Hundreds of residents of the villages around the base of Guatemala’s Fuego Volcano are beginning to return home, nearly two weeks after the massive June 3 eruption that killed more than 100 people and displaced thousands. Overhead, the still active volcano sits as a reminder that another massive eruption could occur at any time.
At ground zero, families continue to search for loved ones in the mountains of material left by the eruption—a mixture of rocks, mud, and ash that consumed productive lands and villages around the volcano.
As the humanitarian crisis continues, the government’s response is a national scandal. Thousands marched on June 9 through the streets of Guatemala City to demand the resignation of President Jimmy Morales over the blunders following the tragedy, including his claim that there were no funds available for emergency relief. And the National Coordination for Disaster Reduction of Guatemala’s (CONRED) is being blamed for not warning residents of a pending eruption.
“It is the negligence of the government,” Estuardo Lorenzo, a resident of the heavily affected community of La Trinidad, told me. “From the beginning they knew that this volcano had a history of eruptions.”
“From the beginning they knew that this volcano had a history of eruptions.”
In April 2018, CONRED carried out a drill for emergency responders in the community of La Trinidad with support from the U.S. Southern Command. The drill, which involved military and medical personnel, included a simulated evacuation of the community in the event of a volcanic eruption. The operation was declared a “success,” but the lessons learned during the exercise utterly collapsed following the eruption. The banner and signs from the drill remain hanging from the school building.
While La Trinidad was spared from any destruction of houses or loss of life, it lost hundreds of acres of productive land.
“The community feels deception now,” said Alidoro Camposeco, a La Trinidad resident who participated in the drill. “During the drill there were ambulances, the army, and first responders, but at when the time came of the real thing there was nothing. There were no calls to warn us. The simulation is one thing, but reality is completely different.”
When the Fuego volcano last erupted in 1957, very few of the communities heavily affected by this month’s eruption existed. It was only after Guatemala’s thirty-six-year-long civil war ended in 1996 that people began to settle on the sides of the volcano.
Among these communities is La Trinidad, which was founded in 1998 by the returning populations that had fled the violence of the internal armed conflict. The small farmers were presented by government agencies with the opportunity to purchase a former sugar cane plantation at the foot of the volcano.
A volcano drill operation was declared a “success,” but the lessons learned during the exercise utterly collapsed following the eruption.
“Our parents were forced to leave the country due to the internal armed conflict,” explained Raul González, whose parents originally came from San Antonio Huista, Huehuetenango. “Our families organized to return to our native land during the process of the peace accords. There was an opportunity to obtain a finca, a large plantation, but sadly, the government did not allow us to purchase good lands, they sold us the cheapest they could sell us.”
He added, “The government knew that this was a red zone. Anyone who lives on the sides of the volcano is at risk from an eruption.”
The community worked tirelessly to shift the finca from sugar cane to coffee production. They formed a cooperative named the Cooperativa la Union Huistla of more than 120 farmers to sell the coffee in order to pay back the loan for 2.5 million Quetzales (a little more than 330,000 dollars). The community is still paying back the loan today. But the destruction caused by the eruption will make that more difficult.
Around 800 families now live in La Trinidad. Following the eruption, a majority evacuated, though a few residents volunteered to stay to protect their neighbors’ houses from thieves.
The community sits between two rivers, both transformed into channels by the flowing debris, known as lahars. Heavy rains continue to bring material down the volcano. On June 12, a member of the Guatemalan National Police was swept away and killed by one such surge.
The lahars created deep cannons in the land that destroyed coffee plants, roads, and anything in else their way. The falling ash burned the coffee plants that escaped. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of the community’s coffee crop was lost.
“The government did not allow us to purchase good lands, they sold us the cheapest they could sell us.”
“I was young, maybe sixteen years old when I returned from Mexico,” Lorenzo said, holding back tears and looking at the ten-foot walls of the gorge created by the lahar that devastated his coffee plants. “My father told me that this was my land to work, and with much energy I began to work it. Now, I don’t have the land. I have lost the land and my product. It no longer exists.”
The residents of La Trinidad do not believe that the government has any plan to respond to the crisis. For them, this is a continuation of decades of mistreatment of the poor.
“We were forced to leave in the 1980s by the government: they were killing children, elderly, and all types of people [as part of the counterinsurgency],” González told me. “After we returned, we saw that things stayed the same. Every government that has entered has continued to show that they are incapable of showing concern for the poor, only the rich. We can see this in the response to the eruption.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based in Guatemala. His work has appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas, Truthout, and In These Times as well as The Progressive. Follow him on Twitter @palabrasdeabajo.