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

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The Río Negro massacres are not extraordinary events in the history of Guatemala during the last third of the twentieth century. In fact, they are representitive of a longtime pattern of behavior and policy on the part of the State. Power and violence wielded with arrogant and cynical impunity. Actions for which the State had no reason to believe would carry any consequences. Sociopathy on a grand scale.

At the cost of a nation, civil and human rights were ignored and trampled, poverty and malnutrition became widespread, terror made commonplace, and the lives of an estimated 200,000 people extinguished. Mostly using the civil war (1962 to 1996) against guerilla insurgency as pretext for establishing, maintaining, and expanding power by the ruling (mostly military) elite.

"Internal security" and "counterinsurgency" were newspeak for exercising terror over the population, particularly the country's powerless Indian (majority) population. The government was well aware that the insurgents posed no serious threat to the well funded, trained, and armed Guatemalan military, the police and treasury forces (primarily functioning in urban areas), and the government-organized and sponsored PACs (Civil Defense Patrols)—local residents, armed, indoctrinated and set loose to carry out government policy, much as they saw fit.

As the violence did not begin or end with the massacres (and continues to some extent, though hardly at the levels of the early 1980s), the story of what happened in the Chixoy River region has both a past (already discussed) and a future following the massacres and relocation.

Avoiding blame
Despite the clear failure of both the dam and the resettlement, both the World Bank (which provided over $72 million—which would climb over the years—in early financing) and the INDE (Instituto Nacional de Electrificación, State Electricity Institute—which was in charge of construction and resettlement) refuse to fuly admit to it.

In 1991, the World Bank issued a statement saying (with an apparently straight face) that "there is insufficient data available to document whether the project achieved its resettlement objective," though admitting it was unsatisfactory. It also followed the great tradition of passing the buck by stating that the problems with resettlement "reflected the lack of commitment by management and the take care of those displaced by the project" (

What of the World bank's intentions for the subjects of the relocation? According to public statements "the fundamental goal of the Bank's [resettlement] policy is to restore the living standards and earning capacities of displaced people and when possible, to improve them" (, a "fundamental goal" that has not been lived up to.

The INDE's assessment of the results? The "affected population experienced an increase in well-being, in health, education, housing, food, etc." It would be news to them. Then it begins passing off blame on "social, cultural and economic factors," "[considering] it impossible to satisfy the most elemental and vital subsistance needs" ( Interesting contradiction.

It's anyone else's fault, not unlike the government's contention that the massacres were a result of the insurgents—the World bank seems to have agreed, blaming it on "internal problems" (

Río Negro II
Fed up with the broken promises and living conditions of Pacux, some families left and started a new Río Negro in 1991. Some had begun to reenter the area as early as 1989, but found the government demanded they have permits to fish or even to stay in the area for long. Their numbers remain small, but have found a life on their own terms (as best as they can manage under the circumstances).

They are far from markets (four hours on foot) and medical care (six hours) and the reservoir requires different fishing methods than they once used, making it necessary to purchase new equipment—something few can afford. It didn't receive electricity until May 1999 (from privately-donated solar panels—not the dam—parts of which will need to be replaced in five years) and only in 1998 did they get roofs for their houses and a school (again only with outside help).

How fortunate that their "living standards and earning capacities" have been restored.

Another reason the government's State-run terror was so supremely effective was that victims had no recourse to address violations of their rights and violence perpetrated against them. To whom could they turn? The PACs? The army? The police and treasury forces? Even the accusations that rarely went to trial would invariably come to nothing as the government's agents were able to act with impunity, answering to no one but themselves and the policies of the State. Further, victims would often be visited by the various armed forces to be reminded what happened (though the official story of those who had died or "disappeared" was that they had gone to join the insurgents or left to live in the US).

It wasn't until almost ten years after the massacres that people started speaking out. Some of the survivors (ones who had been taken away as children and treated as slaves) began gathering and organizing. In 1993, the Río Negro Widows and Orphans Committee was founded by survivors (later the Rabinal Widows and Orphans Committee). Strength and resolve grew with numbers and they began to courageously share their stories. Between 1994 and 1995 filed 27 requests for exhumations of mass graves from the Public Ministry.

In 1993, the first forensic studies of mass graves began. About 50 excavations were done by 2000—still only a small number of the many dump sites and what the Comisión de Esclarecimiento Historico's (CEH, Commission for Historical Clarification) refers to as "clandestine and hidden cemeteries" ( in its report on violence in Guatemala. There are estimated to be 60 sites in the Rabinal municipality, alone. For more persepctive, it is estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 were killed in Rabinal over the period of violence (including the 376 from Río Negro).

One hundred forty-three bodies had been identified by 1994 from only three sites. It was determined that at least 85 were children, at least three aged only six months. One had been shot in the head, the others had their ribs crushed in. Similar acts had occurred to other children. There were toys found at the sites. Four women were found to be pregnant at the time of death. many victims were patially or fully naked when they were dumped, often subsequently burned.

Also in 1994, three members of the Xococ PAC (who were responsible for the majority of deaths in the massacres) were caught moving remains from a site being excavated to one that was not. They were held for disturbing a crime scene, later charged with "murder, aggravated theft and illegal possession of arms" (Amnesty International). Soon survivors began to receive death threats and a monument to the victims was knocked over (neither were investigated).

The men claimed to be safe from prosecution due to a 1986 amnesty agreement that had been passed four days before the country reverted to civil rule (as opposed to military). The Human Rights Procurator classified three of the Rabinal massacres as crimes against humanity for which there would be no amnesty or pardon. In 1997, the Constitutional Court rejected the claim.

More harassment and threats were levelled at the survivors as the 1998 trial loomed closer (again, left uninvestigated). The prosecution did not allow protection for witnesses (even at the request of four US Senators). At the end of the trial, the three were convicted for the murders of three of the victims (women whose pregnancies made it possible to identify them) and sentenced to death. They were cleared of other charges. Some of the witnesses were then charged with giving false evidence. Within a few days, someone shot and wounded the seven year old son of one of the group's leaders.

They later appealed and in 1999 the conviction and sentence were set aside, the court citing "insufficient evidence." The government claimed that PACs did not exist until 1986 (they were formally recognized at the time) and the court accepted it, despite the crimes they had been convicted of had originally been admitted to when they believed they were eligible for amnesty. An appeal by the prosecution got the conviction reinstated, this time with a 50 year prison sentence.

Other PAC members harassed the court and the witnesses, a judge was taken hostage by relatives of the men—none were prosecuted, and no one else was held responsible for the massacres.

Other questions of responsibility

The government of Guatemala and its military and paramilitary forces are certainly culpable in the events that took place in the Chixoy basin (as well as elsewhere). But are there others who have direct or indirect responsibility? It appears so.

The INDE, a nonmilitary part of the government, is hardly as innocent as it would like to appear. Many of the survivors have testified to the INDE's knowledge of the violence going on. Additional testimony has been collected from members of the construction team and other observers, including clergy. There was next to no violence in the region prior to the arrival of the INDE and the construction of the dam. Correllation does not equal causation, but it supports the claims that the INDE was fully aware and very likely complicit in the violence. Whether it actually encouraged it, a charge that exists, is not as easily demonstrated—though, as an arm of the State, it was carrying out policy.

A reporter who investigated nonpayment of resettlement agreements, believes the INDE was more than merely complicit:

In most cases, the monies were never paid. It was all a big scam. All of the officials involved in the project, from the little guys to the big shots, were robbing it blind. The violence facilitated the corruption. The whole area was under siege. One of the heads of security at the project was responsible for orchestrating a lot of the bloodshed. His brother was a high ranking army officer right here in Cobán at the time. There's no doubt that INDE encouraged—and benefited from—the massacres (

From one who worked on the construction of the dam:

Of course INDE knew about and condoned what was happening in Río Negro, because they stood to gain from it! The violence minimized or eliminated the problem of cash payments. Dead or terrorized campesinos aren't going to demand their rights. The generals and the politicians and the INDE people, they pocketed all those cash payments. Everybody knew about the corruption and the violence, but we were all too terrified to say anything (

One should recall the claim that the the soldiers who participated in the May 1982 massacre had stopped and borrowed a truck from the INDE on the way to the killings.

World Bank
The World Bank also has continued to deny knowledge beyond admission that some violence took place. As noted, it claims the massacres to be a result of the insurgency. According to observers and residents of the region, that is a falsehood. As with the charges against the INDE, the same witnesses, clergy, workers, and the journalist all claim that "everyone who worked on the project and virtually everyone in the region knew about the violence associated with the project, particularly the violence at Río Negro" ( Its own documents show that it had personnel in a supervisory capacity at the site for up to four months of each year between 1979 and 1991. This, of course, includes 1980 to 1982, the worst years of violence in the area. Maintaining ignorance seems untenable.

A 1991 internal document has a World Bank senior sociologist stating that "the turmoil surrounding resettlement in Guatemala's Chixoy dam project eventually became so severe that the entire area was declared a national disaster zone" ( Despite that apparent admission of the situation, the massacres are virtually absent from their papers and reports—something that would seem to be expected in the case of actual guerilla violence.

Further, it only makes sense that the "guerillas" would target the dam and the construction rather than the Indians who were opposing the vast government project. Unless the guerillas were working to help the government. But things that stand to reason seem to be ignored in this case.

Violence does get mentioned in reports and papers—the deaths of two resettlement workers. Apparently they are considered "worthy victims," while the 4,000 to 5,000 who died in the Rabinal district are not. Perhaps because, unlike the two deaths and claimed "insugency activity," the massacres didn't hold up construction of the dam. Throughout the period, the bank continued to support the project, including an additional loan of $44,6 million just three years after the massacres.

Either the World bank is incompetantly naive or guilty of indirectly facilitating the violence and possinbly covering up the atrocities. Admission is not forthcoming.

US government
The US gave massive aid to Guatemala during most of the period of the civil war. Any question of culpability should stand on whether the US was aware of what was going on in Guatemala at the time. Documentation shows this to be the case, as a look at declassified papers demonstrates.

In a Department of State secret intelligence note from October 1967 ("Guatemala: A Counter-Insurgency Running Wild?"), it notes that while the operations have been "successful," using both overt and covert methods, the methods "particularly on the covert side, have resembled those of the guerillas themselves: kidnappings, torture, and summary executions." The president has "evidently [given] the security forces a carte blanche in the field of internal security in exchange for military support" and may "wish to reconsider" because "military use of extralegal tactics is creating considerable unease" and threatens to destabilize him and the country and "eventually create conditions propitious for a coup" (a topic the US is well versed on).

After listing 637 deaths due to "terrorist incidents" between December 1966 and September 1967 (with "disappearances," the military total is estimated at about twice that), it notes that while many are attributable to "leftist insurgents," a "large number resulted from overzealous clandestine counter-insurgent activities by security forces and their associates" and that "in recent weeks most of the incidents reported appeared to fall into the latter category."

It discusses counter-insurgency groups acting "against an alarmingly broad range of Guatemalans of all social sectors and political persuasions" and people put on "target lists." It reports the President of Congress "privately said that all PR deputies have received threats" (all emphases in original documents) and there were allegations of planned assassinations against four members of congress. Much of the concern is with the president's ability to maintain power and order with the "accumulating evidence that the counter-insurgency machine is out of control."

The following year, a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council wrote a scathing memorandum to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs ("Guatemala and Counter-terror"). Calling it a "serious problem," he begins his condemnation of the policy saying "the counter-terror is indiscriminate, and we cannot rationalize that fact away" ("is" may have an additional underline, the image is unclear).

Labor leaders are "kidnapped and beaten," paramilitary groups operate in "war-lord fashion," "people are killed or disappear on the basis of simple accusations." He finds that the violence of "right-wing vigilantes and sheer criminality made possible by the atmosphere must also be laid at the door of the conceptual tactic of counter-terror." In fact, the "Communist issue is blurred"—supposedly the heart of the counterinsurgency program.

"Official squads" are accused of "atrocities," "interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated." This has also led to an "image problem" with people in Latin America associating the US with the repressive violence of dictatorial regimes. It is also found to be "disturbing" that

We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of counter-insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness. This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists. ["all right" misspelled in original]

He questions whether our "values" have become "so twisted by our adversary concept of politics in the hemisphere" and whether that "obsession" had left us "prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counter-insurgency weapon." He sees from his experience there that the government thinks the US unopposed to the tactics and the people believe the same. Stated clearly, he says that "counter-terror is, in short, very wrong—morally, ethically, politically from the standpoint of Guatemala's own interest and practically from our own foreign policy point of view."

Suggestions to counter this, are for the US to make clear that it opposes counter-terror (not necessarily counter-insurgency, which he distinguishes from counter-terror) both to the government and the people of Guatemala. He also feels, even more "importantly," that the US should "devise policies, aid, and suggestions that can make counter-terror unnecessary."

His conclusion is that if "the U.S. cannot come up with any better suggestion on how to fight insurgency in Guatemala than to condone counter-terror, we are in a bad way indeed." Sobering and remarkable coming from 1967, over a decade from the beginning of the massacres in the Chixoy valley. And apparently falling on deaf ears.

A State Department secret telegram from 1974 discusses recent actions by death squads murdering alleged criminals. In at least one case, it confides from "government sources," one group is "a 'smoke-screen' for police extra-legal activities" and "the current 'death squad' killings have all the signs of another police operation against non-political deliquents [sic]."

A CIA secret cable from February 1982 (just before the worst massacres) describes an army "sweep" operation in the interior. In a "comment," it notes that "when a patrol meets resistance or takes fire from a town or village it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed" (it had already mentioned that a number of villages had been "burnt to the ground"). It states that people have fled the villages and that when the army discovers an abandoned one, it is assumed to have supported the guerillas and destroyed.

This leaves "hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees" without homes and shelter—then assuming (like the army) that they are supporters, mentions that the insurgents cannot protect or feed them all. This leads to the Indians (the targets of the sweep) to seek out the army for those things, often becoming collaborators. Those Indians are treated well, the cable seems pleased to note.

It also mentions how the army has "succesfully formed a self-defense force of Ixil Indians"—a PAC, despite the claims they did not exist at that time during trial. More evidence of a lie. Interestingly, "the army has yet to encounter any major guerilla force in the area." All the action was confined to "the destruction of 'EGP-controlled-towns' [the guerilla forces] and the killing of Indian collaborators and sympathizers." Some success. Another "comment" brings up that the "well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike."

This documentation (and others) combined with reports from various local and international human rights groups and church reports, should have made clear that violence is endemic in Guatemala and not confined to the insurgents by any means. How does the US respond? A Department of State confidential cable in October 1982 (following the last of the massacres in Chixoy by a month) determines to dismiss these outside reports by Amnesty International, WOLA/NISGUA, and Guatemala Human Rights Commission as a "concerted disinformation campaign."

While there might be some question to some of the sources of the reports (interviews with Indians, lefist papers, some apparently sloppy documentation), the consensus matches the historical facts as they were known to the government—according to the various documentation—and as they have been revealed in the intervening years.

More interesting is that while condemning the agencies for using this alleged poor information, the cable does the same from the other side. It relies on government and military reports and stories from the Guatemalan press, which it implies is free. If the leftists are too biased to be accurate, it seems odd that those accused of the crimes are held so sacrosanct. As noted by the later CEH report, the press exercised self-censorship in the face of the government. In a country where the police, the treasury, the military, and the civil defense patrols are all part of a policy of repression in the name of counterinsurgency, one has to wonder how there could be a free press.

Another Secret State Department document from late that year mentions "widespread allegations" of governmental "massacres, rape, and mayhem." It also states that the US Embassy claims some cannot be verified, some are attributable to the guerillas (some were), and some "cannot be attributed accurately to either side." The key point being that "the Embassy does not as yet believe that there is sufficient evidence to link troops to any of the reported massacres."

Later documentation from the State Separtment and other agencies continues to note instances of atrocities, abuses, or suspicion of either.

Did the US act at all? In 1977, the US (Carter administration) cut off military aid because of the human rights situation. It did not pressure other allies to do the same and never stopped giving economic aid, much of which went to so-called conflict areas and ended up being used to support the counter-terror operations. And while military "aid" was cut off (1977-1983), the US approved sales of military equipment to the tune of $100 million.

In 1981, the president was exonerated for human rights violations, leading to the climate where—as with the October 1982 cable—where human rights workers and agencies were considered communist sympathizers and spouting disinformation. Aid from the US increased, Ronald Reagan even saying that repressive dictator Efrain Rios Montt was given a "bum rap" (coming from the man who referred to the Contras as "freedom fighters," this shouldn't surprise).

The only ones who seem to have not seen the violence were doing so purposefully. Either that or were criminally incompetant.

The CEH report and others have accused the government of attempting genocide against the Indian population of Guatemala, specifically the Maya in the Rabinal district. Under Article II of the Genocide Convention:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Going over the details and fine points of the argument would take too long but a case can certainly be made as the Indians were targeted and almost systematically wiped out—there is no requirement that genocide be successful in completely destroying the victims, the Jews and Roma ("gypsies") under the Nazis, the Indians of the North America under the numerous European powers (and especially the US), Armenia, East Timor, Rwanda...the list goes on and uncomfortably on. Nor is it necessary to wish to destroy all members of the group. The intent, however, was there for near destruction and removal from sight. Notably, Guatemala has never signed the convention.

Whether it is a true genocide makes no difference to the victims. Over three decades of them.

Why is Río Negro often singled out among the thousands of blood-soaked incidents? Probably because of the story around it—the building of the dam and the part in the construction taken by the World Bank and others. It is more "interesting" than the countless "mundane" atrocities that were ongoing before, during, and after throughout the country.

Some 376 people died as a direct result of the massacres. They were not alone.

If no one speaks for the dead, the massacre never ends.

Part one: Rio Negro massacres: background
Part two: Rio Negro massacres: the killings

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: