Like the department of Quiché, indigenous Baja Verapaz was the target of scorched earth tactics during the early 1980s, and three of the deadliest massacres of the armed conflict occurred in Rabinal. On September 15, 1981 (Guatemalan Independence Day), the army descended upon the town with a list of dozens of names of those who had refused to serve on one of the forced self-defense patrols, systematically killing them and anyone who stood in their way. Fearing for their lives, innocent civilians scampered into the countryside.
In July of 1982 over 250 men, women, and children were slaughtered and dumped into mass graves in an aldea of Rabinal called Plan de Sánchez. Women and children were raped and the elderly were tortured. Targeted because the town supposedly harbored guerillas insurgents, Plan de Sánchez was abandoned by its survivors for many years, and civilians lived in fear that the army would come looking for witnesses. Five of the perpetrators were sentenced to 7,710 years in prison, and the government was forced to pay reparations, but the Plan de Sánchez remains a stain on Guatemalan history.
The third and possibly most devastating of the mass killings is referred to collectively as the Río Negro massacres, an abuse of human rights justified as an anti-insurgency campaign but was directly linked to the construction of the Chixoy Dam. Located south of Rabinal along the roaring Chixoy River, this massive hydroelectric plant was constructed with $944 million dollars of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Generating 15% of Guatemala’s electric power, the Chixoy Dam would appear to be a success. In fact, this engineering marvel ended up costing three times its initial project cost. It also displaced nearly 3,500 indigenous Achí people from their ancestral homelands, forcing them off the river’s fertile valleys and onto desolate, arid mountains.
Constructed during the worst years of the Guatemalan armed conflict, the relocation of these families was handled poorly (to say the least), and protests immediately began in earnest. Using counter-insurgency tactics as an excuse, the Guatemalan military slaughtered more than 440 Achí Maya in the village of Río Negro in 1982. Over 5,000 innocent civilians lost their lives over the course of the project, an event collectively known as the Río Negro massacres. No actual links between these helpless Achí villagers and the guerilla have ever been substantiated. Today, numerous lawsuits remain hopelessly stuck in court, and reparations have not been pain to the survivors of this gargantuan development blunder. All in all, gradual efforts to unearth mass graves have led to the exhumation and identification of over 4,000 innocent civilians, almost all of which are indigenous Achí.