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Fulfilling My Bucket List – Mission Trip to Guatemala

Richard Spruit

President & CEO, Grand Rapids Metrology

As most of you know, traveling to Guatemala to do mission work is WAY out of my comfort zone. My friend Danny Coyle has been making such trips for over 10 years. I have always admired his character and sense of giving and this past Summer I told him to put me on the travel list. As the time drew near, I have no trouble telling you how reluctant I became. I think my kids were more proud of me for not backing out than actually going.

To those of you who responded to my request to donate, THANK YOU again! Because Children From Afar (CFA), a 501(c)(3) charity is all volunteer, every penny you donated went to actual aid and services. The two sites where we spent the majority of our time was in the village of Pacux and the Guatemala City Dump.

I will deal with the two sites separately starting with the Village of Pacux. Before I tell you about our trip and the work of CFA in Pacux, it’s important to understand some of the history of the area and the people.

Some Background on Pacux

The community of Río Negro, settled on the banks of the river Chixoy, in the town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz department, lived on agriculture, fishing and the exchange of goods with the neighboring community of Xococ. In the 1970s, Río Negro had a population of about 800 people, all indigenous Achís.

The lives of the people of Río Negro, and the people living on the riverbanks Chixoy, changed radically with the construction of the hydro-Quixal Pueblo Viejo. An inhabitant of the region recognized: “In the community before we were safe and in peace; but after the construction of the dam many problems emerged”.

In 1975 the National Electrification Institute (INDE) presented the project for the construction of a hydropower dam in the river basin Chixoy to solve the problem of electricity in the country, under the auspices of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the World Bank. “The plan envisaged the flooding of more than 50 miles along the river and some tributaries, which affect nearly 3445 people from communities living on the margins”. Affected communities had to be moved and resettled elsewhere. In June 1978 the Government declared the area in national emergency due to the flood caused by the building of the dam. The INDE pledged to find and deliver to the displaced equal or better lands than those that would be flooded. The community of Río Negro did not accept the proposals of the State.

The authorities tried to settle residents of Río Negro in Pacux, an arid place, and houses that broke its scheme cultural life. The peasants resisted leaving their lands. A person who gave testimony said that Río Negro “was the model community of the area, with the best organization, was the most prosperous in the region, and that was one of the reasons why this community was not as easy to fool as all others.” In 1978 many people in the community moved their homes to bring them high land that would not be inundated by flood waters.

Faced with this situation, the INDE acknowledged that “the problems that occurred in the resettlement were: a) misunderstanding of the affected population on the need for the construction of the project, b) attachment to their region and the land that had affected villagers c) the difficulty in obtaining land in the region necessary for relocations that took place “.

The attachment to their region “referred to the INDE, is because the area of the river Chixoy was inhabited from the Maya Classic period (330 BC to 900 years AD) by indigenous people, and there were several religious ceremony places. The INDE noted the existence of 50 religious ceremony ancestral sites distributed throughout the valley, on the terraces bordering the river, that would be flooded.

The construction of the dam was imminent. A survivor said that INDE explained the situation to the representatives of the village in the following terms: “Even if you do not want to leave, since the President signed the contract already, you can not stop the project because it has already been approved. So it will continue, and some day you will have to leave.” A legal adviser to the INDE said, referring to communities: “some left willingly and others had to be forced out. Those who wanted to negotiate, fine, and for those who did not, we used force”.

By this time, the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) taught literacy and human rights, supported and advised residents of Río Negro in their lawsuits against INDE. In 1979 the Guerrilla Army of the Poor arrived at Río Negro, held meetings with community leaders associated with CUC and spoke of revolution. A person who gave testimony says: “They said it was a struggle to make the Government leave and the Army leave, and that we must fight with machetes, with hot water, and that we were going to get farms if we did the revolution”. Members of the ESP lived in the mountains and every so often visiting the community. In 1980 the hydroelectric project was still in force and the residents of Río Negro continued to resist abandoning their lands.

II. The facts: the massacres and elimination of the community

On March 5, 1980 two residents of Río Negro who were in Pueblo Viejo were accused of stealing beans from the dining rooms of the dam workers. They were pursued by two soldiers and an officer of the Policia Militar Ambulante (PMA). Upon arrival at Río Negro, the two residents began shouting that they were pursuing the military. The soldiers were rounded up and taken to the church. A community member, who was drunk, struck the officer of the PMA, who, in his eagerness to defend himself, shot and killed seven people. Immediately, the farmers reacted with stones and machetes and killed the agent. One of the soldiers, seeing the reaction of the crowd and his companion dying, left the gun and fled. The other soldier was withheld for a while, and was later freed.

The next day the Army commented on the fact saying that the community had influence from the guerrillas and that was the factor that explained their refusal to leave their lands. The military claimed in their Press bulletin: “For some time the people of the Río Negro village have become troubled by the influence of subversive elements, which have benefited from the problems of land, raised on the grounds that their land will be affected by the flooding of the Chixoy dam. This, unlike other villages which have voluntarily accepted the transfer to safer places and where they have better life expectancies”.

Since that incident, members of the Army began visiting the community of Río Negro. Often the houses were searched, and people were questioned about the gun that the soldier had left on May 5 when he fled. In 1981 started the selective disappearance of the community leaders. Given these circumstances, and in order to avoid the repression of the army, community representatives went to the military zone of Coban and the military detachment of Rabinal to apologize by w hat happened on May 5. The reaction of the military was to accuse them of guerrillas and threaten them with death. An eyewitness says that the captain told them that the peasants of Río Negro “were already trained by the guerrillas. We were told to bring weapons because if not, they were going to make ash to Río Negro”. The military never found the weapons they were allegedly looking for.

While this was happening at Río Negro, the community of Xococ was also being subjected to military repression. Collective testimony given by the community to CEH shows that, between September and October 1981, members of the army executed 18 peasants who were planting peanuts.

In February 1982 a group of armed men, possibly guerrillas, burned the market of Xococ, killing five persons. As a result of the fact that the Army identified the peasants of Río Negro with the guerrillas, residents of Xococ broke trade relations with Río Negro and declared them their enemies. Says an inhabitant of Xococ: “When the war began, friendship was lost” .

The community of Xococ asked the Army to organize the Civil Patrols (PACs). “Father Melchor [pastor of Rabinal and expert on the situation of the villages] said that there was a pact so that the people of Xococ were to cooperate fully, in exchange of not being killed”. The community of Río Negro was described as a guerrilla. The Patrol Xococ, armed, trained and guided by the Army, was confronted since then with the residents of Río Negro.

The first action taken by the patrol Xococ was on February 7, 1982, on behalf of the military detachment of Rabinal. They asked some people from the community of Río Negro to come to Xococ. The head of the Patrol Xococ that received them accused them of participating in the guerrilla and of burning their market. The inhabitants of Rio Negro replied that the market was a benefit for them and that they had no reason to burn it. However, to avoid worsening the situation, the persons from Rio Negro promised to build a new market in Xococ. Finally, the patrollers retained their identity cards and ordered them to report back to Xococ the following week to recover them.

On February 13, 1982, 74 people from Río Negro(55 men and 19 women) went to Xococ to recover the identity cards. Once there, they were executed by the patrollers.

A month later, on March 13, 1982, at six o’clock, 12 members of the army patrol accompanied by 15 patrols of the Xococ village, entered the community of Río Negro. They went to every house asking for the men, but they were not in their homes because they used to spend the nights in the mountain citing security reasons. The soldiers claimed that they were with the guerrillas. Then they demanded people to leave their homes to participate in a meeting.

Meanwhile, soldiers and patrol had breakfast, eating food they found in the houses. When they finished eating, they looted the village. A person who witnessed the events said: “It took shovels, tools and tape recorders and stole everything that was in the houses”.

Then they gathered the women. They played marimba music and forced them to dance, in the words of the soldiers, as they danced with the guerrillas. A number of young women were taken apart and raped.

Then, they forced the people gathered to walk about three miles up the mountain. “Throughout the walk, they beat the women a lot, they called them cows. They beat the children a lot calling them sons of guerrillas”. When they got to the top of the hill Pacoxom, a member of the Army said, “right now I find it not kill a few guerrillas”. Thus, they proceeded to torture and kill unarmed victims. A few hung from the trees, others were killed by machetes and others were shot. “A child like the one I carry now [said one survivor carrying an infant at the time of the interview] was carried by the hair and threw once and again against the stones”. In a trench they put the corpses. “One who was still agonizing was left there as firewood; some over the others, not in order because they were thrown in there”. The pit was covered with stones and branches. Around five in the afternoon the slaughter ended and they headed towards Xococ. Eighteen surviving children were taken away by the attackers towards the community.

Reports agree that 177 people -70 women and 107 children -, defenceless civilian population of the community of Río Negro, were killed in this action. The diligence of exhumation of corpses, practised 12 years later, established the existence, in three graves, skeletons of 143, 85 of which belonged to children, and the rest to women.

III. The subsequent events: more massacres, displacement and resettlement

On the day after the slaughter, a person who had been hiding in the bush, returned to the community to look for his wife and children: “I was crying myself, brought sheets because I thought my kids were thrown somewhere. I just saw blood, bullets. We came back and took a suitcase and went to the mountains. We remain stranded and without spirit since that day”.

A group of survivors took refuge in the community Los Encuentros (located where the rivers come together with Salamá Chixoy). This community was attacked with grenades by the Army on May 14, 1982, killing of 79 peasants, event during which 15 women disappeared. All the houses were burnt.

Other survivors of Río Negro headed towards the community of Agua Fria, across the river Chixoy in the department of Quiche. On September 14, 1982 soldiers and patrols from Xococ village came to this community, proceeding to gather all people in one of the houses. Under the charge of supplying the guerrillas with materials, they fired from outside the house and then they set it on fire. As a result of this action 92 people were killed, including the elderly, children and women.

The remaining people who could escape these massacres fled to the mountains, where, with advice from ESP, lived in groups who were traveling from one side to another to avoid being detected by the Army. They maintained continuous surveillance to avoid being surprised by the PACs and soldiers. The Army destroyed all milpas and crops they found. A person who lived in the mountain said: “The Army cut off all our crops, so that we starved”. In the mountains they had no medical care or medicines. They ate roots like bejuco, cojoya palm, and hunted wild animals. An undetermined number of men, women and children died of forced displacement. Many stayed in the mountains for up to five years. A declarant who refused to leave the mountain, said: “I thought, here I might die from hunger but not of a gunshot” .

Months after the slaughter of March 13, 1982, the INDE began to fill the reservoir. As a declarant said: “After the slaughter, people left and the place began to fill with water, as simple as that”.

After the 1983 amnesty, the survivors came down from the mountain. After going through Coban, they dispersed throughout Guatemala. Some went to Escuintla, Retalhuleu and elsewhere in Guatemala, while the rest of the peasants returned to Rabinal. They were resettled in the village of Pacux, which is located behind the military detachment of Rabinal, forced to form PACs with the aim, as they said, “to prevent the recurrence of repeat attacks by the guerrillas as Río Negro occurred in “. In Pacux the living conditions are precarious and the lands are not suitable for subsistence farming. The grounds are “poor, it is not usable nothing, or for grazing our animals”.

My Visit to Pacux

Over the last 8 to 10 years, my friend Danny Coyle has made almost 20 trips to Pacux with CFA. They have built houses, schools, a well, cooking facilities, computer facilities and other infrastructure. In addition, they funded the initial high school as the government only provided education to the 6th grade. As education is a key interest of CFA, they also provide funds so no child is precluded from school. While the government provides education, you can’t go to school unless you can pay for your own uniforms and supplies. The costs for uniforms and supplies run about $200 per student per year. CFA pays these costs for virtually every school aged child in Pacux!

As we drove into the village, a few children recognized Danny in our van. By the time we arrived at the center of town, there were 50 to 100 children running behind the van shouting “Danny, Danny”! Immediately, the emotions were overwhelming! It was tough to hold back the tears.

After lots of work (Yes, I did heavy lifting, etc.), we left Pacux! We spent the night in the near city of Rabinal where we spent the night. OMG! Limited electricity and NO hot water! Not the type of place Dick Spruit typically stays. No, the bed bugs did not bite me. Went to bed before 9 PM!

In the morning, we visited a nutrition center run by some Catholic Nuns. This is a center that cares for malnourished children from surrounding villages. Once they are returned to health, they are sent back to their village and their parents. This was truly a rewarding visit for us. We held the babies, worked with the staff and made some cash donations for food and medication. This facility is run completely on donations!

At around 9 AM, we left Rabinal for the 4 hour drive back to Guatemala to work at the Guatemala City dump!

Guatemala City Dump

What attracts CFA to the dump is that over 25,000 poor people live there. There are acres of homes made of materials you’d expect to find in the dump. Dirt floors, no electricity, no running water and no sewer service. In spite of that, we met and worked with the people who are happy, clean, friendly and without dread or complaint. They have the strongest faith in God I have ever witnessed! Amazing in these circumstances!

The water in the dump is turned on for 45 minutes a day. There is one faucet for every 100 families. The people line up in an orderly fashion and fill their containers.

Believe it or not, the owner of the dump charges the residents rent. If a family doesn’t pay the rent, they turn off the water for all. Talk about peer pressure!

The residents support themselves by scavenging in the dump. They collect cardboard, cloth, plastic, metals, etc. They then bundle what they scavenge and then sell it to recyclers. They work in the dump 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Births and deaths in the dump are not recorded. Guatemala has no system of government welfare, healthcare or retirement. The dump is an economy in and of itself. The people support themselves with the help of various churches and organizations like CFA.

It’s difficult to explain the feelings I have had after this trip. I certainly appreciate what we have and how we live. I also recognize that too much of the effort of our lives is spent in the pursuit of things. Also, accept the things you can’t change. Finally, keep your faith strong and close. People told me the trip would be a life changing experience. Though I can’t quantify it, I am changed.

I am committed to returning. Both my children will go in 2014. While I love my job and the other work I do here, it all pales in comparison to the 4 days I spent in Guatemala. Don’t spend your time pursuing stuff! You’ll be happier!

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