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A Funeral for Manuel, 32 Years After the Guatemalan Massacre That Killed Him

On May 14, 1982, during the height of Guatemala's civil war, Carmen Sánchez Chen was bathing in the Chixoy River when the military attacked, taking her three-year-old son, Manuel. Decades later, Manuel's remains were exhumed from a mass grave, allowing...
June 11, 2014, 1:19pm

On May 14, 1982, Carmen Sánchez Chen left her three-year-old son, Manuel, with a neighbor as she went to bathe in Guatemala's Chixoy River. Two months had passed since Guatemalan soldiers and civil patrolmen from neighboring Xococ had brutally massacred 177 women and children in Carmen's village of Río Negro.

Guatemala’s civil war, ongoing since 1960, was at its climax in 1982, when the US-trained general Efraín Ríos Montt gained power by way of a coup d'état. Ríos Montt vowed to squash the leftist guerrillas with scorched-earth campaigns. The theory was simple—without a support base, the guerrillas could not operate. All communities identified as sympathetic or in collaboration with a guerrilla were now deemed an internal enemy.

Carmen’s community in Río Negro had been tagged as subversives by the Guatemalan military after local leaders refused to relocate in accordance with the construction of the Pueblo Viejo-Quixal hydroelectric plant, which proposed to flood 31 miles of the Chixoy River basin and much of its valley—therefore permanently erasing 23 villages, 45 archaeological sites, and numerous crop areas. Río Negro was one of the 23 villages to be flooded out, displacing its 800-person population.

The Guatemalan army began what would, by the end of 1982, become a series of five different massacres that killed more than half the population of Río Negro and sent a warning to neighboring communities.

Carmen Sánchez Chen and her husband, Bernardo, both Achi Mayans, left Rio Negro in February of 1982, and were now living with other survivors and refugees from their village in the downriver community of Los Encuentros.

But as Carmen bathed in the Chixoy River, explosions, gunfire, and screams suddenly deafened her. Carmen swam across the river and hid behind a tree. Before she fainted, Carmen witnessed an army helicopter taking away numerous people—including her neighbor, Margarita, and Carmen’s own son, Manuel. After the dust settled, the toll from the latest massacre against the people of Río Negro was 79 dead and dozens missing. Manuel was nowhere to be found.

From January 2012 to April 2013, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) exhumed 533 human remains from 84 mass graves inside Coban City’s former army base Military Zone 21. Mass grave 15 contained the remains of numerous women and children bearing clothing and jewelry indicating they were from Río Negro. Meanwhile, mass grave 16 (pictured) contained dozens of bound, tied, and blindfolded human remains.

After DNA tests were carried out, Manuel was positively identified as one of the children from mass grave 15.

On May 14, 2014, Carmen and Bernardo held a wake for Manuel in their home. For more than two decades they have lived in the resettlement village of Pacux, outside Rabinal, where survivors from Río Negro were eventually relocated after the destruction of their village and the flooding of the Chixoy River basin.

Carlos Chen, who lost his wife and two children in one of the Río Negro massacres, said, “Yesterday, the congress passed a decree stating there was no genocide in Guatemala. So we ask, who killed [Manuel], then?” Mr. Chen is the principal negotiator for the Coordinating Committee of the Communities Affected by the Chixoy Dam (COCAICH), a coalition of flooded communities who still hope to get reparations for the disappearance of their territories in the early 1980s.

Carmen and Bernardo purposely held Manuel’s wake the same night when the rest of community members from Pacux held a Christian syncretic commemoration for the 32nd anniversary of the Los Encuentros massacre.

Juan Chen, 80, survivor from Río Negro, holds a candle as he prepares to carry out a Mayan ceremony next to the images of the victims.

On the morning of May 15, 2014, Bernardo Chen (right), 55, stares at his son Manuel Chen Sánchez's casket before heading to the cemetery.

Daniel Martin Chen Sánchez, 18, carries the casket of his brother Manuel, whom he never met.

Raúl Piox, 29, plays a violin ahead of the funeral procession as locals from Pacux walk to Rabinal’s cemetery.

Carmen Sánchez walks in the funeral procession for her son Manuel while one of her younger daughters holds her arm.

Simón Tecú Cortez (in blue) leads a prayer before Manuel’s remains are placed inside his grave.

Exactly 32 years after they lost their eldest son during the chaos of a massacre, Carmen and Bernardo were finally able to mourn and bury Manuel—an eternal three-year-old. “I often wondered if someday he would walk in, all grown up,” Carmen said. “I don’t think I would have recognized him anyways, but I would always wonder. Now, at least, I have a place to go visit him and take him flowers.”

James Rodríguez is an independent documentary photographer based in Guatemala. He publishes at