November 13th, 2019
By: Scott Smith
It’s 5:15 AM – “time to get up folks” is the voice that echoed through the house. Late into the evening last night, we arrived by boat to Rio Negro. The power was out on our arrival and so we didn’t get to get a good look at our surroundings, but one can just sense that it’s a place of great beauty. In deep contrast, it’s also a place with a people who have faced great sorrow in their lifetimes and a community whose fight for justice never ends.
We set out on the trek in the moonlight, following the path and foot steps that the many women and children of Rio Negro took on March 13th, 1982. Our guide, Don Sebastian led the way. The final destination is called Pak’oxom. In a just world, this would be a walk of happiness, beauty, and breathtaking natural scenes, however, in a world often filled with greed and power seekers, the walk also brings forth great heartache. The hike today to Pak’oxom is the same hike 107 children and 70 women took on March 13th, 1982 where they were brutally tortured and murdered. It’s such a contrast, to see the beauty of the countryside. At times the hike was challenging, but every member of the group knew in their heart it’s a walk we needed to make in memory of the 177 individuals who lost their lives over 37 years ago. As we hiked, there were five stations to tell the story of the people of Rio Negro.
On the day of the massacre, people could sense something was up and some people were able to flee off into the hills and brush, but others never imagined that what was about to happen would ever actually happen. As it would turn out, the government of the time wanted to build a dam, but the most fertile lands of this community was by the then river banks. The authorized civil paroles framed it that the community was aiding the guerilla forces, so they were trying to get information from the men, women, and children of the community on their support for them. At the heart of the matter, people also know that there was an underlying factor of a desire to extinguish indigenous culture, a similar trait that can be tied back to our home country of Canada with the Residential School System. So, they used despicable tactics to roll out their agenda and this included the massacre of Rio Negro. For someone like Don Andres, a Mayan timekeeper and community spiritual guide, at 98 years old he couldn’t make the walk to Pak’oxom. It was along the path we walked today that he was tied up and pushed down the side of the mountain. The further they got from home, the less likely help would be possible. And so, Pak’oxom can be called a place of hell on this Earth. The story of these brutal killings of these women and children is one that a person will never be able to forget, nor should they. Our group offered a gift of sweet grass from the Mik’maq indigenous people of Canada. The burning of the sweet grass is to cleanse the place and the souls of the people.
In the end, you can now see a beautiful valley filled with water, not created by nature, but by the Rio Negro hydro-electric dam. It is beautiful, but it came at too great a cost, just so a few can continue to prosper on this Earth, while many others have suffered and continue to.
Eventually, 120 inhabitants have come back to Rio Negro and re-established their community. Resources are hard to come by, but fishing is a small source of income for some of the people. The scars from this tragic event and many other massacres will take generations to heal, if they ever can. Those who shared their stories with us today have asked us to continue to share them. By sharing, it brings light to a people’s struggle, tells the truth, and we know that both here in Guatemala and at home in Canada we all need to continue to fight for people’s rights, both human and environmental, calling for justice for all.
The afternoon has been a time to reflect on the hike and what we have learned. Our gracious host Don Julian offered a tour of the museum, which gives faces and names to many of the victims. He thanked us for taking the time to come here and learn about their fight for justice. It continues to ignite a fire in us to fight for justice for all in this world. We must never forget and never give up.