Violence in Guatemala: through the eyes of the Río Negro massacres

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It would be easy to just speak of the one massacre. Or even to add the several related ones in the region of the Chixoy dam. An event or events that are divorced from historical context, that took place in a vacuum, like a snapshot or a waxwork diorama on view. But that would be cheating the victims and the people of Guatemala. From those deaths one can see a much larger story. One that should be told.

This isn't just about almost two hundred indigenous Maya (almost all women and children) who were brutally massacred by soldiers and a civil patrol (PAC, paramilitary groups organized to support the military and provide intelligence), it's about a nation that has lost well over 200,000 people (many of whom "disappeared" and were never seen again). It's also about how it got to that day of 13 March 1982 (what is usually referred to as the Río Negro massacre).

And 4 March 1980. And a day in July 1980. And 13 February 1982. And 14 May 1982. And 13 September 1982. 200,000 people in 34 years. This is a country that in 2000 had around 12.6 million people, total. A country a little less than half the size of the United Kingdom (or a little bit bigger than Iceland). How does a country go from being a fledgling democracy to the massacres at Río Negro (among others)?

Usurping Democracy
In the first half of the twentieth century, Guatemala was ruled by oppressive dictators who allowed American corporations, most importantly the United Fruit Company (UFCO), to basically control the economy and build (also own) the infrastructure. This was good for UFCO and good for the United States, which in turn was good for whichever dictator was in power. It was, however, not good for the people of Guatemala who had little land to sustain themselves and those that worked for El Pulpo ("The Octopus," as UFCO was known by the people of Central America for its hold on land and economy) were little more than slaves—or at least serfs in a feudal society (without the protections granted by the feudal lord). If it matters, the workers were generally treated worse by native Guatemalan plantation owners.

In late 1944, the people rebelled against the current dictator and established democracy for the first time in their country. A popularly elected democracy. Many reforms took place: education, public works, allowing labor organization. Sincere attempts were made to better the lives of the Guatemalan people. This was good for the people. This was not good for UFCO and not for the US (as it viewed things).

The biggest problem was land reform. UFCO had thousands of acres of the best land in the country under its control (a good deal of the remaining land belonged to the wealthy elite of the country, also out of reach for the vast majority of the population). In fact, a large amount of the land was left uncultivated and fallow (87%). As part of governmental reforms, the land was to be parceled out to the people who needed it.

Obviously UFCO was upset. It was also outraged at the amount they were compensated for the land—lands weren't simply appropriated, compensation was first given (and only fallow land was redistributed). The compensation was based on the company's own assessment of the land's value for tax purposes—in other words, UFCO deliberately undervalued the land in order to escape taxation penalties, then balked when they received what they officially said the acreage was worth.

UFCO's ire was the main reason that democracy in Guatemala was short-lived. Not the only one, though. Like a real democracy, Guatemala allowed any political group to be able to represent the people in the government if elected—this means there were a few communists in the government. They had little power and influence but their mere presence upset the communist Cold War paranoia the US had.

On the other hand, this fear was also largely used as a pretext to depose the democratic government and install one sympathetic and willing to play ball with the US (UFCO and other US interests). One example (besides a number of invented stories concocted by the CIA and the State Department) was the way the US blocked the sale of arms from Western nations for the country's army. This meant Guatemala had no recourse but to look elsewhere to supply itself—about the only source being communist countries. This, of course, proves that the country was nothing but a Soviet puppet, contended the US.

In 1954, a coup/invasion was attempted, aided by weapons from the US and planes (piloted by Americans) that ran bombing and propaganda pamphlet runs over the capital and other parts of the country. With the help of the US (which also supplied most of the financing) and the CIA (which mostly planned it), the rebels took the country and installed (with the help of the US—in order to make sure the "right" kind of leader was in place) a new dictatorship which, of course, was once again good for UFCO and the US.

Civil War
In typical US-Latin American fashion, the repressive dictatorship was supported by its creator and it was supportive of US "interests." UFCO was back to where it once was and oil and wood resources that had been denied to the US under the democracy, were once again opened up. Economic aid that had been stopped was reinstated, including money from the US dominated World Bank. Many of the insurgents that took part in the US organized Bay of Pigs invasion trained in Guatemala.

As commonly happens under repressive right-wing regimes, a leftist guerilla movement arose in response, which began a 34 year civil war (1962 to 1996) during which 200,000 people died—the majority unarmed noncombatants (disproportionally made up of the indigenous Indian population). The US heavily supported the regime(s) and its counterinsurgency measures. Training, arms, and actual participation was given—Green Berets leading expeditions and American pilots taking part in dropping napalm early on.

Between 1970 and 1973, an estimated 15,000 people died due to political violence. The counterinsurgency (so-called "internal security") operations continued and increased into the 1970s (the 1970s and early 1980s saw the worst the fighting), one dictator proclaiming his willingness to "turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it" ( While US participation was probably discontinued by then, economic and military aid continued. Other important aid coming from the World Bank (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and the Inter-American Development Bank.

World Bank and the Energy Crisis
One of the chief means of giving indirect aid to Guatemala to prop up whichever current dictator was in power, was (is) through the World Bank (this, of course in addition to other economic and military aid). Because the US has the most voting "stock," it is able to guide policy of the Bank. Having a permanent place among the Executive Directors—who choose the president, who has unsurprisingly been from the United States time and time again—as well a location near Washington, D.C. (making it easily accessible to lobbyists and US policymakers), all help it being used as an instrument or adjunct for the implementation of US foreign policy.

The list of corrupt and/or repressive (often violently so) regimes that have received significant aid is surprising: General Augusto Pinochet (Chile), Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire), General Sani Abacha (Nigeria), Suharto (Indonesia), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines)—a list almost as impressive as the leaders' combined body count. Aid was freely given to countries whose leaders, almost regardless of behavior, supported and facilitated US interests. Often those that didn't, had aid withheld, sometimes with strict conditions and demands (Guatemala under democracy and Grenada, for example). Much of the aid never trickled down to the people who were supposed to be helped and often ruined the economy in the long-term. Of course, this was good for the dictators (especially when part of the money found its way into their pockets, as was the case in Guatemala). It was bad for the people.

As early as the 1960s, the World Bank was assisting Guatemala in its energy concerns. It had concluded after extensive research and survey that it was imperative for Guatemala to get a reliable source of electric power (as a means to increase economic growth and the assumed increase in standard of life—whether much of it would reach the people is debatable). As a result, loans totaling $22 million were given to build two small hydroelectric dams in the latter part of the decade. Because of various reasons (technical and financial) they were inadequate to meet the needs of the country, beginning an energy crisis by the beginning of the 1970s.

Because the majority of Guatemala's electric needs came from geothermal plants (underutilized) and, especially, diesel fuel, large amounts of imported oil were necessary to meet demand (spending about 60% of its export earnings). By the mid-1970s, there were availability problems, making the crisis even more serious.

So the Chixoy Project was developed in 1972. The crisis had not reached its worst at the time, but it was clear the direction the country's energy problems were headed. In 1976, a 111 hour blackout affected the entire country. The rest of that year and into the next, availability of power was often nonexistent in places. 1977 saw extensive blackouts through the first quarter of the year. The importance of the project could not be underestimated.

Damming the Chixoy
The plan was to dam the Río Chixoy, the first stage being to create a large reservoir (49.8 km long and 0.6 km wide/31 miles by 1 mile) in the Chixoy valley. It was claimed the project would result in a significant increase in electricity (an early study for the proposed four dam project estimated triple the current amount). It was also felt that the high cost of the project—initially $270 million—would be quickly offset by the expected savings and production (supposedly some $340 million by 1990).

Unfortunately, it wasn't going to work that way. Mismanagement, poor planning, unforeseen geological difficulties (perhaps ones that should have been foreseen), and unexpected obstacles (an earthquake in 1976 that delayed work and necessitated a significant strengthening of the dam to withstand any future quakes) all extended the time required and caused the cost to skyrocket (the current estimate for the project exceeds $1 billion dollars with some estimates more than twice that). That funds were "misappropriated" by those involved almost goes without saying.

In fact, it has been a massive failure in most ways. The basin is filling with sediment, making many believe the dam's usefulness will only last about twenty years. The impact on the economy is significant, as well: in 1991, about 45% of the country's foreign debt came from the project and in 1995, over half of the electric company's revenue went to pay off foreign debt incurred by the dam. Structural maintenance costs $8 million a year and the country still has to purchase oil at $150 million a year. The dam does not produce enough electricity (only 30% of the population have electricity)

But the dam also had other reasons that had little to do with Guatemala's national needs. It was part of an economic development plan that would benefit one area where a number of the Generals/government officials (including then president, General Fernando Romeo Lucas García and his brother General Manuel Benedicto Lucas García) owned property. Men who would personally benefit. Land that would be more desirable and worth more with few or none of the country's poor around. In 1983, anthropologist Shelton H. Davis testified before Congress that

it appears as if hydroelectric development in Guatemala was related to the modernization of the Guatemala Army and its concern to turn the northern lowlands into a vast cattle ranching, petroleum, mining, and timber frontier.... By carrying out this frontier-development program, with international assistance, the Guatemalan Army hoped to consolidate its own political and economic power (qtd.

Further, the dean of the School of Civil Engineering at Guatemala's San Carlos University stated that "the dam was the biggest gold mine the crooked generals ever had" (www.damsreport,org). Again, good for them. Not for the people.

Interestingly, the World bank was aware that the early projections were overly optimistic and that the Guatemala Instituto Nacional de Electrificación (INDE) was disorganized and mismanaged and that there were "unfavorable geological conditions" ( This did not stop them from green lighting the project or from beginning the many loans. This brings up the charges often leveled at the World Bank, accusing it of letting poor countries get into an almost perpetual dependence and debt. The second part of the charge being that it also functions as a means of controlling ("foreign policy" again) other countries. Whether the assessment is accurate is outside of the scope here, but it is intriguing.

Damning the Maya
Of course there was another obstacle to getting the dam built and that was the people who lived in the Chixoy basin. The basin was home to the Maya Achí and had been for hundreds of years, leaving a traditional Indian culture of farmers. The fertile area around the Río Chixoy allowed them to survive by harvests of fruit, corn (maize), beans, and tomatoes, among others. Some livestock were also raised and fishing was another source of food. Additional money or goods could be had through the manufacture of handmade fabrics and crafts which could be sold or traded (along with other agricultural products) at markets elsewhere. Work could also be had by working as seasonal laborers on cotton, sugar, or coffee plantations. As one former resident of the area explained:

life was hard, but it was good. The people were content. Everyone lived nearby, we all knew each other, and we lived peacefully. But when they began the construction, many strangers came to our communities. The army arrived, the guerrillas arrived, and then the violence started (

The people were largely self-sufficient as they had been for centuries. This was partly necessitated because of the relative remoteness of the population (the Rabinal municipality). There were no roads (prior to dam construction) and the nearest "major" market town (Rabinal) was an eight hour walk through the mountains. There were some 463 families (about 1500 people) who were "officially recognised" as ones who be affected by the dam in 1976 (this was low estimate). A more accurate number is over 3400 people (and this could be a bit low).

The largest community was Río Negro which had 791 people according to an INDE census in 1977. It was also the strongest traditional culture of the villages in the basin. There was a strong bond with the land and the traditional homeland. The graves of ancestors were there and religious sites. This was a problem for the Guatemalan government. And bad for the Maya.

Despite being an obstacle, there was little thought put into what to do with the indigenous population. According to an early study, "attachment shown by the involved communities to their region and land" was a "resettlement problem" ( A feasibility study was even more dismissive: "the population in the zone is mainly the area of the study there is almost no population, most of the population in this area live in the higher parts of nearby mountains" ( This was either grossly incompetent (unlikely) or a deliberate falsehood, as the majority of the people lived near the river.

It wasn't until a year after the decision to build the dam that the people were even notified that the land that generations of their people had lived, worked, and died on would cease to exist, disappearing under the waters of the dam's reservoir. And they would all have to relocate. The people had had zero input into the decision, of course. They were justifiably outraged at the announcement but realized there was no way to fight back, so they chose to try to negotiate.

Broken Promises and Deceit
The INDE suggested two different villages for relocation. Each was rejected as being "too hot and too far away" ( At least one of the areas had little fertile land and poor access to water. The idea was to relocate all residents of the region to those places, despite some differing ethnicity and conflict between the groups. It again shows little real concern for the victims of displacement. A third site was agreed upon (Pacux, near Rabinal) with certain conditions:

  1. cement block houses with duralite roofs
  2. potable water and free electricity
  3. five acres of fertile land for each family
  4. a community truck
  5. compensation for crops and orchards lost in the flooding
  6. a church, schools, a health center and access roads
  7. a boat
  8. social services (

Residents were led to believe they were getting a fair deal, despite the heartbreak of leaving one's ancestral home. Construction at Pacux began in 1978 and the first groups (of those who agreed to resettle) were transported there in 1980. It was far different from they had hoped and nothing like Río Negro. It was poorly planned, there was little land, and the homes were small. People who had lived a rural existence all their lives, going back hundreds of years were being forced into an urban environment. One community leader described the response

You have to understand that the people were upset by the construction of the houses and layout of the community. Seeing Pacux that day was difficult for a rural people who felt such a strong bond to their land in Río Negro. They were getting swindled, and they knew it (

Feeling cheated and betrayed, it effectively ended the negotiations.

Meanwhile there were other problems for the Maya. A French archaeological group—contracted through the INDE—had been excavating ruins in the area around Río Negro and the basin, looking for artifacts. Though some Maya were employed as laborers for them, the majority resented the digging up of land and history—land on which they currently lived and communally owned. Taking items that held resonance for them, of importance culturally and religiously, and creating a sense of having their homeland violated by foreigners.

After two years, Río Negro stopped them from digging near their village. In turn, Indians were accused of stealing artifacts. It may have been true, though the Maya felt that the archaeologists (who had not been invited by them, anyway) had no right to take anything: "How can we steal what is already ours?" (

Also at that time, INDE was found to be taking tons of gravel, rocks, and sand from land shared by the people of the basin and trucking it to where the dam was being built. There had been no permission asked or granted, the INDE simply took what it felt it was entitled to. The residents of Río Negro were angered, but negotiated to allow the sale of material from its section of the land for $12,000.

The money was distributed among the people of the village but unevenly, which brought more problems, as at least one person who felt slighted went to the neighboring village of Xococ and told them that Río Negro had sold the rights of all the land to the INDE. This outraged the residents of Xococ, who began denouncing Rio Negro as communists/guerillas (on just how significant such a charge was, see the opening sections of part two). The army was informed of their "subversive" tendencies and the INDE began denouncing them as guerillas and calling for action.

Not long after, the INDE got the people of Río Negro to turn over their land titles. The people were assured that they would be returned. After a few months, the people demanded them to be returned as promised, only to be informed by the INDE that the titles had never been received and the location of them was unknown. This basically robbed them of almost any claim they had to land, in a "legal" sense.

It was 1980 and the massacres would soon begin.

Part two: Rio Negro massacres: the killings
Part three: Rio Negro massacres: responsibility

Early history, general information: Bitter Fruit: the Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (1982, 1983, 1990; 1999 expanded edition) Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen, Kinzer,,,;
Report on violence in Guatemala and information on the Kaibiles: hrdata/aaas.rg/ceh/report/english/toc.html,;
Chixoy Project and the massacres:,,;
State Department and CIA documents:

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