Scorched Earth: The Rio Negro Massacre at Pak’oxom, Guatemala

In 1976, a former President of Guatemala signed the first loan accord with the Inter-American Development Bank for the construction of the Pueblo Viejo-Quixal hydroelectric plant. The project included the “flooding of the Chixoy River basin and much of its valley, forcibly disappear[ing] 23 villages, 45 archaeological sites, numerous crop areas and natural resources.”

Versión en español aquí..

On January 1976, General Kjell Laugerud, former President of Guatemala, signed the first loan accord with the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) for the construction of the Pueblo Viejo-Quixal hydroelectric plant (1977-1983). Such project included the “flooding of the Chixoy River basin and much of its valley. The newly erected reservoir would directly affect and forcibly disappear 23 villages or localities (affecting around 3,445 residents), 45 archaeological sites, numerous crop areas and natural resources.” Known today as the Chixoy Reservoir, the artificial lake measures approximately 50 KM in length and reaches up to 50 meters in depth. (1)
“During the years of the military dictatorships, various administration and management positions in government-run offices were held by military personnel: the main directors of the National Electrification Institute (INDE in Spanish) and Departmental Governor posts are some examples.” The INDE was directly in charge of the construction and management of the Pueblo Viejo-Quixal hydroelectric plant. (2)
The Achi Mayan community of Panima’ (or Rio Negro), in the municipality of Rabinal, was one of the 23 communities directly affected by the creation of the Chixoy Reservoir. Under the INDE’s resettlement plan, Rio Negro would be the first village to move to the model township of Pacux, in the outskirts of the departmental capital city of Rabinal. Nevertheless, the residents of Rio Negro opposed the overall project and forced resettlement, as their opinion was never taken into account. “Due to the local community’s resistance against the plan, the INDE called in the military to make sure the forced resettlement occurred.” (3)“The INDE tried to evict the residents of Rio Negro under highly unfavorable conditions for the local villagers. This conflict, principal worry for local indigenous peoples of Rabinal organized within the Committee for Peasant Union (CUC in Spanish) – among which the entire Rio Negro village was included – was solved via a series of massacres that nearly eradicated the entire village.” (4)

For more information regarding the series of massacres and post-war processes dealing with the Rio Negro case, please read the previous photo-essay from The Chixoy Hydro-electrical Plant and Genocide in Rio Negro.

The Massacre at Pak’oxom

“We never thought they would massacre the women and children. Never!” (5)

“On March 13, 1982, around six in the morning, 12 members of the army along with 15 Civil Auto-Defense Patrolmen (PAC) from Xococ, arrived at the community of Rio Negro. House by house they asked for the men, but they were hiding in the woods due to fear of being rounded and killed [as many had been a month earlier]. The intruders gathered and forced the population to walk three kilometers uphill. Once at the Pacoxom peak… they proceeded to torture and kill the unarmed victims. Some were hung from the trees, others killed with machetes, while the rest were shot… The testimonies coincide in the number of victims: 177 people (70 women and 107 children), all civil and unarmed community members of Rio Negro.” (6)
Twenty-seven years after the massacre, Rio Negro survivors and current residents, family members and others in solidarity, came together to commemorate the tragedy and mourn the victims at the top of Pak’oxom peak.
The long and difficult walk resembled the one forcibly made by the 177 victims nearly three decades earlier.
Catholic believers in attendance emulated a Via Crucis during their ascent to Pak’oxom, stopping in key points where some victims had been tortured, murdered, or even where a few survivors managed to hide and escape.

Carlos Chen Osorio, who lost his wife and two toddler daughters in the massacre, leads the row during the Via Crucis. Originally from Rio Negro, Chen Osorio is co-founder of the Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of the Violence Maya Achi (ADIVIMA), as well as director and main negotiator for the Coordination of Affected Communities by the Chixoy Hydro-electric Plant (COCAHICH).

Sunset from Pak’oxom.
“The term ‘massacre’ derives from the French word for “mass killing”. Nevertheless, in Latin America, it acquires a political connotation as it denotes premeditation, advantageous circumstances and excess in cruelty with which the mass murders are carried out… The terms massacre or mass killing are both included within the concept of genocide, which is itself defined as a ‘massive annihilation, partial or total, of a national, ethnic or religious group.'” (7)

“Beginning halfway through 1981 and throughout 1982, the Guatemalan Army carried out numerous military operations… The objective of these was to eradicate the guerrilla army’s support base in the rural area, which was made up mostly of civilians. Within this context we cite a famous quote from former Chinese Prime Minister Mao Zedong: ‘take away the water from the fish’. Such metaphor implies that the guerrilla forces needed the civilian population just like fish need water… Within this logic, the Guatemalan Army carried out in Rabinal numerous collective killings against a mostly indigenous and unarmed civil population so as to indirectly eliminate the guerrillas.” (8)

“During the many years of State-induced violence, a turning point occurred when the distinction between selective repression against community leaders or particular individual and general violence against the entire civilian population was no longer made. Right before this transitional period, men would usually no longer live in their communities. They would hide or camp in nearby forests while women and children remained at home in the villages.” (9)

“This second wave of massive scale repression, when numerous massacres occurred, was carried out with complete disregard for any form of life in the communities. The large majority of victims were women, children and senior citizens. In addition, local people were not only massacred, but all trace of life was completely destroyed as goods and animals were stolen and homes were burned down. In this manner, possible survivors had no place to return and were forced to flee and hide in the forest or mountainsides [for months or years at a time].” (10)
“This type of strategy is what has come to be known as the Scorched Earth Policy and was a central part of the ‘Ceniza 81‘ [Ash 81] and ‘Victoria 82‘ [Victory 82] military campaigns. Some examples include the massacres of Rio Negro at Pak’oxom, Agua Fria, Los Encuentros, Plan de Sanchez, Rancho Bejuco, Xococ, and numerous more mass killings carried out against the civilian population in hiding.” (11)
“In Rio Negro, the conflicts between the local civilian population and the INDE were the focal problem in a series of events; a sort of detonator which was used to accuse the entire village of being part of the guerrilla forces and therefore legitimizing the massacres… However, none of these facts justify, neither legally nor morally, such atrocious violations of human rights and, much less, them being massacred.” (12)
“The blood from those fallen demands punishment for the assassins. The sun can not be blocked with just one finger.”
Julian Sanchez Chen (right), a Rio Negro survivor, retells his testimony to a group of students from the Nueva Esperanza School in Rabinal (founded by Jesus Tecu Osorio, a survivor from the Pak’oxom massacre). Mr. Sanchez Chen, who lost his wife and two daughters at Pak’oxom, came back to Rio Negro so as to reestablish the community along with his cousin Sebastian Iboy Osorio and Mario Chen Rojas on May 18th, 1991. For nearly a decade (1982-1991), the village of Rio Negro was wiped out of the map.
“We can’t live in Rabinal – some get used to life there, others don’t. Those of us who cannot find a way to live there have come back to our birthplace. We want to live like our parents and forefathers taught us. In Rabinal we must pay electricity and water (which hardly ever works anyhow). We can’t take firewood from the forest either because there is no communal land. Landholders accuse us of being thieves when we take some branches for firewood. That is why we came back. We never got used to living in the Pacux settlement that the INDE set up for us. The land plots in Pacux are too small, unlike the ones we had here in Rio Negro.” (13)
Recently, in Pacux, the phenomenon of youth gangs, or maras, has increased in alarming rates. Sanchez Chen explains: “The maras are developing in Pacux due in part to the economic necessities of the residents, but also because many youth grew up as orphans due to the war-time violence. No one taught them how to earn a living or go through life. In town they learn bad things and so they join the maras.” A wave of gang-related murders has caused an exodus from the urban area of Rabinal towards more rural areas.

Monsignor Rodolfo Valenzuela (left), Archbishop of the Verapaces, and Father Timoteo from Rabinal, accompanied the commemoration all through March 13th. The morning of the 14th, before heading downhill towards the village, they offered a catholic mass inside the mass grave where over 150 human remains were exhumed.

The Rio Negro Community in 2009

Today, the rural hamlet of Panima’ (or Rio Negro) is made up of 13 families who reside in a much higher ground than the original settlement, as this latter one is now under water. Life is hard due to the arid climate and the community’s isolation. There are no roads and only two ways to get there. By foot, the town of Rabinal is 8 hours away. Yet one can also arrive by ways of a 6 KM boat ride from the Pueblo Viejo dam. The high cost of fuel, however, is extremely high for the residents of Rio Negro as most of them live mostly only from subsistence farming.
Agricultural products grown for subsistence consumption include corn, beans, chili peppers, tomatoes, and traditional herbs such as macuy and chipilin. Red meat is extremely rare, but locals do consume fish and chicken occasionally. All other basic products such as salt, sugar, coffee, onions, soap and clothing must be brought from Rabinal. Hence, the locals organize joint visits to the departmental capital once a month or if lucky, every two weeks.

“We are not blind, so we won’t ask for things for free. But we do want the INDE to stand by its original stance and fulfill the promises it made decades ago. For some time now they have been benefiting from their hydroelectric construction. Before they offered us good homes; all we have today are flimsy board structures as our shelter. We are asking them for reparations as well as completely new living structures. After the violence they have never come back to check on us.” (14)

“I use the metaphor of a tree to describe what happened to us. We were like a solid tree that was well planted when the INDE unearthed us by force from our place of birth and transplanted us somewhere else. They took us out of Rio Negro and planted us in Pacux, Rabinal. Over there, our roots never really grounded themselves. And now they want to pull us out of Rabinal and send us to Alta Verapaz [where a possible land lot is being proposed as part of a reparations package]. Why don’t the government and the INDE really think about such issues? We want the INDE to come make our homes here, in Rio Negro, where they truly caused us harm.” (15)
The Rio Negro Ruj Ib’ooy Historic and Educational Center

Thanks to the financial and technical help from the German Cooperation Agency, the Rio Negro Historic and Educational Center has been built in the community.
The center, managed by and for the community, provides top-level infrastructure and technology for workshops and conferences, audiovisual material and literature related to the history of the place, cultural, historic and ecological trails, as well as guided excursions as requested by the visitors.

A memorial hall commemorates Rio Negro’s victims during the period recalled as La Violencia (The Violence) in the 1980’s.

The center also offers overnight accommodations for large groups and individuals. A full-equipped kitchen and several bathrooms are also available. Solar panels provide electricity since, ironically but predictably, the community has no electric wiring available. The surroundings are also perfect for camping and two tents can be borrowed from the center.
Julian Sanchez Chen summarizes the community’s collective feelings: “Thank God for foreigners and outsiders who have helped us with the Educational Center, the speedboat, with the school, because the Guatemalan Government has not given us anything, not even a development project… We hope that little by little the community will grow back to be as large as it once was before la violencia.”

For more information on the Rio Negro Historic and Educational Center: /
+ (502) 5357-8506, 7938-8721

Having not learned from policies doomed to failure, the INDE still focuses on permanently displacing and damaging mostly indigenous communities in favor of large-scale hydroelectric projects. Two clear examples are the planned Usumacinta set of dams (in the border with Mexico) and the Xalala project. This latter one, along the same Chixoy River but in the Ixcan region, will directly affect 17 communities that have already expressed their unanimous discord via a community consultation (or plebiscite) on April 2007. (16)

For detailed information on the impact and current state of hydroelectric plants in Guatemala, please read the following edition of El Observador (in Spanish only).

For more information on ADIVIMA and COCAHICH:
English: Heidi McKinnon,
Spanish: Carlos Chen,
Juan de Dios García,

1 Martínez, Horacio. “La cuenca media del río Chixoy: Dos décadas después”. In XVI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2002 (edited by J.P. Laporte, B. Arroyo, H. Escobedo & H. Mejía. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. P. 844.
2 Equipo de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (EAFG). Las Masacres en Rabinal: Estudio Histórico Antropológico de las Masacres de Plan de Sánchez, Chichupac y Río Negro. Guatemala, 1997. P. 91.
3 Ibid. P. 101.
4 Fernandez, J.M. El Comité de Unidad Campesina: Origen y Desarrollo. Book 2, CERCA, Guatemala, 1988. P. 29.
5 Oj K’aslik / Estamos Vivos: Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica de Rabinal (1944-1996). Published by Museo Comunitario Rabinal Achi. Rabinal, Guatemala. Julio 2003. P. 162.
6 Informe de la Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH). Anexo I: Casos Ilustrativos, Tomo I. Caso Ilustrativo No. 10: “Masacre y eliminación de la comunidad de Río Negro”. PP. 49-50.
7 Op. Cit. EAFG. P. 170-1.
8 Op. Cit. Oj K’aslik. PP. 160-1.
9 Ibid. PP. 162-3.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Op. Cit. EAFG. P. 232
13 Interview with Julián Sánchez Chen. March 14th, 2009, in Pak’oxom, Río Negro, Rabinal, Guatemala.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 El Observador. Año 3, No. 16. Diciembre 2008/Enero 2009. Guatemala.