Colombia opens probe into deadly landslide

Lissy DE ABREU
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A Colombian woman looks at a child's notebook in the midst of rubble left by mudslides in Mocoa, Putumayo department, on April 4, 2017

As survivors braved the increasingly sickening smell of decomposing flesh to find their loved ones, Colombian authorities on Thursday investigated who is to blame for the devastation of a landslide that now has claimed more than 300 lives.

The national comptroller, Edgardo Maya, ordered a probe to determine whether authorities in the town of Mocoa correctly enforced building codes and planned adequately for natural disasters.

"But this is not about punishment. It's about prevention. What good does it do to punish people now, after (so many) deaths?" he said.

Mayor Jose Antonio Castro, regional governor Sorrel Aroca and their predecessors face a separate investigation by prosecutors, according to Colombian media reports.

Survivors, meanwhile, continued the grim search for the more than 300 missing, or defended what was left of their homes from looters.

Guided by the smell of rotting flesh, desperate residents pleaded with rescue teams for help digging through the mud and rubble in places they thought their relatives might be.

"It's been smelling really bad here since yesterday. There has to be a body," said a relative searching for 46-year-old Luis Eduardo Zuniga along with 10 other family members.

Digging in the mud with shovels, sticks or their bare hands, they excavated the area around the semi-collapsed house where he was last seen.

They finally found a team of medics and firefighters to help -- seven volunteers from the town of Santander de Quilichao, a 10-hour drive away.

It didn't take long for the professionals to decide it was unsafe to continue because the remaining structure was unstable.

"We'll have to get heavy machinery in here," said one.

- Toll continues to rise -

Officials announced late Wednesday that the death toll from the tragedy climbed to 301. Meanwhile, in a national speech earlier in the day, President Juan Manuel Santos gave the most precise figure yet for the number of missing: 314.

"Unfortunately, the number of people who lost their lives in the tragedy continues to rise," the Colombian leader said.

- Fending off looters -

Santos said 2,700 residents were being housed in shelters. Others camped out where their homes used to be to defend what belongings they had left against looters.

"The day after the landslide we managed to get some things out of the house. But when we came back that afternoon, they had taken it all," said Juan Luis Hernandez, 33, in the destroyed neighborhood of San Miguel.

"What the mudslides didn't carry away, the thieves did."

Police reinforcements have set up checkpoints to grill anyone carrying household goods.

- Uprooted, again -

Broad brown swaths of debris scar the town where the mud surged through on Friday night, sweeping homes away and drowning whole families together.

The landslide hit after heavy rains caused three rivers to flood, strewing earth, rocks and trees over the area.

Mocoa was home to 70,000 people, about 45,000 of whom were affected by the disaster, according to the Red Cross.

In addition to the dead, 332 people were injured.

Hardest-hit by the tragedy are impoverished neighborhoods populated with residents uprooted during Colombia's five-decade civil war.