Trained to Save Others
By Dialogo July 02, 2013
Colonel Erick Bayardo Lopez Dominguez’s hopes soared when he learned that a young man buried by a mudslide in the southwestern department of San Marcos, Guatemala, had dogs at home. He asked the victim’s relatives to bring the two dogs to the site of the tragedy.
One, a brown dog named Mesho, surprised rescuers when he crouched on a spot and seemed to want to embrace the ground.
“You see trained dogs do their work, scratching, sniffing or marking …, but this untrained dog gave a signal born out of pure affection, which is very gratifying and special for you as a rescue worker,” Col. Lopez, commander of the Humanitarian and Rescue Unit (UHR) of the Guatemalan Army, told Diálogo.
The mudslide followed a 7.4 magnitude earthquake that shook Guatemala on November 7, 2012, leaving more than 40 dead and damaging thousands of homes. That day, unit personnel happened to be participating in an aquatic rescue drill at the Pacific Naval Base.
When they felt the earth move, commanders quickly assembled the unit and hastened to carry out the mission the government has entrusted them — executing humanitarian and search and rescue operations following a natural or man-made disaster. They perform these tasks anywhere within Guatemala and in countries that are members of the Conference of Central American Armed Forces (CFAC). They also lend a hand in other countries when their help is sought.
Unlike other rescue groups in Guatemala, the UHR-CFAC is a specialized, highly mobile Army unit with battalion structure that has the logistical capability to operate during large scale disasters, such as earthquakes, landslides, fires and epidemics.
In the 1990s, personnel from several military commands in Guatemala were already providing aid in evacuation, shelter care and extinguishing forest fires. The unit was established in its current form in 2004 with the Army’s demobilization.
But the seeds for it were planted in 2000, when the member countries of CFAC (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic) agreed that the humanitarian and rescue units from each country should establish the UHR-CFAC for mutual support in case of disasters.
“The armies have always been ready to support the civilian population because this is one of their tasks,” Col. Lopez added.
In case of larger scale natural disasters, and according to the military doctrine of CFAC, an Air Force and Navy liaison is added to the UHR-CFAC, together with a medical consultant and a forestry consultant, if applicable. It also operates with other Guatemalan institutions, including the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (CONRED), the fire service and relief organizations.
International missions completed by Guatemala’s UHR-CFAC include the eradication of hemorrhagic dengue fever in Honduras in 2002, search and rescue for victims after Hurricane Ida in El Salvador in 2009, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and a landslide in Costa Rica, also in 2010.
Guatemala’s UHR-CFAC is ready to operate in any type of terrain and weather conditions. Rescue workers are in constant training because torrential rainfall often leads to floods and landslides and because of eruptions of the Fuego and Pacaya volcanoes. As Col. Lopez said, “Practice makes perfect.”
Training sessions are held at the national and international levels, including basic and advanced courses in first aid; the use of search and rescue tools in collapsed structures; first aid in combat situations; manipulation and handling of bodies; and others.
Col. Lopez is aware that the support of friendly nations is very important in helping civilian populations during emergencies. The UHR-CFAC has received donations of equipment and training from the United States government and international humanitarian organizations such as U.S.-based Paramedics for Children, which donated a motorized unit with special equipment for rescue efforts in collapsed structures.
In 2012, rescuers showed their preparedness by evacuating thousands of families affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano. Once the evacuation order was lifted, the UHR-CFAC was in charge of bringing the families back to their homes.
As of early 2013, the unit had 73 members, including six women. Those who want to be a part of this specialized military group must join voluntarily, have at least an elementary school education, be older than 18 and in excellent health. First they train as Soldiers, then as rescuers.
“I like this work because the lives of other people and even those of my colleagues are essentially in my hands; we strictly observe safety standards in every procedure performed,” said Specialist Second Sergeant Eswin Garcia Campos, who has been with the UHR-CFAC for nine years.
Specialist Garcia said that he was part of the team performing search and rescue operations in collapsed structures at an orphanage in Haiti where dozens of children except one girl died in 2010. During a combined rescue effort, he was able to hold her in his arms. “That is the best experience I’ve had, being able to pull someone out of the rubble of a collapsed five-story structure,” he said. After the earthquake in November 2012, the “orange vests,” as people call them, started the search and rescue of victims in Barranca Grande El Calvario, a village in the municipality of San Cristobal Cucho. That was where Mesho, the brown dog, helped the unit recover some of the victims. A hill had crumbled, killing a 65-year-old man and his two grandchildren, aged 15 and 19. Mesho, the family dog, assisted the rescuers in finding the last body.
Col. Lopez told Diálogo that another grandchild, who was 12, had drawn the place where the family was during the earthquake. “The child says that when the earthquake happened, the grandfather held him to protect him, but he was so afraid that he ran away. If he had stayed with his grandfather, the two would have died together,” the officer said.
The unit fulfilled the Guatemalan presidential order of not leaving anyone buried. “These mixed feelings of sadness and happiness about finding him are amazing. Sadness because he was dead, but happiness because he would be given a Christian burial,” the commander said. “The family’s gratitude is really rewarding.”
The UHR-CFAC’s officers, specialists and Soldiers were decorated by President and Commander-in-Chief of the Army Otto Perez Molina, with the Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of their work after the earthquake. During the rescue, they showed discipline and teamwork, and properly applied safety measures. The community also held a ceremony to thank them for their work.
As Col. Lopez said, the military units are the first to arrive and the last to leave an operation. This time was no different. The events confirm the motto of Guatemala’s UHR-CFAC: “Military rescuers at the service of the country.”