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.



Thursday, January 17, 2013

Doña Theodora Chen: The One Who Got Away

Government repression in the countryside surrounding Rio Negro grew sharply throughout the fall of 1981. Following an army-led massacre of 200+ innocent civilians in Rabinal, the municipal capital, villages were forced to set up Civilian Patrols (PACs) in order to assist the military in their control over the district.

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 For a brief historical overview of the Rio Negro/Chixoy Dam massacres, please follow this link to the 'About This Project' page of this website
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The community of Xococ, located partway between Rabinal and Rio Negro, was not unlike countless other rural, predominately Maya villages of the time. Their first confrontation with the army was in October 1981, in which soldiers opened fire on a group of farmers harvesting peanuts, killing eighteen. After the PAC was formed, members expressed their willingness to cooperate under any circumstances with the military to avoid further confrontations.

Several months later, in February 1982, a group of arsonists, presumably guerrillas, burned down the market and killed five community members. The army was quick to blame community members from Rio Negro, who by this time were in conflict with the government due to their resistant stance on displacement from the Chixoy Dam.

From this point on, Rio Negro campesinos were considered part of the guerrilla and enemies of Xococ – despite their long history of friendship and trade. 

It’s important to note that by this time the Xococ PAC had received specific training, weapons, and guidance from the notoriously ruthless and far rightwing command at the local military detachment. They were participating in army-led massacres throughout the region, and several of the top commanders of this unit are now serving life sentences for their brutal acts of murder, rape, kidnapping, and torture.

It was just days after the market burning incident that 150 Rio Negro citizens were ordered to report in Xococ with their IDs. Upon their arrival, the head of the PAC accused them of being guerrillas and burning their market. Leaders denied the accusation, stating that the market was of importance to them as well, and that they had no reason to destroy it. The confrontation ended without violence, yet the commander held their IDs, saying that they could retrieve them the following week. 


Theodora Chen, then 46 years old, was one of the 74 individuals who returned to Xococ that following week to collect their ID's, and remains the only survivor of the massacre that transpired on that day, February 13, 1981.

It was on a cool and blustery afternoon this past December that Theodora gave me her testimony, from outside her home in Pacux. Speaking solely in Maya Achi, her words were translated into Spanish by my interpreter, Pablo Chen Chen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sebastian Iboy Osorio and the 'New' Río Negro

It was in the winter of 1991 that the three men – Julian, Mario, and Sebastian –walked back to Rio Negro, to reclaim the land of their birth. For nearly ten years they had been away – in the mountains hiding, on fincas cutting sugar cane and harvesting cotton and coffee, and in the tight, military-controlled confines of Pacux. Life in relocation had been one of precariousness and unimaginable hardship, and each man, along with their families, decided that it would be worth all the apparent risks to live once again in the shadow of their parents and grandparents.

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 For a brief historical overview of the Rio Negro/Chixoy Dam massacres, please follow this link to the 'About This Project' page of this website
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Twenty years later and a community of one hundred or so children, men, women and elders live peacefully in the steep, undulating terrain above the floodwater. Beyond the two main quebradas, or drainages in which the majority of families live, people farm their milpas – the Maya trilogy of corn, beans and squash - and sometimes graze a few cows. Closer to home they keep their fruit trees, chickens, and hortalizas – small vegetable and herb gardens.

While many more survivors and their families wish to take root in the newly formed relic of the old community, there is always the issue of money, which is needed to start a proper homestead, as well as the issue of space, as the very best land – the most usable and well watered terrain – lies permanently inundated. There are also those in Pacux who could never dream of living in Rio Negro again, after what took place, and the demons that still lurk. 


Sebastian Iboy Osorio met me on a bright December day on the deck of Rio Negro’s Centro Historico, a fine wooden building perched several hundred feet above the Chixoy Reservoir. A hot, desiccating wind sifted through the pines, and from the houses and farms below you could hear the laughter of children, and the short yells and whistles of men communicating across the landscape.

At 46 years old, Sebastian appears much younger – his body is lanky and strong, and his smile boyish – yet the eyes speak of many lifetimes of struggle and determination. As with anyone born in Rio Negro before 1982, Sebastian is a survivor of attempted genocide. Both his mother and father were killed by the military, and his brother was murdered before his eyes after trying to escape from the military detachment outside Pacux. He himself nearly died in the base, upon his arrival to Pacux, in 1984.

“After so many days of interrogation and torture,” he tells me, “I lied and said I was a guerrilla, thinking they might let me go.” The result was another six days in the latrine, his hands bound to a filthy toilet. Upon his release the commander told him that he had spared his life, but that others wanted to kill him. Once in Pacux he joined the ranks of other survivors, forced into the Civilian Patrol, and destined for a life of poverty and restriction.

And this is where I let him begin…