Altar honouring the 177 victims of the March 13th, 1982 massacre at Pak’oxom in Rio Negro

Altar honouring the 177 victims of the March 13th, 1982 massacre at Pak’oxom in Rio Negro (photo credit: ADIVIMA)

Sabrina Jeria, a cooperant at the Rabinal Community Legal Clinic, shares her reflections following the March 13th commemoration of the Río Negro massacre.

On March 13, I accompanied a group of teachers and students from the New Hope Foundation on their annual pilgrimage to commemorate the 177 victims (70 women and 107 children) of the 1982 massacre in Rio Negro.

This represents just one in a series of systematic massacres that the Guatemalan army and civil defense patrols committed in Rio Negro between 1980 and 1983. In 1982 alone, the state tortured and killed more than 440 men, women, and children to make way for the Chixoy hydroelectric dam, a project funded by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Every year, on March 13th, survivors and their families, along with community members and representatives from local and international human rights organizations, make the arduous journey to Rio Negro to mourn and honour the victims.

Photo of Río Negro taken from a height

The view of Río Negro

We started the journey from Rabinal to Rio Negro by bus at 5:30 a.m. After a four-hour drive we hopped in a lancha (boat) that took us down the river. After a brief rest and lunch, we started the ascent up the mountain to Pak’oxom peak. The steep climb was certainly tough and the blazing afternoon sun made it more difficult.

A picture from inside the boat to Rio Negro

Lancha ride down the river after the four-hour bus ride.

Commemoration and ceremony to honour the victims

When we finally arrived at the site a couple hours later, the sounds of marimba music greeted us. Many people had already gathered in solidarity at the central altar to prepare for the midnight Mayan ceremony that would continue until dawn. The community built this altar to memorialize the victims; it sits on top of the ditch where many of the bodies had been thrown after the massacre and were later exhumed.

Young and old gather in front of an altar in remembrance of massacre victims

People gathered at the central altar preparing for the midnight Mayan ceremony.

Historical memory lives on

Every year, the New Hope Foundation also performs a traditional Mayan ceremony to honour and pay tribute to the victims, and to share the real history of Rio Negro with the students and others. Jesús Tecú Osorio, a survivor of the Rio Negro massacre and founder of the New Hope Foundation, began by recounting the story of the 177 innocent women and children killed there. He told of how the army and civil patrollers forced them from their homes and made them walk up the mountain. They harassed and beat the women and children along the way, accusing them of supporting the guerillas. They raped some of the women and tortured them, before brutally killing them, hanging some from trees, hacking others with machetes and shooting them before throwing all the corpses into a ditch. All of the women and children were unarmed.

Jesús Tecú Osorio speaks to students from the New Hope Foundation before the Mayan ceremony to honour the victims begins.

Jesús asked us to reflect on the fact that we had just re-traced their footsteps to get to Pak’oxom. We had walked the same path up the mountain that victims had been forced to walk, on the same day that they were massacred 41 years before. This connection really impacted me. I felt a profound sadness thinking about the tragic end the victims met here and the reverberating impacts their deaths have had on the lives of so many others.

Mourning and resilience

We hiked down the mountain early the next morning. We took the boat, then piled onto the bus for the long drive back to Rabinal. It was a tough day both physically and emotionally, but I feel grateful to have been part of this communal commemoration. I am thankful to stand present with survivors and their families; to participate in their ceremonies; to be entrusted with their stories; and to witness not only their pain, but also their incredible resilience and continued commitment to ensuring these memories live on in the next generation.

Photo credits: Featured photo by ADIVIMA, article photos by Sabrina Jeria