Guatemala: Río Negro Survivors Identify Executioners

Accused in court

A landmark trial began in Baja Verapaz last December when a local judge announced the continuation of a trial charging six former members of a Civil Defense Patrol with murder for their roles in the 1982 massacre of 177 Río Negro women and children. However, dictators who orchestrated the massacres still enjoy impunity.


The six accused (right) with a translator in court

Guatemala has received much attention over recent violence and the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators. Some organizations state that almost 15 people are murdered daily in Guatemala, mostly in the capital. These numbers are often compared to the levels of violence during the 36 year civil war in Guatemala (1961-1996). However, what many analysts forget to mention is that, during the nearly four decades of internal armed conflict, the vast majority of the violence occurred under the brutal dictatorships of Efraín Ríos Montt and Romeo Lucas Garcia (1980-1983). These four years saw a military campaign of genocide perpetrated against the indigenous Maya populations. To compare the present with this past is unfair to the victims and survivors of the genocide. Thus far, only one perpetrator has been successfully prosecuted. The current situation of impunity has roots in the violence of the past. Guatemala will never be able to solve problems of the present without first addressing the violence of the past.

Judge Opens Suspended Court Case for Río Negro Massacre

What crime did the women and children commit? – Juan, 25 March 2008

On December 19, 2007, a landmark legal trial commenced in Salamá, Baja Verapaz, when a local judge announced the continuation of a court trial suspended since October of 2004, charging six former members of the Xococ Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) with murder for their roles in the 13 March 1982 massacre of 177 Río Negro women and children. The six accused are being charged by the Guatemalan state-appointed public prosecutor (Ministerio Publico [MP]) and by a local war survivors’ organization, the Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of the Violence Maya Achí (ADIVIMA).

Previously, in the same court case, three leaders of the Xococ PAC were sentenced to death in October 1999, later appealed to 50 years imprisonment, for their roles in the massacre. It has marked the only time in which Guatemalan military or paramilitary men responsible for the violence during the scorched earth campaigns under Dictators General Romeo Lucas Garcia and General Efraín Ríos Montt (1980-1983) have been convicted in a court of law. This is despite the hundreds of massacres committed and tens of thousands of innocent indigenous people murdered during the regimes.

Since the reopening of the court case, the six accused have given their declarations and have been cross examined by the prosecution and defense. According to ADIVIMA’s lawyer, Edgar Peréz, the accused attempted to paint a picture of their subordination to the Army and Commander Solares. Essentially, they described in their declarations that they only followed orders. Some even claimed they never arrived in Río Negro, despite witness testimonies negating this claim.

Río Negro be Dammed


The Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam

The majority of the witnesses in the March 13, 1982 Río Negro massacre currently call Pacux "home." Pacux is a "model village" (also called "strategic hamlet" and "pole of development") set up by the Guatemalan army and the National Institute of Electricity (INDE) for the residents transplanted by the large reservoir created by the mega-project known as the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. However, much like the current situation in Guatemala, the State never truly consulted the 23 affected communities throughout the planning and development stages, despite embarking on the project as early as 1975. It certainly never asked for their permission.

Through the influence of INDE, army incursions began almost immediately in communities to be affected by the mega project. Supporters expected to profit immediately from the endeavor. The goal was simple: Get the people out as quickly as possible. The first massacre in Río Negro occurred as early as March 4, 1980, when a military policeman acting as a security guard for the dam opened fire on a crowd of campesinos protesting his presence in the region. Seven protestors were killed. The INDE security guard was lynched.

Army and State violence and terror only increased in the aftermath, especially against leaders of campesino organizations opposed to the project. Military often used the excuse of looking for the lynched soldier’s weapons when they raided houses and kidnapped outspoken residents, who were later found dead or remained missing. In fact, four months after the massacre, two leaders of the community, Evaristo Osorio and Valeriano Osorio Chen, went missing as they headed for a meeting in the capital with INDE officials. With them they carried their only copies of official documents of the promised compensation by INDE for the residents. They had previously handed over the property titles of the residents to INDE officials. Their bodies were found later with evidence of torture. The documents were stolen and INDE denied ever receiving the land titles.

The Guatemalan army and INDE labeled the rural Maya Achí people of Río Negro ‘subversives’ and ‘guerillas’ due to their refusal to be forcefully relocated for the dam. Río Negro residents quickly learned that not only would INDE and the Army not respect their civil rights; any democratic resistance to their displacement would only be met with terror and violence.

Most Río Negro residents attempted to avoid the increasing State terror by fleeing their ancestral homeland to other regions. This usually entailed resettlement to Pacux, with its cramped houses and poor, arid land provided by INDE in its "agreement" with the people. But when the residents saw the true conditions of life in Pacux, combined with INDE’s refusal to meet its part in the compensatory agreement with the affected residents, resistance only continued.

The State responded with four massacres in an eight month period in 1982, which killed at least 440 Río Negro residents, the vast majority of the population (CEH. Annex I: Book I. Illustrative Case No. 10: "Massacre and Elimination of the Community of Río Negro").

When all residents were either dead, hiding in the mountains, or resettled in the military colony of Pacux, the construction of the hydroelectric dam began as planned, with the financial support and tacit approval of the "international community." Throughout the violence directed at the Maya Achí population in Río Negro, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank continued financing the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam until as late as 1985.

Scorched Earth and Genocide

The State violence directed at the Maya Achí people of Río Negro, Rabinal, Baja Verapaz was not an isolated policy in the region. The Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology (FAFG) estimated that between September of 1981 and August of 1983 there were 5,000 extra judicial assassinations by the Guatemalan military and its death squads out of 22,753 registered people living in the Rabinal municipality. Of the over one-fifth of the population murdered in the 28 massacres in Rabinal, it is estimated by the UN-sponsored truth commission, la Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH), that 99.8 percent were indigenous Maya Achí.

On a national level, the State campaigns were also directed almost exclusively at the indigenous Maya populations of the Guatemalan highlands during the scorched-earth campaigns of the early 1980s under dictators Montt and Garcia. The CEH revealed that the majority of the 626 massacres committed in rural Mayan villages during the 36-year internal armed conflict were executed under these two brutal military regimes.

According to the CEH, some of the alarming results of the 36-year civil war included: 150,000 refugees in Mexico; 1.5 million internally displaced; 50,000 disappeared; and over 200,000 killed. Of the over 200,000 civilian murders, the CEH estimated that 132,000 were committed under the scorched-earth campaigns of Garcia and Montt. In their 1999 report, Guatemalan Memory of Silence, the CEH placed 93 percent of the blame in the hands of the Guatemalan army and its death squads and declared the state-sponsored violence against the indigenous Maya people to be "genocide."

March 13, 1982: Desert March to Pacoxom


The dammed Rio Negro from the Pacoxom trail

One of the most horrific consequences of the State violence against indigenous Mayan peoples occurred on March 13, 1982 in Río Negro. According to witnesses, at around 6 a.m. no less than 10 Guatemalan army soldiers, accompanied by 50 Xococ civil patrollers and military commissioners, invaded the small fishing and farming village of Río Negro. The battalion entered residents’ homes, carrying an array of weapons, including Israeli Galil Assault Rifles.

Once inside the homes, the armed militia demanded to know where the men were hiding and the guns stashed. There were no men in Río Negro that day. The patrollers tied up the women and beat them when they replied that the men had previously been killed in the February 13 massacre of 74 people attempting to collect their confiscated identification documents in Xococ. Some of the soldiers and patrollers raped the younger women inside their own homes while others dragged the residents out of their houses and led them to a local school, promising them a party.

Once the residents were forcefully gathered at the school, soldiers and patrollers led some of the women and children to nearby abandoned houses and gang-raped them. The patrollers and soldiers especially targeted young girls who had not yet given birth since they were considered "pure." They also specifically targeted pregnant mothers and small children, especially if they complained of hunger, thirst, or exhaustion. The armed men had previously ransacked the houses and taken the residents’ food.

Many of the hostages and their captors waited at the school while the last of the residents were rounded up. When everyone was captured, the troops led them to a trail headed towards a mountain top known by locals as Pacoxom. Just past the entrance some of the captives rested at a large nance tree, where one of the first recorded murders took place. Two Army soldiers brutally assaulted 94-year-old Andres Iboy Uscap. They kicked him in the chest, wrapped him in a costal (coffee sack), and threw him into a deep ravine. According to witness testimonies, after the murder of Iboy, most captives understood their fate.

After their brief stay, the women and children continued walking along the path in a column heavily guarded in front and back by soldiers and patrollers. Most of the Río Negro residents were forced to walk to a large conacaste tree, about one mile from the school. While waiting at the tree for the arrival of the rest of the battalion, the armed squadron took out a stolen cassette player and played marimba music. According to one witness, the soldiers forced the women to dance, saying: "Now you are going to dance, like you have danced for the guerrillas." The soldiers and patrollers next grabbed young girls out of the group and raped them.

Throughout the entire two-mile hike along the path to Pacoxom, under the sweltering sun with no shade, the hostages continually asked for water and food. The armed men responded by beating and whipping the women and children with sticks and ropes. Some of the hostages were tied up and mocked for their misery during the hike. Some of the raped girls were forced to walk naked. Witnesses spoke of both internal and external scars from the physical and emotional abuse directed at them by the patrollers, including the six men now accused of the crime. According to one testimony recorded by the CEH, "the majority of the women were naked, raped, and there were women who were only days away from giving birth, but these babies were born purely from blows" (CEH, Book III, p. 31).

March 13, 1982: Massacre at Pacoxom


Two of hte accused with policemen

When the captives finally reached the mountaintop of Pacoxom in the scorching sun of the early afternoon, there was no food or water to be found—at least for the suffering Río Negro residents. Instead, soldiers dynamited and forced the women to dig into the rocky soil with pickaxes, creating a large hole centered in the small ravine. When the armed battalion was satisfied with its size, they turned their energy towards the defenseless civilians.

Army soldiers and Xococ patrollers separated the women into two groups. One group was organized into mothers and their young children; the other into older girls and young women not carrying babies. To ensure no one would escape, the perimeter was well guarded and many hostages tied up.

After insulting and torturing the civilians with clubs and whips made of tree branches and rope, the massacre began. All of the Río Negro residents were made to lie down on the ground, faced down, so that they could not witness the atrocities taking place around them. The men took women and girls out of the groups, usually four at a time, and brutally raped them, sometimes torturing and beating them unconscious if they weren’t deemed virgins. Afterwards they were slain.

The mass execution lasted hours. As it continued, the aggressors didn’t bother hiding the slaughter and permitted the children to watch their sisters and mothers raped and murdered. Throughout the massacre, the valley below echoed with the shouts, cries, and pleas of the women and children being insulted, tortured, raped, and murdered by their executioners. Witnesses hiding in the mountains verified this at the trial.

One witness, Jesús Tecu, described how one of the PAC leaders, the convicted Pedro Gonzalez Gómez, wanted to kill a young mother, Vicenta Iboy Chen, and became enraged when she tried to protect herself by throwing a rock in his direction. According to Tecu, Gonzalez took out his machete "and gave her two swings to her back" where she carried her baby. "Half fell to the ground, with the other half still wrapped around the back of its mother." Vicenta fell to the ground where he "gave her two more machete blows to the neck." In February of 2008, Tecu also described the actions of another patroller, the accused Pablo Ruiz Alvarado.

He had one woman, Tomasa, faced down, with the rope fastened around her neck in the form of a tourniquet… but she didn’t die and her body quivered. So he killed her and continued beating her with a garrote, like she was a savage animal… Then he took her by the feet and dragged her to the ravine… 

One of the other accused, the PAC leader Francisco Alvarado Lajuj, earned the nickname "don Quebrado" (the Severer) for his viciousness in killing innocent women and children in Río Negro. Their methods were so brutal that rumors circulated around the region that the Xococ patrollers licked the blood of their victims from their machetes.

Through witness testimonies and forensic evidence gathered at the Pacoxom exhumation, the variety of murder methods during the large-scale massacre has been well documented. Most of the young women and girls were killed by strangulation with rope and garrotes, by decapitation with machete blades, by blows to the head with sticks and clubs, or by bullets to the head with firearms. According to witnesses and forensic anthropologists at the trial, almost all of the young children were hung, beaten, bludgeoned by machete, shot, or had their feet tied together and were flung against jagged rocks and tree stumps.

After the executions, the bodies were thrown down a small ravine. According to some of the younger witnesses, a number of the victims were still alive, gargling blood and quivering when they landed on top of other bodies in the makeshift grave. The ravine was filled with bodies of the women and children by 5 pm. According to witnesses who arrived in the aftermath while hiding in the mountains, the dogs ate many of the remains before they could be covered with dirt.

At least three people escaped the butchery after their capture. Bruna left her 4-month-old baby, Jesusa, near her mother and successfully evaded her captors by running from the shots fired by the Army and the PAC. She hid for months in the forest. On March 5, 2008, she described her interaction with her mother and her thoughts of her fateful decision to flee:

[I said] "Mama. How it hurts, mama, what they are doing… Mama, I don’t want to die like this. I´m going to flee…" So I asked my mom to stay with my baby, but she didn’t want to receive her. I dropped her on the ground because she wouldn’t take her… And I fled… I still think of my girl, but I didn’t want to die…

Slavery in Xococ

After the mass execution, the Xococ patrollers carried 18 children as "virtual slaves" to their homes in Xococ. Some of the captives were as young as four-years-old. Many of the young children who were carried to Xococ survived because their mothers influenced their executioners to carry their sons and daughters away in order to raise them as their own. Most of the patrollers obliged, but only after executing the youngsters’ mothers in front of their eyes. One witness, José, recalls one terrible incident during his March 6th testimony:

My mom was already dead. So I began walking towards Río Negro, but was intercepted by a patroller… There was still the screaming of women and children and gunshots of the patrollers and soldiers… At 5:00 everything went silent. Everyone [from the PAC] selected their kid to carry to their houses, but one child was not elected… Jesús tried to bring his little brother [Jaime] but a patroller [Pedro Gonzalez Gomez] grabbed him out of his arms and tied a rope around his neck and carried him like that. He then threw him in the ravine against the rocks.

Along the path to Xococ, the children heard PAC members openly bragging about how many women and children they had killed. Meanwhile, the young captives remembered how they were hungry, thirsty, and tired during their forced trek. The young hostages recalled in detail how they did not eat until they arrived early the next morning in Xococ. According to the witnesses there was a meal prepared for all of the combatants, including Commander Solares, at the Catholic Church in Xococ, site of the February 13th massacre.

Adjusting to life in Xococ was extremely difficult for the young children of Río Negro. The kidnapped children were dispersed throughout the village, often living with the murderers of their family members. The children were depressed and had difficulties eating and sleeping due to their trauma and sadness. The Xococ patrollers arbitrarily changed many of their names and often instructed them to call them "mom" and "dad." They weren’t allowed to go to school, and even the youngest were forced to labor in the fields or the house like adults. The Xococ families treated the children cruelly, beating and torturing them at a moments notice. One witness even showed his scars to prove the torture he endured.

While living with their "new" families in Xococ, Río Negro witnesses recalled how the accused and other Xococ patrollers returned to Río Negro shortly after the massacre to carry off "war booty," such as animals, personal possessions, and other things of value. The Xococ PAC members often sold the animals or clothing in nearby markets or gave some of the goods to the military leaders in the Rabinal military detachment. One witness told the court how she was beaten in her Xococ home when she started to cry after seeing her murdered family members’ clothing being carried off to nearby markets.

Younger witnesses remembered how the men often had their wives pack food for them in the early morning so that they could go on "trips." Witnesses remembered the men leaving for such "trips" on the morning of May 14 and September 14, the days of the massacres in nearby Los Encuentros and Agua Fría, where many refugees from Río Negro had fled.

When the men returned from their "trips" they often held meetings in their homes where the Río Negro children lived. Witnesses remember the men congratulating one another on their missions and then communicating with the military commissioners and local army commanders. One witnesses recalled being saddened after one of the accused bragged about decimating the community of Agua Fría. The witness had family members who had taken refuge there. At least 92 civilians were burned in their houses or shot on September 14 in Agua Fría, while on the same day, in the community of Los Encuentros, 79 people were murdered with guns and grenades and dozens more carried away in an army helicopter never to be seen again. Most of the victims were Río Negro residents attempting to escape the violence.

Many witnesses choked down tears as they described their time in Xococ as an absolute nightmare. Many lived for up to four years as virtual slaves in Xococ before being rescued from real family members living in the military colony of Pacux.



View of the Rio Negro Valley

In 1999, the UN sponsored Truth Commission, la Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH), declared that the five massacres of Río Negro residents and the extrajudicial and arbitrary assassinations of residents following the massacres demonstrated the cruel intention of the Guatemalan army to displace or obliterate the community of Río Negro. It further stated that the State’s intention to fully or partially destroy the residents and community of Río Negro was genocide, under Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CEH 1999: Conclusions, Chapter II: pp. 108-123).

The real architects of the repression, the assassinations, the violence, and the massacres of Río Negro and of other indigenous communities have not been charged with any crime. None of the military officials who planned, ordered, or participated in the massacres of Río Negro have had to face any court of law. Captain Solares and his commanders have not been arrested, despite an arrest warrant issued for Solares in April of 2003. According to ADIVIMA, Solares continues to collect his pension check from the Guatemalan military at his house outside of Salamá, Baja Verapaz.

Neither dictator Romeo Lucas Garcia nor Efraín Rios Montt, the architects of the scorched-earth campaigns during the early 1980s that resulted in hundreds of massacres of indigenous Maya communities similar to what took place in Río Negro, have had to give declarations in a court of law, despite two genocide cases against their high commands.

The Guatemalan state has thus far ignored its own culpability and responsibility in the massacres of Río Negro. The State-owned energy company, INDE, responsible for implementing the resettlement of affected residents and of other compensatory agreements, never fulfilled its promises after the written contract and land titles were conveniently stolen from the community during the violence. INDE, since privatized, has essentially ignored its commitment to the people.

Neither the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, nor the dozens of international countries on the board of directors that approved financing the mega project, have had to pay any compensation or face any charges for their complicity in the massacre of innocents.

That’s not to say no justice has been served. Eight indigenous Maya Achí men (the convicted Carlos Chen López died of diabetes), perpetrators of one of the worst massacres during the scorched-earth campaigns of dictators Montt and Garcia, live in their Guatemalan prison cells.

However, the real leaders of the massacre and other massacres throughout the country enjoy the comfort of Guatemalan impunity. Many of the Río Negro victims believe this is because they aren’t indigenous Maya. Jesús Tecu declared in his closing statement on February 19th in the current legal trial: "There is only justice carried out against the indigenous people accused (in Guatemala)…for those who are the material authors of these crimes, there’s nothing."

Thaddeus al Nakba is an international human rights accompanier for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).This article is dedicated to the Río Negro victims and their families, including little Jesusa.

Some of the names of the witnesses were changed due to reasons of security. The testimonies were translated and transcribed to the best of the author’s abilities.