34th Commemoration of the Río Negro Massacre

By Kristine Johston, BTS Volunteer in Guatemala

This past Sunday, March 13th, 2016, I traveled from Rabínal to Río Negro to attend the annual commemoration for the March 13th, 1982 massacre of the women and children living in Río Negro at that time. As I walked from the community of Río Negro to the site called Pacoxom, I couldn’t help but remember making the same hike three years ago with a group of fellow students from St. Francis Xavier University located in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.

February 2013: StFX Immersion Service Learning delegation
participants mid-way between Río Negro and Pacoxom

Our group was led by Jackie McVicar (co-coordinator of Breaking the Silence) and Sebastían (survivor of the March 13th, 1982 massacre) who told us the true history of that day. They told us about women and children being separated by members of Civil Defense Patrols, women being forced to dance and sing for soldiers, and the brutal fate that awaited them at Pacoxom. After being forced to hike to the top of the mountain, during which women and young girls were sexually assaulted, some victims were shot dead, others hacked by machetes, and young children and babies were swung by their feet head-first into trees, their skulls smashed. All of the 177 victims’ bodies were then piled into a pit near a natural cliff, where they were later exhumed. Today, there exists a small structure covering this same pit, where survivors have built a cement alter to honour the victims.

The pit where the bodies were violently thrown,
now the site of religious ceremonies to honour the victims.

The Río Negro massacres are unique in that they were committed to advance the Chixoy hydroelectric dam project funded by the World Bank. The project’s aim was to offer cheap, sustainable electricity to all of Guatemala and required inhabitants of Río Negro to evacuate their land, which they refused to do. To “resolve” the land dispute problem, Río Negro community members were labelled guerrillas or guerrilla supporters in order for the army to justify their deaths so that the project could continue uncontested. It is important for us, as international allies, to evaluate the roles our countries played in the carrying out of these massacres.

The Chixoy hydroelectric dam, cause of the Río Negro massacres.

On Sunday, there were roughly 150 people who journeyed to Pacoxom to remember and honour the victims and to celebrate the survivors. Together, a reverent space was created where people could honour the victims in their own way: some prayed, some joined in conversation and shared stories, and others sat quietly. Among those in Pacoxom were survivors and their families, native Guatemalans, members of human rights groups and international organizations, teachers, students, elders, and children.

Camp sites at Pacoxom, March 13, 2016

As the night progressed, I realized that the commemoration wasn’t only about remembering and honouring the victims (although this was a huge part of the event), but it was also about making sure that the atrocities committed that fateful day are never repeated. The New Hope Foundation (NHF; Fundación Nueva Esperanza, FNE) School coordinates a religious Mayan ceremony each year and I overheard Sebastían telling someone that this ceremony is a way to include young members of the Guatemalan population in the commemoration, as well as to encourage youth to be more respectful of humanity in an effort to prevent similar events from ever occurring again.

NHF/FNE students participate in a Mayan ceremony in honour of the victims.

Inscription: “Never more. On March 13th, 1982 70 women and 107 children were massacred
by Civil Defense Patrols from Xococ and the army of Lucas García.”

An hour or two after the student ceremony, another Mayan ceremony was offered by older members of the community on the exact location where the bodies of the victims were found. Although by this time it was 1:30 in the morning, I felt called to stay and observe. I found the ceremony extremely beautiful and even though I didn’t understand the Achí prayers, I definitely understood the sentiments they represented. Different from the first, this ceremony incorporated music, which I found made it more emotional for me. Traditional marimba music, the violin, and a small hand drum were played throughout various parts of the ceremony and I found myself getting lost with the notes while watching the fire burn bright. I stayed until 3:30 am, at which point I ambled to bed feeling amazed and humbled by the people of Guatemala and their allies.

The second Mayan ceremony of the evening
in honour of the 177 massacre victims.

I awoke shortly after 6:30 am the next morning to the sounds of NHF/FNE students chatting outside the tent I’d briefly slept in the night before. After packing my things, I walked back down to the massacre site where a Christian mass was being held for the victims. Many people attended the final ceremony of the commemoration and listened to the Father (Padre) give a sermon about the history and current situation in Guatemala. He talked about the struggle faced by indigenous Guatemalans and the importance of continuing to fight for human and environmental rights. At the entrance to the pit, the fire from the ceremony the night before was still burning.

Christian mass offered up for the victims and survivors of the 1982 massacre.

After mass, I spent a moment of silence in front of the cement alter thinking about the victims and their families.

The cement alter filled with candles and crosses in honour of the victims.

Following the morning’s final activity, I made my way back down the mountain by foot and down the river by boat before starting the drive back to Rabínal. I took this time to reflect on the previous day and to give thanks for the strength of those who continue to fight for justice in Guatemala.

View of the river on the way down.