Dolores Ortega, leader in the settlements surrounding the dustbin, rebutted this version. “We went down there and Conred, the Red Cross, municipal workers and machinery that we have seen, they are working. Under the sun, only with water to keep them working” she said.

The dozens of people who were at the door and work at the dump earn between Q25 and Q100 a day, despite the risks, they were desperate for the municipality to reopen the doors of the Landfill. Maria Dolores Ortega, the leader of collectors, asked for patience:“We cannot do anything, and if want to continue working in order to eat, we cannot make a scandal.”

At this time, relatives and rescue workers were still searching for the 60 missing. This is a postcard of how Guatemala City treats its weakest, its poorest, the ones who have no choice but to risk their lives to find something valuable in the garbage they collect, every day, which comes from every neighborhood, from all residents of this capital.

 

Jody García
/

Periodista. También lectora y pintora. Trabajó dos años en Diario La Hora cubriendo el sistema de justicia. Llegó a Nómada por el futuro. @Jody_Garcia_


Andrea Gómez
/

Cree en el poder de la educación y en que la felicidad está a un respiro de distancia. Fan de los derechos, la ecología social y el feminismo. Entusiasta de la comunidad del relleno sanitario de esta ciudad desde 2011. Es la desarrolladora institucional de Nómada desde 2015, porque de niña quería ser periodista. M.A. en Desarrollo.


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