“The Mountain Came Down… No One Survived”: In Nicaragua, a Deadly Landslide Raises Questions of Government Misconduct
Survivors tell of the horror that befell Macizo de Peñas Blancas, an area in northern Nicaragua where at least 11 people died last week in a mudslide caused by Hurricane Iota—the second of two powerful hurricanes to hit the region in one month. It was a harrowing and fateful day, as a community struggled to search for their dead and the government’s response raised questions of secrecy and misconduct. Before the earth gave way, residents of San Martín said they could smell a strong odor of mud. The massive landslide swept away, shattered, crushed, and unmade everything in its path.
This article was originally published in Spanish at Divergentes.
Before the earth gave way, an intense odor of mud spread through the community of San Martín. Terencio Pérez, a local coffee grower, says he could smell the danger: “It’s a clear warning sign… I have a sharp sense of these things.” That afternoon, at around 2:30 p.m., he hurried up the hillside to warn his neighbors who lived higher up the mountain, spread out across five houses, in the most vulnerable part of Macizo Peñas Blancas. Pérez spent exactly eight minutes trying to convince them all to evacuate. “I told them to get out,” he said, “but some stayed.” Pérez’s account of what happened is precise: 22 minutes later, on Tuesday, November 17, “the mountain came down.”
The landslide, a heaving swell of terracotta earth, swallowed everything in its path. “There were rocks, tree branches, chickens, dead dogs… nothing could have survived,” recounts Pérez. In the mountain communities of Macizo de Peñas Blancas—an area in north-central Nicaragua near the border of Matagalpa and Jinotega departments (“macizo” is Spanish for “massif ,” or a compact group of mountains, and the area is also a designated nature reserve)—the rains from Hurricane Iota were torrential. The hurricane crashed hard into Nicaragua’s Triángulo Minero and the coastal city of Bilwi (the Miskito name for Puerto Cabezas, capital of the semi-sovereign Indigenous territory known as the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region), then transformed into a tropical storm that advanced across the northern part of the country, drenching and flooded everything in its path.
Macizo de Peñas Blancas is a nature reserve teeming with dense and misty forest. It had been dumping rain nonstop since Monday, and the coffee fields on the slopes of the mountain were completely saturated. In the community of San Martín, in the Los Roques sector of Matagalpa, residents were on high alert. The government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo claims to have warned people to evacuate as the risk posed by Iota became clear, but some community members say they did not receive any word or visit from public officials before the tragedy hit.
Pérez’s life experience compelled him to take initiative and try to convince his neighbors to evacuate. The soil in Macizo Peñas Blancas was completely inundated, and he feared a landslide was imminent. The ground had a soft consistency, almost swampy. “They were good neighbors, so I went to them and told them to come down from the mountain and make themselves comfortable below, that we’d figure out how we’d play it after they got down,” Pérez explained. “The two families who agreed to come down were unharmed. The rest stayed and, well… they’re buried under the earth now.”
Pérez and the two families got down the mountain just in time. They had barely made it to a safe zone when the earth gave way. Authorities estimate that a mass of land equivalent to an area roughly 1,000 meters long by 200 meters wide sloughed off the mountain in Macizo de Peñas Blancas, but campesinos here gauge the size of the landslide by “manzana,” a customary unit of measurement equivalent to about 1.7 acres: Around seven or eight manzanas of earth were dislodged by the storm.
“The landslide didn’t start from the top; it started from the bottom. And then what it did was push the mountain,” Pérez says. It was like removing a wedge that had been holding up a giant mound of rocks, and all the earth above came crashing down. Gravity and the weight of the mud did the rest. It was a tidal swell, but also a kind of churning, centrifugal mill. The landslide swept away, broke apart, crushed, and unmade everything in its path. In the end, after the mud-swell settled, it had buried homes, farm animals, crops, and people—entire families, women, children, and men. They were crushed under the cold, muddy sludge—more like a kind of deadly earthen stew—greatly complicating search and rescue efforts. According to volunteer rescuers, mud would refill holes as quickly as they could be shovelled out, like some terrible spell.
“The bodies were badly mangled,” says local priest Pablo Espinoza, still in a state of shock. Espinoza and a group of volunteers had come from the neighboring municipality of Rancho Grande to help with the search and rescue efforts. Residents were the first to start searching. The landslide occurred at roughly 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, but heavy rain, downed trees, dense fog, and disruptions to communication services prevented immediate word of the disaster from getting out, so volunteers from the nearby communities of Carmen 1, 2, 3 and 4 joined the survivors of San Martín and started digging through the mud.
To get to the finca where the landslide occurred requires navigating a narrow, rocky, and uneven road, then making a roughly four kilometer climb up and over the mountain. The wind and heavy rain from the storm had made the journey even more tedious. And, an enormous uprooted tree had blocked the road. San Martín had been cut off from the world.
At around 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday night, the Sandinista mayor from El Tuma La Dalia, Jaime Araúz, had arrived in the area but was unable to make it all the way to San Martín because of the blocked road. It wasn’t until 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning that the government's response arrived: the police, the army, and the Matagalpa municipal authorities, along with a mechanical loader that spent hours working to remove the tree.
Meanwhile, higher up on the mountain, residents were exhausted and nervous. The search efforts involved digging into the hillside, which some feared could set off another landslide. Early Wednesday morning, the Political Secretary for the Department of Matagalpa, Pedro Haslam, took command of the crisis response. From that moment on, the situation became shrouded in secrecy.
Before anyone from outside of the community was able to enter the disaster zone and assess the damage, the owners of the coffee fincas estimated that between 25 and 30 people had been killed in the mudslide. Since the five households in San Martín had been razed to the ground, the landowners, who had no contact with their foremen, had assumed the massive mudslide had buried everyone. The little information that had made it out of Macizo de Peñas Blancas collided with the grim memories of the 1998 Casita Volcano tragedy, when Hurricane Mitch left thousands buried underground.
But by Wednesday morning, many of those believed to have died during the storm began appearing in the community. Campesinos from around the region scrambled to join the search efforts, and with the arrival of the authorities, more than 400 people had come up the mountain.
As the search and rescue efforts progressed, Pedro Haslam reported that four people were rescued alive and eleven remained buried. Of those eleven, the bodies of only nine have been recovered thus far. Volunteer rescuers say that other homes on the other side of the landslide were also impacted, but the government has yet to report any such information. Before the authorities had disclosed any details about the victims, evangelical pastors who had arrived earlier to San Martín had already begun making a list. On a sheet of ruled paper, the pastors had written the names of Martha Lorena Hernández and her two children, ages seven and nine, as well as those of the Otero family.
Basiliso Hernández, father of Martha Lorena and grandfather to her two children, had arrived at the scene by 3:00 pm Wednesday afternoon—24 hours after the incident. Hernández is an aging campesino, in good physical shape. His eyes—full of sorrow, though not completely broken— were deep and glassy the day he came to recover his dead. “They all died. All three of them, is what they told me,” he said with the same resilience I’ve seen so many times before among Nicaragua’s campesinos, who seem to assimilate unforeseen tragedies with a naturalness that appears almost intrinsic. Whether it was the war in the ‘80s, or the murders perpetrated by the armed forces of the current government, or a landslide that buries their loved ones alive—there is a constant readiness to overcome death and continue the quiet work of tending the land.
Like Basiliso, the other relatives of the victims in Macizo de Peñas Blancas were not notified that their loved ones were dead or missing until Wednesday. Pedro Haslam, along with the police and others in his entourage, took command of the incident response. They controlled and monopolized any information relating to the disaster, in an apparent and incomprehensible attempt to obfuscate what was clearly a great tragedy.
A team of reporters from Divergentes and another team from Artículo 66 arrived in Macizo de Peñas Blancas at 8:30 a.m., but when we introduced ourselves as independent press, the authorities—two sub-commissioners from the municipality of El Tuma La Dalia—blocked us from entering the disaster zone. We protested, explaining that state media was already up on the mountain, covering the story, and that as reporters we simply wanted to do the same—but the officials were unmoved. Hours later, we were joined by more reporters from Canal 10, La Prensa, and Notimav de Matagalpa. The sub-commissioners refused them entry as well. “Only our people can go up,” one of the sub-commissioners told us, then he strung a thick black rope across the trail to block the way.
Meanwhile, hundreds of residents from communities near the disaster zone had begun arriving with shovels and picks, ready to join the search and rescue efforts. The muscular and cordial campesinos gazed up in dismay at the monumental mastiff, blanketed in trees stripped and broken from the hurricane, as other men came walking down from San Martín to take a break after working for hours on the rescue efforts.
Having no access to the disaster zone, it was only thanks to the dozens of interviews conducted with these campesinos that we were able to produce an account of events. As the officials noticed what we were doing, they began disrupting the interviews. “¡Caminá, caminá que estamos en zona regulada. Sacá tu moto!” one official yelled”—“Get out of here! This is a restricted area. Get your dirt bike out of here!” As we insisted on continuing to conduct interviews, the officers called over four young and listless riot police to remove us from the area, despite the fact that we were more than four kilometers from San Martín.
The bodies that local residents, the Army’s canine unit, and other rescuers had pulled out of the mud were brought to the small community schoolhouse. A nurse went up the mountain on a motorbike to prepare the bodies with formalin, because the state of decomposition had been hastened by the condition of the corpses. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that coffins began arriving. Although the Sandinista officials tried to hide the bodies from journalists, Divergentes managed to get footage of the truck before it was covered with a tarp.
The coffins were built of rough sawn boards, unsanded and unstained. Simple, makeshift caskets. The authorities removed the bodies from Macizo de Peñas Blancas under the same order of secrecy imposed by Matagalpa Political Secretary Pedro Haslam. Hidden in trucks, they were taken to the town hall of El Tuma la Dalia, where municipal officials later attempted to mislead journalists by telling them that the coffins were “empty.”
🔴 ingresan los ataúdes al macizo de Peñas Blancas pic.twitter.com/4ALPLogViJ— Wilfredo Miranda (@PiruloAr) November 18, 2020
The pressure that police had put on eye witnesses not to give interviews was now being replicated by Sandinista officials, who attempted to prohibit relatives of the deceased from speaking with the press. But some family members were ultimately able to talk with Divergentes. In the end, and despite the best efforts of the Ortega-Murillo administration and Pedro Haslam’s government in Matagalpa, neither the pain nor the deaths will remain hidden. Like the natural forces that brought an avalanche of mud down on San Martín, this pain and death are uncontainable; they will be remembered and mourned.
Late Wednesday afternoon, a stubborn wind—still thick with humidity from Iota—swept through Macizo de Peñas Blancas. The search and recovery efforts were suspended. Basiliso Hernández held a wake for his daughter and grandchildren in his native Samulali, and by Thursday afternoon the search efforts had resumed on the mist-covered mountain. Two bodies have yet to be recovered. The efforts are now focused on the river that flows near San Martín. The ravine that cuts through the mountain had served as a conduit for the heavy mud-swell to push some of the victims out into this bigger drainage. Up on the mountain, after taking a short break, Terencio Pérez continued to dig through the mud, searching for his “good neighbors.” “I don't know how we’ll recover or how to explain it. There are women, children, and friends here,” said the coffee grower, “But our grief is something they’ll never be able to take away.”
*Translated by Max Granger
FI name: November 2020