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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 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
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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…

“It was August 4th, 1984, when I left the mountains and went to Pacux. After 11 days in the base, I went into the community. We were quickly organized, us survivors, into patrol groups (1), and monitored closely.

I soon realized that there was no work in which to survive, and if I didn’t do anything, we might starve. Two companions and I asked for permission from the military to leave and find work at the coast, and were surprisingly approved. It was myself and two friends, and our entire families. At this time it was just my wife, whom I had married while in hiding, and our daughter. 

We spent two years in a place near Esquintla (a small city on the Pacific slope). I cut sugar cane and found other work. At this time we were still very weak, for what had happened to us. We barely had money for food or clothes. By working on these fincas, in the hot fields with other men, we searched for a way to survive.

We knew of a man there, Don Julio, also a survivor from Rio Negro, who had a small house. He had a large family, but on his land he let us put up nylon tarps, and he had a well for us to use. Our families lived here, in his yard. We could get leña nearby, in which to cook, and we worked in the fields all day, cutting sugar cane. Our wives remained in the encampment. 

In 1986 we went back to Pacux, to live in our houses there. We had to go back to the military base before entering, but the captain was happy with us this time, because we had found work at the coast. But once again, we were forced back into the patrol. 

After a short stretch in Pacux, realizing once again that there was no work – and that we would have to patrol – some friends and I thought about taking the chance to find work in the north, close to Coban in Alta Verapaz. We heard that there was some available land; good land with water, and fine harvests. We wanted to plant milpa, and survive by our own means.

My friend here was saying, ‘Lets go - we’ll work our own fields of corn there.’ This excited us, so we went. We didn’t have money, but he borrowed from his mother-in-law. It was only 40 Quetzales, but you have to remember that back then money had much more value than it does now. It was money for our bus ticket and food. 20Q each.

We arrived to San Pedro Carcha, outside Coban, and we couldn’t remember exactly where to go. We waited for transport from there, to take us to this place; Cebol was the name, where the land was; but there were no more cars. It was five in the afternoon at this time. A car came (local transport) and we stopped them and asked if they knew how to get to Cebol. They said it was far, but they were heading in that direction, so we got in. It was 3 AM when the car stopped and let us out, and we realized then that we were in the Peten (a vast lowland area near the border with Mexico), or close to it.

We tried to sleep on the side of the road; it soon began to rain. We tried to remain calm and went beneath a cattle shelter. Soon enough we realized that we would not have a chance here, to do what we had dreamed. In the morning we asked another person, “Where is Cebol?” And he said it was much further on, and that it was a finca, not parcels of land, like we believed.


We sat on the ground and thought about what to do; again it was getting late in the day. After a bit of time a man passed, a businessman who sold hammocks and other crafts. He was very friendly and gave us some food. We told him what we were doing and he said he was off to San Lucas, and that there was a place not far from there called Santo Tomas, where they were looking for a few workers. So we waited with this guy for a ride, maybe six hours on the side of the road. We got a car and arrived to San Lucas late at night. We were out of food and money at this point, but we took the chance. What else could we do?

When we got to Santo Tomas we were given a bit of work; fifteen days, harvesting beans. We worked there for a week, then another. Other people arrived that we knew, from Cubulco (about half hour by bus from Pacux, where other Chixoy-affected relocation communities were built). We started to save money, but just enough to return to Pacux. We gathered our families there and returned to this finca in the jungle, in the Peten.

I was there for three years in total, and I ended up buying a small lot. We had a very small house, and between us friends, from Pacux, we had a small milpa to grow our corn. I worked in the fields and pastures, for a large company. My second daughter was born there.

So after three years, I received a message from Rabinal, saying that a process was beginning in which I could receive a home in Pacux. The name of my father came up, who was murdered, and as his heir I would be the owner of the home guaranteed to him by the government. But for me, this trip would cost a lot of money. It required several days of travel. You see, the roads weren’t paved back then; it was a long journey back home. And in this area the guerrilla was still active, as was the military. It was dangerous to travel. 

But anyways, we ended up deciding to return. Why? Well, Pacux is where our people were; that was our community. I sold my lot in Santo Tomas and we were off. It was a bit sad; I spent much more on my lot and house than I received.

This was 1990.  After so much moving around – all of us compañeros, survivors – I met up again with my friends Don Julian, and Mario. We were so tired of the life we were living. And in Pacux, once again, it was difficult. We had no work, maybe just one or two days a week, and we would once again have to travel to the coast for stretches of time, to pick cotton. And there, in the fincas, we were treated very badly. We would receive just beans; half the food we needed. We had no nets to sleep under and the mosquitoes were terrible. It was unsanitary, the way they had us live.

At this time we began to talk about leaving Pacux for good, and going back to Rio Negro. We started to make a plan. There were three of us: Don Julian, Mario, and myself. 

Because, you see, in Rio Negro there were still palm trees (to make petates; woven mats and bowls), and jocote (a much cherished regional fruit); and in the reservoir, there must be fish, we thought. We made a decision then – we would return.

So I talked with my friend Cristobal in Pacux (also another survivor). He was an assistant to the military commissioners. But of course, he was forced into this position. He suffered just like us, and was scared. Anyways, he helped by introducing us to someone in Salamá (the department capital, located 40 minutes away by bus). A military man. So we went to the base in Salamá, to meet with the local commander. We explained to him that we wanted to return; that we were survivors from the massacre there. And surprisingly, the commander there said, “Yea that’s fine. Will you stay there, or just work?’ When we told him our plan – to live and take root – he gave us written permission. And with this we could be above the water, and enter either by boat, through Pueblo Viejo or on the Salamá River, or on foot.

This amazed us, because our names had been in bad standing – because of the accusation that we were guerrillas. But to have this signed agreement, from the commander in Salamá! Well, we would be respected for this, we thought.

So we walked the road to Xococ (2), because this was the easiest way to get to Rio Negro. This is how we always used to get to Rabinal; it’s all we knew. So there, (in Xococ) we had to get permission from the Civilian Patrol, to pass through. The patrollers there wouldn’t let us pass. 

‘But look,’ we said, ‘look at this signed paper, from the commander.’ The patroller responded: ‘Well that’s from over there, in Salamá. It doesn’t mean anything here. We know what you’re doing there, you’re going back to join the guerrilla.’

We turned around from there and went into the mountains; through Panchic, and Chicruz. We had friends living there, along the river. They were trying to return also. We had a long friendship with these people, going back so many years, so they let us borrow their boat.

So it was on this day that we arrived to Rio Negro, late afternoon on a winter’s day.

With the letter from the commander we had little fear – we felt courageous – but after so many years away, there was a time of sadness. Sadness and hostility. When we entered this place again, and later, during the exhumations, most of us wept. 

Because in this place… aye. How many people had lost their life; how much blood was shed. How many people disappeared, and how many family members still remain in the ditches where they were thrown. 

We thought about our time in the mountains; living like animals, without food, clothes, medicine. There were many things that still angered us. But we had the capacity, at this time, to overcome these feelings.

We immediately made some shelters, with nylon tarps. The water was low and we stayed close to the reservoir. We made camps, and we went to the mountains above to gather palm fronds. We had no nets to fish yet, but we made lines. There was good fish here at this time – tilapia, guapote, and carp.

So we’d come and go like this; eight days here, than fifteen. We started to clear out this ridge, where I live now, right above the water. We made trails and small roads up towards the cemetery. We planted our milpas.

We were here for about one year without houses, just nylon - we were living in small encampments, like people do on fincas. After that we built houses from wood poles and straw, and we lived in these places for about three years. When we obtained the resources we built proper homes, with kitchens apart.

Eventually, one day, someone came out from Alta Verapaz, a government man; he heard that we were there, that there was some sort of a movement. We told him we were survivors - that this was the land of our ancestors, and that we were moving back. This was an important moment.

We brought our wives and kids with us from Pacux; our dogs and chickens; and pretty soon other people were coming. We were five, six, seven families. Before you knew it we were eleven families. We had some support from the Catholic diocese in Alta Verapaz, and with that we built houses with laminate roofs. We realized that we couldn’t always enter by boat, so we started to make the trail back to Pacux through Chitucan (about an eight hour walk). This is an old trail, but at this point it was totally grown over. 

Some people returned to Pacux after being here for a while. It was difficult to get things going; we were still bringing over bags of corn and beans. But us six or seven families, we decided that this was our place, and we weren’t being bothered here, by the patrollers or the military. We started to organize ourselves, because this is where we were going to live, to set roots.

Cupertino Sanchez, current COCODE president, Rio Negro

We began seeking assistance from the Catholic Church in Rabinal and Coban. There was a great man in Rabinal, an international, who helped us quite a bit. He didn’t give us money, but he got us supplies to build a school and a community building. He also got a teacher for our kids. We had a school up to third grade. 

We mobilized the community and formed a COCODE (community development group). Our first president elected was Francisco Chen Osorio, who has since moved back to Pacux. We went to the municipality to form a legal community, separate from Pacux. And with this we built a proper school for the kids, out of wood and bricks. We carried all the materials here. 

After about three years living above the reservoir, we bought the tubes to bring in drinking water from the springs above the community. This was through the help of the church also. Later on, the municipality would help us, but just in materials.

So after these things there was no thought, at least for me, about returning to Pacux. We were starting small projects and things were moving along, little by little. We were given support to start projects, with cattle and fish. We were attracting more families to the village; Don Nicolas, and Julio Tecu, Juan and Cupertino. And once Faustino was married in Pacux, he followed Cupertino’s lead.  We started to live like we did before, with houses and families spread out across the landscape.

It was late in 1993 that the exhumation took place, in Pocoxom (3). This brought us into better communication with the leaders in Pacux; Jesus Tecu and Carlos Chen; and there were human rights workers seeing what we were doing. We were a little nervous what might happen for us, because after the exhumations there were capture orders for the patrollers. But nothing happened. And thank God, once we started to go through Buena Vista, and Xococ (in order to get to the market in Rabinal, and Pacux), we never received any threats.

So the first couple necessary projects were water and education, and we succeeded. We had various groups giving us support, like PROASE, which helps rural communities develop proper education. We had support from Mary Pulvis, the cousin of Dominga (4). We were able to build our own structures, with materials from these organizations, and we were given the wages that would usually go towards workers.

We suffered a bit in those first years, with our crops. The winters were minimal, in terms of rain, and sometimes our corn and beans and Maicillo (sorghum) wouldn’t yield. The terrain was different than it was before; the best land was under the reservoir. 

You must understand that before, when the dam wasn’t here, we had good, fertile lands. By the river, there was flat terrain to plant whatever you desired. Decades ago our parents and grandparents planted fruit trees. In the time for mangoes, we had mangoes. We had bountiful harvests. Sadly I don’t have a photo of this. Each family had their own plot of fruit trees. We had good fish in the river. Natives. There are no fish like this anymore. It’s over. Our parents and grandparents, they raised animals. They sold their products in the market at San Cristobal. They were businesspeople. But now, we’re closed in. If you don’t have a boat, you can’t get anywhere. And if you don’t have gas, you can’t get there either. To leave, to go to a market, you must walk a long distance.

So the dam… it’s just a huge loss for us. Before we could walk right across to the other side. Over there we had jocotes and other fruits. Most of us have some orange trees now, and mangoes, but it certainly isn’t like before. In the area of the river, things grew much better. So I realize now, that when I was a kid growing up here, my parents had a better life. They were always fishing, working on the other side.

With the reservoir we have problems traveling, because in the dry season, there is so much garbage in the water, and ninfas (aquatic plants) growing on top, that we can’t get our boats upstream. This is a great damage for us. Before, if the water got dirty, it would just pass. Now, it stays with us. Our lives are forever changed, from times before…

Men from community of Río Negro, circa 1970
Anyways, things began to drastically improve for us here after we came into contact with an organization called Cooperacion Aleman. Our friend Cristobal, in Pacux, was working with Vecinos Mundiales (World Neighbors) in sustainable agriculture, and knew of this German group, and the assessor, Don Victor. He told Victor about our story, in Rio Negro, and immediately he wanted to see our place.

So one day, it was winter, I was out fishing in my boat, and here arrives Victor, asking for me. He was with his wife, and they wanted to see it all; our new town, and the site of the massacre. And I told him I could show him these things, of course. So I took him to Pocoxom, he and his wife.

After that initial visit we were in contact, and he started to help us with small projects. He wanted to know what our needs were, and we told him that we needed better boats, and better ways to catch fish. So he helped us get nets, and a community boat. And it was different with Victor, you see, because it wasn’t a loan; he helped us buy these things, because he felt they were necessities for our future. In later years, he would help each family buy a small boat, and paddles, because this was necessary for us to pass over to the other side. 

By the time we developed the new cemetery on the hill above town, we had twelve families. This was in 1999. Victor kept coming and going, and at this point he was talking about starting a large project. His idea was that we write up a request. ‘Something from the entire community,’ he said.

Originally we were thinking about developing a fish hatchery. We went with Victor to Santiago Atitlan, to view a similar project. We talked with people there, to see how easy it might be for us, and how much it would cost. We wanted to see what it was like to keep fish concentrated, and how well it worked.

In Santiago, they were getting something like 15Q per pound. But here, we got much less. Because for the buyers to sell our fish in the market, they had to pay for the transport. After thinking about this we thought it might be too much of an investment, in all regards. We would need tens of thousands of Quetzales, just in materials.

So we sat down with Victor again, and he expressed his desire for a project that would bring sustainability, and self-sufficiency. What he had in mind was a project for the future, something permanent; something that would bring in a steady amount of money for the community. We started thinking about a project for tourism. Victor had experience in this, and we took a trip back to the lake, to San Lucas, and Panajachel.

We made another request and went to Guatemala City to meet with others in his organization. We heard from Victor not long afterwards. ‘I have good news, Bosho,’ he told me. Bosho was the nickname he had given me. ‘We want to fund the project, but we need a different name, a different focus. Just tourism, a “centro touristico…” we don’t believe it would work in Rio Negro.’ 

So we thought of a new name, the Centro Historico Educativo. We would attract students, cooperatives, and tourists also. We would teach them about our culture, and take people to the ruins at Cahuinal, the tombs of the ancients. We could teach about our history, and bring them to Pocoxom.

So when the idea was concrete we signed the request and sent it off, and Victor believed that from Germany, they would send money. There were four representatives from the community of Pacux/Rio Negro, and we all agreed that Rio Negro needed this, more so than other projects the leaders were working on. We needed a base here, in Rio Negro, a foundation in which to grow from.

‘The foundation we will build here,’ said Don Victor, ‘it will be like a nest. The chicken creates a nest, along with the help of the rooster. The rooster always gives support. And when the chicken lays the eggs into the nest, more chickens appear. And suddenly there are more nests, and a mountain of chickens.’ So that was the idea. We’d create this foundation in which to build from, and by the grace of God, the visitors would arrive, and through their experiences, others would follow.

Centro Historico Educativo
And with this project, there were, and still are, so many possibilities. Already we’ve been able to get a better boat, and we’ve built other structures, like the museum, and the kitchen. We’ve begun to work on trails to the caves across the way. And when visitors arrive, we take them to places, and teach them about the meaning of the place, about our history. They pay for our services, as guides, and hosts. And the money goes towards maintenance, and gasoline. But the rest goes to individuals in the community who work as guides, or the women who cook the food, and gather the wood. They are paid for their time. We are able to put some money into a fund, for the community. Most the time this project, it just sustains itself. But the foundation is here. And on top of this foundation, we begin other projects. Like the pines below that you see, this is part of a small project, of reforestation.

community museum, Rio Negro

So as you can see, we are growing. Right now we have 16 or 17 families; there are many kids and babies too. In the school this year we have 26 students. It’s been difficult to get teachers here; it’s a far way out, but this year we are so grateful, we have a wonderful teacher. 

We have a school until sixth grade, and it’s important for us to get more support, in order to give the students what they need. Right now the teacher must give classes to one group in the morning, and another in the afternoon. What we really need is another teacher, and for this we are seeking outside support, because the municipality won’t give us the necessary funds to bring out another teacher. And we are not ashamed to ask for this help; it’s a necessity.

What we say, is that the most important things for our community is our health, and education. As I see it, a major problem is the schooling. The reality here is that most kids leave to continue their studies in Pacux. Many don’t return. They go and search out work, elsewhere. In the case of my son, Rodrigo, he studied, then went to go find work.

It would be ideal for me not to send my kids away. I’d rather see them stay; help work the land, and fish, and teach things to the community, rather than outside. If they stay outside, they end up working in a factory, in some office or for the police; because in Guatemala there is barely any work, and everything is expensive to buy.

The problem here, as I see it, is that the school only goes to 6th grade, and the kids here, they want to study. My son Nelson though, he wants to stay. He doesn’t want to travel to Pacux; he has a lot of friends here, and in the pueblo, there’s gangs, and he’s had friends there tell him bad stories. Besides, he feels happier in the countryside working as a farmer, with me. But there are other stories… his sister, for example, she wanted to study, and left. It’s sad, to see your kids go, but I support them any way I can. But if they leave, they have to work as well. Because to study towards a career, it takes many years, and you have to pay for everything. I’ve had partial scholarships for my kids, but this doesn’t cover all the costs. You must find a place to live, pay for books and uniforms, food – everything. 

My son Rodrigo had the opportunity to study in Livingston, on the Caribbean coast. It cost a bit to live there, like 100Q per month, and it was 150Q to register. He obtained a half scholarship. And since he had three breaks per year, he could work to save the money he needed. But that meant that he didn’t come back here, because he worked in Livingston. You see, he was a strong student, so at the foundation; the special school he went to; they had him run a store that they owned. And they paid him 50Q a day. So this covered his tuition, and he needed little support from me. He also had the opportunity to work in the reception. So for this, he didn’t work as a campesino, and was able to help me plenty, financially.

All along my son had excitement and dreams for studying. He did anything he could to finish. And now, I have three kids - Gloria, Flori, and Rodrigo - that went on to school, to work towards a profession. But it’s getting tougher to do this; last year a pound of corn was 25Q, now it’s 35Q. It’s the same with beans; everything is going up. So sending kids away gets more expensive. On top of living expenses, it’s 50Q to register, 200Q for books, and 100Q per month. 

So life here, despite these problems… it advances. The Centro project is improving; we’re now part of a community tourism group, with an office in San Cristobal Alta Verapaz. Things are better organized, we have a phone now, and a webpage, and we no longer go months without visitors.

We are still poor people here, this is the truth, and our young men leave, on occasion, to work in the coffee fincas. They have to leave. For us (leaders and parents) we try not to leave; it lays a heavy cost on our families, and there are a lot of things we need to do here. But the young men, they go and spend 30 or so days on a finca. And they come back with a bit of money for their families, to buy clothes, and to buy maize if there’s a bad harvest, like this year. Because, you see, the fishing can be decent, but there are times when we have limited food. 

Maicillo (sorghum), ready for harvest. Many residents now use this plant, in place of corn, because it is easier to grow in Rio Negro's dry, unpredictable climate.

There are a good handful of us who will never leave – this is our home, and we strive, always, for our community. And thank God, we continue to overcome what happened to us, and we see the value in such struggle. We’ve had many opportunities, training and support, in the projects we have going now. And through our ongoing work, we are rescuing our culture and land, and rebuilding the place of our ancestors. It’s still sad, for me, to think about what happened to my father, my mother and brother, and I think sometimes, that they gave their lives for us. It’s very clear to me that they weren’t murdered for being thieves, or for murdering other people; it’s simply unjust what happened to them. And it’s our duty, as survivors, to teach our children and grandchildren about what happened, and it’s our right to reclaim what was lost – our land, our culture and memory – through the courts, or by our own means.

It reminds me a bit of the story of Jesus Christ. He gave his life for something, for others. And it’s the same for our parents and grandparents…. For all this, I am excited for my life, for the struggle behind us and in front. It’s not an easy path, for us, but thanks to God, and through the support of others, and the support of our loved ones now passed, we move forward, always struggling."  


Once again, I thank you all for following my work. 

If you have questions or concerns regarding this work, I encourage you to contact me by email, which you will find on the 'About This Project' page. 

(1) During the early 1980s the military set up armed civilian defense patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil—PAC) as a means of controlling the insurgency in rural districts. Up to one million men (mostly Maya) were eventually forced into the PACs, which was intended to be an extension of the army’s fear campaign throughout rural areas. The military considered those who rebelled against joining the PACs as guerrillas, or guerrilla supporters, and were punished severely. 

(2) The community of Xococ, though also subject to military interrogation and a massacre in 1981, formed a PAC that would eventually carry out some of army's most horrific massacres in the region. Among these are the Rio Negro/Chixoy Dam massacres of 1982.

(3) Pocoxom, as discussed in the previous entry Pacux Profiles, is the site where 177 children and women were brutally massacred on March 13, 1982. The site was one of the first in the country to be exhumed by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG). 

(4) Dominga was a survivor of the massacres at Rio Negro, and by miraculous chance, made it to Guatemala City, only to be adopted by an American couple. It was much years later that she remembered her past, after attending a talk by Rio Negro massacre survivor Carlos Chen. Her incredible story was well documented by PBS in their award winning film, Discovering Dominga.