On September 16, 2013, tropical storm Manuel unleashed a landslide in mountainous southern Mexico that killed 71 people. The earth slid into the town of La Pintada, Guerrero state, and to this day 11 people who were crushed by the mud have never been found.
La Pintada has transformed since the tragedy on Mexican Independence Day, when the coffee-producing town of 600 residents was engulfed by an estimated 1.5 million tons of mud.
A year later, government rebuilding programs, backed heavily by private investment, are bringing colorful new homes to the exact spots where the old houses were demolished by the landslide. These structures may be bright and brand-new, but the residents of La Pintada remain in mourning.
Women wash meat to feed the attendees of the one-year-anniversary vigil, in the river that runs through La Pintada. Photo by Marisol Wences
"I still don't understand how it happened," Gilardo Moreno told VICE News at La Pintada's town square, on the eve of the first anniversary of the tragedy. "It was my job to pick up the bodies. I lent my home so it could serve as a morgue," he said. "No matter how many homes they build, it won't be the same."
Cesareo Moreno, head of La Pintada's reconstruction committee, told VICE News that many of the bodies that were not engulfed in mud were found in a nearby river. On occasion, body parts have been located — a leg here, a head there — but identification has been a long drawn-out process and the results of DNA tests have still not been made available to residents.
Families here are still wondering what became of their loved ones.
"We lost 71 family members here, because we are all like family, we are friends," said Francisca Hernández. She lost her nine-year-old daughter, who was dragged away by the mud while traveling in a vehicle with her aunt, uncle, and cousin. Hernández's relatives were never seen again and their bodies have never been found or identified.
A peasant pulls his horse through town, past the brightly-painted new homes. Photo by Marisol Wences
Manuel hit Guerrero as a tropical storm just shy of the hurricane threshold, although it eventually churned into a hurricane after it crossed southwestern Mexico. The town's name, Spanish for "The Painted," refers to ancient rock carvings in the area, but now "La Pintada" appears to allude more to the vibrant colors of the new homes.
The new buildings sit on exactly the same site of the original homes but the area around the cliff has been through geological studies and engineers have assured locals that another landslide will not take place.
Epifanio Nava Salvador, 25, lives in one of the new houses. I met him moments before the beginning of a service at the new town church, which was inaugurated on September 16 and built on the site of the one lost to the mud.
"We were buried for seven hours. The landslide was at 3:30 in the afternoon and they got us out at around 10 at night," Nava told me.
He was pulled out of the rubble and mud along with his wife and two-year-old daughter, both alive. "We were at home with my family who came to visit us. Seven of them died," he said. "They gave us a home, and that is where we are going. It still feels terrible to come here and remember all the times we had together."
A panorama of La Pintada from the main road into town. Photo by Marisol Wences
Nearly two months after the landslide, the government announced the Plan Nuevo Guerrero, investing more than $2.8 million to reconstruct highways and rebuild infrastructure for water and sewage systems in the state. The government also invested in the recovery of industries like tourism and agriculture across the town, where almost everyone reported damage due to the rain and flooding, which broke 100-year records.
To reactivate the economy and generate employment, workshops are teaching subjects such as carpentry, cooking, tailoring, and hairdressing.
Yet the reconstruction effort is in the hands of Grupo de Oro, a construction company owned by Germán Oteiza Figaredo, a businessman close to local and national politicians. Oteiza has also been awarded public work contracts in the neighboring state of Michoacan and elsewhere in Guerrero.
He is also the subject of an ongoing investigation for allegedly collecting kickbacks in exchange for channeling concessions to himself and to allies.
Construction material on the main street, under the mountainside that buried La Pintada. Photo by Marisol Wences
Anxiety, Depression, and Suicide
Lucila Gómez Romero and Anahí Gómez Maldonado are half-sisters who share the same father and the same chronic depression since the storm.
Lucila, 42, lives in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo and had her 17-year-old sister come to live with her to attend high school. On September 17, 2013, their aunt called, telling them what had happened. At the time they believed their family was still safe but, minutes later, they called another relative who told them said the entire town was covered by mud.
I spoke to them this September 15 at a community diner in the town. Rain had just started falling. "I lost my father here, my two brothers, my stepmother, five cousins, four nieces, my aunt's husband, and my pregnant aunt, who has not been found," Gómez Romero said. "Talking about it is like reliving the pain that I have not released. I can feel it in my chest."
She recalled going around "in circles" looking for information on the whereabouts or condition of their relatives.
"We went on the radio because we hadn't heard anything about our family. We hoped that we would find them, because we thought that they might have been able to run. But no," Anahi said. "I will never see them again. We don't even have a place to take them flowers."
Girls bring flowers to the memorial, built to honor the 71 victims. Photo by Marisol Wences
In early September, La Jornada reported on a female survivor of the landslide who committed suicide by poison. The neighbors said that there had been some psychological support for residents, but that has since ended.
There is now a large-scale reforestation effort taking place in La Pintada, a town that until last year had relied on coffee cultivation and processing.
"Without a doubt, the people live better now than a year ago, but we would give anything for those people to not have died," said Arturo Martínez Nateras, a writer and the former president of a coffee co-op in the town. "La Pintada will not totally recover until the coffee industry is 100 percent reactivated."
The co-op is producing again and they already have an order for 200 tons of toasted coffee beans and ground coffee from Diconsa, a state company.
"My husband and children were removing bodies with me," a woman known as Panchita told VICE News. "We would find little body parts. A psychologist said that we should leave them buried, because we were going to find them in bad conditions. We stopped looking about four months ago."