The fishing and farming villages which emerged on Guatemala’s Pacific coast as early as 2000 BC were the forerunners of the great Maya civilization which dominated Central America for centuries, leaving its enigmatic legacy of hilltop ruins. By AD 250, the Early Classic Period, great temple cities were beginning to be built in the Guatemalan highlands, but by the Late Classic Period (AD 600 to 900) the center of power had moved to the El Petén lowlands. Following the mysterious collapse of the Maya civilization, the Itzaes also settled in El Petén, particularly around the present-day site of Flores.
When Pedro de Alvarado, who became the first captain general of Guatemala, came to conquer Guatemala for the king of Spain in 1523, he found the faded remnants of the Maya civilization and an assortment of warring tribes. In 1524, he founded the city of Guatemala and gained total control over the country two years later.The remaining highland kingdoms of the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were soon crushed by Alvarado’s armies, their lands carved up into large estates and their people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners. The subsequent arrivals of Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian friars could not halt this exploitation, and their religious imperialism caused valuable traces of Mayan culture to be destroyed. In 1527 the first colonial capital, Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (later named Ciudad Vieja) was founded.
Guatemala was a region that included most of Central America and was a dependency of the viceroyalty of Mexico. Independence from Spain was attained on September 15, 1821, when large landowners and local business interests joined forces with colonial officials, to peacefully proclaim the independence of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, including the five countries of Central America, and in 1824, Guatemala became part of the United Provinces of Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala,
Honduras and Nicaragua). In 1831, under tremendous debt pressure, the Government yielded large portions of territory to Britain for timber. This later became British Honduras, now the independent nation of Belize. In 1839 the union broke up, largely due to a revolt against it led by José Rafael Carrera, an Indian general who had seized control of Guatemala and ruled until 1865, which thereupon became an independent country.
Carrera and his immediate successors were Conservatives. In 1871, however, a Liberal caudillo, Justo Rufino Barrios, seized power, and the Liberals remained in control until World War Two. Barrios was president from 1873 to 1885, enacted extensive anticlerical legislation, took the first steps toward establishing a national education system, and sponsored the beginning of the coffee industry. The discovery of synthetic dyes in Europe in the mid-18th century caused a serious economic crisis in Guatemala, where the main export products were vegetable dyes. Coffee replaced dyes as the country’s main cash crop, and
plantation owners deprived the Indians of most of their communal lands through the Liberal Reform of 1871. During the late 19th century, Guatemalan politics were dominated by the antagonism between liberals and conservatives. German settlers in Guatemala developed ties with German companies and initiated an import-export business which damaged the interests of the incipient national
bourgeoisie. From 1871 until 1944, Guatemala was ruled by caudillos, or military dictators, who were associated with either the
Conservative party or Liberal party.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Manuel Estrada Cabrera rose to power and governed Guatemala until 1920. He began an "open door policy" for US transnationals, who eventually owned the railroads, ports, hydroelectric plants, shipping, international mailing services and the enormous banana plantations of the United Fruit Company (Unifruco). General Jorge Ubico Castañeda, the last of a generation of military leaders, was elected President in 1931.
After Guatemala declared war on the Axis powers in 1941, the large German-owned coffee holdings were expropriated. Popular discontent led to Ubico’s overthrow in 1944 and his replacement by Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo’s government heralded a climate of political and economic liberalization. In 1945, literate women were granted the right to vote. That same year the first campesino labor union was formed. The land reform program, under which extensive tracts of unused Unifruco land were expropriated, was considered "a threat to US interests" by Washington. An aggressive anti-communist campaign was launched, with the sole aim of harassing Arévalo and in 1951, his successor, President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. A law expropriating large estates angered foreign plantation owners, particularly the United Fruit Company. As Communist influence in the Arbenz government increased, relations with the United States deteriorated. In 1954 the United States aided the anti-Arbenz military force that placed Col. Carlos Castillo Armas in power in June 1954. When Castillo Armas was assassinated three years later, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes became president. With the fall of Arbenz, UFCO managed to get back its lands, and subsequently changed its name to United Brands. Guatemalan bases were used to train anti-Castro guerrillas in the early 1960s; around the same time, dissident leftist military officers and students combined to form a guerrilla movement.
In 1963 the prospect of the return to power of Arévalo led to a military coup under the defense minister, Enrique Peralta Azurdia. However, leftist guerrilla activity and terrorism mounted, in turn provoking rightist repression. In 1966 the moderate leftist Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president; he allowed the army to conduct a major anti-insurgency campaign against the guerrillas in which thousands were killed. In August 1968, in the continuing violence, the U.S. ambassador was assassinated.
In the 1970 election, Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, an extreme conservative, was chosen president. He imposed a one-year state of siege in an attempt to end the violence. In the early 1970s many labor and political leaders were killed and several foreign diplomats were kidnapped. When no candidate received an absolute majority in the presidential election of 1974, the legislature declared Gen. Kjell Laugerud García the winner, even though Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, the antigovernment candidate, had allegedly won a plurality.
Violence continued in the 1970s and 1980s, with reports that anti-insurgency campaigns were destroying Indian villages and killing tens of thousands. In 1977 the United States cut off military aid to Guatemala. In February 1982 leftist guerrillas formed what became known as the "Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca" (URNG) (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union), which united the "Las Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes" (FAR) (The Rebel Armed Forces), who entered the scene in 1962, followed by the "Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres" (EGP) (Poor People’s Guerrilla Army) and the "Organización del Pueblo en Armas" (ORPA) (Organization of the People in Arms) in 1975 and 1979 respectively,and began an insurgency against the government.
On March 23 1982, only a few days after a rigged election which brought him to power, Lucas Garcia was ousted in a military coup and replaced by General Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt’s counter-insurgency campaign surpassed that of his predecessor’s in terms of ferocity. Over 15,000 Guatemalans were killed in the first year of Ríos Montt’s administration. 70,000 took refuge in neighboring countries, especially Mexico, and 500,000 fled to the mountains to escape the army. Hundreds of villages were razed, while the number of «model hamlets» increased systematically. Peasants were taken by force to these hamlets, where they were required to produce cash crops for export, rather than growing subsistence crops.
In August 1983, another coup staged by the CIA deposed Ríos Montt and General Oscar Mejía Víctores came into power, promising a quick return to a democratic system. An 88-seat Constituent Assembly was elected on July 18 1984, to replace the
legal framework in effect since 1965, but annulled after the 1982 coup. The Assembly offered new constitutional guarantees, habeas corpus and electoral regulations. Seventeen parties ran candidates; however lack of guarantees forced the Left to abstain from running yet another time. The Constituent Assembly approved the right to strike for civil servants, authorized the return from exile of leaders of the Socialist Democratic Party and called for elections in November 1985.
The election, boycotted by the URNG, gave a clear victory to the Christian Democratic candidate, Vinicio Cerezo. One of the first measures was the "total and definitive" suspension of secret police activities. In January 1986, the newly elected civilian government of President Cerezo announced that its top priorities would be to end the political violence and
establish the rule of law. Reforms included new laws of habeas corpus and amparo (court-ordered protection), the creation of a legislative human rights committee, and the establishment in 1987 of the office of Human Rights Ombudsman. The Supreme Court also embarked on a series of reforms to fight corruption and improve legal system efficiency.
With Cerezo’s election, the military returned to its more traditional role of fighting against the insurgents. The first two years of Cerezo’s Administration were characterized by a stable economy and a marked decrease in political violence. Two coup attempts were made in May 1988 and May 1989 by dissatisfied military personnel, but military leadership supported the constitutional order. The government was heavily criticized for its unwillingness to investigate or prosecute cases of human rights violations. The final two years of Cerezo’s Government also were marked by a failing economy, strikes, protest marches, and allegations of widespread corruption. The government’s inability to deal with many of the nation’s problems (such as infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services, and rising levels of violence) contributed to popular discontent.
In October 1987, representatives of the URNG and Vinicio Cerezo’s government met in Madrid, the first direct negotiations between the Government and guerrilla forces in 27 years of conflict. That year, the National Reconciliation Commission of Guatemala (CNR) played a decisive role in the rapprochement process. The commission was created as a result of the Esquipulas II peace plan for Central America, signed by 6 countries in the region. On March 30, in Oslo, guerrillas and government agreed on an operational pattern for the meetings and the role of CNR and UN mediators. Despite the persistence of political persecution and assassination, on June 1, 1990 a basic agreement was signed in Madrid by the National Commission for Reconciliation, the political parties and the URNG. The overall aim of the accord was to continue the search for peace in Guatemala.
During the last few months of 1990, negotiations came to a standstill and a high degree of skepticism developed among voters, which led to a 70 per cent abstention rate in the November 11, 1990 presidential elections. During the second round of the elections, held on January 6, 1991, Jorge Serrano Elías, of the "Movimiento de Acción Solidaria" (MAS) (Solidarity Action Movement), was elected president. The Serrano Government and the URNG decided to take up peace negotiations. A fortnight later, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a three-day meeting was held. After three decades of violence, during which over 100,000 people were murdered and 50,000 went missing, the Government and the guerrillas committed themselves to the negotiation process, attended by top level delegates and with the aim of achieving a firm and lasting peace agreement in the shortest possible time. The agenda included topics such as: democratization, human rights, the strengthening of civil groups, rights of the indigenous peoples, constitutional reforms, the resettlement of the landless, the incorporation of the URNG into legal political life. In July, the US Senate suspended military aid to Guatemala. The URNG demanded that human rights violations cease immediately. Human rights organizations found that in the first 9 months of Serrano’s rule there had been 1,760 human rights
violations, 650 of them executions without trial. Several deaths of street children below the age of six were also reported.
Also in September 1991, the Guatemalan president recognized the sovereignty and self-determination of Belize, the former British colony which proclaimed its independence in 1981. The announcement caused the resignation of chancellor Alvaro Arzú, the leader of the Plan por el Adelantamiento Nacional (PAN) (National Advancement Party), and one of the ruling party’s main allies.
In 1992, a national debate began on the existence of government armed civilian groups, such as the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC) (Civilian Self-Defense Patrols) or Comités Voluntarios de Defensa Civil (CVDC) (Voluntary Civil-Defense Committee). The Catholic Church criticized the Government’s economic policy and spoke out in favor of agrarian reform. In the meantime, organizations representing the indigenous peoples demanded the ratification of ILO Agreement 169, dealing with indigenous and tribal peoples.
The Government created the «Hunapú» force, made up of the Army, the National Police and the «Hacienda Guard», replacing the former PACs. In April, members of the «Hunapú» provoked an incident during a student demonstration demanding improvements in the education policy. One student was killed and 7 injured. The World Bank, the US Government and the European Parliament urged the Guatemalan government to end political violence.
In October, while the quincentenary of Columbus’ arrival on the continent was celebrated by some, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, an indigenous leader from the Quiché ethnic group, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Menchú travelled world-wide, denouncing
the situation of her country’s indigenous peoples.
On May 25, 1993, President Serrano, backed by a group of military officers, carried out a coup themselves, revoking several articles of the constitution and dissolving Congress and the Supreme Court. On June 1, national and international rejection of this measure – including pressure from the United States – forced Serrano from office. On June 6, after several days of uncertainty, former Human Rights attorney Ramiro De León Carpio was elected head of the Executive, to finish Serrano’s term. De León Carpio began by purging the officers that had supported Serrano, changing five military commands. Shortly afterwards, Jorge Carpio Nicolle, leader of the Union of the National Center and the president’s cousin, was assassinated.
Despite the intense campaign against the PACs and compulsory military service, President De León Carpio stated that he would maintain both institutions as long as the situation of armed conflict persisted, a U-turn on his previously stated opinion. On August 5, the Government announced that the «Files» – records kept on citizens considered a «danger» to State security – had disappeared. However, the loss of these papers also implied the elimination of evidence against those responsible for human rights violations. In November, excavations in several clandestine cemeteries uncovered the remains of 177 women and children assassinated by the military in the 1982 «Rio Negro Massacre».
The 1994-95 Government Plan, presented in August, reaffirmed the structural adjustment program already in effect, prioritizing the end of state intervention in the economy, along with fiscal reform and the privatization of enterprises. De León Carpio’s stated goal was to fight corruption in the public sector. On August 26, the President called for the resignation of legislative deputies and members of the Supreme Court, causing a confrontation between the President and Congress. This led to a clash of economic and political interests, culminating in the Executive and Congress agreeing on constitutional reform. A plebiscite was scheduled for January 30, 1994, for nation’s voters to decide on reforms to public administration and in the constitution. Following a 22-day occupation of the local Organization of American States (OAS) office by members of the Committee for Campesino Unity and the National Commission of Widows of Guatemala, some 5,000 members of indigenous groups carried out a march demanding the dissolution of the PACs. In January 1994, the Government and guerrillas signed agreements for the resettlement of the population displaced by the armed conflict, without a mediated cease fire. As a result of the accords 870 people were able to settle in the zones of Chacula, Nenton and Huehuetenango, but the majority of the resettlement areas were still under army control.
Around the same date, a referendum for constitutional reform registered an abstention rate of 85 per cent. Of those who did vote, 69 per cent supported the moves for a new Congress and a new Supreme Court. In general elections with a similar abstention rate, the Frente Republicano – Guatemalteco (FRG) (Guatemalan Republican Alliance) led by former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt took the majority. The Partida de Avanzada Nacional (PAN) (National Vanguard Party) came second. Monica Pinto, the UN Human Rights observer, recommended the demilitarization of society through the gradual reduction in size of the army, the disbanding of the PACs and the Presidential Staff, along with the creation of a Truth Commission. Following a prolonged silence in early 1994, the Minister of Foreign Affairs recognized Belize as an independent State, but upheld Guatemala’s territorial claim, meaning no frontier could be established.
In March 1994, the Government and the URNG ratified an agreement related to the disbanding of the PACs and the international verification of human rights by the UN. Three days later the President of the Court of Constitutionality, Epaminondas González, was murdered. In April, the police evicted 300 rural workers’ families from an estate they had occupied in Escuintla. In May a new contingent of nearly 2,000 refugees returned, heading for the Quiche area, which was still occupied by the military.
The URNG and the Government signed a draft agreement for the «Resettlement of the People Uprooted by the Armed Confrontation», in Oslo, Norway, in June 1994. The Communities of Peoples were recognized as non-fighting civilians and the vital
importance of land for these uprooted populations was explicitly stated. The second agreement in Oslo enshrined the principle of not individualizing responsibility for human rights violations as a way of neutralizing the action of sectors opposed to a negotiated outcome.
The peace negotiations between the guerrillas and the Government reached stalemate during 1995, due to the elections lack of interest by the army and landowners, and the Government weakness in face of them. The UN mission reported that impunity continued to be the main obstacle to the respect for human rights, and described hundreds of cases of torture, illegal detentions and extrajudicial executions. In August 1995, Congress leader Efrain Rios Montt and another two members of the FRG lost their legal immunity and were tried by the Supreme Court on charges of bugging telephones, falsifying documents and abuse of power.
National elections for President, the Congress, and municipal offices were held in November 1995. With almost 20
parties competing in the first round, the presidential election came down to a January 7, 1996 runoff in which PAN candidate Alvaro
Enrique Arzú Irigoyen defeated Alfonso Portillo of the FRG by just over 2% of the vote. Arzú won because of his strength in Guatemala City, where he had previously served as mayor, and in the surrounding urban area. Portillo won all of the rural departments. The biggest surprise of the election was the strong showing of the newly formed Frente Democrático Nueva Guatemala (FDNG) (New Guatemala Democratic Front), the first legitimate party of the left to compete in 40 years. The FDNG presidential candidate won almost 8% of the vote, and six FDNG deputies, including several internationally known human rights advocates, were elected to Congress. In the other November races, the PAN won 43 of the 80 seats in Congress and leadership of one-third of the municipal governments. The FRG won 21 seats to become the principal opposition party. The formerly powerful but discredited Partido Democracia Cristiana Guatemalteca (PDCG) (Christian Democratic Party of Guatemala) and Union del Centro Nacional (UCN) (Union of the National Center) elected only seven deputies between them.
Within two weeks of taking office, President Arzú initiated a major shakeup of the military high command and oversaw the firing of almost 200 corrupt police officials. In September 1996, the government uncovered a large smuggling scheme involving a number of government officials and military and police officers. The case, which is expected to take a number of years to resolve, resulted in the dismissal of several additional military, police, and customs officials. The Arzú Administration also began a series of actions to boost the economy, including a reform of the tax system, and demonopolization and privatization of the
electricity and telecommunication sectors. President Alvaro Arzú has strongly and publicly condemned human rights abuses. Positive political developments and the demobilization of 200,000 members of the Civilian Defense Patrols were major factors in the positive change. In contrast to past years, there was a marked decline in new cases of human rights abuse, but problems remain in some areas. Common crime, aggravated by a legacy of violence and vigilante justice, presents a serious challenge to the government. Impunity remains a major problem, primarily because democratic institutions, including those responsible for the administration of justice, have developed only a limited capacity to cope with this legacy.
In December 1996 – first in Europe and then in Mexico and Guatemala – the Government and the URNG signed a series of peace agreements which put an end to a civil war which had cost more than 100,000 lives. The cease-fire was respected and was followed by a large increase in crime. Around 80 per cent of the population were living below the poverty threshold at this time.
In December 1997, Guatemala was amongst the five Latin American countries most affected by climatic change resulting from El Niño. According to the Comisión Económica para América Latina (CEPAL) (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – ECLAC) preliminary figures Hurricane Mitch’s passage through Central America in September 1998 caused damage in the region of $5.36 million and left around 24,000 dead, 256 of them Guatemalan. More than 100,000 people were made homeless and worsening health conditions left the country in a «state of emergency».
Investigation of human rights violations during the war produced an avalanche of threats against investigators and members of the judiciary. After presenting a report condemning the armed forces for several massacres, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was murdered in 1998. The public prosecutor working on the case fled to the United States where he requested asylum, claiming he had been under heavy pressure and had received several death threats. In October that year, the Government ordered hundreds of bodies to be dug up in the grounds of an elite police unit in the capital. A United Nations report estimated this same year that 96 per cent of the deaths during the war were the responsibility of the army and armed forces.
In the second round of the elections held in late December 1999, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, lawyer and rightist associated with former dictator Ríos Montt, of the FRG took 68 per cent of the vote, defeating Oscar Berger of the ruling PAN. Abstention reached 59 per cent, while more than 50 per cent of registered voters had turned out in the first round ballot. Guatemala swore in a new government January 14, 2000, under its recently elected right-wing president, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera.
In early 2000, Guatemala lodged a claim for nearly half the territory of the neighboring Belize. The country recognized the independence of the former British colony in 1991, but still claims this part of the territory. Representatives of both parties talked briefly in Miami in February and March 2000, under the auspices of the OAS. Despite international mediation efforts, relations between the two remained tense. Then, in September 2002, the OAS brokered a draft settlement of the dispute which may form the basis for a permanent accord.