SAN MIGUEL AMOLTEPEC VIEJO, Mexico — Once this was the poorest hamlet in the country. The people worked in the fields, harvesting the corn that they ate. Few adults could read or write. Houses had dirt floors and lacked indoor plumbing.
That was before Manuel, the mid-September tropical storm that unleashed the earth and smothered nearly all the houses, swallowed their possessions and pushed the inhabitants to the higher ground of a cemetery, where they pitched plastic sheeting on gravestones.
Now the nation’s poorest village doesn’t exist, and 336 survivors camp by the roadside under tarps and tin sheets. They rely on food from nearby villages. They don’t know where they will live come winter.
If only they had been tourists.
When Manuel punched the southern state of Guerrero, an area constantly pummeled by earthquakes and storms, the government had no contingency plan. It put the wealthy first. Authorities quickly mobilized airplanes to evacuate thousands of vacationers who were stranded in the resort of Acapulco for what was a long holiday weekend.
Two weeks later, the first shipments of clothing and food from the government finally reached La Montaña region, one of the nation’s poorest and home to isolated clusters of indigenous people. More than 30 people died during the storm, although miraculously none in San Miguel. The landslide occurred during the day, so many were able to get to the sanctuary of the graveyard.
But before those shipments, the earliest aid to the area was spearheaded by a human-rights group, Tlachinollan, not the military, whose troops have long been accused of raping and harassing locals. Soldiers and government agencies that normally deal with disasters came later.
Activists liken the tardy official response to Manuel to the poor government showing after Katrina in the U.S. They say it shows callousness toward ethnic native groups, which have suffered from discrimination since the Spanish conquest more than 500 years ago.
“Authorities are not very interested in helping indigenous people,” concluded Arquimedes Bolito Gonzalez, who is an organizer with Enlace, a workers’-rights organization that tries to promote better living conditions among such groups.
Locals say it is taking too long, and they were confused when a man from the department of education showed up to count teachers for an unrelated reform of the learning system. They thought he arrived to discuss replacing the primary school, which was covered in mud right up to the red roof.
“There appears to be a disconnect,” he commented dryly, entering notes into a tablet computer.
Several hours’ drive away, along a treacherous ridge where the road had washed away, the story wasn’t much better for the Tlapanec people. Nearly all the 424 coffee growers in Tilapa village had lost their small plots to the debris that roared down the hills. The soil is now too rocky to grow new bushes, which, in any event, require five years before they bear usable beans.
Villagers with machetes slung over their shoulders called a crisis meeting at the bandstand at the heart of the town. No one from the government showed up. Most officials would not have understood the local language, Me’phaa, anyway.
So the villagers shouted among themselves. “Nothing is left of my plants,” bellowed Hipolita Espinosa de los Santos, 60. “How are we to feed our families?”