Thursday, December 5, 2013

PACUX PROFILES: Survivors Of The Rio Negro / Chixoy Dam Massacres, Thirty Years After

Survivors Of The Rio Negro / Chixoy Dam Massacres, Thirty Years After
Text and photos by Nathan Einbinder (with Grahame Russell of Rights Action)
Flooded valley of the Río Chixoy

It was in March of 1982 that surviving members of the Maya Achí village of Rio Negro escaped to the mountains, thus making way for the completion of the World Bank/Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)-funded Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam.

After a series of five military and paramilitary-led massacres, their population was effectively halved, with 444 women, men, children, and elders intentionally disappeared or murdered, often in brutal fashion.


Timeline of 1982 Rio Negro/Chixoy Dam massacres
February 13: 74 men and woman, in the nearby village of Xococ.
March 13: 177 woman and children, at the pass 2km above Rio Negro (Pocoxom).
May 14: 79 individuals killed at Los Encuentros, three miles downstream from existing village (by this time destroyed). 15 women are taken away by helicopter, never to be seen again.
September 14: 92 are killed in nearby village of Agua Fría


One of 33 destroyed and otherwise harmed villages, Rio Negro was a community of farmers, artisans and fisherman. Along the plane of the Rio Chixoy they maintained orchards of peanuts, oranges and jocote, and in the surrounding hills they cultivated their milpas of corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, and chile.

They were deeply traditional and peacefully isolated, and felt a strong sense of connection to the land they inhabited. For this, they collectively resisted their illegal and forced displacement from the dam and its subsequent reservoir, and in turn were labeled subversives, or Guerrillas, by the US-backed military regime. The targeted violence – the rape, murder, torture and enslavement of women and children – was legitimized due to their falsely accused links to the ‘enemy,’ and their so-called communist tendencies. And like so many other indigenous communities at the time, they were effectively wiped off the map.

This series of images, profiles and vignettes intends to document contemporary life in the 'relocation' community of Pacux, where most Rio Negro massacre survivors live along with their families.

It was here that community leaders were taken, back in January of 1980, to have a glimpse of their future life after displacement. Coming from a rich and open landscape, they were offended by what they saw – the grid of cramped housing, the lack of terrain in which to continue their subsistent, campesino lifestyle – and it was upon seeing this very same Pacux, back in 1980, their so-called relocation town, that their formal resistance began. The targeted violence, massacres, and forced evictions soon followed.  

After the massacres of 1982, with literally nowhere to go, survivors began to trickle into Pacux. Most had spent two years or more in the mountains, as internally displaced peoples, and due to starvation and disease, they were forced to turn themselves in to the relocation village. With a new military detachment constructed adjacent to the community, harassment, intimidation, and repression would continue for another decade.

Pacux inhabitants would come and go in search of work – to the capital, and to the large coffee and sugarcane plantations at the coast. But most would return, to occupy their poorly built homes, and to be near their families and remaining community members.

Now, 30 years later, besides the elimination of the military base and expanding population, their impoverished life has changed very little. Survivors still mourn their loved ones who died in the massacres, and work is scare. Limited communal land exists in which to grow crops, and people survive hand to mouth.

The purpose of this series is to educate people about what took place, and what life is like thirty years after. Our hope is that these images and testimonies reach those at the World Bank/IDB, and Guatemalan Government, whose promised Reparations Plan for the lost, stolen, and destroyed land, property, animals, trees, crops, homes, and sources of employment and livelihood, has yet to be delivered.



In the streets

Pacux is comprised of four blocks squared, and has roughly 1,300 inhabitants. Its grid design and identical wooden homes, constructed by the Guatemalan government and World Bank/IDB, reflects other ‘model villages’ built at the time.

Model villages – also known as development poles (polos de desarrollo) – were frequently constructed directly on top of existing communities that had been razed and burned by soldiers – a method learned from the Americans in Vietnam.

Colonia Pacux, as seen from the Pre-Colombian Maya ruins at Cajyup, approximately 2km from town. The long dirt strip seen behind the village was once the army garrison, which has since been turned into a row of soccer fields. 

The house above is one of the original models built in the late 1970s. The wood structure to the left is the main living space, and the brick building to the right is the kitchen.

Frequent complaints include that of the roof, which was manufactured with cheap laminate. Over the years, some families – those that can afford it – have built adjacent structures made from concrete block or adobe, because the homes constructed for them are hot and moldy in the rainy season.

Streets are named after loved ones murdered at the four main Rio Negro/Chixoy Dam massacres sites.

Typical daytime scene in Pacux: a combination of dogs, kids, mothers, and chickens. The dirt track leading into the mountains, in the far distance, illustrates the route of the maderos, who collect wood to sell in the village.


Maria Sanchez Osorio

Maria was born in Rio Negro, in 1946. She arrived to Pacux on the 15th of July, 1983. After President Rios Montt declared ‘amnesty’ for all in hiding, a government agent took her from Los Encuentros (about 3 miles downstream from Rio Negro), to Pacux. She remembers leaving at 2AM, in a small boat, and arriving at 3 in the afternoon.

“When I arrived, this is the house that was assigned to me. I’ve lived here for almost 30 years. I came alone, because my husband was killed in Xococ, along with my son. I also had a daughter who was killed at Pocoxom. She was fifteen years old. On the day of the massacre, March 13th 1982, I was away buying maize in Pueblo Viejo (a community and market 6 miles away).”

Maria never remarried after the loss of her husband. She survived the violence, amazingly, along with six of her children. One of her sons died while working in a finca (large, export-oriented plantation), shortly after they arrived to Pacux. Except for her son, Cupertino, the rest of her children live in Pacux. She shares her home with two of her sons, and the wife of the eldest. 

“I have struggled so much for my children,” she tells me. “There has been much sacrifice. Thankfully we’ve had the help of my son, Cupertino. When we arrived he was thirteen, and he went to work on a finca, to harvest coffee. And when he returned, he helped with buying food. I also worked to afford the food for my children. When I found work, I’d buy maize.

“At this moment, there is occasional work for my kids. When it’s planting time, they work in the milpas (traditional Maya plot of corn, beans, and squash). And when there is no work in the fields, they go harvest wood to sell in the village. If they work all day long they earn something like 50 Quetzlas (about 6 US dollars). For this, I don’t – I can’t – buy many things. To buy a little soap, it takes three days of work. We only buy what is needed to survive: maize, beans, sugar, soap, salt. I have to buy maize, because there is nowhere for me to plant it. I used to have land to plant, but I distributed it among my kids. There is 25 meters of land, and this is distributed between five children.”

Maria can’t work because of bad health. She has one son that helps her when he can, giving her 25-30 Quetzales. And this is when he finds work in town, laying bricks.

“Life here is very difficult, still. Before the massacres, in Rio Negro, life was much easier, because we had sufficient terrain to grow our corn. We had cows too. Now we have nothing. We have to buy everything. Before, I had an endless amount of chickens. Now, nothing.”


Maria Ilda Chen

Maria was born in Rio Negro, in 1978. Her father was murdered in Xococ in February 1982, along with her brother. Her mother died at the Pocoxom massacre on March 13, 1982. Once a large family, she now has one brother and three sisters.

When she arrived to Pacux, in 1983, she lived with her uncle. Because he could only afford to feed his own children, she went to live at an orphanage in the town of San Miguel Chicaj, about 20 kilometers away. She remained there for four years.

After her time at the orphanage Maria returned to Pacux, but once again there was no food for her. She went to school for a bit, but then ended up leaving for the capital with her brother, in search of work. At this point she was no older than eleven years old.

After three years in the capital her brother got married, and they all moved back to Pacux. “Eventually I was married myself,” she tells me, “to a survivor of the massacres at Rio Negro. He was also an orphan. We’ve had five kids together, and all of us live in this house.”

Her husband finds work in the agricultural fields outside Salama, forty-five minutes away by bus. He earns 50 Quetzales a day, and his employment is inconsistent. Sometimes Maria shells seeds from local squash for extra money.  

“What we make now, with the both of us working, isn’t enough to survive. I’d go work in the capital, but it would be a cost to my family. Where would we stay? One of my kids went to look for work for one or two months, but he couldn’t find any. We don’t have land, and we have to buy maize all the time. Sometimes we have a tiny harvest, but it’s not sufficient.

"Life is difficult here, because we have to buy wood, jocote (a regional fruit), and lime (for making tortillas). Before, in Rio Negro, we didn’t have to buy much, so I hear. We suffer now, just like before (in Pacux). But thank God, I send my kids to school, and through this we are recuperating. My eldest child, my daughter, is eighteen years old. She has two years left, then will become a teacher, for primary school. This will help sustain our family.

Maria believes that a major problem in Pacux is the violence. Young boys, without families to care for them, end up in the streets, and join gangs. “After living in this house for a year,” she tells me, “I came home and found two men dead behind the house. I’m not sure what happened – something gang related. They were murdered. But thank God, right now the community is getting better, because we have men patrolling at night. For this, there’s no more murders.

When asked what she thinks the community needs, in terms of social and economic recuperation, Maria responds that they could use government support: “Reparations for what was lost in Rio Negro. We lost all our earnings,” she says, “our land, animals – everything.”

“There’s still a great sadness in this community for what happened. Forever I remember my father, on the day he left for Xococ, the 13th of February. I cry about it still. I was made an orphan at age of three and a half.  Almost everyone in my family was killed, my grandparents, everyone. It’s a great sadness. Sometimes I remember my mother; I don’t even have a photo of her.”


Alfredo Chen Uscap

Alfredo was born in 1979, in Rio Negro. Everyone in his immediate family was killed during the violence of 1982. His uncle took care of him after his mother was killed at Pocoxom.

After two years in hiding, Alfredo arrived to Pacux. He was five years old. “We arrived here, and made petates (traditional mats made from palm fronds) to survive. I wasn’t able to study as a child growing up here, because there wasn’t enough money. I never went.”

Alfredo traveled with his aunt and uncle to Esquintla, a city near the coast, to try and make a living, because the situation in Pacux was so dire. Once he was old enough, he began to work on the fincas, and still does, earning 40 Quetzales a day.

“In the beginning I harvested melons, or cut sugar cane. The work was hard, and it’s everyday, all day. As I got older I learned to plant coffee, and did that for a while. I also worked in the capital, and this is where I met my wife; she’s from Quiche originally.”

Seven years ago Alfredo moved back to Pacux to live in his aunt’s house, along with his wife. He still goes to the fincas for one month a year to work, but its often a gamble if he will find employment. When there isn’t work for him he must pay for transport back to Pacux – a full day’s journey or more – which lays a heavy cost on the family.

“My daughter just turned eight,” he tells me, as she climbs into his lap and plays with his hands. “Her name’s Jennifer. She goes to school, but right now she’s on break. We have just enough to send her. To survive I collect wood in the mountains. I leave at three in the morning and arrive back at nine. I sell some, but mainly it’s for us, to cook our tortillas. My wife is in Rabinal cleaning clothes for the day.

“Without having any studies, it’s hard for me to find work. I went to the capital in search, and couldn’t get anything. I’m discriminated against, and there’s nothing I can do about it (I am to learn that he also has physical disabilities, mainly in hearing and speech, which makes it even harder for him to obtain work).

“But I do anything I can to advance the life of my daughter. If I could go to the US to work I would. Then I could mail money home to support her and my wife.” 


Los patojos

Patojos (Guatemalan slang for ‘kids’) are often out in the street when not working or going to school. Although Guatemala is located in the northern hemisphere, the Spaniards called their rainy season winter, and the period of drought, which is now, summer.

These boys are on their three-month ‘summer’ break from school and will return – if the family has enough money to do so – in mid-January. 

Patojo carrying freshly harvested Flor de Jamaica (hibiscus), which is dried and then either sold, or made into a sweet, cold drink.


Mario Chen Rojas

Mario was born in Rio Negro in 1956. His wife was killed at Pocoxom, on March 13, 1982. He has since remarried, to a fellow survivor of the massacres at Rio Negro. “She was just 200 meters away from the massacre at Pocoxom,” he tells me.

After the Pocoxom massacre Mario fled with his four children into the mountains, where they remained for two years. He arrived to Pacux in 1983 and has had an additional six children with his new wife. Three of them live in his house, which makes it six in total.

“When we arrived to Pacux, we were bringing in palm fronds from Pueblo Viejo (located six miles downstream from Rio Negro, at the site of the dam), making petates and bowls, and selling it to some nuns. This is how we survived. After this, we began to work elsewhere; in Rabinal, and some of us went to the coast. I worked in the capital for a bit, then returned. Currently I have two sons working in the maquila (sweat shops), and one daughter and son working for the police department, in the capital.”

Mario works for a locally run organization called Qachuu Aloom, which was started in conjunction by an American named Sarah Montgomery from New Mexico. The purpose of this not-for-profit business is to educate rural farmers in organic growing techniques. Since the 1950s, the Guatemalan Government, with the help of the US Aid for International Development and World Bank, has encouraged farmers to use toxic chemicals and synthetically produced seeds. Mario teaches farmers methods in soil conservation, organic fertilizer production, and seed saving.

“I’ve been with this group for 5 years,” he tells me. “It’s a difficult job, because we have no governmental support, only from international donors. I have work from Monday-Thursday. This helps me enough, to survive, but I still have to work on the weekends to make ends meet.”

Despite having secure employment – a rarity in Pacux – Mario is not content with his present situation. “I’m not so happy here,” he tells me, “because you have to buy everything. We buy wood, maize, beans, lime. When we lived in Rio Negro, we didn’t buy anything. For this, and other things, we think a lot about these times. We had space to plant our crops. Here, there is no land for us to do these things – here it is difficult. But, for my work here, I won’t leave. But at some point I’d like to return to Rio Negro (to live in a newly constructed village, above the reservoir).

“We all struggle a lot to survive here. The government took away 22 caballeros (hundreds of acres) of land from us, to build the dam and reservoir. And what they gave us was five, no more. And our population has grown… Before, when we lived in Rio Negro, the population was separated, for there was sufficient land. It’s not the same here. All of our animals were free to roam – cows, pigs, everything. Here, it’s quite difficult.

“Although I wish for my children and grandchildren to stay, most likely after getting an education they will leave to find work – in Guatemala City.


Silveria Chen

Silveria was born in 1979, in Rio Negro. She was three years old when her mother and father were killed, on March 13, 1982. She doesn’t remember anything about her parents. Their remains were exhumed at Pocoxom, the site of the massacre, and buried in the cemetery in Pacux.

“My grandmother brought me to Pacux after two years in hiding,” she tells me, “along with six other orphans. My grandfather was a businessman, and was killed in 1970. I lived with my grandmother when we arrived. There were six of us, brothers and sisters and cousins. I suffered so much with her, because we didn’t have enough food to eat. We ate just twice a day. My grandmother didn’t work, so we didn’t have enough. I worked at a very young age. For this I grew up without school, nothing. She has since died.”

Silveria lives in the house left to her father by the government, along with her four children. Her brother lives in the main room, with his five kids, and she lives in the kitchen with hers.

“It’s been three years now since my husband left me,” she says. “My youngest is seven years old; I have help from no one. My kids want to study; my eldest wants to continue, but I can’t send them, because there isn’t enough money.”

Silveria doesn’t remember anything about Rio Negro, but her grandmother used to tell her about it; how they didn’t have to buy anything, because everything was right there.

“Growing up in Pacux,” she tells me, “we suffered so much. We grew up without the love of parents, without their guidance. It’s so sad, this story. We made petates, and we shelled seeds. We didn’t have enough to eat. My grandmother didn’t work, she couldn’t. And with the military base there, we couldn’t leave alone, we had to be with others. So we stayed here, in our homes, and we made petates, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t eat. We ate at 11, for breakfast, and in the afternoon, at four.”


Los Maderos

Maderos is the name given to those who harvest wood, or leña, to sell to other inhabitants. The majority of Pacux residents cook with wood in their antiquated stoves, and the need for this dwindling resource is a constant economic and environmental burden.

These two boys, ages 13 and 11, leave their homes in Pacux at two in the morning to begin a five-hour trek into the mountains in search of wood. A combination of deforestation, overgrazing, and climate change has left the hills above Pacux denuded of trees, and the maderos must enter onto private land to steal wood. With machetes they chop small branches from primarily oak and pine.

I encountered these boys at about 11AM, resting from what was already a long day. With this load – an estimated weight of 40 pounds, or more – they will earn 30 Quetzales, the equivalent of 4 US dollars. With this money they will help their struggling families, and with hope, save enough to attend school at a later date. 


Bruna Osorio Perez

Bruna was born in Rio Negro, in 1965. She was sixteen when the massacre happened, at Pocoxom, and narrowly escaped, along with her father and husband. Her daughter, three months old, was captured by soldiers and killed.  Along with her daughter, her mother and brother were also murdered at Pocoxom. Her other two siblings were taken in as slaves by paramilitaries.  

When Bruna arrived to Pacux in 1984, after two years hiding in the mountains, she had no house in which to live, and rented. She speaks of a deep sadness when she arrived.

“I missed where I was from, and for my mother,” she says. “In Rio Negro, everything was open, not like here. I had two homes there, but they were burned by the soldiers.”

It took years of struggling before Bruna and her husband were able to buy one of the World Bank-constructed homes. Her husband worked on fincas, and in the local fields harvesting beans and corn. Sometimes he found work in construction in the larger pueblo of Rabinal, two kilometers away.

Three years ago Bruna’s husband died, which left her as sole provider for her family.
In total there are six kids. Only her eldest daughter lives outside the one-room home, with her husband. The three younger boys are still in school, and she must struggle daily in order to keep them there. 

“To survive, to keep my kids studying, I look for work. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s for a man or a woman – but it’s much harder for a woman to find work, and the pay is less. I work in the fields if I have to, harvesting vegetables and corn. Sometimes I clean clothes. I earn like 25 to 30 Quetzales (4 dollars) a day. This isn’t enough to support a family; I have electricity bills, which amount to 66Q per month, and I have to buy soap, sugar – all the necessities. It’s just not enough.”

Bruna worries that she won’t be able to send her youngest to school much longer, and laments that soon enough, her kids will probably have to travel to the fincas at the coast to earn money. The work is temporary, for a month at a time, and in the fields they would cut sugar cane, or harvest melons. They could earn 500-600 Quetzales a month.

“Since my husband’s died, it’s been very tough. My health is failing, from my time in the mountains; running, and without food, and with so much fear. I feel it now – in my feet and legs. And because I don’t sleep well, my head hurts.

“It’s difficult to talk about my life, it gives me sadness to speak of all that’s happened; during the massacres, losing my young child, my brother. I feel left to suffer for the things that happened.”


Nicolas Chen

Nicolas was born in Rio Negro, in 1924. His wife was murdered on March 13, 1982, at Pocoxom, along with two daughters. Three of his children, two boys and a girl, survived. He has since remarried and had three more children, an additional two sons and a daughter. 

Nicolas arrived to Pacux in 1984, after spending two years in hiding, in the mountains. He and his family made petates, in order to survive. He continued to plant his milpa where he could, on rented land, but it was difficult because the land was poor.

“Where we left, Rio Negro, we planted everything; chilies, beans, corn, and squash; because the land was good. It was communal land. “We were united, and we could do whatever we wanted, produce what we liked.

“But here, we had to earn money to live, and we could only earn 20 Quetzales a day (about 3 dollars). And because we don’t have work every day, we live in extreme poverty. Why? Because we have to buy wood, chile, jocote, maize – all the things we need. But where we lived, we didn’t have to buy any of these things. We caught fish, and had cattle for beef. The land was ours; we were the owners. We are not the owners of the lands in Pacux; we rent a little across the way, but it isn’t sufficient, not like before. We can’t have animals, or milpas to support our families. And it’s very expensive to buy the things we need.”

Because of Nicolas’ poor health and age he can no longer work, and depends on his son, Carlos, to help him survive. “My other kids,” he tells me, “they don’t have enough work to help me, and support their own families. Their kids want to study, so they don’t have extra money to help me.”

Within the small compound in which Nicolas lives there are three small houses, and 20 people in total. Three of his sons, along with their wives and children, live in a space the size of an average lot, approximately ¼ acre.

“There are many problems here, because when INDE started the project, they promised us a better life. They promised us good land, free electricity, employment. There is nothing like this; we pay every month. We’re screwed here.” 


Favianna Osorio Tum

Favianna was born in 1974, in Rio Negro. She was eight years old when her father died, in Xococ. Her mother survived the violence.

After the massacre at Pocoxom, Favianna escaped to the mountains with two of her brothers. Her other two siblings were with her grandmother.

Favianna arrived to Pacux in 1984, and lived with her grandmother until her mother arrived, three months later. She still lives with her mother, along with her husband and their six children. The eldest is married and has a small baby.

“My husband is also a survivor of the massacres at Rio Negro,” she tells me. “He lost his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, and his sister. But fortunately, his parents survived, and are still alive today. They moved back to Rio Negro to live above the reservoir.”

Favianna’s husband works in town, in the agricultural fields, but also works in coffee fincas, for up to four months a year.  Depending on the harvest for that specific year, he can make 800 Quetzales a month.

“Usually by now he’s there, on the fincas, but this year he’s taking advantage of our son’s school vacation, and staying close to home. When my husband’s here, he looks after the boys, and they go to work with him. It keeps them from getting into bad things in the street.”

Next week Favianna’s husband will travel back to the coffee finca. It’s been decided that this year he’ll bring two of their boys. The work will be difficult, but better than cutting sugarcane or harvesting melons. “Right now we are able to save a little money, from all the work on the fincas. And for this, we can buy the clothes necessary for the kids when they study. They are all studying now.”

When asked what might help move the community forward, Favianna says that they need land, to plant milpa (corn, beans, and squash in a single plot– the trilogy of Maya sustenance). “Right now, without land, we cannot reach the harvest that we need. The land we have right now is too small, and the land is not good.”

“The situation here in Pacux,” she goes on to tell me, “is very complicated. There’s boys joining gangs, La Mara 18, and it makes me so sad, to see these boys doing bad things against people in their own community. We’ve improved our lives here, since the massacres; our situation is more hopeful, our kids are in school; it’s possible to find work and earn money. But these boys, many of them have parents that suffered greatly during the violence, and this reflects the choices they make, to join gangs and do bad things.

“I’ve suffered a lot, I lost my father; he was a farmer, dedicated to his work. For this, I am always advising my kids to not get involved in bad things, with bad people, and to try to better their lives, always, and work hard.” 


Thank you all for taking the time to read through this work, and supporting the on-going struggles faced by Rio Negro/Chixoy Dam massacre survivors and their families.

Please feel free to write me with any questions or concerns about this project and my work in Rio Negro/Pacux.



  1. Beautiful and touching story Nate....fond memories of the place and people, and the ceremony we all attended. Amazing work my friend...Rachel

  2. Very moving and compelling, Senor de los Senderos ... Carry it on. Grahame