State terror in support of a Guatemalan hydroelectric project

Between 1980 and 1982 – during a particularly brutal spell of Guatemala’s civil war – some 376 Mayans were massacred when they resisted eviction from the village of Río Negro to make way for the Chixoy Reservoir. According to Witness For Peace[1], the massacres were carried out by the Civil Defence Patrols (PAC), one of the notorious paramilitary units used by the Guatemalan state as death squads.[2]

In March 1980, military police based at the site of the dam shot seven people in Río Negro. The villagers chased the police away and one, according to the people of Río Negro, drowned in the Chixoy River. The Guatemalan power utility company (INDE) and the army, however, accused the villagers of murdering the policeman and of being supporters of the guerrilla movement. In July 1980, two representatives from Río Negro agreed to a request from INDE to go to the dam site to present their resettlement documents. The mutilated bodies of the two men were found a week later.

In February 1982, 73 men and women from Río Negro were ordered by the local military commander to report to Xococ, a village upstream from the reservoir zone which had a history of hostility with Río Negro. Only one woman out of the 73 villagers returned to Río Negro. The rest were raped, tortured and then murdered by Xococ’s PAC.

On 13 March 1982, ten soldiers and 25 PAC members arrived in Río Negro, rounded up the remaining women and children and took them to a hill above the village. Witness for Peace’s account of what happened on the hill was pieced together from interviews with survivors.

They were strangling many of the women by putting ropes around their necks and twisting the ropes with sticks. They were also beating other women with clubs and rifles, and kicking and punching them. ‘I remember one woman,’ [Jaime, a 10 year old survivor at the time] relates, ‘a soldier jumped up and kicked her in the back. He must have broken her spine, because she tried to get up but her legs wouldn’t move. Then he smashed her skull with his rifle.’ The patrollers killed the children by tying ropes around their ankles and swinging them, smashing their heads and bodies into rocks and trees.[3] Seventy women and 107 children were killed. Only two women managed to escape. Eighteen children were taken back to Xococ as slaves for the PAC.

Two months later, 82 more people from Río Negro were massacred. In September 1982, 35 orphaned children from Río Negro were among 92 people machine gunned and burned to death in another village near the dam. Reservoir filling began soon after this final massacre.

[1]   Witness For Peace (WFP) describes itself as “a politically independent, nationwide grassroots organisation of people committed to non-violence and led by faith and conscience. WFP’s mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing US policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.” (accessed 15.08.09).
[2]  International Rivers Network (IRN), ‘Report Reveals 376 Murdered After Resisting Eviction’, (accessed 06/08/09).
[3]  IRN/WFP (9 May 1996) ‘NGOs Demand World Bank Investigation Into 1980s Massacres as Guatemalan Dam Report Reveals 276 Murdered After Resisting Eviction’, IRN/WFP Press Release.