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

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The massacres that took place in the Chixoy River basin between 1980 and 1982 were not isolated incidents by a few rogue elements, it was part of a legacy of violence by repressive regimes (installed following the US orchestrated coup that ended Guatemala's experiment in democracy) over a 34 year period (1962 to 1996) that resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths. The vast majority of that number were noncombatants, disproportionately women and children and disproportionately indigenous Indians.

Rather than viewing them as typical or atypical (sadly the former), the massacres that killed about half the population of the village of Río Negro are part of a larger historical context and allow one a view of the State-run terror and violence that made Guatemala a killing zone for over three decades.

Before returning to Río Negro, a glance at the Comisión de Esclarecimiento Historico's (CEH, Commission for Historical Clarification) report on violence in Guatemala is important to put some of this into that historical context and perspective. And to understand some of the scale of what was going on, not just in the Chixoy region but elsewhere.

A closer look at the State's violence: CEH Report
In 1999, the CEH put out a report on violence in Guatemala (as part of the agreements following the 1996 peace accords that ended the civil war). In its conclusions, it found human and civil rights violations of massive proportions. It registered 42,275 victims (which added to other studies of political violence account for the 200,000 figure). Of the registered victims, 23,671 died from arbitrary execution and 6,159 forced disappearance. It found 83% of identified victims were Maya and 17% were mixed blood Indian (these and the following percentages are based only on the violations registered by the CEH, though consensus shows it is fairly representative).

About a quarter of the victims of human rights violations/violence were women. Killing, torture, and rape were a matter of course in many cases. Further suffering and hardship came from their husbands being lost (or disappearing) or their children—who were subject to all three of the above-mentioned crimes/abuses—suffering the same fate. Also, children were often orphaned and left to fend for themselves (or not) and traumatized by the loss of home and family as well as abuses both physical and psychological in many cases. There are also instances of children being taken and treated basically as slaves. The elderly fared little better.

It also found that 93% of documented violations were by government forces and paramilitary groups—including 92% of the arbitrary executions and 91% of disappearances. This was from a policy of internal security during the civil conflict. For completeness, the CEH found that insurgents/guerillas guilty of 3% of the rights violations/violence (5% of executions and 2% of disappearances).

The policies of this internal security were strictly anticommunist/antileftist in the US mode, making any person or group that was uncooperative or dissented against the government, "subversive." This included human rights workers, church officials (the Catholic Church's liberation theology especially made it a target), workers (particularly ones who wanted organization), peasants and poor, intellectuals, politicians.

Of course, one didn't need to belong to any of the groups, necessarily, to become a target, as the charge of being communist was leveled at whomever opposed the government for any reason, giving "justification" for repression and worse. How dangerous to the State was the insurgency? According to the report, the army greatly exaggerated their capabilities and "at no time during the internal armed confrontation did the guerilla groups pose an imminent threat to the State." Their numbers were small and they could not hope to defeat a military that was organized, heavily armed, and better trained (as well as nicely funded). Further, the Guatemalan military had excellent intelligence on the insurgents, making it fully aware of that fact.

Since the Indian population of Guatemala mostly lives in the interior where the insurgents based themselves, they were part of the problem as the government saw things. The population of the country is made up of about 55% Indian (or predominantly Indian) and 43% mixed, leaving only a little more than 2% white or "other" (2001 estimates). Needless to say the power elite is not made up of the 55% and little of the mixed population. A strong sense of racism against the indigenous population was also found and no doubt contributed to the treatment of the Indians (at the very least, the extent of the cruelty and brutality).

The army, in fact, basically labeled all Indian populations as being sympathetic to the insurgents, if not cooperating or being members, themselves. It is fairly certain that some, perhaps many, did have sympathies (given the way they were treated by the government already) and some probably were guilty of the charges, but the CEH found that "in the majority of the cases, the identification of Mayan communities with the insurgency was intentionally exaggerated by the State." Further, the army used a policy of eliminating groups it felt might present "any present or future possibilities of the people providing help for, or joining in, an insurgent project." A net that broadly cast could catch anything. That this sort of action would be more likely to make people join such movements was either ignored or (more likely) cynically assumed and part of the overall plan.

In practice, the policy often was carried out in a "scorched earth" manner, destroying whole villages and massacring inhabitants (the CEH registered 626 massacres by State forces or paramilitary groups). This is why even the appearance of belonging to or sympathizing with the communists could be deadly.

In addition to just body counts, the massacres were found to be extraordinarily cruel and savage—especially those aimed at Maya communities. I cannot describe it better:

In the majority of massacres there is evidence of multiple acts of savagery, which preceded, accompanied or occurred after the deaths of the victims. Acts such as the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts, were not only actions of extreme cruelty against the victims, but also morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated these actions.

This was how the State treated "subversives."

Even more brutal than the army or the civil patrols (see below) was the Kaibiles, which some sources describe as the Guatemalan version of the Green Berets—something that should offend any member of that military group. Other than the habit of wearing a maroon beret to distinguish it from other branches of the military, the resemblance largely ends there.

The Kaibiles were a counterinsurgency commando unit named after Kaibil Balam, an indigenous leader who was able to escape capture by the Spanish conquistadores. Schools for these elite groups of soldiers were set up in the mid-1970s in order to (according to the Ministry of Defense) "select, by means of arduous, difficult training under physical and mental pressure, members of the army capable of engaging in commando operations" (www.worldpolicy.org). Their motto begins to give a better idea of the group: "If I go forward, follow me. If I stop, urge me on. If I turn back, kill me."

Perhaps best is the description of the CEH report, which tells of their training which "included killing animals and then eating them raw and drinking their blood in order to demonstrate courage." In one incident following an attack on army soldiers, the Kaibiles were dispatched to a village claimed to be "guerilla sympathizers." Despite finding no weapons or guerilla propaganda, they carried out their orders to "vaccinate" the entire village population.

This medical procedure involved smashing children's heads into walls and rocks, using hammers on the older ones, and interrogating all the men and women, after which they shot or hammered them to death. All bodies were thrown down a well. The women and girls were raped and fetuses were ripped out of wombs. Before they left, another group of people arrived at the village. The well had been filled, so they were taken to another location before killing 13 of the 15. Since their "cover" was as a guerilla group, they kept two teenage girls with them. Whom they repeatedly raped. When the hostages no longer served any tactical purpose, they were strangled.

The president claimed to want to use the unit to fight narcotics and crime after the peace agreements were to be signed, even referring to them as a "new army of peace" at a graduation ceremony for new members. But the 1996 peace accords restricted them to external defense, making them unable to perform any domestic operations (crime or security-related). Since the government has maintained the unit and its training facilities, it is doubtful they will abide the demands of the accords.

Further findings in the report concerned lack of free speech (the press tended to self-censor—something that will become important in the discussion of US claims of propaganda in part three), forced conscription, forced displacement (between 1980 and 1983, some 500,000 to a million were displaced—some actively forced, some who were fleeing violence and massacre). There were policies to disrupt and destroy Indian culture, including banning of native languages and dress, among other "elements of cultural identity." Any native religious practice, as well as Roman Catholicism was "obstructed, prevented, or repressed." It did not need to mention other missing rights, like free elections and such.

In addition to the army and paramilitary groups, both the National Police and the Treasury Police functioned as state security forces and committed many similar atrocities and violations. From the mid-1960s, these groups were basically under army control and operated in urban areas with the same sort of impunity.

(All quotes from this section not cited as something else are from the Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification Conclusions and Recommendations, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, available at hrdata/aaas.rg/ceh/report/english/toc.html; population figures from www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook)

PACs/Civil Patrols
In addition to the army, the State used "civil patrols" or PACs (Patrulla de Autodefensa Civil) as a means of maintaining internal security and counterinsurgency programs. These groups were made up of civilians for paramilitary purposes, largely intelligence and support for the actual army. Though it was supposed to be voluntary (and often was), many were given no real choice in joining the groups and those who refused often became subject to violence and other abuses, being targeted as "subversive" in the convenient way any dissent was labeled for "justification."

While some actions by the PACs were coerced or actively forced by the military, many atrocities were done on their own initiative, including the settling of scores and carrying out to the logical conclusion the government's policy of anticommunist counterinsugency—along with being equipped and armed with military ordnance, they were well indoctrinated in the "correct" ideology. This means assassinations, murder, torture, and other items on the long list of abuses attached to other government groups were a regular part of their repertoire. The PACs were an arm of the Guatemalan military and functioned as one—even when acting on their own (without direct orders), civil patrols were carrying out government policy.

"Officially" disbanded as part of the peace accords, many members and leaders of the PACs still exercise a great degree of control and power over their communities and subsequent charges of abuses and violations have arisen.

It was also an effective means of spreading terror and controlling interior populations, as the fear of reprisal kept many docile and quiet about violations. It also served as a protective means to try escaping violence by government forces, the reasoning being that organizing a civil patrol would show the village not to be subversives and spare them from attack or abuse. There are also cases of different communities accusing each other, hoping to escape violence from both the army or other PACs. The result is that no one was really that safe from anyone else: "terror in Guatemala became epidemic as victims became victimizers" (www.witnessforpeace.org).

This is what happened with the people of Xococ on the Chixoy River. They would denounce other communities as guerillas and participated in acts of violence and, reportedly, even torture. A certain amount of conflict already existed between Xococ and Río Negro over land issues and other things. The 1981 organization of a civil patrol gave them a degree of power and force that was new to the equation and between carrying out of government policy and the existing conflict, that force was put into action. It was the PAC from nearby Xococ that did the majority of the killing during the massacres.

The Massacres

4 March 1980
The people of Río Negro were in their church, discussing the upcoming forced relocation. Three men—military police working security for the dam—arrived and demanded certain residents be handed over for stealing sacks of beans from the dam's supply house. The people felt it was just more harassment and lies and refused to give up the accused. After making their own demand—that the soldiers leave—the three opened fire at the people in the church.

Seven people were killed before the soldiers fled. The residents gave chase, capturing one (who was released a few hours later), losing another, and the third man drowned while swimming across the river. The Instituto Nacional de Electrificación (INDE, State Electricity Institute—in charge of the construction of the dam and the resettlement) didn't believe the story that the Río Negro citizens told and claimed they murdered the soldier and stole his weapon. The rifle was never found but the INDE had further "justification" to label the people as guerillas.

July 1980
Two people, functioning as representatives for the community, went to the site of the dam to meet with INDE officials (it was at their request). The duo had the Libro de Actas—Río Negro's (only) documentation about reparations and agreements pertaining to the resettlement (including what cash payments were to be given). That day, the two "disappeared." They were later found mutilated. The Libro de Actas had also "disappeared.

While two people really isn't a massacre, per se, it is another significant part of the period of violence against the people of Río Negro and region—and indicative of the pattern of violations and violence throughout Guatemala, especially to the Indian population. It demonstrates the government's role in the abuses and the arrogant impunity with which it carried out its offenses, with no expectation of consequences for its actions and wanton abuse of power—in fact, as far as the State was concerned, such consequences did not/could not exist and any action was its right to take.

13 February 1982
1982, a year after the civil patrol was organized in Xococ, was a year of death for Río Negro. It began in February, when 73 men and women were ordered to Xococ to present their identification papers. Only one returned (escaped). After running all night to inform the town, she reported that soldiers and PAC members had wiped out the whole group; the women after raping them. It was also charged that many victims were subject to torture. The PAC claimed that the people had been brought to the military headquarters and then disappeared (this would only affect which governmental arm deserves the most credit for the killings).

As a result, the men of the town fled to the hills fearing (rightfully) more attempts to slaughter them. The women and children remained in Río Negro, refusing to take the children into the mountains where they might not survive "eating roots and living like animals" (Amnesty International). The other reason, a grave error, was that they honestly believed the civil patrols were only interested in the men. That was far from the truth.

13 March 1982
The massacre that is meant most often when speaking of the Río Negro massacre took place exactly one month after the deaths and degradations of the 73 citizens. A group of soldiers and PACs—reportedly 35 men: ten soldiers and 25 patrollers—arrived at the town. Upset that the men were gone, they demanded to know where the guerillas were. When they were told the people didn't know any, the 35 proceeded to search and pillage the whole town.

The women and children were forcibly gathered together and told they were going to a place in the mountains, about a half mile (about 1 km) away, for a meeting. They were then marched out of town, prodded with sticks like cattle. Once there, the soldiers took music tapes they had stolen from the village and played them, forcing the women to "Dance! Dance like you dance for the guerillas." The dancers were jeered and verbally abused, their fate foreshadowed by statements such as "your dancing will not save you today, guerilla whore" (www.witnessforpeace.org). Soon the rapes began, as woman and girls were dragged off into the bushes and violated.

Eighteen of the children were made to lie face down—later they would be taken away, essentially treated as slaves until released with help from the Catholic Church, after some years of beatings and abuse (their testimony is part of why the massacre has not been erased from memory). Despite their position, they could see enough to view the girls and women being raped. Then the killings began, many of the women being strangled with rope, twisted tight with sticks. They also observed people beaten with clubs and rifles and one whose spine was apparently broken from a soldier (or PAC member) stomping on her back: "she tried to get up but her legs wouldn't move. He then smashed her skull with his rifle" (www.witnessforpeace.org).

Children were killed by having ropes tied around their ankles and swung into rocks and trees. One witness saw an infant cut in half by a machete. After the victims were murdered, they were thrown down a ravine. One boy was asked if he wanted to go live in Xococ. He was told his little brother could not come because the walk would be too far. He insisted he could carry his brother on his back but a rope was tied around his brother's neck instead. The boy ran after his brother but was too late (and hardly any possibility of saving him) as his brother was grabbed by the ankles and his head smashed into a rock. The patroller who had killed his brother then took him to Xococ.

About 177 people—70 women and 107 children—had been marched into the mountains that day. Besides the kidnapped children, only three others survived. Two women, one who escaped by jumping into a ravine with her little sister tied to her back (something her mother had managed to do before being taken away). The infant later died of exposure.

Those who had fled to the hills before the soldiers and PAC showed up spent two years hiding out from the armed forces in the area. Helicopters were used to strafe the mountainside and fire rockets into the forest. They rarely were able to light a fire, as it would reveal their location and usually mean certain death. As one of the survivors of the ordeal described the period: "we lived like animals, surviving on roots and reeds and raw fish. Many of us were barefoot or naked. The old and the weak and the young ones, most of them died in the mountains. The life was too hard for them" (www.witnessforpeace.org).

14 May 1982
Just over two months after the last, another massacre took place, this time 84 refugees who had fled the area were found and murdered by PAC and government soldiers just 5 miles (a little over 8 km) from Río Negro. Fifteen women were taken away and placed in a helicopter. They were never seen again. There are witnesses that say the armed forces had stopped at the INDE offices at the dam site and borrowed the truck they drove to the scene of the massacre.

13 September 1982
The slaughter continued. In the village of Agua Fría, another mix of army and PACs murdered 92 people by machine gun and burning. Thirty-five of the slain were children who were orphans as a result of the previous massacres. The people of Agua Fría had taken them in and cared for them.

The total killed in the two and a half year reign of blood was around 376. More than half of Río Negro's original population. By the end of the year, the dam's reservoir was being filled.

Mission accomplished.

With the conclusion of the massacre period (March 1980 to September 1982), there was a lessening of the violence but not an end. In addition to the actual violence, other abuse continued to happen with great regularity and as matter of course.

A few months after the last massacre (September 1982), the reservoir began to be filled. The people who lived in the Chixoy Valley could no longer avoid relocation. The village of Río Negro was abandoned and the people took to the hills where a number died during the period. Many chose not to even attempt to visit the proposed and prepared relocation town of Pacux until after the first amnesty was announced in 1985. At that time many returned, led along by soldiers.

As previously noted, a number of promises were made as to reparations and amenities in the new town, including homes, water, land, free electricity, community buildings, social services, and compensation for lost crops. The reality was that they were cheated on just about every promise. Both the town and the houses were small and cramped—the houses were not made of cement as promised, but wood, and they were poorly built. Few people were given titles to their houses and the INDE insisted that many are "illegitimate," making it necessary to prove one's identity to earn one's own home. Residents complained about the houses falling apart—unsurprising, as soldiers lived in them during the time many were still in hiding.

The water system was unreliable, sometimes going weeks or more without supplying water. For people who had planned to grow their own food (at the very least as a supplement), this was bad news. They also had to pay regardless of whether water was supplied or not (with late payment fees of 100%) and when they protested the water situation, they were threatened with the memory of what happened at Río Negro by the military. Making the food problem worse was that the land was less than half the amount promised and the land was not well suited to sustain families. The land outside the town was no better, described as "useless scrub-land" by residents (www.witnessforpeace.org).

Additionally, the social services promised are far from adequate, even the INDE admitted they aren't working "for lack of teaching staff, doctors and equipment" (www.witnessforpeace.org), all things that the residents were assured would be available. Later they were informed the electricity (which ostensibly was the reason all this took place) would not be free and they would have to pay.

There was next to no economy available to the approximately 25,000 residents. While once they were able to grow food to support themselves, they now had to work long hours shelling pumpkin seeds, weaving crafts, or doing day labor (if they could find it). Some got jobs as maids and servants in larger cities. None make much more than enough to survive. The promised compensation for lost crops was virtually nonexistent. The situation seems to have remained largely the same as of this writing.

The cruelest irony is that the best paying jobs are to be found by joining the army.

Part one: Rio Negro massacres: background
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, fls.cll.wayne.edu/isp/mnissani/PAGEPUB/CH8.html, www.britannica.com, www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook;
Report on violence in Guatemala and information on the Kaibiles: hrdata/aaas.rg/ceh/report/english/toc.html, www.worldpolicy.org/americas/guatemala/kaibiles.html;
Chixoy Project and the massacres: www.witnessforpeace.org/apd.html, www.damsreport.org/docs/kbase/contrib/soc211.pdf, www.web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/recent/AMR340012002;
Trial: www.uoregon.edu/~caguirre/sanford.html
State Department and CIA documents: www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB11/docs

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