Fighting Rights Abuses

The Chixoy Dam and the Rio Negro Massacres

The legacy of Chixoy

The Guatemalan government received funding from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank to build the Chixoy dam in an area long inhabited by Achí-speaking Maya indigenous people. Construction began in 1976, despite the government’s failure to address the needs of the Mayan communities, who wanted neither the project nor to relocate. The infertile lands and inadequate housing in the resettlement village offered by the government failed to meet basic human needs, and many refused to accept resettlement.

Problems arose between the military government and one village in particular- Rio Negro- because the community opposed resettlement, fearing that the living conditions in the new areas would not be as promised. The community’s resolve to press for just terms was met by a series of horrific massacres. Nearly five hundred of Rio Negro’s eight hundred residents were killed before Chixoy was completed. Rio Negro was abandoned, and the Chixoy basin filled. In the years since, the people have lived in conditions of poverty, violent repression, and psychological trauma.

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Action at last: a Damage Verification Commission

Over the years, there were numerous efforts to bring those responsible for the massacres to justice and to obtain compensation for the communities’ lost lands and way of life. The communities joined together and formed the Coordinating Committee of Communities Affected by the Chixoy Dam (COCAHICH) to document the problems caused by the dam and press for justice.  On September 7, 2004, a peaceful protest at the dam site ended after an agreement was reached with the government to establish a Verification Commission to consider the communities’ claims.

EDLC enlists Holland & Knight to represent the communities

In 2005, the leaders of COCAHICH, working closely with the NGO International Rivers, requested EDLC to find an international law firm to represent them in the upcoming proceedings before the Verification Commission. The law firm of Holland & Knight agreed to take on the case. The firm’s team of lawyers was headed by partners Enrique Gomez-Pinzon, an international commercial negotiator, and Elizabeth Bevington, a commercial litigator. Over a nearly ten year period, the team has included two dozen associates, partners, and paralegals from eight of the firm’s offices.

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The negotiation process

The government and COCAHICH agreed to a framework for the identification, verification and reparation of the communities’ losses. A Roundtable was created to oversee the process, with three Technical Commissions to do the work, aided by a multidisciplinary technical team of professionals and experts in diverse fields. A reparations plan was jointly developed and agreed to in April 2010. The plan called for a payment of $150 million to the communities, with the construction and repair of homes, improvement of roads, new water and sewage systems, and other infrastructure projects. However, President Colom left office in 2012 without signing the final agreement.

A resolution

The next key development was the inclusion of a provision in the 2014 U.S. budget that put real pressure on the Guatemalan government to finalize the agreement or risk losing financial assistance from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. President Molina of Guatemala finally signed the reparations plan and publicly apologized to the communities, in person, on November 8, 2014. To help keep the pressure on the Guatemalan Congress, the 2015 U.S. budget included provisions similar to those contained in the 2014 budget.

The plan provides for $26 million of compensation to 2,329 victims’ families. In October 2015, the Guatemalan Congress paid the first $2.9 million of that amount to 250 families. In May 2016, $4.3 million more was paid to hundreds of other families. The Guatemalan Congress will hopefully continue to honor the full range of commitments contained in the reparations plan.

 

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