Group member Luis Enrique Lopez shot this photo during the group's village detention

By Rocky Contos

In late January, an international group of expedition paddlers intending to descend the Río Copón-Chixoy in the northern Quiché region of Guatemala faced a traumatic experience as angry indigenous villagers near the put-in denied them access to the river, detained them for a total of 14 hours, demanded large fines for trespassing on their lands, and threatened them in other ways. Eventually the paddlers were allowed to retreat, but noted that several thousand dollars worth of equipment was missing.

The group consisted of six Guatemalans, five Americans, and one Frenchman. The paddlers planned to raft, kayak, and riverboard Río Copón-Chixoy, an approximately 55-mile, Class IV-plus river section. The descent—likely a four- to five-day trip with rafts—would have been the second raft trip down the river and the fourth overall.

"The canyons are spectacular, the jungle is pristine, and the rapids are world-class," Greg Schwendinger says of the run on his website Schwendinger has become a local expert on the rivers of Central America's Mayan Region. After safety-kayaking on the January 2006 first descent and completing two kayak-only trips from upstream points, he considers the Copón his favorite river in Guatemala, if not Central America.

Trip members Paul Heesaker, Max Baldetty, and Roberto Rodas were intending to film the expedition as part of a documentary film to highlight the best rivers in Guatemala and promote ecotourism/conservation. After a four-day trip on the popular Río Lanquín-Cahabón, the group convoyed to the Copón put-in on Jan. 25. The six-hour drive on poorly maintained dirt roads took them past four indigenous Mayan villages before reaching the final village of Santa Maria Saraguate, where they hoped to employ local residents to help carry their equipment down the trail (about a three-hour hike) to the river.

See Rodas describe the river here, as well as the potential for sustainable river running in the region:

In contrast to the 2006 reception that the first descent crew experienced in Saraguate, this group was met with suspicious residents who refused to allow the paddlers to pass through their lands. The group was forced to park its vehicles in such a way that they could not leave and then gathered in a central location where community leaders soon came and questioned them, demanding to know everything the group intended to do.

"They didn't believe that we just wanted to paddle the river," said Lacey Anderson, a catarafter in the group. "We kept trying to convince them of this. We had to pull out a kayak and show how a person sits inside." The atmosphere grew tense, and according to Heesaker, some agitated residents in the crowd began calling, "Burn them!", "Hang them!", and/or "Kill them!"

"Although the leaders seemed to have things in control, any time you get a mob, mob psychology can set in and one or two individuals could have turned that situation ugly in a moment's notice," Heesaker added, "And it did have moments when it seemed it might go that way. "

Fortunately the mob only produced a succession of passionate speeches by several residents against such exploitation, foreigners, and damage to their environment. The community leaders settled on demanding a fine of 50,000 Quetzals (approximately $7,000 USD) from the paddling group for the unapproved intrusion on their land.

Heesaker stated that Rodas and Baldetty, both river guides and the latter a nephew of Guatemala's vice president, were key figures diffusing the tense situation developing. They apologized for the unacceptable oversight of not seeking permission from the community beforehand and assured them that the group would pay the money. Baldetty went as far as offering to remain with the villagers as hostage to ensure the other members returned with the money.

"What Max did … was probably one of the bravest things I've ever seen," Heesaker said, noting how Max's apologetic tone and selfless demeanor were instrumental in placating the community leaders to change their minds and allow the group to simply leave without paying a fine.

Yet before departing, all members of the paddling expedition and their drivers had to sign forms stating that they would never return to the area, a process that took another hour or two. The whole ordeal in Saraguate lasted about four hours.

When the paddlers, escorted by villagers, departed back toward the highway, however, they arrived at a blockade at one of the other four villages.

"They had placed big boulders in the road so we couldn't pass," said Neil Nikirk, a catarafter in the group. This village was also filled with suspicious residents and a similar questioning period ensued. After several more hours and after signing forms never to return, the group was permitted to leave. They encountered additional situations with suspicious residents in the next villages. Upon reaching the third village, cell phone reception was available and the group alerted government authorities of the situation.

Several drunk, boisterous young men brandishing machetes greeted the group in the final village (Campamac), which they arrived at around 2 a.m. Although Jaime Tzirt, an indigenous Mayan river guide in the group, was accused of being a traitor to his own people and roughed up a bit, no others were physically harmed. Community members searched the vehicles demanding explanations about the group's gear. When the paddlers were escorted away from their vehicles and questioned, they reported that some items were removed, including the filming equipment.

Fourteen hours after the first detainment, the paddlers finally arrived at the highway and the city of Chicamán. There, they encountered several dozen armed soldiers and vehicles outfitted with machine guns and defensive armor. Mobilized for an impending rescue, the military forces did not approach the villages for fear of escalating the situation and endangering the lives of the paddlers.

Though the military personnel did not confront villagers directly, they did play a role in allowing the paddlers to safely escape. Luis Enrique Lopez, one of the paddlers periodically in phone contact with the nearby military base commander, informed some villagers that the government and military were aware of the situation and mobilizing.

"They [the military] put a lot of pressure on the leaders and the villages," said Lopez, confident the military and government played a major role in the group's safe return. "I heard some of them [villagers] saying that they should let us leave cause otherwise the soldiers would get there and it would be bad for them."

A few days after the ordeal, a local political leader spoke to the village leaders in order to explain the situation and the harm the communities had caused. Some village leaders were apologetic and regretful that items had been stolen. They managed to have all the stolen items returned and offered to resume talks with paddlers to possibly allow trips down the nearby rivers. Thus there is hope that in the future a greater understanding will be reached and the communities might actually welcome paddlers.

Heesaker summarized the Río Copón experience best by pointing out its central irony: "The sentiments among the Mayan people there were that maybe we were associated with wanting to build a dam—and the exact opposite was true. We wanted to bring this to the world's attention and prevent the destruction of the river. So we were on their side. It's just really unfortunate the way it all came down because we could have worked together with the Mayan communities to bring this to the world's attention."

See more of Heesaker’s thoughts on the incident here:

Perhaps it is no surprise that villagers were wary of the brigade of foreigners who they suspected of coming to exploit their lands. The Mayan villagers' anger and suspicions have deep-seated roots. Ever since the Spanish arrival in the 16th century, indigenous Mayan residents have experienced intrusions, forced relocations, exploitation of natural resources, imprisonment and outright killing.

In the early 1980s when the nearby massive Chixoy Dam was planned and approved, villagers organized protests due to the impending forced relocations and inadequate compensation. Military and paramilitary forces responded with attacks that annihilated whole villages in what became known as the Río Negro Massacres. The problems in Guatemala continued through the early '90s during the civil war, when leftist-oriented factions aligned with the poor indigenous villagers sought to overthrow the U.S.-backed Guatemala government (Read more HERE). During the war, the government's military forces invaded villages in search of rebel members and beat, imprisoned, and/or executed suspected rebels.

The memories of the Chixoy Dam and civil war atrocities remain. Problems continue to surface as villagers confront foreign interests seeking to exploit the natural wealth of their areas with mines, dams, logging, and tourism, usually with no compensation to them.

In the Copón area specifically, residents have faced additional threats of exploitation and degradation of their environment with the small Palo Viejo dam and hydro project that was recently approved by the government on a side stream of the Copón. The project has aroused the anger of nearby communities, with initial work resulting in silty river water that local community residents have complained about. In a recent YouTube clip on the dam project, one resident states, "We're seeing dirty turbid water now—deteriorating our quality of life." Another states, "The water is no good anymore. We can't drink it. We can't utilize it to swim, wash our clothes, or bath. For this we are very worried about the impact we're suffering."

James “Rocky” Contos, Ph.D., is the director of SierraRios, a conservation nonprofit for Latin America’s rivers. Click HERE for more information on Río Copón and Chixoy.