Friday, January 7, 2011


The amazing persistence and dignity of Guatemalan massacre and genocide victims

On November 30, 2010, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (Commission) advised ADIVIMA (Association for the Integral Development of Maya-Achi Victims) that the Rio Negro massacre case (petition #12,649) had been forwarded by the Commission to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court).

This may be the last step in a 29 year process of seeking justice for the March 13, 1982 massacre of 177 women and children in the remote Maya-Achi village of Rio Negro. The process before the Court could also take a few more years, unless the government of Guatemala admits its responsibility and allows the Court to determine, unobstructed, what compensation and reparations the government of Guatemala must make to the surviving victims.

As in the case of so many struggles in Guatemala to overcome the deeply entrenched and on-going impunity of the wealthy and powerful sectors, one can only admire and be in awe of the courage and dignity of the surviving victims of the Rio Negro massacre who are the real heroes and protagonists of efforts to construct a just and fair society and country, one based on real democracy and an actually functioning legal system.

Below, one can read two articles (from 1993 and 1995) that provide background information about the March 13, 1982 Rio Negro massacre, one of four Rio Negro massacres that killed over 440 villagers.

From the date of the first mass grave exhumation in Rio Negro in 1993, surviving victims have been pursuing legal justice against the 'material' and 'intellectual' authors of the Rio Negro massacre. While a few of the lowest ranking "civil defense patrollers" (material authors of the March 13 1982 massacre under orders of heavily armed soldiers) have been jailed, the intellectual authors, ranking officers up through the chain of command in the Armed Forces, remain free today in Guatemala, 29 years later.

The Rio Negro surviving victims - that formed themselves into ADIVIMA - filed their petition with the Inter-American Commission, once they realized the Guatemala legal system was simply not going to allow justice to be done against the intellectual authors. For years, the Commission tried to come to a "friendly solution" between the Government of Guatemala and the Rio Negro surviving victims, that was not possible; thus, the case has been sent by the Commission to the Court.

While this is an extremely important step forward, it is important to clarify that the Court cannot and will not individualize responsibility for the Rio Negro massacre. Again, the intellectual authors will be left untouched. More impunity.


As set out in the articles below, the general context of the Rio Negro massacres was the State terrorism and genocide that the Guatemala military and oligarchy were carrying out against their own population - mainly Mayan people. This extreme repression was carried on in the name of the U.S. & western-back 'war on communism', that peaked (in Guatemala) from 1978-1983.

However, the specific context of the Rio Negro massacres, set out in the articles below, was the Chixoy hydro-electric dam project, a billion-dollar "development" project of the World Bank (WB) and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

At the same time as the Rio Negro massacres case has worked its way painfully through the dysfunctional Guatemalan courts, to the Commission and now to the Court, the Chixoy Dam Reparations Campaign has been seeking compensation and reparations from the Guatemalan government, WB and IDB, for the widespread losses and harms caused against 32 Maya-Achi villages (including Rio Negro) that were illegally and forcibly evicted or otherwise harmed to make way for the Chixoy Dam.

Both the WB and the IDB profited from their investments in this "development" bank; to date, 29 years later, neither has paid any money in the form of compensation or reparations for all the loss of life, land, home, community and livelihood.

La lucha sigue; the struggle continues for the surviving victims of the Rio Negro massacres, and for all the villages displaced and harmed by the Chixoy dam project.

Rights Action, Grahame Russell (, Annie Bird (

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By Grahame Russell, 1993

In the aldea of Rio Negro (municipality of Rabinal, department of Baja Verapaz) there is a small cement cross, stuck in the ground, on top of a "clandestine" grave, on which is written: "On March 13, 70 women and 107 children were massacred by the repressive forces of Lucas and the Judicial from Xocol. Rio Negro, 1982."

"Lucas" refers to then military leader General Romeo Lucas Garcia; the "Judicial" are today the "voluntary" armed civil defense patrols (PACs), responsible for tens of thousands of human rights violations, including murders, disappearances, torture, rape, illegal detentions, etc.

In November, 1993, exhumations were initiated at Rio Negro by surviving family members and human rights organizations, Rio Negro being the place where the 177 women and children were dumped that March 13, 1982.

As in other countries throughout the Americas, where massacres have been carried out against civilian populations, Guatemalan survivors and family members of victims of massacres have an overwhelming need to find where their murdered loved ones were dumped, dig them up, give them a proper burial, and initiate some sort of process for justice.

At the 'dig' site, after the bodies have been dug up one by one by the Guatemalan Forensic Team (EAFG), the work of identifying the remains begins. Anthropologists place bits of clothing on sheets of plastic, asking the surviving family members to try and identify them. Men and women mill about, in semi-trance states, turning bits of clothing over in their hands, speaking in hushed tones in different Mayan languages, openly crying. A Dominican priest offered a service for the dead.


This article aims to de-mystify the Rio Negro massacre, a need that comes from the fact that Guatemalan human rights atrocities receive little international press coverage. When covered, they are presented in a 'snap-shot' fashion, leaving the reader stunned about one more horror that took place in a 'third' world country.

There is nothing surprising about this massacre; massive human rights violations have been commonplace in Guatemala.


In 1954 the CIA and the United Fruit Company conspired and collaborated with sectors of the Guatemalan military and elite economic sectors to carry out a coup against a democratically elected government, leaving in place more or less the same military-economic regime that governs Guatemala today.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF), with support from successive U.S. administrations, unleashed a wave of violence against all persons and groups demanding respect for human rights, that voiced opposition to the reigning political-economic-military order. The victims of this repression were, according to the government, members or supporters of the URNG armed rebel movement. The victims were called variously communists, marxists, subversives, etc.

Rio Negro was one of hundreds of towns and villages that the GAF and the PAC destroyed during five years (1978-1983) of counter-insurgency military warfare, using "scorched earth" tactics against the civilian, mostly Mayan population. "Scorched earth" military tactics (destroying houses, towns, animals, crops and people) were extensively used by the U.S. in Vietnam, and have been taught by the U.S. to militaries across the Americas.

The GAF and PAC used these tactics to force civilians to evacuate entire regions of the country where guerilla forces are suspected of operating. In the case of Rio Negro, they resorted to four massacres, including the March 13, 1982 massacre of 177 women and children.


Rio Negro was a quiet township of some 225 families of Mayan-Achi people. Though living in poverty, they lived in peace through to the late 1970s, when the GAF began arriving to ask about the "guerilla": "If you don't tell us where the guerilla are, then you are guerilla fighters" was an argument or justification commonly used by the army and civil defense patrollers.

The problems in Rio Negro are historical and complex. One issue that created unsurmountable tension was the government's economic development plan that included the building of the $900 million Chixoy hydro-electric plant, funded by the World Bank and the IDB. This entailed the creation of a reservoir that would inundate dozens of communities, including Rio Negro. The government tried to evict the inhabitants under terms that the communities argued were totally illegal and unfavourable.

As peaceful opposition to the dam grew, the GAF increased its use of repressive tactics, using the excuse of "fighting guerillas" to militarize the area.

One month before March 13, 1982, the GAF ordered the men of the community to present themselves at the Xococ (nearby rural community) military barracks, to receive military training for their "voluntary" participation in the PAC set up by the GAF throughout rural Guatemala to help further military control.

One witness fled back to Rio Negro community (a 3 hour hike along a remote trail) to tell the villagers that soldiers and civil defense patrollers in Xococ were torturing and killing those suspected of being guerilla fighters. On February 12, 1982, approximately 70 Rio Negro community members were brutally murdered in Xococ, that being the first of four massacres.

One month later, on March 13, soldiers and patrollers arrived at Rio Negro at 5am, to find no men there. (After the February 12 Xococ massacre, the men and older boys slept in the hills, everyone thinking that the army and civil defense patrollers were only going to come after the men and boys).

"As you (women and children) don't want to tell us where your husbands and sons are, you will come with us". The soldiers and patrollers forced the entire community to march to a place called "El Palo Conacaste" where the women were ordered to dance with the soldiers, music playing on a stolen tape deck. "How well you dance. You must dance this way with the guerilla", the soldiers and patrollers taunted.

After further forced march, they arrived at "Pacoxom", a low point in the mountain ridge above Rio Negro. The youngest women and oldest girls were separated off and repeatedly raped, before being killed. The other women and children were strangled by slowly turning sticks, with rope attached at either end and wrapped around their necks. Some soldiers killed the smallest children by grabbing their feet and bashing them against trees and rocks. One woman, Maria, and a ten year old child, escaped by jumping down the steep, deep ravine. Though the soldiers shot at them and gave chase, they survived.

Upon finishing the massacre, the soldiers dumped the dead over the edge of the ravine, merely covering their bodies with loose pine branches and brush.

Some days later three surviving men from the community came to the site, placed the cement cross and covered the bodies with earth. Later still, the soldiers returned to Rio Negro, burning all homes and possessions, killing animals and destroying crops.

With the elimination of the Rio Negro people and town, it was easy for the government to advance with its plans to build the Chixoy dam. A member of the Coban Pastoral Group, that accompanies surviving family members to the sites of massacres to exhume the graves, said "the Chixoy dam was built with the blood of the inhabitants of Rio Negro, Rabinal".

After the 1982 massacres, Rio Negro survivors remained in the mountains, living on plant roots, and corn. Some died of diseases, others of hunger, and some were found by the soldiers and killed.


It is now up to the Public Ministry to undertake an investigation to determine what everyone knows -- who is responsible for the massacre, who were the military personnel in command in Baja Verapaz at the time, and who were in charge of the 'Judiciales' and the PACs. This is the hard part. It is one thing to get legal permission (and the emotional strength) to dig up the hundreds or thousands of clandestine graves that exist in Guatemala; (between July 1992-July 1993 the Guatemalan Team of Forensic Anthropologists carried out numerous exhumations at four different sites in Guatemala) it is quite another to investigate who are the responsible persons and institutions and see justice done.

In a clear indication of the position of the GAF with respect to dealing with these crimes and massacres of the past, Colonel Alvaro Fabriel Rivas, GAF spokesperson, said with respect to Rio Negro: "It is more important to seek peace for the nation than to look towards the past".


This massacre - brutal and commonplace - was perpetrated by the GAF and PAC that remain in power today. The question of cause goes deeper. Until recently, it was rare to hear internationally of human rights violations in Guatemala, a faithful western ally during the 'cold war'.

The 'international community', particularly western nations (public and private sectors), supports Guatemala commercially, financially and often militarily, turning a blind eye to the fact that Guatemala has long been one of the most racist and repressive country in the Americas.

It is estimated that there are over 50,000 mainly Mayan people "disappeared" by the security forces, PACs and death squads, and dumped in clandestine graves; this is in addition to the well over 200,000 mainly Mayan persons who were murdered and whose bodies were either found, or also dumped in clandestine graves.

Said one member of the Coban Pastoral Group: "We know of another grave that has 356 bodies buried there, and we know that dozens of bodies were buried under the Chixoy hydro-electric dam. ... In the same Rabinal region as the Chixoy dam, at a community called "Plan de Sanchez" there are approximately 50 graves where there are buried 100s men and women".


Some questions are finally being answered: what happened, where, when, etc. But Rio Negro raises a series of other human rights questions much harder and arguably more important to answer: why did this and so many other massacres occur in Guatemala?; when will the impunity of the GAF, PAC and death squads end?; when will guilty individuals and institutions be put on trial?; why has so little real international pressure been brought to bear on the most repressive country of the Americas?; why do 'first' world governments, banks (including the World Bank and the IDB) and businesses continue to have full relations with Guatemala, helping to keep the reigning political-economic-military literally 'in power'?

The questions are not academic. Violence in Guatemala doesn't occur in a vacuum. This massacre was not an incomprehensible act of violence 'in some third world country where they value life less'. It was a logical and predictable consequence of Guatemalan political, economic and military policies.

It is unlikely that the persons and institutions responsible for Rio Negro massacre will be put on trial without international pressure from the very nations and commercial and financial interests that have kept the GAF and government in power.

(Grahame Russell is co-director of Rights Action,, Feel free to re-publish this article, citing author and source.)