JUCHITAN: Anguished mourners lined the streets of the southern Mexican city devastated by the most powerful earthquake to strike the country in 85 years, coffins raised on their shoulders as they advanced slowly to a crowded cemetery on Saturday.
More than half of the 65 known victims of Thursday night’s 8.1 magnitude quake died in Juchitan, a picturesque, historic city near the coast where more than 5,000 homes were destroyed and many more left without running water or electricity.
In the Eighth Section neighbourhood, a working-class area where nearly every home was damaged, a loud drum and horn band played traditional music before the funeral of one of the 37 dead so far recovered from the wreckage of the sombre city.
The piercing blasts of the burly horn section at times were drowned out by the plaintive wailing of mourners for Maximo Zuniga, a little boy whose distraught relatives said was fond of his spiky black hair and bright red tennis shoes.
The three-year-old boy was asleep when the force of the quake brought his brick bedroom walls crumbling down on top of him, his mother, and an older brother. The boy died shortly after he was pulled from the rubble; the other two survived.
“I could barely see a little bit of his hair peeking out and his forehead,” said neighbour Alejandro Sanchez, who was the first to come to the stricken family’s aid. “There was a heavy wooden beam on top of all three of them and lots of dirt,” he added, as the dead boy’s uncle sobbed uncontrollably nearby.
The long, juddering tremor was felt some 500 miles (800 km) away in Mexico City and as far south as Honduras, but unlike the 8.0 magnitude quake in 1985 that killed thousands in the capital, outlying areas of Mexico were left relatively unscathed.
By contrast, much of the hot, muggy city of 100,000 near the Pacific coast looked as though it had been turned upside down.
Piles of rubble lay scattered across town, chunks of roofs littering the ground, and more than 300 locals were receiving care for injuries in area hospitals.
Many residents refused to stay indoors for fear that badly damaged structures might yet come tumbling down.
Neighbors of the Zuniga family handed out red tulips and others set off fireworks. Then the assembled crowd of about 200 mourners set out for the local cemetery, four men carrying the boy’s small white coffin draped in thin sheets of bright blue paper as the band led the procession.
Snaking through narrow streets, the colourful flower-bearing train of people in T-shirts and caps had to step over piles of debris and masonry from collapsed walls as neighbours turned out to line the route, bowing their heads as the coffin passed.
In the midst of a frantic search for a missing police officer, President Enrique Pena Nieto made a brief appearance on Friday afternoon in Juchitan’s devastated downtown.
Pledging help to rebuild and attempting to soothe raw nerves, Pena Nieto declared three days of national mourning.
But his words were cold comfort for Alma Alverez, Maximo’s 48-year-old grandmother, who crossed her arms as men shovelled dirt over the small coffin.
“Pena Nieto was able to make it here in his helicopter super fast. That’s how help should be arriving, right? Exactly how he got here. But it hasn‘t,” Alvarez said, reflecting a belief that Mexico’s south has long been ignored by the richer north.
Two other funerals of quake victims were underway in the same cemetery as Fernando Lopez, a cousin of Maximo, stood near the back, his head bandaged from cuts suffered protecting his grandmother from falling tiles when the disaster struck.
“This is what you’re going to see the next few days,” he said, pointing to the other funeral services taking place.
“The whole town will be here in the cemetery or in the hospital. We’ll tidy up what we can clean, but we won’t be celebrating anything on September 15th,” said Lopez, referring to the start of Mexico’s independence day festivities.
“We don’t have anything to celebrate.”
Juchitan’s mayor, Gloria Sanchez, agreed.
“A great sadness overwhelms us,” she said. “The situation in Juchitan is critical, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”