rios-monttThe trial ended with a guilty verdict, sentencing five men (the sixth had died from diabetes complications during the trial) to the maximum penalty of 30 years. Their actions were ordered by Guatemalan army officers as part of state-authored policy of war against a civilian population. To date, no trial has been held in Guatemala for the officers of this or other genocidal events, though there is a case of genocide and other crimes against humanity proceeding through the Spanish courts, naming eight material authors of Guatemalan state-sponsored violence, including former dictator Rios Montt.

Impunity is a very tangible reality in Guatemala, and it is the rare day when crimes are acknowledged and some meaningful effort made to repair the damages that have been done. Of the 626 massacres reported by the Truth Commission in 1999, only three cases have been prosecuted. This point is underscored when considering the common use of death threats to repress social activism and the repeated targeting of journalists. Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in the Western hemisphere and one of the lowest conviction rates. According to the Guatemala Human Rights Ombudsman (on 2006 data), convictions are obtained in approximately 6 percent of all criminal cases, and for cases involving the murders of women and children, only 3 percent.

This year has seen small, tentative steps that suggest the possible emergence of a new, stronger rule of law in Guatemala, with the conviction of the Xococ men last spring and, more recently, with the November 20, 2008, accord signed by President Alvaro Colom Caballeros and the Coordinator of the Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Dam (COCAHICH). In this accord, the government acknowledges for the first time that “damages and violations” occurred during the Chixoy Dam’s construction. Furthermore, the government accepts the obligation to offer reparations, to continue to work with mediators from the Organization of American States (OAS) to verify the damages to families affected by the dam, and to design and implement a plan for their reparations.

While the government of Guatemala has stated a commitment to repair the socioeconomic damages from the first Chixoy Dam, it has also been actively soliciting construction bids for a new hydroelectric development, the Xalalá Dam which will flood upstream a 26-mile stretch of the Chixoy River and forcibly displace between 18 and 30 communities. The decision to site the project, request bids, and issue construction contracts – once again – occurred without completing an adequate environmental or social impact assessment.

Energy from the first Chixoy Dam sustains the capital city and is exported to foreign markets. Many displaced communities still lack electricity. The new dam is expected to generate energy to feed a grid that flows up to the United States, and to power the extractive industry in rural Guatemala (gold, silver, uranium, nickel mines and natural gas development). In the project area, communities met to consider the project and voted to reject the new dam and the related expansion of extractive industry.

On November 24, 2008, the Guatemalan government released the news that while nine international companies had shown initial interest in the project, only one, Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, submitted a letter. In their letter, Odebrecht reportedly explained that it would not be bidding on the project, citing community opposition to the dam as one of the reasons affecting its decision. Odebrecht was recently expelled from Ecuador when problems with its turbines and conduction tunnels caused the shutdown of its newly built dam.

Upon receiving no bids from transnational companies on the Xalalá Dam project, the Guatemalan government announced that it will continue to seek financing from multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank.

As I contemplate my desktop image, this exhumed and now reburied skull, I consider the promise and the disappointments that characterize the struggle to secure reparations. In Guatemala, reparations seem to mean the very rare day in court, or the modest plan to pay compensation. Small and tentative steps in the face of an ever-present and oppressive agenda seemingly bent on development and profit for a few, at the cost of lives, livelihoods, and ways of life of numerous others.

The question is, will reparations in Guatemala ever mean “never again”?

Barbara Rose Johnston is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. Her most recent book is Waging War, Making Peace – Reparations and Human Rights (Left Coast Press, 2008), co-edited with Susan Slyomovics. Johnston is also the primary author of the Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study (2005), a five-volume study that is the product of independent investigation accepted by the Guatemalan government and distributed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Human Rights Program. Copies of the study are available in Spanish and English at

She can be reached at:

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