It’s generally thought that the first people to come to the Americas were Stone Age hunter-gatherers, who crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska around 25,000 years ago. These hunter-gatherers slowly made their way south and eventually reached Central America. The first known culture in the Guatemalan region was the Clovis—they existed here around 11,000 B.C. and used stone tools like spears and blades to hunt mammals.
As the climate warmed, things changed. The big game slowly disappeared and as a result agriculture emerged—staple crops included peppers, squash, beans, and a relative of maize. This plant-based style of agriculture flourished across Mesoamerica and by 3,000 B.C. would help support long-term population centers.
The Preclassic Maya period spanned from 1,800 B.C. to 250 A.D. During this period, the Mayans developed additional agricultural and artistic skills. It’s thought that the Mayans were influenced by the Olmec culture in Mexico, a culture that’s often referred to as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica. The Olmec built pyramidal structures and large stone heads, two objects that were important aspects of Mayan culture. Other artistic, religious and political influences were passed along to the Mayans too, including a writing system and the use of a calendar known as the “Long Count.”
Increasingly, the Mayans became better farmers. Terrace farming, drainage ditches, and even the development of fertilizers were used. Better food production meant more food; more food meant more time for people to specialize in other occupations, including writing, architecture, math, and astronomy.
During the Middle Preclassic period (1,000–300 B.C.), the Mayan population continued to increase. By 500 B.C., the Petén site of Nakbé had become one of the first real Mayan cities. At this time other settlements – including Tikal, Cival, and El Mirador – were building their first ceremonial and astronomical structures. A shared language and belief system is also thought to have existed throughout the region at this time—this would have provided the necessary social glue for further development.
The Late Preclassic period lasted from around 300 B.C. to 250 A.D. and saw the continued growth of Nakbé, until around 100 B.C. when the focus shifted to the town of El Mirador, which was 7.5 miles (12 km) north. El Mirador would become a large city, with a population of around 100,000.
Mayan society was quite stratified at this time. Rulers and shamanic priests held religious ceremonies based upon astronomical and calendrical events. Other specialty occupations also flourished, including scribes, architects, farmers, and tradesmen. Agriculture continued to intensify as irrigation – using large reservoirs and canal networks – developed.
Near the end of the Preclassic period, environmental disasters and warfare afflicted the region. El Mirador was abandoned in 150 A.D. after drought reduced the agricultural production of the region. The eruption of the Ilopango Volcano in El Salvador also played a role—a large part of the region was covered in ash, which led to the abandonment of Kaminaljuyú around 250 A.D. Trade between the Mayans and Mexico was disrupted and re-routed to cities in the northern lowlands.
The Classic Maya
This period, which lasted from around 250 to 909 A.D., marks the greatest Mayan achievements—primarily, the adoption of the Long Calendar and a uniquely Mayan form of writing. During the Classical period, all of the cities, temples and palaces that are now in ruins were built.
Much of the knowledge we have about this period comes from stelae, large carved monuments that recorded the lives of rulers and the historical events that occurred during their lifetime.
Teotihuacán, a city-state in Central Mexico with a population of 250,000, was highly influential during the Classical period. Although not technically a part of the Mayan culture, Teotihuacán nonetheless sent out armed merchants, or pochteca, to spread its authority to places like Yucatán and Petén. New dynasties were established in Tikal and Copán in 378 A.D. and 426 A.D., which ushered in new religious beliefs and architectural styles.
During the 6th century A.D., Teotihuacán’s influence began to wane. About this time Tikal and Calakmul were regionally dominant and began a tug-of-war for power. Calakmul ultimately won by forming an alliance with Caracol (in modern-day Belize) and defeated Tikal in 562 A.D. The victory put all construction in Tikal on hold for the next 130 years.
Tikal would, however, return to reassert its dominance by defeating Calakmul in 695 A.D. and taking control of regional cities Waká and Río Azul. Several monuments and temples were built in Tikal during this time—including six of the great temples found in the center of the city, which were reconstructed between 670 and 810 A.D.
During the Late Classic period, Mayan art, architecture and astronomy soared to new levels unequalled by other pre-Columbian societies. Trade grew, as did the Mayan population—by the end of the Classical period, there were an estimated 10 million Mayans.
By 750 A.D. Mayan civilization was in decline. Things began to change in the political and social realms, as trade links and alliances deteriorated—this led to increased warfare among city-states. Even so, the Mayan decline is usually thought to have been the result of several factors.
Environmental issues may have been at the forefront. By the end of the 9th century A.D., the Mayan lowlands were heavily deforested, which may have spawned a severe drought in the region. With drought came decreased food production; farmers were unable to meet the dietary demands of dense population centers. It’s also thought that a peasant revolt and widespread warfare among city-states – perhaps a result of diminishing resources – contributed to the decline. Almost all of the main Mayan cities were abandoned.
As the dispersal continued from the Mayan heartland near modern-day Petén, people headed for neighboring areas like the Yucatán, Belize, and southern Guatemala. These places were formerly marginal regions with little development, but they now held the last remnants of Mayan civilization. The Guatemala highlands also supported some small tribal settlements that sustained themselves through irrigation and terraced farming.
The Highland Tribes and Pre-Conquest
In the late 13th century the Guatemalan highlands were invaded by the Toltec-Mayans, a people who were the result of a hybridization of Toltecs from Central Mexico and the Mayans. Guatemala’s previously peaceful villages slowly became more secular and combative.
These invaders quickly established themselves as the ruling elite and founded competing empires, including K’iche’, Tzutjíl, Kaqchikel, Ixil, Mam, Pipil, Mam, and Achi’. As more tribes were established, the region became increasingly fragmented. Interestingly, these same divisions exist today in the indigenous groups of the highlands, mainly in the form of language and dialect.
Of these tribes, the K’iche’ and Kaqchikel became most dominant. The entire highland region was part of a huge power struggle between rival tribes. The Spanish would use this rivalry to their benefit when they arrived in the 16th century.
Enter The Spanish
In 1521, Spanish conquistadors captured the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and began looking to expand their reign beyond the city. Two years later, in 1523, Hernán Cortés sent Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala on a fact-finding mission—with him came 120 horsemen, 300 soldiers, and 200 Mexican warriors. Alvarado was a notoriously cruel man who had helped massacre the Aztecs years earlier. As he made his way towards the Guatemalan highlands he met the K’iche’ in battle near the present-day city of Quetzaltenango. In the days leading up to the arrival of the Spanish, the K’iche’ had tried to form alliances with neighboring tribes, but were unsuccessful—they would face the Spanish alone.
Alvarado later claimed that they faced some 30,000 K’iche’ warriors led by Tecún Umán. According to legend, Alvarado met Umán in battle and cut him down. The Spanish won the battle and burned the K’iche’ capital city to the ground.
The Spanish then turned their attention to conquering other tribal groups. The Kaqchikel formed an alliance with the Spanish and helped them establish their first headquarters alongside the Kaqchikel capital of Iximché. Using this as a launching point, the Spanish would go on to overpower other tribes in the region, including the Mam, Poqomam, and Tz’utujil.
The Kaqchikel eventually cut their ties with the Spanish in 1526 by abandoning Iximché and heading into the mountains to launch a guerrilla war. Following this break, the Spanish established the capital city of Santiago de Los Caballeros. This city now lies near Antigua and is known as Ciudad Vieja. Despite their best efforts, the Spanish were never able to conquer the Achi and Q’eqchi’, two tribes located in present-day Verapaces. Alvarado eventually gave up trying to control the area.
The situation was eventually solved in 1537 by the Catholic friar Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, who came to the region in an attempt to get the locals to accept both Christianity and the Spanish. Quite incredibly, de Las Casas was successful within just three years—by 1540 all of the highland tribes were under Spanish control. Even so, indigenous uprisings continued throughout the whole of Guatemalan history.
One other important feature of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala was the introduction of European diseases to which the indigenous people had no resistance, including plague, typhus, smallpox, and measles. In the first 30 years after the arrival of the Spanish, these diseases were responsible for the death of more than three-quarters of Guatemala’s two million inhabitants.
Colonial Rule in Guatemala
In 1541, Alvarado died in Mexico while attempting to quell an uprising. Although Alvarado never returned to Guatemala, he left behind a widow named Beatriz de la Cueva. Following Alvarado’s death, she declared an extended period of mourning in the capital city—she even went so far as to paint the inside and the outside of her palace black. Luck was not with her or the city, however. An earthquake soon hit the region and caused a mudslide to come crashing down the Agua Volcano and cover much of the city.
Following this disaster, the Guatemalan capital was moved to present-day Antigua (a few miles away). Antigua served as the administrative headquarters for the Audiencia de Guatemala, which included the provinces of Costa Rica, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chiapas, and Guatemala.
Officially known as Santiago de los Caballeros, the city would eventually become the third-largest city in Spanish Colonial America (Lima and Mexico City were the others). Colonial society developed along racial lines, with pure-blooded Spaniards at the top and indigenous slaves at the bottom. Santiago de los Caballeros was eventually destroyed by a series of earthquakes in 1776. Afterwards, the capital was moved to its present-day site, Guatemala City.
During this period the Catholic Church – including various sects like Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans – had serious power. They were granted large sections of land, as well as dominion over the indigenous people who lived there. This allowed them to cultivate crops like wheat, indigo and sugar, and reap in fairly large profits accordingly. The Church, through both its money and power, helped construct churches, schools, hospitals, and colleges throughout Guatemala City.
At the center of this economy was the system of encomienda and repartimiento. The encomienda granted Indian labor and tribute in a certain geographical area. The people that held one of these grants could tax indigenous people and conscript them for labor—in exchange, the holder agreed to maintain order and educate the indigenous people in Catholicism and the Spanish language. Enforcement of this system, however, was minimal at best. The encomenderos exploited the indigenous people by seizing land, increasing taxes, and forcing the natives into debt bondage.
The Catholic Church and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas did, however, eventually persuade the Catholic Church to pass new laws in 1842, which brought some amount of reform to the system. Under the new rules, Indians could no longer be enslaved and the encomienda system was gradually abolished. The church ordered Indians to be treated and taxed fairly. Clergy and public officials with encomienda grants were required to return them immediately to the crown—they could not be passed down to their children as an inheritance.
What followed was the repartimiento, a system that wasn’t all together much different. Local magistrates now controlled the distribution of workers and called for a donation of between 2 to 4 percent of the indigenous populations that were close to Spanish settlements, who would work as laborers. This institutional style of labor would continue on in different forms for many years.
During the colonial years, the lives of the Mayans were completed changed. Much of this owes to the process of reducciones, whereby indigenous populations were congregated into settlements and assimilated into the Spanish culture and religion. Between 1543 and 1600, around 700 new settlements were created. Not only did this serve as a way to control and pacify the people, but it also provided a handy pool of labor to draw from. And with all the agriculture and construction going on, there was a serious need for manpower.
Considering all of this, it’s no surprise that many people within Guatemala were unhappy. Power remained within the hands of chapetones, the Spanish-born elite living in Guatemala. Other people with power included creoles, people who were born in the New World but were of Spanish descent. At the very bottom were full-blooded Indians.
Even so, Guatemalan independence was the result of external influences. Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and instituted a liberal constitution in 1812; a feeling of reform rushed through the Spanish colonies. The Mexican general Agustín Iturbide declared independence from Spain, which sparked Guatemala to do the same. Even so, the current Captain General of Central America, Gabino Gaínza, hoped to maintain the current power structure—and was supported by the church and the landowners, both of whom had more to lose than to gain by independence. General Gaínza was successful and little changed. Mexico sent troops to annex Guatemala and all of Central America was combined into Iturbide’s new empire.
In 1823 Iturbide was dethroned and Guatemala joined other Central American states in a loose federation. Inspired by liberal reforms in the U.S., the federation adopted a constitution that abolished slavery. During the early years of independence, there was an ongoing power struggle between conservatives and liberals—conservatives wanted to maintain the status quo of the political and economic structures dominated by the church, while liberals argued for a more egalitarian nation.
In 1830 the liberals in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras united under the leadership of Francisco Morazán, a Honduran general. Under his leadership, Mariano Gálvez became chief of state and instituted a number of liberal reforms, including trial by jury, civil marriage, educational reform, and the abolition of the death penalty.
However, less than 10 years later revolt would again strike, this time from indigenous groups in the mountains. The government was overthrown by the charismatic (but also illiterate) Rafael Carrera, then just 23 years old—he would rule from 1844 to 1865. Carrera reversed the reforms and restored religious orders to their previous positions; Spanish titles were also reinstated.
Under Carrera’s leadership, Guatemala fought a war with General Morazán and the federation and in 1847 finally freed Guatemala from federation rule. Internally, the largest conflict came from an area in the western highlands known as “Los Altos.” Although Los Altos declared itself an independent republic, it was soon ushered back into the Guatemalan state.
Carrera died at the age of 50 in 1865 and was succeeded by Vicente Cerna, a conservative who ruled Guatemala for the next six years. Several liberal uprisings occurred during this time but were unsuccessful.
Liberal Reforms Under Justo Rufino Barrios
In 1871, rebels Justo Rufino Barrios and Miguel García Granados began a march to Guatemala from Mexico. With them was a force of just 45 men, although they picked up more people along the way. They took the Guatemalan capital on June 30, 1871 and installed Granados as the leader of the new liberal government. Granados, however, offered few reforms and in 1872 an irritated Barrios took to the capital and demanded new elections. He won the elections easily.
Barrios quickly made changes, the most noticeable of which involved educational reforms and the separation of church and state. The University of San Carlos was modernized and secularized, public religious processions were outlawed, and clerics were forbidden to wear the cloth. Outraged, the Church excommunicated Barrios, and in return he expelled the archbishop.
Barrio was an arrogant, power-hungry man. He had connections with secret police throughout the country and strongmen in rural areas. He also professionalized the military by creating a military academy, the Escuela Politecnica, which is still in operation today. Barrios was pro-Western and valued European ideas over indigenous ones—as a consequence, European immigrants (particularly Germans) were welcomed graciously, but Mayan people were regarded as inferior.
Agricultural reforms were also underway during this time. Coffee cultivation and export grew rapidly and came to dominate the Guatemalan economy. Barrio’s policies helped keep a constant number of peasants working labor-intensive jobs, like harvesting coffee. Indians were viewed as lazy by the elites, which served to justify the immoral means used to employ this workforce. The mandamiento replaced the repartimiento, but was still used to require villages to supply a certain number of laborers each year. Debt peonage was also commonly used to get Indians to work.
Jorge Ubico and the Export Industry
Justo Rufino Barrios was killed in battle in 1885 while fighting to create newly unified Central America. Several similar presidents followed, each with a relatively short tenure. Manuel Estrada Cabrera was one of the only ones to hold power for any notable amount of time. Under him, big business flourished and unions were restricted. He was in power from 1898 until 1920, when he was declared mentally insane.
Exported agriculture grew steadily under Cabrera’s leadership. German coffee planters settled near Las Verapaces and by 1913 owned 170 of Guatemala’s coffee plantations. The U.S.-owned United Fruit Company also grew to prominence during this time. Nicknamed El Pulpo (the octopus), the United Fruit Company had its arms and influence throughout much of Central America.
The company started in Costa Rica but moved to Guatemala in 1901. It bought a small section of land for growing bananas and three years later signed a contract to build a railway from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios; in 1912 the company took over ownership of the Pacific railway network and had a monopoly on transportation within the country. With this, large-scale banana cultivation boomed—by 1934, United Fruit owned tons of land and exported around 3.5 million bunches of bananas each year. In 1941, about 25,000 Guatemalans were employed by the banana industry.
All told, United Fruit was a serious political and economic force in Guatemala. The influence of the U.S. paralleled this too. During the mid-20th century the United Fruit Company and the CIA helped plot the ousting of Guatemalan president Arbenz when his land-reform policies were disagreeable with the company’s own properties.
It was within this climate that Jorge Ubico rose to power. Similar to past presidents, Ubico unconditionally supported U.S. agribusiness and the powerful elite. He pushed exports, especially with the U.S.—in fact, by 1940 nearly 90 percent of Guatemala’s exports went to the U.S. The influence of the U.S. was such that during World War II, German landowners were expelled from the country.
Ubico pushed through new reforms, including large-scale road projects and improvements in health care. Debt peonage was technically outlawed, but more or less continued on in a new vagrancy law that required 150 days of labor from landless peasants in plantations or in government programs. Protests and revolts against landowners were not uncommon, especially in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Internal security came to obsess Ubico, and he became increasingly paranoid. He believed that he was a reincarnation of Napoleon and created a network of informers that he used to suppress his opposition. His grip on the government tightened, which only made the opposition more vocal. In 1934, Ubico uncovered an assassination plot and executed 300 suspected conspirators. Ten years later, in 1944, the discontent reached a boiling point when violent street protests led to the forced resignation of Ubico.
In the wake of Ubico’s overthrow, students, professionals and even military officers began to demand democracy and freedom. Elections were held and Juan José Arévelo, an exiled teacher living in Argentina, won the presidency with an overwhelming majority. He took office on March 1, 1945.
Guatemala progressed quickly under Arévelo, who set out to achieve structural reform. Education and health care were prioritized; new schools and hospitals were built, and a literacy campaign began. The vagrancy laws were abolished and a labor code was established that allowed for union representation and gave workers the right to strike. Farms that were taken from Germans during World War II were made into peasant cooperatives. Credit and technical assistance was offered to peasant farmers.
Not surprisingly, the old powers in Guatemala – mainly, the Church, politicians, landed aristocracy, and business elite – were opposed to the change. The military was similarly divided—there were 25 unsuccessful coup attempts made by conservative members of the military during this time. Amidst this polarized environment, Arévelo struggled to enact more reforms during his final years.
His successor was Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Guzmán continued to make similar reforms as Arévelo, mainly ones that focused on economic development and independence from foreign influence. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1952 was at the heart of his economic programs. This aimed to redistribute land ownership by dividing up large plantations and advocating smaller, but more productive, farms. In 1945, prior to the land reforms, it’s estimated that around 2 percent of the country’s population controlled 72 percent or the arable land—and only 12 percent of it was being farmed.
An important part of the law focused on limiting expropriations of fallow land. At the time, the United Fruit Company was Guatemala’s largest landowner. However, 85 percent of the United Fruit Company’s land was uncultivated and thus subject to expropriation.
United Fruit had strong ties with the U.S. government and the CIA. The company had been lobbying the CIA to rid the country of reform governments for some time, but it wasn’t until the Eisenhower administration that they found support in Washington.
Dissatisfaction with Arbenz by the Guatemalan oligarchy and conservative military sectors was growing. In 1951, the Communist Party was granted legal status and four party members were elected to the 58-seat legislature. It’s unclear how widespread the support was for communism, but the United States nonetheless accused the Guatemalan government of having deep communist ties and decided to intervene. The CIA helped orchestrate the overthrown of Arbenz in 1954 via a military invasion from Honduras. An army made up of exiles and mercenaries invaded Guatemala. Arbenz relinquished the presidency and Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was established as chief of state. Several military governments, supported mainly by conservative members of society and the military-oligarchy partnership, followed.
Civil War and Guerilla Groups
The military dominated Guatemalan politics for the next 30 years. The Cold War was also underway at this time, and the U.S. continued to help repressive dictators rise to power in the name of fighting Communism.
The constitution of 1945 was revoked and the reforms made in previous years were reversed. The oligarchy was again powerful, while peasants, agrarian reformers, and labor unions were increasingly repressed.
Castillo Armas held the presidency until 1957, when he was shot by one of his own guards. Next up was Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, a former army office who now represented the National Democratic Renovation Party. His short, five-years in office were corrupt and unproductive. Opposition accelerated and he was ousted in a military coup in 1963 (with help from Washington).
The military government of Alfredo Enrique Peralta Azurdia followed. At the same time Turcios Lima and Marco Yon Soda, young army officers who attempted a coup in 1960, embarked on a guerilla-style war from the eastern highlands. So began a long armed conflict between the Guatemalan government and leftist rebels. The battle escalated when the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), another armed rebel group, joined in.
In 1966, Julio Cesar Montenegro of the left-leaning Partido Revolucionario rose to power. His self-proclaimed “third government of the revolution” tried to maintain similar reforms as Arbenz and Arévelo, but the military’s powerful grip on the country wouldn’t allow for much change. His term saw an increase in political violence; hundreds of unionists, students, and academics were killed.
As the 1970s rolled around, the guerilla movement in the eastern highlands was almost nonexistent. FAR decided instead to focus on Guatemala City—in 1968 it kidnapped and murdered the U.S. ambassador, John Gordon Mein.
Guatemala continued on in this vein throughout much of the 70s and 80s. The economy was poor, politics was a joke, and violence was common. Each new government became increasingly violent in their repression of the guerillas. Perhaps not surprisingly, the government continued to perpetuate a system that supported the wealthy minority while repressing the poor and illiterate peasants. The growth of an urban middle class was curbed by the military.
The United States continued to financially (and logistically) support the Guatemalan government. It helped to train over 30,000 Guatemalan policemen through the Agency for International Development. The Policía Nacional was intimately connected with the paramilitary death squads who operated in the country and cities. These conservative extremist groups helped keep down the leftist organizations that sought change and reform.
In 1971, a new guerilla unit formed. Known as the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), the group was led by Rodrigo Asturias, who was the son of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning novelist. His group spent eight years recruiting combatants and training them. It launched its first offensive in 1979 by occupying a coffee farm near Quetzaltenango.
Another guerilla organization, the Guerilla Army of the Poor (EGP), entered the picture in 1975. They spent several years developing ties with peasants in the Ixcán jungle and once famously executed a ruthless Ixcán landowner. About this time the Guatemalan military began to act increasingly violent towards peasants in remote jungle areas—it wasn’t uncommon for peasants to be killed in the battles between the military and rebel groups.
On February 4, 1976 a huge earthquake hit the highlands. In its wake, 23,000 people were dead, 77,000 injured, and almost a million homeless. As the country worked to rebuild, there was a renewed effort to reform social injustices and increase activity of the trade unions.
Even so, the elections of 1978 were a sham. Romeo Lucas García took the presidency and continued the repression; also included on his blacklist were journalists, trade unionists, and academics. The guerilla war grew strong in the countryside—there were four guerilla groups, 6,000 fighters, and over a quarter million collaborators. The government cracked down on anyone who was believed to have ties with the guerillas. It’s thought that around 25,000 Guatemalans were killed during the four years that Romeo Lucas García was in power. There were seriously ugly killings during this period, including a massacre of peasants in the village Panzós and the firebombing of the Spanish Embassy, which at the time was peacefully occupied by peasant leaders.
In 1982, Guatemala’s rebel groups banded together to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). This group continued on as a political entity that worked to advance its goals.
New Leader, More Terror: Ríos Montt
In 1982, a coup led by young military officers displaced the newly elected (but dishonestly elected) president. General Efraín Ríos Montt was installed in his place. The coup leaders defended their actions by claiming that the last three elections were all rigged. With this, many people hoped that Guatemala could be moved in a new and more peaceful direction.
In some ways, things did get better under Ríos Montt. He was an evangelical Christian who believed in law and order and sought to eliminate corruption. He did manage to purge Guatemala’s government and armed forces of corrupt leaders; he also routinely held public executions of criminals to show that crime and disorder would not be accepted.
In one notable case, he offered amnesty to guerillas during the month of June 1982. However, due to fear or distrust, only a small number accepted. Spurned by what he thought was a generous offer, Ríos Montt unleashed new counterinsurgency efforts at the guerillas and anyone believed to be associated with them. Whole villages were destroyed and survivors were pushed into new “model villages.” These villages allowed the army to closely watch the peasantry.
At the same time, the government instituted a new system of forced labor. Civil defense patrols (PAC), made up of peasants, were forced into nightly patrols with the instruction to report suspicious activities. If the patrols failed to report activities, they were viewed with suspicion by the army.
During this time, it’s estimated that around 100,000 indigenous Guatemalans fled the country for Mexico and the United States.
Cerezo and Inches Towards Democracy
Ríos Montt was only in power for a year before he was overthrown by a military coup (with U.S. backing) in 1983. The idea was to establish real democracy in Guatemala. Elections were scheduled for 1985, but in the meantime General Mejía Víctores was installed as temporary chief of state. While the elections waited, the military repression continued. During this time, some 440 villages were destroyed and more than 100,000 people were killed.
It was within this climate that the first free elections in thirty years were held. Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, a Christian Democrat, won the election handily. The scent of democracy seemed to be in the air. Even so, it was clear that the military still held the majority of power in Guatemala.
Still, that didn’t stop Cerezo from trying to enact simple democratic reforms. He decided to work within the system rather than around it and kept close ties with powerful landowners, businessmen, and military generals. Violence in the countryside fell for some time.
In 1987, several Central American leaders met in the Guatemalan town of Esquipulas and signed a treaty that would hopefully bring peace and democracy to the region. Known as Esquipulas II, the treaty would begin peace negotiations between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).
Repression and violence went down, but did not go away. Armed conflict continued in remote parts of the highlands and paramilitary death squads continued to terrorize peasants. Some of the more famous atrocities include the abduction and torture in 1989 of Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun, and the murder of U.S. citizen Michael Devine, who lived on a farm in Petén. Ortiz survived the experience and went on to return to the U.S. and tell her story to American news outlets.
Unions were again allowed to form, but there was little economic improvement. A group called Mutual Support Group (GAM) also came onto the scene and demanded answers about disappeared family members and friends. Despite a turbulent and threatening environment, GAM continued onward and helped gather official recognition of the horrors committed during the Guatemalan civil war.
Jorge Serrano Elías
The 1985 Constitution barred current presidents from running for a second term. It also banned anyone who had risen to power during a military coup form running for president. In light of this, Jorge Serrano Elías took over the leadership of Guatemala in 1991. Serrano had served in the government of Ríos Montt, and there was widespread speculation about the unseen influence of Ríos Montt in the Serrano administration.
In 1992 the Nobel Peace Prize went to an indigenous Guatemalan activist named Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who brought attention to the Guatemalan civil war. This helped indigenous people gain more traction in Guatemala.
Serrano proved to be an incompetent leader, however, and there were charges that he had links with Colombian drug cartels. All of this led to him declaring an autocoup in May 1993—he took dictatorial powers and dissolved Congress, citing corruption and social anarchy.
There were national protests and the U.S. withdrew support for Serrano’s government. Two days later he was removed from office. The Congress voted to appoint Ramiro de León, the national human rights ombudsman, and have him finish out Serrano’s term.
De León hoped to achieve more lasting political stability. He began his presidency by rearranging the members of the military high command. The guerillas made progress with the current administration—they signed an accord on indigenous and human rights and established the creation of UN-mandated MINUGUA to oversee peace accords after the final agreement was signed. Despite this progress, however, de León was unable to achieve real change on crime, land reform, and tax issues.
Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen and the Security Challenge
The 1996 presidential elections went to Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen, former mayor of Guatemala City and member of the National Advancement Party (PAN). Arzú was a businessman who had deep connections with the oligarchy. He sought economic growth for Guatemala, which he hoped to do by developing the private sector in a free market.
Arzú also made serious progress with the URNG when he signed the “Firm and Lasting Peace” agreement on December 29, 1996. These accords, it was hoped, would mark the start of a new Guatemala—after years of negotiations between the government and guerillas, some real progress was in the pipeline. Unfortunately, not everything that was laid out in the peace accords has been followed.
A report by the UN’s Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) followed the agreement. It blamed the military and civil defense patrols for nearly all the violence, and estimated than some 80 percent of the victims were Mayan. The final death count was around 200,000 people, with 50,000 cases of forced disappearance.
Despite the renewed efforts for peace, violence still ravished Guatemala. The Catholic Church issued a report on the civil war that squarely blamed the military. Two days later, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was murdered at home, likely at the hands of someone in the military. Guatemala’s security situation further deteriorated—armed robbery, bank robbery, murder, and kidnappings were occurring at an all-time high. In 1997, 1,000 people were abducted.
Even so, Arzú managed to lessen government corruption and he poured his efforts into various infrastructure projects. He also privatized several state agencies, including the telephone company. Guatemalans recognized and appreciate his hard work—even today, Arzú is widely popular in Guatemala.
Alfonso Portillo and Ríos Montt Round II
Presidential elections were held in 1999. Alfonso Portillo ran on the populist ticket and won—he campaigned with promises to cut crime, poverty, and corruption. His party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), was a creation of Ríos Montt, the former president who was responsible for many of the terrible atrocities against Indians during the early 1980s.
Considering this, it is less surprising to learn that the Portillo administration was one of the worst in Guatemalan history. In fact, it was so bad that many analysts refer to his time in office as catering to the “Corporate Mafia State.” What do they mean by this? To put it simply, there was an alliance among the upper class, police, military, criminals, and hustlers to control the black market, including drugs and arms trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, illegal logging, and car theft.
And that’s just the illegal side of things. According to 2002 Amnesty International report on the subject, these groups also worked to create a monopoly over legal industries like the oil industry. People were intimidated and killed to secure the financial interests of the powerful Guatemalan elite. It seemed that much of the country was somehow linked to this massive crime wave.
Concurrently, Efraín Ríos Montt – a dictator who was head of state during some of the country’s worst government-sponsored atrocities in history – was elected president of Congress. With this structure in place, corruption soared and Ríos Montt held real power, using Portillo as a figurehead.
Scandals were frequent. In one instant, Ríos Montt and 19 FRG congressmen were accused of altering a liquor tax law at the request of powerful liquor interests. The law lowered the liquor tariffs significantly. When opposition parties cried foul, congressional records relevant to the case disappeared and other documents were falsified. Although many people called to have Ríos Montt and the congressmen stripped of their positions, nothing happened.
In 2003, the FRG nominated Ríos Montt as their presidential candidate for elections that were to be held that year. His candidacy was initially rejected, as the Guatemalan constitution banned coup participants from running for the presidency. Later that year, however, the Constitutional Court approved his candidacy for president, thanks in part to several judges on the court who were appointed by the FRG. Again, there was outcry by opposition parties and his campaign for presidency was suspended.
Ríos Montt was unhappy with the decision and issued obscured threats about potential agitation by his supporters. A few days later, on what came to be known as Black Thursday, hundreds of FRG supporters invaded Guatemala City. Armed with guns and machetes, they were led by FRG militants and even several congressmen. The demonstrations targeted members of the media who opposed Ríos Montt’s candidacy—in the process, they held a whole building hostage, marched on opposition party headquarters, and attacked journalists. After two days of rioting. Ríos Montt called for them to go home.
Afterwards, the Constitution Court overturned the Supreme Court decision and allowed Ríos Montt to run for presidency. Thankfully, many Guatemalans were appalled by his actions and did not elect him president.
There was a second runoff election between the top two candidates. The winner was Óscar Berger Perdomo of the GANA party. Berger was a former mayor of Guatemala City and had close ties with the country’s economic elites. Even so, he promised to clean up the government of the corruption and terrible inefficiency that had become its new legacy. He hired a diverse cabinet and got to work.
During the reign of the FRG, the National Treasury was utterly corrupt—money laundering, theft, and the creation of secret bank accounts in Mexico, Panama, and the United States were all implicated. Berger promised the public that he would bring corrupt FRG officials to trial. Somewhat incredibly, he kept his promise, and many of those officials are now behind bars awaiting trial. Portillo quietly fled the country to Mexico, where he now resides.
Despite these efforts, crime continued to be a problem in Guatemala. Gangs were widespread and at one point there were 16 homicides each day. Berger attempted to cleanse the police of corrupt members and also created joint military-police patrols.
The legislative and judicial branches of the government still had corrupt officials and links to secret groups. With help from the UN, the Guatemalan government created the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2006. The commission will be composed of international detectives who will give information to the Public Ministry to help investigate parallel power structures. Although the U.S. and other foreign nationals have pledged financial support, the commission has yet to really take off.
In one harrowing instance in 2007, three Salvadorian diplomats and their chauffer were shot and burned in their car outside Guatemala City. A large investigation revealed that senior police officers from the Department of Criminal Investigations (DINC) were to blame. The policemen were captured and sent to prison. However, they were murdered in prison while awaiting trial. Although initially blamed on gang members, the subsequent investigation implicated high-ranking government officials, who had ties to organized crime and death squads.
Berger did institute new economic policies, including making some government services and projects into private entities. He also helped ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement, DR-CAFTA, and secured mining rights
for multinational mining companies. The economy grew and there was a better investment environment.
Berger also developed important infrastructure projects, including new roads and airports that would make Guatemala more appealing to investors.
Berger has been criticized for not developing rural areas, where most indigenous people live. He did, however, create so-called gabinetes móviles, which allowed rural people to have their demands personally addressed by the president and cabinet members while they visited their town.
Guatemala continues to rebound from its tumultuous past. The country has seen improved development over the last decade and is now one of the largest economies in Central America. Even so, the wealth continues to remain unequally divided and poverty is endemic.
Violence is a problem in areas near the border with Mexico where transnational gangs and other criminal organizations exist. The violence is typically not targeted at tourists, but even so, travelers are advised to stay away from these places.
Guatemala has lots to offer visitors, including a vibrant culture, ancient ruins, and beautiful landscapes. By understanding where Guatemala has been, one has a better idea of the challenges it faces and the best route forward. Travelers play an important role in Guatemala’s ongoing development—tourism injects money into the economy and helps improves the infrastructure of local communities. The story of Guatemala continues, and we all will play a part.