International Court Finds Guatemala Guilty for Rio Negro Massacres

By: 
Monti Aguirre
Carlos Chen Osorio, who lost his wife and two toddler daughters in the massacre, leads the row during the Via Crucis
Carlos Chen Osorio, who lost his wife and two toddler daughters in the massacre, leads the row during the Via Crucis. Photo by James Rodriguez

For more than 20 years, the Maya-Achi people displaced by the Chixoy Dam have sought justice for the massacre of their husbands, wives and children that took place during Guatamala's civil war in the early 1980s. Last week their years of effort were finally recognized when the Inter-American Court on Human Rights found Guatemala guilty of the violation of human rights against the communities of Rio Negro.

“After so many years struggling to seek justice, we have found a ray of hope for the community of Rio Negro,” said Juan de Dios García, director of The Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of the Violence of the Verapaces, Maya Achí (ADIVIMA).

ADIVIMA first presented a petition in 2005 to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission calling for the Guatemalan State to be held responsible for five massacres that left 445 children, women and men of the Rio Negro village dead due to their opposition to the Chixoy Dam. The Commission accepted the case in 2008. After issuing recommendations to the government of Guatemala and soliciting the required reports, the Commission finally submitted the case to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in 2011, arguing for the State’s lack of compliance with the recommendations of the Commission and the need to obtain justice in the case.

A sign hangs at Xococ, the site of the massacre of hundreds of Maya-Achi people who were killed for defending their land against the Chixoy Dam.
A sign hangs at Xococ, the site of the massacre of hundreds of Maya-Achi people who were killed for defending their land against the Chixoy Dam.
Photo by Bert Janssens

In June of this year at the Court’s headquarters in Costa Rica, the Court heard the arguments presented by the Commission, community representatives and the government of Guatemala. In their decision, the Court ruled that it was within its jurisdiction to address the issues of human rights violations, particularly as they related to forced disappearances, the lack of impartial and effective investigation by the State, and destruction of the community’s social network and forced displacement, amongst others. Guatemala in turn partially recognized its international responsibilities for some of the human rights violations. (Read a full description of the ruling below.)

The Chixoy River in full bloom
The Chixoy Reservoir heavily populated with dreaded water hyacinth weeds.
Photo by Bert Janssens

Massacres like the one perpetrated on March 4, 1980 were associated with the construction of the Chixoy Dam, a project that was financed by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank despite the civil war taking place in Guatemala at the time. The military police arrived to the village of Rio Negro seeking a number of people who they accused of stealing food from workers of the National Electricity Institute (INDE) of Guatemala in charge of building the Chixoy Dam. Seven villagers were killed as a result of this incident. In addition, two Rio Negro leaders negotiating the resettlement with INDE were called to a meeting in Chinatzul and asked to bring along the books containing the agreements already made with INDE. The two leaders never returned to their village; their naked bodies were discovered several days later in Purulha, Baja Verapaz, with injuries caused by firearms.

In Xococ community members exhume the bodies of those who were killed in the violent massacres throughout the 80's and 90's
In Xococ, community members exhume the bodies of those who were killed in the violent massacres throughout the 80s and 90s.
Photo by Bert Janssens

In its ruling, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights took into consideration that members of the Rio Negro community are still unable to perform funeral rituals because 17 disappeared villagers have not yet been found and identified. Additionally the Chixoy Dam flooded some of the sacred sites where these rites would have been held.

The Court also concluded that the construction of the Chixoy Dam and its reservoir irreversibly changed the ancestral lands of the Rio Negro communities, making it impossible for them to return to the way they lived before. The Pacux resettlement site created conditions that have not allowed the villagers to pursue their traditional livelihoods; instead they have had to depend on unstable incomes. Basic necessities of health, education, electricity and water have not been fully realized. All of these facts have contributed to the disintegration of the social, cultural and spiritual lives of the communities. The Court established that even though Guatemala has made some efforts to resettle some of the Rio Negro massacre survivors, it has not established adequate conditions for repairing or mitigating the effects of displacement it caused.

The judgment by the Court on October 19th, 2012 constitutes a form of reparation and further orders the State to investigate, without delay, the facts of the violations declared in the judgment, with the order to prosecute and eventually punish the alleged perpetrators.

“Now the State has to comply with the ruling of the Court, which will not be easy. We foresee that there will be more obstacles for us to overcome,” said Juan de Dios Garcia.

Children enjoying the waters of the Rio Negro
Children enjoying the waters of the Rio Negro.
Photo by Bert Janssens

The Rio Negro and 32 more communities that were severely impacted by the construction of the Chixoy Dam are seeking reparations from the State of Guatemala, the Word Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Guatemala, the banks and the communities have spent years identifying the damages caused by the construction of the Chixoy Dam, culminating in an astounding and consensual Reparations Plan for affected communities. Nevertheless, political and economic interests have hampered the legalization and implementation of the Plan. Affected communities are resolute in seeking reparations and the Court’s ruling is a powerful step towards gaining the justice that they deserve.

More information: 

Full details of the ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Court:

  • The Court resolved that it was within its jurisdiction to address the issues of human rights violations relative to: forced disappearances, lack of impartial and effective investigation (by the State), lack of identification of executed people and disappeared, and the destruction of the community’s social network and forced displacement.
  • The State of Guatemala in turn partially recognized its international responsibilities for some of the human rights violations. Among those, the violations against the right to life, right of children, rights to personal integrity and right to personal integrity.
  • The Court recognized that today, member of the Rio Negro community cannot perform their funeral rituals because 17 disappeared villagers have still not been identified. And the Chixoy Dam flooded many of the sacred sites.
  • The Court considered that the construction of the Chixoy Dam and its reservoir physically hindered the return of the Rio Negro communities to their ancestral lands.
  • The Court ruled that even though the Guatemala State has made some efforts to resettle some of the Rio Negro massacre survivors, it has not established adequate conditions for repairing or mitigating the effects of displacement caused by the State.

What the Court Demands of the State of Guatemala:

  • The Court held that the judgment constitutes a form of reparation and further ordered the State to investigate, without delay the facts of the violations declared in the judgment, with the order to prosecute and eventually punish the alleged perpetrators.
  • The State must perform an effective search for the whereabouts of the forcibly disappeared persons and to hold exhumations and identification of persons allegedly executed, and to determine the cause of death and possibly prior injuries.
  • The State must make a public acknowledgment of international responsibility on this case, build the basic infrastructure and services for the Rio Negro community residing in Pacux, design and implement a project to rescue the culture of the Maya Achi and to provide medical and psychological treatment to the victims in this case. Compensation for material and immaterial damages should be provided and the reimbursement of costs and expenses.

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