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Sounders playing in Santa Tecla, El Salvador – a town once devastated by a landslide that killed 585 but is now brightened by soccer

A landslide cuts a swath of destruction through the town of Santa Tecla near San Salvador, El Salvador in this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001 photo, following a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that caused widespread damage across the country. (Associated Press)
A landslide cuts a swath of destruction through the town of Santa Tecla near San Salvador, El Salvador in this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001 photo, following a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that caused widespread damage across the country. (Associated Press)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SANTA TECLA, El Salvador – Local legend has it a “pact with the Devil” by its wealthy, much-despised original owner was what spared the century-old colonial mansion partway up the hillside from the worst natural disaster this city has ever known.

Emilio Flores, 64, a machete-wielding former soldier now paid to guard the abandoned “La Casa de Los Guirola,” swears he still hears screams of the dead when spending the night on its isolated grounds. Back on Jan. 13, 2001, a massive 7.6 earthquake sent a landslide of biblical proportions careening down the hill, just feet from the home, burying much of the neighborhood of Las Colinas beneath it.

“It looked like it was coming straight for the house,” Flores said, pointing to the slide’s perimeter adjacent the mansion, now a haunting local symbol of what happened that day. “Then, it just moved around the home and didn’t touch it.”

The landslide claimed an estimated 585 lives and much of the identity of this San Salvador suburb of 135,000 where, on Thursday, the Sounders play the opening match of their two-leg, CONCACAF Champions League series. Their opponents, Santa Tecla FC, have won three recent league championships despite forming only 11 years ago in the aftermath of a tragedy forever etched in the psyche of those living here.

“All of the people still remember that day,” said Santa Tecla midfielder Fernando Quintanilla, who was just 3 back then when his mother grabbed him and his young brother and huddled on the floor of their home just two blocks from the deadly slide’s path. “They’re also afraid that something of that magnitude could eventually happen here again.”

Dealing with disaster and hardship is nothing new for this Central American nation of 6.3 million, wracked by severe earthquakes throughout its history and by a 12-years-long civil war that killed more than 75,000 people before ending in 1992. Nowadays, the capital of San Salvador, about a 10-minute drive from Santa Tecla, has been dubbed the “murder capital of the world” after violence stemming from the proliferation of organized criminal gangs like the notorious M-13.

And the El Salvador earthquake of 2001 and resulting Santa Tecla landslide have recently been thrust back into the international spotlight as well. U.S. President Donald Trump last month announced plans to lift the Temporary Protected Status given more than 260,000 Salvadorans to remain in the United States following the quakes, saying the infrastructure damage preventing their return has been mostly repaired.

They now have less than two years to leave the country or be deported.

More than half of the 1,000 or so people killed in the quake – and a subsequent one a month later – perished in the Santa Tecla landslide. Today, the Las Colinas neighborhood remains carved in half by the destruction, with a memorial park and vacant fields now sitting where tons of dirt and debris obliterated the homes that once stood there.

Homes do sit on either side of the football fields-wide swath of destruction, but the middle portion remains untouched. Beyond the memorial park, where four plaques with the names of the dead are mounted on a wall, acre upon acre of damaged trees and thick shrubs run up the hill where developers had begun expanding the neighborhood with new housing before the slide hit.

In the shadows of the memorial park sits the Estadio Las Delicias, a 10,000-capacity city-owned stadium where Santa Tecla FC has been unbeatable going on nearly two years. It had been four decades since the city last had a top-flight soccer club, and the team’s onset as a second-division club gave the embattled community something to rally around.

Santa Tecla earned promotion to El Salvador’s first division in 2012, then reeled off a series of championship wins. El Salvadoran soccer has playoffs and a championship for the first and second half – known as “Apertura” and “Clausura” – of every season.

After winning the “Clausura” in 2015, Santa Tecla captured the “Apertura” crown in 2016 followed by another “Clausura” title in 2017. And the community around it celebrated wildly each time.

“Every sports team around the area has helped the community to get together,” Quintanilla said. “With soccer being one of the most popular sports, it definitely helps.”

Quintanilla says the Champions League match with the Sounders will be “a special occasion” to rally the city’s pride once more.

Santa Tecla coach Ruben Da Silva said Wednesday he hopes to use the series as a measuring point for his team’s progress against the world’s best. His squad has a tie and a loss in its only prior Champions League matches.

Bernardo Majano, a Virginia-born midfielder who joined the Santa Tecla side last July, agreed the games are a big test. “This team is fairly new, but we’ve been competing with teams that have been here for years and have left a legacy,” he said. “We’re growing and we’ve been doing good things.”

Majano played junior-college soccer in North Carolina before opting for a pro career in his family’s native country. Though he doesn’t speak Spanish, he said the locals have been “warm and welcoming” and feel a sense of identity with the squad.

Santa Tecla continues to try to shed its past, its explosive growth now to the point where it’s become one of the nation’s most densely populated areas and a virtual extension of San Salvador. Visitors flock here on weekends to walk the closed-off pedestrian strip of Paseo El Carmen, lined with restaurants, bars, discos and a church built in 1856 that serves as the city’s most recognizable landmark.

Three months ago, the city was named the host site of the 2021 Central American Games.

Rafael Membreno, a sports spokesman for Santa Tecla, says the city has come a long way from the horrific 2001 slide. He remembers the chaotic initial hours, when phone lines were down and people were panicking in the streets.

“I saw a friend looking for his family,” he said. “He was shoveling dirt with his hands.”

He agrees sports have helped the city forge an identity beyond the disaster. The city supports 22 team and individual sports, including the soccer squad, which he estimates gets about $30,000 a month in cash or equivalent subsidies – like free stadium rent.

“The people here liked the idea of having a team again with the name of Santa Tecla,” he said. “We have tried to keep it going and take it to a higher level. It’s something we all needed.”

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