NGOs Demand World Bank Investigation Into Massacres

Thursday, May 9, 1996

Report Reveals 376 Murdered After Resisting Eviction

International Rivers and Witness for Peace

International Rivers and human rights group Witness for Peace have today written to World Bank President James Wolfensohn calling for an independent investigation into World Bank involvement with Guatemala’s Chixoy Dam. A recent report from Witness for Peace* reveals that between 1980 and 1982 some 376 people, mostly women and children, were brutally murdered in a series of massacres when they resisted eviction from their village of Río Negro to make way for the Chixoy Reservoir.

The World Bank and Inter–American Development Bank (IDB) both gave two loans for the Chixoy Dam, the World Bank’s second loan being made in 1985 – after the massacres took place. Internal reports from the World Bank and IDB refer to problems with resettlement at Chixoy but nowhere mention that more than one in ten of the people supposed to be resettled were murdered shortly before the reservoir filled.

After years of living in fear, survivors of the atrocities first began to speak to outsiders in 1993. In November of that year forensic experts began to exhume the bodies from the largest massacre.

The Witness for Peace report says:

"If the [World] Bank knew about the massacres, then giving an additional loan to the project was at best a calculated cover up, and at worst an act of complicity in the violence. If the Bank did not know about the slaughter, then it was guilty of gross negligence. Either way, the Bank is implicated in the horrors perpetrated against the village of Río Negro in 1982."

Patrick McCully, Campaigns Director of International Rivers Network says:

"We believe that these shocking revelations require an independent investigation to discover whether or not Bank project staff knew about the massacres and if so why these were not reported in subsequent Bank documents. If it is concluded that Bank staff were unaware of the massacres then it should be investigated how they were able to remain ignorant.

"The Chixoy massacres hold important lessons for the consequences of funding forced resettlement in countries with repressive regimes. An investigation into this matter is also extremely important given the tendency seen in other projects for Bank staff to ignore or suppress information on the real impacts of their projects on local people."

While the Río Negro massacres occured in the context of the brutal government counterinsurgency campaign which left 72,000 Guatemalans dead or missing between 1980 and 1984 alone, local church workers, journalists and the survivors themselves all directly link the massacres to attempts to evacuate the reservoir area. All deny that there was ever any organized guerrilla activity in Río Negro.

* A People Dammed: The World Bank–Funded Chixoy Hydroelectric Project and its
Devastating Impacts on the People and Economy of Guatemala.
Witness for Peace, Washington, DC, May 1996.


The campaign of terror against the indigenous Maya Achí community of Río Negro began in early 1980 after the villagers refused to move to the cramped houses and poor land at the resettlement site provided by the Guatemalan power utility INDE. In March 1980, military policemen based at the dam site shot seven people in Río Negro. The villagers chased the police away and one, according to the people of Río Negro, drowned in the Chixoy River. INDE and the army, however, accused the villagers of murdering the policeman and of being supporters of the country’s guerrilla movement.

In July 1980, two representatives from Río Negro agreed to a request from INDE to come to the dam site to present their resettlement documents. The mutilated bodies of the two men were found a week later. The documents were never found.

In February 1982, 73 men and women from Río Negro were ordered by the local military commander to report to Xococ, a village upstream from the reservoir zone which had a history of land conflicts and hostility with Río Negro. Only one woman out of the 73 villagers returned to Río Negro – the rest were raped, tortured and then murdered by Xococ’s Civil Defense Patrol, or PAC, one of the notorious paramilitary units used by the state as death squads.

On March 13, 1982, ten soldiers and 25 patrollers arrived in Río Negro, rounded up the remaining women and children and marched them to a hill above the village.

Witness for Peace’s harrowing account of what happened on the hill is pieced together from interviews with survivors.

"They were strangling many of the women by putting ropes around their necks and twisting the ropes with sticks. They were also beating other women with clubs and rifles, and kicking and punching them. ‘I remember one woman, ‘ [Jaime, a survivor who was ten years old at the time] relates, ‘a soldier jumped up and kicked her in the back. He must have broken her spine, because she tried to get up but her legs wouldn’t move. Then he smashed her skull with his rifle’.

"The patrollers killed the children by tying ropes around their ankles and swinging them, smashing their heads and bodies into rocks and trees."

Seventy women and 107 children were killed. Only two women managed to escape. Eighteen children were taken back to Xococ as slaves for the patrollers.

Two months later, 82 more people from Río Negro were massacred. In September, 35 orphaned children from Río Negro were among 92 people machine gunned and burned to death in another village near the dam. Reservoir filling began soon after this final massacre.

The Witness for Peace report states that, ‘the Río Negro victims died because they blocked the "progress" of the Chixoy Project’. Many villagers believe INDE encouraged the violence so that their officials could pocket compensation payments due to the villagers. ‘I’ll tell you the real reason for the violence’, one survivor said, ‘they wanted our land for their cursed reservoir and dam, and we were in the way’. A member of a Guatemalan human rights group says: ‘The Chixoy Dam was built with the blood of the inhabitants of Río Negro’.

The IDB lent Guatemala $105 million to build Chixoy in 1975 and a further $70 million in 1981. The World Bank lent $72 million for the dam in 1978 and another $45 million in 1985. The banks appear to have turned a blind eye to the massacres and to have refused to acknowledge them in project documents: no references to the massacres are made in any of the funders’ internal reports on Chixoy which outside researchers have been able to obtain.

According to local people, everyone at the dam site and virtually everyone in the region knew about the massacres. Nine World Bank missions visited the dam in the years following the massacres. In early 1984 the Bank employed an expert to supervise the resettlement operation.

The closest the World Bank’s confidential 1991 ‘Project Completion Report’ on Chixoy comes to mentioning the mass murders is a reference to the resettlement plans as ‘conceptually . . . seriously flawed’ and a mention of ‘delays in implementing the program due to intensive insurgency activity in the project area during the years 1980–1983 – two resettlement officers were killed while performing their duties . . .’

Chixoy was not only a human rights disaster. Construction was beset with geological problems which – together with corruption – caused the dam’s total cost to soar to some $1.2 billion, 521 per cent higher than forecast in 1974. The dam began official operation in 1983, but after only five months had to be shut down for repairs. It did not restart operation for two years. Since then it has been plagued with technical problems and a shortage of water in its reservoir.

The World Bank’s Project Completion Report says that ‘With hindsight [Chixoy Dam] has proved to be an unwise and uneconomic disaster’.

Witness for Peace as part of the Campaign for Peace and Life in Guatemala have helped survivors of the Río Negro massacres build a monument honoring those murdered. (ENDS)

Contact Tom Ricker, Witness for Peace at (202) 544 0781 for additional information.