Guatemala: Guerrillas, Genocide, and Peace

Logan Boon

March 2011

University of Denver


Guatemala is a nation of about 14 million people. It is geographically and demographically diverse, representing terrains that stretch from ocean to high mountains, and a population that is split between indigenous and Ladino (half indigenous/half Western) peoples. Guatemala has a high Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which continues to grow, but the disparity in socioeconomic levels within the nation is abysmal, mainly affecting the indigenous populations (Bureau of Western). After 36 years of civil war and genocide, beginning in 1960, Guatemala emerged into the light after the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. Hailed as a tremendous success, Guatemala’s population still possesses deep divisions between the Ladino and indigenous populations, particularly within the government and political process. While the government has come far, creating a sustained peace in the country, much more is needed to ensure a sustainable peace and a united society in the future.

Precipitating Events: Democracy, Dictatorships, and US Interference

Following the economic crises in the 1930s, a group of working and middle class Guatemalans overthrew the country’s military dictator. For the next decade, Guatemala experienced democracy for the first and only time until the 1990s. Both of the elected presidents during this time, President Arevalo and President Arbenz, “guaranteed basic democratic liberties, abolished forced labor—which had been nearly universal for the indigenous population, guaranteed minimum wages and basic rights for workers and peasants, and increased social welfare and equality” (Jonas, 2000, 18). Beginning in 1952, under Arbenz’s leadership, the government established an agrarian reform, distributing land to over 100,000 families, primarily poor and indigenous, and expropriating unused land from the United Fruit Company, a US-based organization, to continue the reforms (Jonas, 2000, 19). 

The expropriation of the land from United Fruit Company set the United States on edge. The US had already been watching Guatemala closely, as the democratic presidents continued to establish social reforms and freedoms, including the acceptance of the communist party as a legitimate political party. Fearing Guatemala would become a strategic bloc of the Soviet Union in the Western Hemisphere, the United States took action (Jonas, 2000, 19). In June of 1954, a CIA-backed rebel group (?) entered Guatemala from Honduras and overthrew the Arbenz government. In its place, a pro-United States counterrevolutionary regime was installed. The new regime “immediately reversed the democratic and progressive legislation of the revolution, including land reform, and unleashed widespread repression” (Jonas, 2000, 19).

Crack downs on labor organizations, political opposition, and rural organizers continued for years to come, without opposition from the United States. In fact, the United States viewed the oppressive dictatorship as a positive change for Guatemala, seeing “two kinds of dictatorship, Communist (abhorrent), and right-wing (anti-Communist and acceptable as allies). Human rights are violated in Communist dictatorships and the US government will protest firmly. The hideous abuse of human rights in right-wing, authoritarian dictatorships is ignored or smoothed over” (Peace Pledge Union Info). The United States continued this relationship with Guatemala throughout the next three decades and multiple military dictators.

Issue Emergence: The First Wave

1960 marked the official start of the Guatemalan Civil War when an attempted military coup failed. The organizers of the coup managed to escape to Cuba and Eastern Guatemala, where they were able to begin mobilizing support to form a guerrilla force (Valentino, 2004, 206). By this point in history, “the illegitimacy of the ruling coalition and the refusal to permit even moderate reformist options created the conditions for the growth of a revolutionary guerrilla movement. Quite literally, there was no alternative ‘within the system’” (Jonas, 2000, 20).  After six years and two successive dictators (the United States- placed dictator was overthrown by another coup in 1958), a growing number of Ladino Guatemalans were ready for change. With no outlet to address their grievances within the political system, they were left with only resistance.

The first wave of guerrilla rebels, predominately Ladino, made an alliance with the military wing of the Guatemalan Communist Party but failed to gain widespread rural and indigenous support. The rural peasants had little interest in joining, “as they saw no reason to support one group of military officers against the other” (Valentino, 2004, 207). While the indigenous populations were both poor and discriminated against, this had been the norm for centuries, and they had no reason to support a small, inefficient grouping of rebel guerrillas who did not offer a better solution. They were also afraid of retaliation by the government and for the most part, remained bystanders to the first wave of guerrilla attacks.

This first wave of guerrilla efforts followed the Foco theory of guerrilla warfare, developed by Che Guevara. The theory insisted that “a small number of daring guerrillas could spark a national revolution by staging highly visible raids and terrorist attacks on government targets” (Valentino, 2004, 207). These attacks, then, would spark the revolutionary spirit and the rebellion would grow to the majority of the Guatemalan population. The first wave guerillas, however, employed minimal violence and had only about 6,000 civilian supporters. In the late 1960s, however, the guerrilla groups stepped up their attacks to a “bold series of kidnappings, assassinations and bombings” (Valentino, 2004, 207), sparking a violent campaign from the government in an effort to crush the guerrilla resistance and maintain its power. The government declared a state of siege and created a campaign that’s intent was to destroy the guerrilla bases in the eastern part of the country.  Rebels and their supporters were killed and their mutilated bodies were left in public as warnings for the rest (Valentino, 2004, 207).

Prior to the increased attacks from the guerrillas, the Guatemalan military was inefficient and poorly trained. However, once the threat of “communism” emerged (presented by the rebel groups who wished for inclusion of all political parties and who were supported by communist movements in other countries, like Cuba), the United States stepped forward again to professionalize the military and strengthen its counterinsurgency capabilities. In fact, the guerrillas were contained “only after a major counterinsurgency effort, organized, financed, and run directly by the United States along the lines of its operations in Vietnam” (Jonas, 2000, 21). In the end, although only a few hundred guerrillas had been active, the military killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people, creating the first wave of massive civilian casualties at the hands of the government. The government had effectively reduced the presence of the guerrillas and their supporters. During the next fifteen years there were only small-scale attacks by scattered rebel groups that were met with low-level counterterror efforts by the government (Valentino, 2004, 207-208).

Transformation: Changing Identities

During the early and middle 70s, while fighting was at a low, three major transformations in society took place, the first within the Catholic Church, the second within the guerrilla groups themselves, and finally within the indigenous populations. The transformation of the Catholic Church came at the grassroots level.  The leadership of the Church “began to shed earlier conservative positions and alliances, and align itself with social justice movements” (Totten, 2009, 379). Seeing the suffering of a vast majority of the Guatemalan population, the Catholic Church produced a “Church of the Poor,” which advocated against the suffering of the poor and marginalized populations of rural Guatemala. From this point on, the Church remained a crucial player in supporting the poor and documenting human rights abuses committed during the remainder of the armed conflict. As these changes took place, the government began to identify the Catholic Church as a part of the subversive movement and an ally of the Communists (Totten, 2009, 379).

Additional changes were being made in what was left of the guerrilla movement. The rebels realized that in order to win the armed struggle, they would need the support of the majority rural, inactive, indigenous population and began building relationships with them. This would prove a crucial component of gaining support for the future rebel movements. Acknowledging their failure to gain the support of the majority of rural Guatemala, particularly the indigenous populations, two of the three major guerrilla organizations “spent several years being educated by the indigenous population and organizing a political support base primarily in the western highlands” (Totten, 2009, 379).

Finally, the indigenous population of Guatemala went through a drastic transformation through a direct challenge to their identities. This challenge was brought on first by economic growth followed by drastic economic crisis, which “broke down the objective barriers that had kept the Mayas relatively isolated in the highlands” (Jonas, 2000, 22). The rural Mayans were forced to migrate to the coast and to the cities to participate in seasonal labor, increasing their interaction with the Ladino and urban populations. This interaction, rather than ridding them of their indigenous beliefs and values, “reinforced their struggle to preserve their indigenous identity” (Jonas, 2000, 22). This challenge of identity, coupled with removal from their own land through government reforms, created a large number of radicalized rural Mayans—they had had enough. During this same time, the government had stepped up presence and repression in the rural Mayan areas in further attempts to quell the rebel movements. This increased repression had “contradictory effects: rather than terrorizing the Mayas into passivity, by the late 1970s, it stimulated some of them to take up arms as the only available means of self-defense against state violence” (Jonas, 2000, 23).

Polarization and Spiraling: Rural Rebellion and Genocide

In 1976, a massive earthquake shook Guatemala, causing widespread destruction in the rural, highland areas. More than 20,000 individuals died and over a million were left homeless. In the wake of this tragedy, the government did very little to help restore the livelihoods of those affected (Valentino, 2004, 208). Without the aid of the government, severe poverty ravaged the rural indigenous populations. The guerrilla organizations, which had been biding their time, began to take advantage of the rural sentiments against the government and the rebellion began to spread. As the government began to increase violent strategies against the rural populations to prevent guerrilla support, their actions caused more and more individuals to join the guerrilla cause. In fact, “the majority of support for the guerrillas stemmed from the peasantry’s reaction to overly harsh government repression, not from revolutionary ideological impulses or social or economic discontent” (Valentino, 2004, 206).

The increased rural indigenous support drastically changed the insurgent strategy. Rather than following the Foco theory attacks by small groups, the guerrillas now had a mass-based strategy and the government was facing a growing rebellion of displeased peasants. At their height from 1980–82, the guerrillas had about 8,000 armed fighters and as much as 500,000 civilian supporters (Totten, 2009, 380). By 1981, the guerrillas had introduced themselves as a serious threat to the government, controlling “nine of Guatemala’s 22 provinces and [having] a significant presence in nine others” (Valentino, 2004, 209). With the increased guerrilla threats, the government, under then-President-General Romeo Lucas, changed their counterinsurgency tactics to “annihilate the guerrilla’s social base” (Valentino, 2004, 210). From 1981 until March of 1982, the government killed about 32,000 individuals , but the worst was yet to come (Valentino, 2004, 210). During this same time, several of the strongest guerrilla groups combined, creating a unified force for the first time in the civil war, forming the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity), or URNG (Totten, 2009, 380). The government had previously maintained the upper hand due to the inefficiency and lack of communication between the rebel groups. Now, this unified force presented a significant threat to the government of Guatemala, as the fractured groups united to create a powerful and efficient unit.

In March of 1982, President Lucas was dismissed by the army and replaced by General Efrain Rios Montt. Montt had been trained in counterinsurgency at the Academy of the Americas in the United States and took the government’s efforts to an entirely new level of violence and repression. In the period of 18 months following Montt’s acquisition of power, a strategic genocide was initiated in which Montt intended to “dry up the human sea in which the guerrilla fish swim” (Valentino, 2004, 210). In all, the military destroyed 440 villages (displacing over 1 million people) and killed up to 150,000 individuals (primarily unarmed indigenous civilians)  (Totten, 2009, 381). In the areas with the highest amount of guerilla activity, the military massacred over one third of the populations (Valentino, 2004, 210). The government also destroyed large parts of the highlands, particularly forests, in an effort to deny the guerrillas cover and shelter (Totten, 2009, 381).

Deescalatory Spiral: Movement Towards Civilian Rule

The violent counterinsurgency efforts by the Guatemalan government were successful in stamping out guerrilla resistance throughout the rest of the 1980s. The government reestablished its control over all guerrilla occupied territories and active guerrilla membership dropped to a mere 1,000 by 1988. In March of 1983, President-General Montt was overthrown by another military coup and General Oscar Victores took power (Valentino, 2004, 210). The overthrow of Montt was the first step in a long road to the return to civilian rule. While government repression continued, particularly through the blocking of opposition and left-wing political parties, the subsequent regimes began to understand that at least the façade of constitutional democracy was needed to win back the support of both the Guatemalan people and the international community (Jonas, 2000, 26).
Under Victores, a “constituent assembly was elected to write a new constitution containing basic guarantees of citizens’ rights, at least on paper, and presidential elections were held in late 1985” (Jonas, 2000, 26). The election remained “severely restricted and underrepresented” (Jonas, 2000, 26), however, it was deemed fair and free of fraud and for the first time in 15 years, non-military candidates were permitted (Jonas, 2000, 26). The election was won by a Christian Democrat, Vincio Cerezo, who did little to control or redirect military efforts away from opposition forces. Cerezo also continued the restriction of leftist opposition political parties and ignored the needs of the suffering indigenous populations (Jonas, 2000, 27).

The late 1980s led to the economic crisis that catapulted much of Latin America into poverty, negative growth, and increasing unemployment and inflation, while structural adjustment measures only exacerbated the problem. Without the ability to take successful measures against poverty, Guatemala now had “90% of the population living under the poverty line, with three-quarters of the population living in extreme poverty” and barely surviving (Jonas, 2000, 28). With a suffering support group and an opposition gradually moving towards reform, the URNG began to propose dialogue for the resolution of the war. Its support group of indigenous Guatemalans no longer wanted armed struggle:

Guatemala is one of the few countries in Latin America where the armed insurgent movement had operated continuously since the 1960s. But armed struggle is not what people choose: after 30 years of counterinsurgency war, and particularly after the holocaust of the early 1980s, the URNG could not simply propose another decade of war (Jonas, 2000, 31).

The URNG had begun to realize that its efforts would be more successful if it could gain power through political, rather than military means.

An emerging national consensus for the end of the armed struggle and for political negotiations was growing, led by the Catholic Church. In the fall of 1986, URNG sent a public letter to President Cerezo, proposing peace talks, to which the government did not respond (Jonas, 2000, 37). Even in August of 1987, when the Central American Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala City, ending the war in Nicaragua and paving the way for settlements in El Salvador, the Guatemalan government denied their need to negotiate. Stating that they had “defeated the insurgent leftist guerrilla movement, the army insisted that it had no reason to negotiate” (Jonas, 2000, 31). To reinforce their point, the government launched a final offensive “designed to consolidate its announced triumph over the URNG” (Jonas, 2000, 31). After three years of unsuccessful attempts, the government realized that it was not capable of achieving a true military victory and that formal peace talks were the only solution to the end of the civil war.

Elections were again held in 1990, and although further omission of leftist political groups occurred and only 30% of the eligible population voted, the elections were deemed non-fraudulent and represented a successful continuation of efforts towards civilian rule. Shortly before elections, in 1989, a National Reconciliation Commission was created by the Catholic Church to sponsor a National Dialogue. While the dialogue was boycotted by the government, army, and economic elites, a clear consensus emerged among “all other sectors in favor of a political settlement” (Jonas, 2000, 40). Meetings began in March 1990 between URNG and the new commission as well as with other political parties and social sectors. Present at all meetings was a representative of the UN Secretary General, participating as an observer (Jonas, 2000, 40).

Finally, in April 1991, “newly elected President Serrano opened direct negotiations with the URNG” (Jonas, 2000, 40). The emerging talks, which focused on democratization, human rights, and visions of the future, were resisted by the economic and military elites, who did not feel that a fully negotiated settlement was necessary or desirable. In late 1992, the process stalled over human rights issues and in 1993, President Serrano “attempted to seize absolute power, dissolve congress, and suspend the Constitution” (Jonas, 2000, 41). International pressure to remove aid and trade resulted in the removal of President Serrano. Ramiro de Leon Caprio took power in June 1993. Once his authority was validated, Leon put forward unrealistic preconditions on the negotiations, which included requiring the URNG to disarm before moving forward. With the outright rejection of Leon’s proposal by the URNG and their suspension of talks, the UN, who had previously played a third party, observational role, was asked to provide a more central, mediation and moderation role when negotiations resumed in January 1994 (Jonas, 2000, 43). Although the final road to peace was still wrought with stagnation, disagreements, and controversy, the involvement of the UN marked an important change in the direction and future success of the peace talks.

Conflict Resolution: The Peace Accords

In January 1994, talks resumed with a new central moderating role of the UN. Greater international involvement was welcomed and encouraged, including the formation of a “Group of Friends,” which included the governments of Mexico, Norway, Spain, the US, Venezuela, and Colombia (Jonas, 2000, 43). The remainder of 1994 included a series of important accord agreements, including the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights, The Agreement on Resettlement of the Population Groups Uprooted by the Armed Conflict, and the creation of a Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) through the Agreement on the Establishment of the Commission to Clarify Past Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence that Have Caused the Guatemalan Population to Suffer (Jonas, 2000, 45). The CEH was controversial and challenged by military and economic elites, as it threatened to expose their roles in the massive number of civilian deaths during the early 1980s (Totten, 2009, 386). Though the government had signed each of these agreements, it did not seriously work to implement the requirements set forth within them. In fact, “human rights violations worsened dramatically and the war intensified during this period” (Jonas, 2000, 45). Based on the government’s lack of action, the URNG refused to continue negotiations until the provisions had been implemented.

When talks resumed again, one of the most hotly contested and controversial set of negotiations began: the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples (AIRIP), which was signed in March of 1995. This agreement was extremely important, as the vast majority of those killed during the civil war and genocide were of Mayan descent. The agreement included statements that defined ethnic discrimination as a crime and that required indigenous rights, particularly language to be constitutionally recognized and officially promoted in “schools, social services, official communications and mass media, as well as legal proceedings” (Jonas, 2000, 45). Cultural rights and indigenous institutions were also to be protected, including “languages, names, ceremonial centers, sacred places, spirituality and use of native dress” (Jonas, 2000, 45). However, the most important declaration in the agreement specified the reformation of the constitution to make Guatemala officially “multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual” (Jonas, 2000, 45).

Coming off of a high point in negotiations after the signing of the agreement, a major scandal emerged from Washington. The scandal concerned “the involvement of a Guatemalan military officer on the CIA payroll in the early 1990s for the murders of US citizen Michael DeVine and URNG commander Efrain Bamaca” (Jonas, 2000, 45). The news severely stunted peace negotiations, which rolled to a halt and both the URNG and the international community pressured the US to break their decades-long tie with the Guatemalan Army. Following the departure from negotiations, in June 1995, the Consultative Group of Donor Countries, declared that “major funding for Guatemala would be withheld until after a final peace accord was signed and until tax reforms in Guatemala guaranteed internal financing” (Jonas, 2000, 46). For the first time, the economic elite in Guatemala joined the negotiating tables with the Government and the URNG as socioeconomic issues had been introduced. This proved to be a significant step in the peace accords, as all parties were now onboard with the negotiations.

In November 1995, a historical election, full of “firsts,” took place. For the first time since the civil war began:

a leftist coalition of popular and indigenous organizations came together as a political party, FDNG, to participate…the URNG agreed to suspend military actions during the last two weeks of electoral campaign, in exchange for a commitment from the major political parties that the peace negotiations would continue under a new government and that the accords already signed would be honored (Jonas, 2000, 46).

This means that the economic and political elite had finally agreed that the previously negotiated agreements were considered “Accords of State” and could not be removed or ignored by future governments.

With the election of President Alvaro Arzu of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN), winning by 2% of the votes, the government turned in a new direction. The leftist FDNG emerged as the third largest political party in the government. The government now included a “center-left ‘peace cabinet’ component” (Jonas, 2000, 50), and the government began to view and address the URNG as a negotiating partner, rather than using “ideologized attacks” including labeling the URNG as a “defeated force” or “subversive terrorists” or using other prevailing discourse from previous governments. In a return of good faith, URNG halted offensive armed actions in March of 1996, to which the government responded by halting offensive counterinsurgency operations, thus “marking the end of armed confrontations” (Jonas, 2000, 50-51).

Two more accords were signed; the first was the Agreement on Social and Economic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation, in May 1996, and the later and immensely important, Accord on Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Role of the Armed Forces in a Democratic Society, signed in September of 1996. The latter reform included “mandatory constitutional reforms to limit the functions of the previously omnipotent army to defend the national borders and of Guatemala’s territorial integrity…Eliminated…counterinsurgency units, reduced the size and budget of the army by one-third, and created a new civilian police force to guarantee civilian security.” (Jonas, 2000, 52). The accord also mandated reforms to eliminate impunity in the government and country by creating a new judicial system.

A final setback and potential threat to the success of the final signing of the peace accords occurred when “a high ranking cadre of one of the URNG organizations was responsible for the kidnapping of an 86-year-old woman from one of Guatemala’s richest families and a friend of President Arzu” (Jonas, 2000, 52-53). This breaking news was followed by the leak that the government had negotiated a swap in which… with the URNG for the kidnapped woman in exchange for the responsible cadre. Following the events, the government suspended demobilization and “with the backing of the UN moderator, suspended the peace talks for several weeks” (Jonas, 2000, 53). However, due to international pressure, the UN mediators and all of the previously signed agreements, the peace process continued.[1] The final peace accord, the Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace was finally signed on December 29, 1996, creating an official end of the 36-year civil war in Guatemala (Jonas, 2000, 54).

In 1997, the final document of the CEH was published and presented in front of 10,000 individuals. The CEH had gathered testimony from 9,000 war victims and solicited written documentation from all players in the war, foreign and domestic (with little cooperation from the Guatemalan military). In its report titled “Memory of Silence,” the Commission found that “200,000 individuals were killed or disappeared during the course of the 36-year civil war…. that State forces were found to have committed 93% of the atrocities, the URNG was responsible for 3%, and the remaining 4% was carried out by other unidentified forces” (Totten, 2009, 386-387). The Commission also stated that it found that “rape and sadistic acts of sexual assault and torture against women were routine and systematic” and that the US involvement had been heavy in the development of counterinsurgency capabilities with full knowledge and indirect support of the massacres taking place. The CEH finding on the number of individuals killed, along with the overwhelming responsibility of the government for the deaths, created a controversial element of the CEH report. As genocide has not been included as eligible for amnesty in the final agreements of the peace accord, the government could (and should, according to the CEH) be prosecuted for their crimes (Totten, 2009, 388).

Sustainable Peace?

While Guatemala has made great strides to move forward from its turbulent past, the country still remains significantly divided. The country suffers from extremely high levels of violence, particularly against women and girls, and very few of the crimes are prosecuted. Due to the weak role of the civilian police force, the current and past presidents have increased the internal security role of the military, something that goes strictly against statements included in the peace accords. Besides an inefficient security force, Guatemala also suffers from extremely high levels of inequality, with the indigenous populations suffering the worst. Besides being impoverished, the Guatemalan indigenous population is also still severely excluded from the political, economic, and social structures of Guatemala.

Culture of Impunity

A few years after the signing of the final peace accords, Guatemala’s crime rates began to skyrocket. In 1998, Bishop Juan Geradri, the Coordinator of the Archbishop’s Office on Human rights, was murdered just two days after he shared the final report of the office. The report, “Recovery of Historical Memory,” also known as “Never Again” contained documents on the human rights abuses committed during the civil war. Three officers were were convicted for the crime in June  2001 and were sentenced to 30 years each (Pike, 2007). This crime was just the beginning of many to come that would involve human rights supporters, political activists and indigenous leaders. In 2002, “Guatemala experienced a grave crisis of public security. Assassinations, lynchings, kidnappings, theft, drug trafficking, prison uprising, among other acts of violence, affect the entire population and made 2002 one of the most violent years of the country’s post-war period” (Pike, 2007). In 2009, Guatemala experienced almost 6,500 homicides, and only 7% are investigated and only 2% involved a conviction (Freedom House, 2010).  

Most alarming about these acts of violence, however, is their increasing tendency to be against those politically affiliated, including indigenous leaders and judges. In fact, in 2010, Freedom House reported that over 49 judges and lawyers had been murdered since 2005 in the country and in 2007, one of the most violent elections in Guatemala’s history took place, with over 50 candidates, activists, and their relatives slain during the campaign period (Freedom House, 2010).

Organized crime and corruption are also growing problems in Guatemala, as drug trafficking remains one of the main sources of kidnapping and violence within the country. This problem is also spreading over into the security forces, as several police officers have recently been charged with drug-related crimes, which led to the 2009 dismissal of three top-level security officials. The judiciary system also suffers from inefficiency, corruption and intimidation, ensuring that justice remains threatened in today’s society (Bureau of Western).  

As the civilian security forces remain too weak and/or corrupt to deal with the growing problem of violence and organized crime, the past four Presidents have used a “constitutional clause to order the army to temporarily support the police in response to [the] nationwide wave of violent crime” (Bureau of Western). These actions are in direct threat to the 1996 peace accords, which stated that the mission of the armed forces would be exclusively on external threats. The increase of military presence in lieu of a secure police force is raising concerns among the indigenous and leftist populations. Fear remains that by growing the military, the government could once again create a reign of oppression against the Guatemalan population.

Finally, as a direct challenge to Guatemala’s turbulent past, very few of the top level individuals involved in the Guatemalan Genocide and Civil War have been brought to trial. While a few low-level soldiers have been placed on trial and convicted of several massacres that occurred during the war, individuals charged by the CEH, including former President Montt, remain un-convicted (Aviles, 2009, 13). A large majority of Guatemala’s Ladino and urban populations still deny that a genocide and massacres ever occurred, or, if they do believe, then they still understand them to be justified in effort to secure the State from a violent uprising (Hinton, 2009, 201). All of these actions have created what many scholars and human rights activists are calling Guatemala’s “Culture of Silence” (Hinton, 2009, 194). This silence has created an even greater level of discrimination of the Indigenous population by denying their suffering and violent past.

Indigenous Exclusion and Discrimination

As the indigenous population of Guatemala was the worst hit by the genocide and Civil War, they viewed the peace process as something that would benefit them in both the short- and long-term. The AIRIP promised greater inclusion into the political and social realms of Guatemala. However, while the indigenous population of Guatemala took the Accord as a sign of change and a better future, subsequent governments have interpreted the Accord loosely and viewed it as generally non-binding.  As such, the indigenous populations of Guatemala today still suffer from some of the worst poverty in the region, lack of land tenure and reform, political exclusion, and cultural exclusion.

The extreme poverty of the indigenous populations has yet to be seriously dealt with since the Accords. Even after the furthest-left leaning president that Guatemala has had, President Alvaro Colom, took power in 2008 ensuring that he would govern with a “Maya face,” the situation has not improved (Vallardes, 2010). Indigenous populations are severely at risk to poverty, malnutrition, and lack of sufficient schooling. In 2000, “eight out of 10 indigenous Guatemalans were poor, while among the non-indigenous rate was four out of ten. Those numbers have seen little change since” (Valladres, 2010). Furthermore, malnutrition among indigenous children under age 5 is about 58.6%, while it is 30.6% among non-indigenous counterparts. Indigenous populations suffer in the education realm as well and only “13.2% of the post-secondary student population…is indigenous” (Valladres, 2010). The lower socioeconomic status of the indigenous populations leaves them excluded from the mainstream of Guatemalan life, forcing them to struggle each day for their survival.

Because they are struggling, the indigenous populations are often taken advantage of by the government, even though the government is legally required to their voices and opinions. While the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples stated that the “government would consider mandatory mechanisms for consultation when a project would directly affect indigenous communities” (Lemus, 2009), the government has done little to respect the opinions that these consultations produce. For example, international mining companies pose a threat to indigenous communities and are people off of their land. In 2005 a Canadian mining company was surveying areas surrounding multiple indigenous villages. The indigenous community came together to vote on the development of the mine, and nearly 100% were found to be severely opposed to its creation. The issue was taken to the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, which ruled that although the indigenous population has to be consulted before producing a mine or other development in or near their communities; their decisions have no legal standing (Lemus, 2009). Similar experiences have also occurred with the proposition of a large hydroelectric dam, which despite indigenous protests, has already displaced 3,500 community members and affected a further 6,000 through loss of land and livelihood (Lemus, 2009).

Another factor blocking the indigenous populations from participating in the political sector involves the language of political documents and the access to voting polls. There are still a limited number of political and government documents produced in indigenous languages (24 exist), and “few policemen, judges and other officials speak the indigenous languages.” There are also not many lawyers who speak indigenous languages and availability to translation services is scant (Aviles, 2009, 14).
Furthermore, the election participation by indigenous populations remains low. Currently, less than half of the indigenous population is even registered to vote, with few actually actively participating in the election process. Another problem is the high level of illiteracy among the indigenous populations, limiting their knowledge of both the political process as well as the candidates running. Opportunity to vote and participate also plays a major problem, as many of the indigenous peoples live in isolated rural communities, where access to voting polls is slim. This has left the indigenous population severely underrepresented in the national arena. While Guatemala’s indigenous population represents somewhere between 40-60% of the overall population, currently only 15 of the 158 deputies in the National Assembly are indigenous (Aviles, 2009, 12). As such, their voices and concerns are rarely heard and taken seriously.

The indigenous Guatemalan population is also culturally excluded from society. Even though the AIRIP stated that Guatemala would become a multilingual, multicultural nation, it was not until “2002 that legislation was passed to protect their languages and to grant money to bilingual education” and even still, there are very few schools offering bilingual education in the indigenous areas, making it difficult for indigenous children to learn (Aviles, 2009, 14). Furthermore, there is a lack of national support for most indigenous rights and status, including “the right to wear traditional clothing, the right to use indigenous languages for education and judicial purposes, the right to administer their own indigenous systems of justice, greater political rights within indigenous communities and participation in national policy processes” (Aviles, 2009, 15).

Mending the Divisions: Towards a Truly Sustainable Peace

As Guatemala is a post-war nation, currently living in “peace” as far as armed conflict is concerned, drastic changes, such as the implementation of a power sharing or power dividing government would not be appropriate and would be likely to create further instability in the nation. As such, this paper makes the following recommendations in bridging the seemingly intractable divide between the indigenous and Ladino populations in Guatemala: (1) the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs; (2) increased availability of documents in indigenous languages and increased knowledge of officials in indigenous languages among security, judicial, and government; (3) increased access and opportunity to vote, (4) attempts to decrease the level of poverty in the indigenous populations, and; (5) increased capacity of civilian police forces.

Many nations in Latin America are beginning to realize the importance of having a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, including Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia, along with other areas in the world, including India, Australia, Canada, and Fiji. The government of Guatemala should consider the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs so that the issues surrounding the lives of indigenous peoples can be given a more prominent role in the political arena. Regardless of whether the percentage of indigenous peoples in Guatemala is 40% (government calculations) or 60% (international NGO calculations) (Aviles, 2009, 8), they represent a large portion of society. They are pressed with many problems that the rest of Guatemalan society does not have, particularly with cultural survival, language, poverty, and education. In addition to those issues, indigenous peoples also suffer discrimination on a daily basis. Creating a ministry to address these problems, may not initially solve all of them, but will bring indigenous problems into a place where they can no longer be ignored. While ministry positions are appointed by the President, this paper recommends the appointment of Rigoberta Menchu,1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, indigenous leader, and presidential candidate of 2007 as the head of this ministry. While Menchu only won about 3% of the total vote in the 2007 elections, she has a growing constituency and has a deep passion for both politics and the rights of indigenous peoples (Lemus, 2009). 

As discussed earlier, language remains a barrier to indigenous populations in Guatemala. Without access to government, political, judicial and social documents in their native languages, indigenous populations will not be able to be fully informed in the activities of the nation. They must be able to inform themselves of the politics of Guatemala if they are to truly be included in society. Furthermore, even though Guatemala is considered a multilingual nation, jobs in cities require employees to speak Spanish and frown upon traditional clothing. As schools in rural indigenous areas currently only promote Spanish language, the government needs to make a better effort to create bilingual education in these areas. The cultural survival of the native populations is crucially dependent upon retention of their language. Furthermore, they must feel that it is an important part of Guatemalan society as a whole. By producing documents in native languages, by training police forces, judiciary systems, and other civil-service officers in the languages of the indigenous populations, native peoples will feel like they are a valued and included part of society. Thus, the government should put greater effort into increased translation of documents into all indigenous languages (and making them widely available), training civil service employees in indigenous languages, and in increasing support for bilingual education in ingenious areas.

With an increased presence of indigenous issues, through the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, as well as the increased circulation of government and political documents in indigenous languages, the doors will open to wider participation in the electoral and political process. Widespread efforts should be made to register indigenous peoples to vote, followed by campaigns to inform them of the political and electoral process. Many indigenous peoples remain uniformed of the role that they can have in electing Presidents and government officials. Their apathy can also be traced to a feeling that indigenous affairs are far from the minds of most candidates. However, if indigenous populations had more of a voice, the rest of the political arena would be forced to listen due to the sheer force of their numbers. For instance, Menchu created a political party called WINAQ, meaning “people” or “humanity” in Quichua in an effort to gain a seat in 2012 (Lemus, 2009). In 2008, this party had 40,000 supporters and was still growing, making sure not to identify itself exclusively as an indigenous group, but rather a group that expresses the needs of all “villages in Guatemala: Maya, Ladino, Garifuna and Xinca” (Lemus, 2009). While indigenous populations should not have to have a specifically indigenous-oriented political party in power to promote their interests, it is a step in the right direction and is showing many indigenous communities that they do have a powerful voice when used.

In addition to increased political participation, the government should also create legal measures to work with indigenous populations in regard to mining and dam projects in and around their land. Currently, the government ignores indigenous voices even when these stakeholders are unanimously against such projects. They also displace these communities without compensation. The government, perhaps in partnership with a new Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, needs to create legal mechanisms for indigenous populations to disagree with, and potentially stop, such industries from taking over their land. When the projects provide a key aspect to the Guatemalan economy, the indigenous populations must then be consulted on proper compensation and resettlement efforts. They must become more included in the process.

If the indigenous populations are going to be able to actively participate in advocating for their political and human rights, their deeply rooted poverty must also be addressed simultaneously. With well over the majority of the indigenous population living below the poverty line, and most in extreme poverty (less than $1/day), their focus is on survival, not on voting in political elections. Rather, they are concerned about the malnutrition of their children, the lack of quality education (or the lack of ability to attend school), and land tenure issues. The Guatemalan government has attempted to alleviate poverty, namely by a Conditional Cash Transfer programs (CCTs) in indigenous areas, but they have had little success compared to other areas of Latin America.

Countries such as Brazil, have been extremely successful in raising large numbers of people above the poverty line, increasing school attendance and nutrition rates, and decreasing health problems, such as mother and infant mortality. Mexico and Brazil initiated cash transfers at rates of $15 per person for school children on stipulations of an 85% attendance rate and regular health check-ups. They also initiated similar programs for pregnant women and general programs for impoverished families. Through these programs, Brazil and Mexico were both able to decrease their Gini coefficients, which were similar to Guatemala’s current number, by 5% over a period of 10 years, while only contributing a small amount of money in relation to other government programs (Soares, 2007). Improving the quality of life of the indigenous populations is crucial to the overall success of the nation. Increased education, health and income would benefit the Guatemalan economy, as well as increase the ability for indigenous populations to participate in political, government, and social affairs. By becoming a more included part of society, they would be better able to spread the knowledge and awareness of their culture, sharing an important part of Guatemalan heritage.

Finally, one of the most important factors contributing to the future of Guatemalan peace and security is the increased capacity of the Guatemalan civilian police force. As armed violence, drug trafficking, and corruption of the police and judiciary units of the Guatemalan system are increasing, the government has had to increase military presence to retain security. Not only is this a violation of the Peace Accords, which stated that military force was only to be used only in external conflicts (Jonas, 2000, 52), but it instills a greater sense of fear and insecurity among the Guatemalan population, particularly the indigenous peoples. This paper recommends a greater portion of the overall budget of the government go towards retraining current police forces, hiring of additional forces to increase presence and capacity, and to increase the anti-corruption and impunity monitoring processes, to ensure that the security process is running as efficiently and transparently as possible. If the government cannot find the financial resources to make all of the suggested changes, this paper suggests that the government reach out to the “Group of Friends” from the Peace Accords for assistance. These partnering nations, as well as Guatemala, should see the crucial role that national security, through a civilian police force, rather than the military, has to the overall peace and security of the nation. If military presence continues to increase, there is a potential for increased rebel actions against the state, potentially sparking renewed conflict in the nation.


While Guatemala has most recently witnessed 36 years of violence civil war, including genocide, the country is making important positive steps. The creation and signing of various Peace Accords in the early–mid 1990s served as an important first step in removing the deep divisions within the nation and moving towards a stable and peaceful future. However, subsequent Presidents have failed to ensure proper application of multiple accords, most importantly the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Populations. Through an increased military presence, increased poverty among indigenous populations, and little to no political participation or representation among indigenous populations, the government of Guatemala has made little change to ensure lasting peace in the nation. Peace can be created by increasing access and opportunity for indigenous people to participate in the political process. This can be accomplished by:

  • translating official documents into indigenous languages
  • training civil society in indigenous languages
  • addressing poverty, poor health, and low levels of education
  • improving the capacity of the civilian police force

 Guatemala has come very far since the beginning of the Civil War in 1960, but has much farther to go to ensure sustained peace and improved relations among its population. The changes necessary are within reach. They are possible through small measures of goodwill by the government and by increased recognition of the voices of the indigenous populations.

Works Cited

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[1] In early December several agreements were signed including: An Agreement on the Definitive Ceasefire, the Agreement on Constitutional Reforms and the Electoral Regime, the Agreement on the Basis for the Legal Integration of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, and the Agreement on the Implementation, Compliance and Verification Timetable for the Peace Agreements.