July 5, 2016
Endless Consequences: Another Victim of the World Bank & IDB’s Genocidal Chixoy Dam Project in Guatemala
By Grahame Russell, July 5, 2016
A terrible accident has taken the life of 9 year-old Alma Yesenia Uscap Osorio and her mother, Isabel Osorio Tum, in the village of Rio Negro, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. But it is no accident that another brutal death has occurred in one of the most long suffering communities in Guatemala.
(Alma Yesenia sits on ground in front of her mother Isabel Osorio, who is beside her husband Juan Uscap Iboy and their two other children. Photo Nate Einbinder)
On July 1, a fire broke out in the tiny home of Isabel Osorio and Juan Uscap, in the Mayan Achi village of Rio Negro, perched above the Chixoy dam flood basin. Being a boat pilot, Juan had tanks of gas stored in his home. Somehow, the gas ignited, exploded and burned their one room home to the ground, killing Alma immediately.
(Alma Yesenia. Photo Nate Einbinder)
Juan suffered burns to his feet. Isabel was burned all over her body. It was not until a day later that Isabel was ferried by boat out of the community and taken to a hospital in Guatemala City, 8 hours away. She died in hospital.
(Isabel Osorio. Photo James Rodriguez)
Emergency response funds are being sent to Juan and his family, as he buries his daughter and wife and pays for his medical treatment and medicines. Soon he will have to re-build their home.
Re-building his life will be much harder – or impossible. This tragedy is piled on top of a history of racism and oppression, violent dispossession of land and home, massacres and desperate survival. Juan and Isabel were genocide survivors, eyewitnesses to the whole-scale slaughter of their families and community to make way for a World Bank / IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) hydro-electric dam project.
A Village Genocide In The Context Of Country-wide Genocides
In some ways, this was a tragic accident. But in most ways, this is one more brutal, avoidable death caused by endemic racism and exploitation, repression and impunity against the majority Mayan population of Guatemala, dating back through centuries of European imperialism and colonialism; dating back to the aftermath of the 1954 U.S. military coup that ousted Guatemala’s only real democratic government and returned to power the racist, economic, military and political elites that continue to run the country today.
More directly, it is one more brutal death of an impoverished Mayan person in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed repression and genocides of the 1970s and 1980s. Most directly, it is yet another death caused by the Chixoy [‘Chic-Shoy’] hydro-electric dam project funded, planned and implemented by the World Bank and IDB between 1975-1983, in partnership with the U.S. backed genocidal regimes.
Not only did successive U.S. backed regimes carry out genocides in Mayan regions across the country (including the Mayan Achi region of Rabinal where Rio Negro is located), but the Guatemalan military carried out 5 large-scale massacres against the Rio Negro community itself, as part of the World Bank and IDB’s efforts to evict thousands of Mayan villagers from the Chixoy dam flood basin that began to be filled in 1983 soon after the massacres left over 440 villagers dead, forcing the survivors to flee into the mountains.
- View: “Chixoy Dam: No Reparations, No Justice, No Peace” (http://vimeo.com/50015125), a 15 minute film by Lazar Konforti summarizing how at the height of the genocides in Guatemala, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank invested close to $1 billion in the Chixoy hydroelectric dam project. Thirty-two Mayan communities were forcibly and illegally displaced to make way for the dam; hundreds of Rio Negro villagers were massacred. Over 30 years later, survivors are still struggling for truth, justice and comprehensive reparations.
Juan & Isabel
At the time of the Chixoy dam / Rio Negro massacres, Juan and Isabel were children. 4 year-old Isabel was one of the massacre survivors who fled to the mountains and lived on roots and berries as the army and civil defense patrollers continued to search for and kill any Mayan Achi people they found.
9 year-old Juan’s story of survival is brutally particular. On March 13, 1982, soldiers and patrollers rounded up and massacred 177 Rio Negro women and children at a place known as “Pacoxom”, high above the village. This was one of the 5 massacres carried out that year to eradicate Rio Negro and enable the filling of the Chixoy dam flood basin.
After the soldiers and patrollers savagely killed the women and children that day (raping women and girls before killing them; grabbing some infants by the feet and smashing them to death on rocks and boulders), the patrollers (from the nearby village of Xococ) spared the lives of and kidnapped 18 children whose mothers, grandmothers and siblings had just been slaughtered before their eyes.
Juan was one of the 18 children – ranging from infants to 11 years old – forced to live in the homes of the Xococ patrollers for the next two years. All but the infants were forced to work as slave labour on the patrollers’ plots of land.
- Read: “Memoria de las masacres de Río Negro”, by Jesus Tecu Osorio
Pacux: An Army Controlled “Model Village”
The Chixoy dam / Rio Negro massacres were calculated to eradicate the people and village of Rio Negro to make way for the World Bank and IDB’s investment project. But even after the massacres, the destruction of home and community, the forced flight of survivors, and the kidnapping and enslavement of the 18 children, the repression and suffering continued.
Some survivors survived months, even years, in the mountains, fleeing marauding soldiers and patrollers; some succumbed to disease, dehydration and malnutrition.
Sooner or later, most Rio Negro survivors were forced by the regime to live in Pacux, an army-controlled “model village” – ostensibly their Rio Negro replacement community, built with World Bank and IDB project funds. After two years of forced enslavement, the 18 children were released by their Xococ captors and came to live with surviving family members in Pacux; many had no surviving family members
Juan and Isabel grew up in Pacux where the poverty and trauma, suffering and repression continued. From the mid-1980s, soldiers regularly detained, tortured and even killed Rio Negro men (massacre survivors themselves, now living in Pacux), while raping and forcing the women to work for them at the military outpost as slave labour.
It was not until the early 2000s, that the military outpost was finally shut down, leaving the Rio Negro survivors in “peace” - living in impoverished conditions in Pacux, excluded from any government support, with no jobs, no education, no access to fields to grow survival crops, with little access to dependable water sources even for household use, with no hope.
- View: “Poverty In Pacux”, a 3 minute film by Rachel Schmidt, documenting how, over 30 years later, Mayan Achi survivors of the Chixoy dam / Rio Negro massacres live in endemic poverty, discrimination and trauma in "Pacux", a former military concentration camp, now cramped refugee community, still fighting for justice and reparations. (https://vimeo.com/52439128)
Return to Rio Negro
By the late 1990s, some Rio Negro families decided to move from Pacux back to Rio Negro, and settled on the mountainside above where the original community now lay buried under 100 meters of mud and silt buildup in the dam flood basin.
Juan and Isabel – a couple by this time - moved back and they made their life in Rio Negro right through until today. Rio Negro is far more impoverished today than before the Chixoy dam project. No access by road. Only one gravity driven water project. No medical centre or clinic. One self funded primary school.
The villagers no longer live on fertile land along the river’s edge. They live high on the dry mountainside, experiencing drought 6-8 months of most years. They no longer have access to potable water from, or fishing in the Chixoy river. The flood basin is a “lake” of contaminated water, with a fraction of the aquatic life compared with before the river was dammed and killed.
Yet, here they remained, eeking out a living at home in the place of their ancestors. Not only did the World Bank and IDB’s “development” project result in whole scale massacres, village destruction and dispossession of lands and territory, but it didn’t even bring electricity to the surrounding communities until 2015. Even then, the service (that they pay for) has been spotty. On the night of the fiery explosion, electricity had been cut off and Juan and Isabel were using candles in their home … the spark that lit the fire.
There is no silver lining to this story. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for the Chixoy dam / Rio Negro massacres living in Pacux and Rio Negro, let alone for a majority of Guatemala’s population, particularly the Mayan people.
While the massacres suffered by the Rio Negro people were more concentrated and overwhelming because of the World Bank and IDB’s violent removal of thousands of people, the fact is the U.S.-backed regime was carrying out massacres across the country. While the resultant poverty, trauma and despair of the Rio Negro survivors are arguably even worse than most communities that suffered massacres and forced evictions, the fact is that a majority of Guatemalans live in endemic conditions of racism and poverty kept in place by the repression, corruption and impunity of the undemocratic regimes in power.
These are the breeding grounds of endemic “accidents”. Our hearts go out to Juan and Isabel’s families, and to all the survivors of the Chixoy dam / Rio Negro massacres.
Short Term Needs
Rights Action has sent an initial $1,000 to Juan Uscap and his family. More funds are needed for on-going medical costs and to re-build the family home and replace personal belongings and property.
Medium and Long-Term Needs
The real challenge lies in working to ensure:
- that the Guatemalan government immediately pay out of the entire $154,000,000 Reparation Fund owed to the victims of the Chixoy dam community evictions;
- that the Guatemalan government pay out funds owed to the survivors of the Chixoy dam / Rio Negro massacre victims as determined by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012;
- that independent investigations are carried out into the role of the World Bank and IDB in funding and implementing the genocidal Chixoy dam project. Both banks profited from their investments; both claim they complied with the terms of the project; both have refused to accept any responsibility for or pay any of the $154,000,000 Reparations Fund or the Inter-American Court massacres compensation fund;
- that work continue to hold the U.S. government accountable for its role in the genocides committed in Guatemala from 1978-1983, including in the Mayan Achi communities of Rabinal;
- that work continue to hold the U.S. and Canadian governments and North American companies and investors accountable for maintaining profitable economic, political and military relations with the corrupted, repressive regimes that run Guatemala, past and present, always turning a blind eye to exploitation and racism, government repression, corruption and impunity.
Feel free to re-publish and share. Grahame Russell is a non-practicing Canadian lawyer, author, adjunct professor at UNBC (University of Northern British Columbia) and, since 1995, director of Rights Action: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rightsaction.org.