SAN CRISTOBAL VERAPAZ -- Rescue workers dug with shovels and their bare hands to recover bodies on Monday after at least 35 coffee workers were killed by a landslide as they walked along a road in northern Guatemala.
Guatemalan Vice Minister of Public Works Wilfredo Garcia said it was unclear how much higher the death toll would go from Sunday's landslide, although rescue workers at the scene estimated at least nine more people were unaccounted for.
The workers suspended their search at dusk after being hampered all day by small rockfalls that made it impossible to get heavy machinery to the area, in the mountainous northern department of Alta Verapaz.
"The people doing the rescue are taking every precaution because there are rockfalls every two minutes," Garcia told a news conference.
The landslide, triggered by a geological fault, brought some 10,000 tons of rock crashing down in a sparsely populated area near the small indigenous town of San Cristobal Verapaz, around 124 miles north of Guatemala City.
The victims were laborers returning home from coffee farms in a nearby department. They had apparently ignored warnings not to use the road, which was closed in December after a smaller rockfall killed two people.
"I was watching when it started. I thought it was an earthquake but the rocks just fell and fell and fell," said laborer Leandro Salam, 26, who was working in a nearby cornfield at the time and ran over to help dig out bodies.
The mayor of San Cristobal Verapaz, Leopoldo Ical, said around 80 farmworkers had been traveling in two trucks when they reached the closed road near the hamlet of Los Chorros and continued on foot.
"The trucks stopped and the workers got out and continued on foot. They are the dead and disappeared," Ical said.
Earlier on Monday, Hugo Arvizu, a spokesman for disaster relief commission CONRED, said reports from villagers in the area suggested as many as 60 people were missing, but rescue workers at the scene said that figure seemed too high.
Landslides are common in Guatemala, but usually occur during the rainy season between June and November when hills become waterlogged and unstable.
The lush hillsides of Alta Verapaz department are prime areas for growing coffee and cardamom but a geological fault in the limestone rock formations cuts straight through the area.
Garcia said once the area was stable again, authorities would set off controlled detonations to reduce the risk of further landslides and then reroute the road for good.