Civil War: Guatemala (1974-1994)

Sharon Lunsford. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.

Country Background

The name Guatemala is derived from the Mayan for “land of many trees” (Ratnikas 2005, 1). Within its borders are mountains, jungles, volcanoes, plains, and a lake said to have been the inspiration for the landscape of Antoine de Saint -Exupéry’s The Little Prince (Pumpyansky 2005, 4). Woven textiles of brilliant colors in ancient geometric or bird-and-flower patterns enliven the marketplaces.

People who claim Mayan descent make up 53 percent of Guatemala’s population of about 14 million. Some sources, however, put the actual Mayan descent at over 90 percent due to the tendency of many to drop their indigenous heritage in favor of their preferred ladino classification (generally used to imply that a person is of Spanish or mixed Spanish-Indian descent). Common Mayan ancestry does not mean a common language. Multiple language groups exist within Guatemala’s indigenous communities.

Guatemala’s GDP per capita in 1974 (in constant 1996 international dollars) was I $3,387.38. By 1994, it had barely increased to I $3,862.80 (Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002). There is a substantial gap between municipal services available in the cities and those available in the mountainous areas inhabited mainly by indigenous groups; villagers in the mountain areas do not have general access to safe drinking water, health services, or educational opportunities (LaRue 2003, 1). Marshall and Jaggers (2003, 2) call Guatemala “one of the most unequal societies in the world.” That has not changed since a 1982 USAID report labeled the inequality “more serious than in any other country of Central or South America” (Manz 1988, 51). As is common in Latin American countries, indigenous peoples are heavily discriminated against and are exploited for their labor.

After a revolution in 1944 (still referred to by Guatemalans as “the” revolution), a progressive government was in place until 1954. The progressive initiatives included badly needed land reforms. Unfortunately, during the mid-twentieth century, anything progressive was viewed as Communist or at the very least Communist influenced. A United States-backed coup replaced that administration with a military one. Guatemala has long been considered the bellwether for Central American politics (LaFeber 1984, 257) because traditionally it has been the first of the five Central American countries to take a particular political direction. Communism in Guatemala, it was feared, would lead to communism in other Central American countries.

After a brief civilian administration, Guatemala was under military rule from 1963 to 1986, covering the period leading up to its 1974-1994 civil war and roughly half the war itself. A democratic constitution was put in place in 1985, but the government—and therefore the country—continued to be strongly influenced by the military.

Conflict Background

Most sources (including CIA 2005, 1 and 2005, 1) group the 1974-1994 conflict with the 1966-1972 conflict, referring to one civil war lasting from 1960 to 1996. But in 1974, Guatemala’s civil conflict took a new and deadlier turn, involving civilians in all walks of life and changing the face of the country to one of terror and unspoken violence. During the early 1980s, many villages in the rural highlands were destroyed, their inhabitants killed or driven away. Often, the stories of these events were not told outside the communities until years later. A central factor distinguishing the 1974-1994 conflict from the immediately previous one was the extensive involvement of indigenous Mayan communities—both as victims of mass violence and as mobilized militants.

During the summer of 1973, shortly before this particular period of conflict began, the National Teachers Union called a major strike in Guatemala City. The strike was followed by several others, and the movement spread to rural areas. Agricultural, manufacturing, and government employees were also mobilized as a result of the teachers’ action.

In 1974, General Efraín Ríos Montt, a political moderate, was elected president. With the connivance of the incumbent president, Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio, the military powers brushed aside the election results and installed the conservative General Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García instead, sending Ríos Montt to Madrid as an attaché.

A major earthquake in February 1976 resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 Guatemalans, most of them in the countryside. In Guatemala City, where the quake leveled some 60,000 homes in the slums on the edge of the city, the government not only failed to provide any significant aid but prevented foreign missions from being effective. One journalist suggested (Riding 1976, 13) that this could have been due to the city’s tendency to support left-wing causes, whereas the countryside at the time still largely supported the right-wing government.

Shortly thereafter, members of guerrilla movements decimated by the military during the 1966-1972 conflict combined to form the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres [EGP]). Around the same time, two other central groups, the Rebel Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes [FAR]) and the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas [ORPA]), began to make themselves more visible. ORPA was largely composed of indigenous Mayas and was Maya led. The National Committee for Trade Union Unity (CNUS) was formed in April 1976. CNUS deliberately stayed free of the guerrilla movement and extreme politics.

The 1978 election, a fraudulent exercise, resulted in the inauguration of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García as president. Lucas García, a wealthy landowner (as more and more of the military elite were becoming), at first appeared supportive of a colonization program for peasants but did not follow through. Having promised to deal harshly with the guerrillas, he proceeded to step up military violence against civilians.

Late in 1978, the government allowed the bus companies to increase bus fares, an action that historically provoked protests. This particular increase doubled the standard fares. Demonstrations involving thousands of people took place in Guatemala City. This time, the government’s response was to arrest 500 people, injure 200, and kill at least 12, all in the first five days (Handy 1984, 176). The increase was rolled back but not before the violence had escalated.

A national labor strike began, and a mass rally was held in the capital on October 20, 1978, the anniversary of the 1944 revolution. At the end of the rally, a student leader who had been a principal speaker was killed by machine guns as the police watched. During the ensuing months, the Guatemalan military assassinated leaders of resistance movements. Right-wing death squads openly murdered educators, religious workers, attorneys, politicians, leaders of peasant groups and trade unions, students, and others thought to be influential in mobilizing the people to protest government oppression.

What started as a grassroots movement developed into organized resistance after encountering the inflexibility of the Guatemalan regime. One instance of this inflexibility, and a major factor in the mobilization of CNUS, was a massacre in the village of Panzós, in the department of Alta Verapaz, in May 1978. As told by an area anthropologist (Davis 1988, 17, 20), local Indian peasants of the Kekchi language group had marched to the town hall to pick up titles to the lands they occupied, after the National Institute of Agrarian Transformation (INTA) had agreed to grant the titles. CNUS attorneys had helped with the land title applications. Instead of titles, the Kekchi encountered soldiers’ gunfire, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 Kekchi peasants. As told in a brief Associated Press story based on an announcement by the military, civilians “stirred up by guerrillas” had attacked a military post and were repelled. The news account went on to comment that “[i]nformation from Panzós was sketchy because of poor telephone communications.” In other words, the only clear information conveniently available to news sources at the time was from the military (Associated Press 1978, A10). For the military, CNUS was classified as a guerrilla organization because of its involvement in protest activity.

In December 1979, Amnesty International released a report that gave 2,000 as the number of political killings that had taken place in Guatemala during the previous eighteen months (Riding 1980a, 2). Early in 1980, the U.S. State Department named Guatemala as having one of the worst human rights records. After being condemned by the country that had previously supported a hard line against leftist movements and had bought into (if not generated) the “fight against communism” mentality, civilian and military factions in the Guatemalan administration became even further polarized, reflecting what was going on in the rest of the country.

The EGP had a strong base in Quiché province, and the Guatemalan military engaged in violently oppressive tactics against villagers in the area. On January 31, 1980, Indian peasants from that area took the Spanish ambassador and his staff hostage in the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to reinforce their demand for a government investigative commission. The peasants may have been accompanied by sympathizers from a local university. Based on the ambassador’s discussion with the Spanish foreign minister expressing the ambassador’s belief that the situation could be resolved peacefully, the Spanish government asked Guatemala not to intervene. Despite that communication, despite the ambassador’s personal pleading with the Guatemalan police to stay out, and in violation of international law, Guatemalan security forces cut the telephone lines, stormed the embassy, and forced open the locked door to the room to which the protesters had retreated with their hostages. Reports indicate that one of the protesters threw or knocked over a Molotov cocktail or other form of gasoline bomb. Thirty-four protesters, seven embassy employees, and two former Guatemalan officials died in the resulting fire. The only survivors were the Spanish ambassador and one of the peasants. The surviving peasant was kidnapped from his hospital bed and later found dead. The Spanish government severed diplomatic relations with Guatemala the next day. The response of the Guatemalan government was to claim that the protesters were not peasants but guerrilla impostors (Reuters 1980, 2).

The first labor organization in the country to be led by Indians and to connect ladino agricultural laborers with highland Indian peasants was the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC), created in late 1979. The organization would later become involved with the guerrilla movement, but it began its show of power with several strikes. A February 1980 strike involving “70,000 canecutters and 40,000 cotton pickers” and a strike in September that year by coffee pickers led to an increase in the agricultural daily minimum wage from $1.12 to $3.20 (Davis 1988, 20).

During the spring of 1980, a Guatemala City businessman told a journalist (Riding 1980b, 2), “The left has its strategy, and so has the right. The left is working for an armed revolution and the right plans to stop it by murdering its leaders. It’s all quite simple.” Urban violence from both sides sharply increased; professors, labor leaders, and moderate and left-wing politicians were killed by right-wing death squads, and farm managers, landowners, and right-wing politicians were killed by guerrilla organizations. Schlesinger and Kinzer (1982, 251) point out that the military’s purpose in targeting educated persons and organizational leaders was “to destroy the political center. Anyone not supporting the regime was almost by definition a leftist, and therefore an enemy. The military apparently believed that eliminating the center precluded the possibility of a moderate government, therefore leaving the citizenry a sterile choice between a revolutionary Communist regime and the existing military dictatorship.”

At this time, the Guatemalan military consisted of roughly 20,000 personnel (English 1984, 266; Riding 1980a, 2); another 11,000 were in two major police organizations that served as paramilitary forces. Although Guatemala had no defense industry of its own and relied instead on supplies and training from other countries, its military was the best trained and most efficient in Central America. Having no hope of physically overcoming the Guatemalan armed forces, the guerrilla organizations were apparently trying to make life difficult enough that the government would pay attention and make some meaningful changes in the socioeconomic system of the country. In early 1980, 1 percent of the families in Guatemala owned more than half the land worth cultivating. Roughly half the 6.5-7 million population at the time had a per capita income of less than US $100 per year. Urban unemployment was over 30 percent (Riding 1980a, 2).

The counterinsurgency training received by Guatemalan military officers in the United States would have involved Mao Tse Tung’s sayings about guerrilla warfare, in which he used fish and water as a metaphor for guerrilla warriors acting from the midst of a population. The military’s chosen response was to “poison the water” (Wilkinson 2002, 298) or to “drain” it (Harbury 1997, 12). Toward the end of 1981, under the leadership of Ríos Montt, the military began to systematically annihilate guerrillas and civilians alike in areas populated largely by indigenous groups, namely the northern lowlands and the central and western parts of the highlands. “No distinction was made between combatants and civilians, no rules of war were followed, and there were no prisoners of war” (Manz 1988, 17). During the campaign, sacred symbols and places were desecrated, and community cornfields were destroyed. The purpose of this campaign was threefold: The military not only fought the guerrilla forces directly, it destroyed their civilian base of support and prevented future opposition. The second purpose was intended to be accomplished partly by pulling the rural Indians away from the guerrilla organizations’ influence. By 1983, the indigenous communities had lost their cohesiveness and were kept in line by constant killings and incidents of torture.

Although the responsibility for the extreme violations of human rights has been found to belong to the military and the regimes that allowed, controlled, and supported such violations, the responsibility of the guerrilla organizations cannot be minimized. Although the guerrilla forces for the most part were not responsible for the types of civilian killings that were part of government tactics, they expected a brutal resistance. There is a certain indication that the civilians who chose to work with the insurgents expected it also and understood that they would pay a price, but neither the guerrilla organizations nor the civilians expected the level of devastation that was employed to crush the rebellion. The people of Guatemala were literally a living and dying example of Michael Walzer’s (1977, 176-96) explanation of the rules and traditions of war as exploited by insurgent groups. Guerrilla organizations hide behind the restraint normally accorded civilians in time of war and dare the government to be the barbarians and to kill, torture, and maim the civilians in the middle. “ [W]henever ordinary soldiers become convinced that old men and women are their enemies it is unlikely that the war can be fought except by setting out systematically to kill civilians or to destroy their society and culture. The war cannot be won, because the only available strategy involves a war against civilians; and it should not be won, because the degree of civilian support that rules out alternative strategies also makes the guerrillas the legitimate rulers of the country” (Walzer 1977, 195-96). The Guatemalan military was operating under a National Security Doctrine that dealt largely with eliminating the “internal enemy.” One of the conclusions of the Historical Clarification Commission was that “the state’s idea of the ‘internal enemy’ became increasingly inclusive” (CEH 1999, 3).

Peasant rebellions were not new to Guatemala. Latin American peasants have long been familiar with the use of the legal system and the use of protest activities (usually beginning peacefully but sometimes escalating to violence) to defend their rights. Peasant revolts were common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of the insurgents participating in the 1974-1994 insurgency had parents and grandparents who had been involved in fighting the government in one way or another.

Displacing centuries-old community authority systems, military and other governmental authority structures were set up in small villages. A civil patrol system was instituted to enforce loyalty to the military and to assist in defense against the guerrilla forces. The requirement for men of military age to spend one day on guard duty out of every eight to fifteen days was nominally voluntary but was actually used to disrupt family and village loyalties, replacing not only the local authority systems but the use of the national judicial system by the rural population. Members were often coerced into executing villagers who had been labeled subversive; those who refused to do so were punished by the army. With the division of loyalties came the abuse of power by civil patrol members, who used the system to settle personal feuds by force. By 1985, more than 900,000 men were estimated to be members of the civil patrol (Davis 1988, 27).

Government municipal programs put in place in many rural villages, and interinstitutional coordinators were appointed to manage the programs and to communicate government policies. This system was dissolved by the Cerezo administration after it was named by human rights organizations as a cover for surveillance of civilians. In addition to the civil patrol, members of the armed forces were distributed among newly created bases in rural areas. The military became an integral part of rural life. After their bloody campaign of the early 1980s, the military continued to treat any organized movement as subversive.

Accounts vary as to the number of people displaced as a result of the 1974-1994 conflict. Manz (1988, 1) describes the displacement of 1 million people in the early 1980s alone, including 200,000 to other countries and 800,000 internally. The latest figures on the CIA World Factbook website (2005) list 250,000 “refugees and internally displaced persons” as a result of the “government’s scorched-earth offensive in 1980s against indigenous people” but include a total of only 1 million refugees for the period from 1960 to 1996. Doyle and Sambanis (2000, codebook) show the number of refugees and IDPs for the 1974-1994 conflict as 550,000. Although some refugee camps were set up in the western part of Huehuetenango provice, many more camps were in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Refugees fleeing to Chiapas were blamed for inciting revolutionary action by indigenous peoples in that area.

International agency action during the earlier part of the civil war was extremely limited. UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund) was the only agency with a respectable foothold in the country prior to the conflict. The Red Cross had no access in Guatemala, because it requires the consent of the parties in conflict in order to operate. As in other Central American countries, independent humanitarian agencies did not remain neutral. “In Guatemala … the myth of apolitical humanitarian assistance did not prevail, and the concept of noncombatant remained a difficult one to pin down. Religious groups and many NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] with strong biases toward a particular population took great pains to organize and educate noncombatants. Their humanitarian efforts were undeniably political” (Weiss and Collins 1996, 157).

The Insurgents

The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) began as a consolidation of four groups traditionally operating in different parts of the country: the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres [EGP]), the Rebel Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, [FAR]), the Organization of the People in Arms (Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas, [ORPA]) and the Guatemalan Workers Party (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo [PGT]). By the time of the settlement ending the conflict, the PGT was no longer an active part of the group. Its exact role in the conflict is unclear. Some sources do not mention it as ever having been part of the URNG but rather classify it as a peaceful organization. It was rumored early in 1979 that leaders of one or more of these groups met with other Central American guerrilla leaders in Honduras to coordinate their strategy. Naturally, the rumor (whether true or false) contributed to the fear that communism was about to take over Central America.

ORPA was formed in mid-1971 by a group of people who had first thought to join FAR but decided to put together their own organization instead. Having set up a central base on Tajumulco Volcano in September 1971, ORPA spent seven years assembling a network that would make armed resistance possible before making its first public military move in September 1979 by occupying a plantation near Santa María.

The EGP, established in 1975, began by recruiting university students but very quickly turned to recruiting members from the indigenous peoples of Mayan descent who inhabit the highland areas of the country. Increasing numbers of high-landers had begun to migrate to the coastal plantations every year to work in unpleasant conditions as an alternative to trying to grow crops on their own insufficient plots of land. After spending several years assassinating political and military targets, the EGP began temporarily occupying villages (the first being Nebaj in February 1979) and explaining their purpose to the people of each community. Their next step was to mount a series of attacks on military bases.

In late 1979, the EGP kidnapped a relative of President Lucas García for an unusual ransom: an advertisement in several major newspapers. An example of the ad can be seen in the October 26, 1979, edition of the New York Times. It covers all four columns of page 14 and two of the four columns of page 15, with a brief explanatory article in the third column. The first line of the heading, in very large, bold type, is “Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres,” and the subheading is “International Declaration.” The EGP presents in detail its case against the Guatemalan establishment.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000; CEH 1999; Marshall and Jaggers 2003; Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002; Manz 1988.
War: URNG vs. the government
Dates: 1974-1994
Casualties: 100,000-200,000 (CEH 1999 lists 200,000 for the period 1960-1996, most of which would have been in the 1974-1994 conflict.)
Regime type prior to war: 1 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: 3 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: $3,387.38 in 1974 (constant 1996 international dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: $3,862.80 in 1999 (constant 1996 international dollars)
Insurgents: URNG
Issue: Government repression, denial of peasant land rights
Rebel funding: Sparse, with volunteers and donations, but some leader training provided in Cuba
Role of geography: Mountainous, forested areas enabled guerrilla bases and radio broadcast station to stay well-hidden but impeded provision of refugee assistance.
Role of resources: Resources belong to the wealthy and are part of the land issue; peasants are regularly resettled to allow access to oil or other resources.
Immediate outcome: Formal settlement/treaty
Outcome after 5 years: Human rights violations and military impunity still an issue; underlying ethnic prejudices are unresolved.
Role of UN: Multidimensional (peacekeeping and peacebuilding, with military and civilian personnel and civilian fact finders), but only late in the conflict
Role of regional organization: OAS does not seem to have been involved.
Refugees: 550,000-1,000,000
Prospects for peace: Shaky; not likely to last if land reform is not accomplished or if military regains power
Table 1: Civil War in Guatemala

The FAR, which had separated from the PGT in January 1968, expressing its desire to engage in an armed revolution rather than the peaceful social revolution espoused by the PGT, gained new life in the late 1970s. During the early part of 1980, EGP and ORPA managed to gain a large number of members from the Indian groups in the western part of the country, an especially mountainous region. At the time, these two groups had not sustained many losses. The total number of trained rebels was estimated by Davis (1988, 24) to have been not more than 3,500; Handy (1984, 257) puts the total at 3,000-6,000. Their weapons consisted of rifles, machetes, and small explosives.

One or more groups were led by commanders trained in Cuba with literature supplied by Cuba. However, no funding appears to have been provided by Cuba or by any other Communist country. Rodrigo Asturias Amado, a guerrilla leader working under the name of Gas-par Horn, attributes that lack of funding for their cause, in contrast to the plentiful funding for the military, to the state of the Cold War at the time. Asturias ran for president of Guatemala in November 2003 but received only a small percentage of the votes cast in that election (CNN 2006, 1). In an interview by Alexander Pumpyansky (2005, 6), Asturias stated that the only support provided by Cuba during the conflict was “political and moral” and that Nicaragua never delivered on its repeated promises of aid. One of the most revealing findings of the Historical Clarification Commission is that “at no time during the internal armed confrontation did the guerrilla groups have the military potential necessary to pose an imminent threat to the State…. [T]he State and the Army … were … well aware that the insurgents’ military capacity did not represent a real threat to Guatemala’s political order” (CEH 1999, 5).


The largest country in Central America, Guatemala spans the Central American land mass from the Pacific Ocean on the southwest to the Gulf of Mexico on the northeast, covering most of the southern border of Mexico. As a comparison for U.S. readers, the shape of Guatemala somewhat resembles that of Texas with an oversized panhandle and with the far west corner cut off, and the country is similar in size to Kentucky or Tennessee.

Guatemala’s terrain is largely mountainous. During the conflict, this provided an advantage to guerrilla units but impeded the delivery of critical services to refugees. A particular portion of the central highlands of Guatemala, referred to by some as the Ixil region or the Ixil triangle, was very involved in the insurgency and counterinsurgency activities; the Ixcán (rain forest) region was a critical area for land colonization and the area where ORPA, the largest insurgent group, was formed. Voz Popular, the ORPA radio broadcast station, was installed in Tajumulco Volcano and began broadcasting in 1987. The military bombed the area but did not succeed in destroying the station.


For the most part, the insurgent groups relied on ambushes of military patrols and targeted assassinations. They occasionally occupied towns or stopped civilian buses to try to influence the people in their favor. Although there are some reports of violence against civilians having been part of the bus stops, this did not appear to have been the general pattern.

The military relied on bombing areas in which they thought the insurgents might be hiding. The military implemented a military-controlled local government system in the villages; tortured, killed, and mutilated civilians thought to be supporting the insurgents or to be connected to them; and razed whole villages and killed their inhabitants to destroy civilian support for the guerrilla organizations.

The goal of the government, under the National Security Doctrine, was “the eradication of subversion to enable conditions of security, peace and tranquility” (CEH 2000, 19, para. 767). Its activities included “counterinsurgency, ideological war, internal security and development” (CEH 2000, 20, para. 770). The counterinsurgency strategies employed by the Guatemalan military consisted of “scorched-earth operations; operations of displacement, punishment, control and annihilation of civilian population; undercover military action; intelligence and psychological operations” (CEH 2000, 21, para. 775).

Frank LaRue, a Guatemalan lawyer and the founder and executive director of the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights, cites the Guatemalan military’s lack of resources (after it was denied U.S. military aid) as one reason for the military’s strategy of terror (LaRue 2003, 2). However, that point is debatable. Israel and other countries were supplying arms when the United States was not, and other sources indicate that the military engaged in many of its operations simply to use all that equipment.

Causes of the War

Guatemala’s civil war from 1974 to 1994 can be likened to a deadly collision at a badly designed intersection. Imagine, on one side, a four-lane highway marked as one way in the direction of the intersection, with the lanes filled by, respectively, monied families descended from the original conquering Spaniards or from later European immigrants, commercial interests owned by U.S. multinational corporations, a newly professionalized military, and a deep fear and loathing on the part of the United States of anything resembling communism. Imagine, on the other side, a two-lane road heading directly toward the intersection, carrying in one lane the indigenous population with a developing consciousness of its rightful place in society, and in the other lane a new urban middle class characterized by growing political dissatisfaction.

Smith (2001, 3) sums up the societal basis of the conflict: “Guatemala has never acknowledged itself for what it is—it has never … looked squarely at its reflection in the mirror of national identity. Its ruling elite, an oligarchy of a few dozen families, has instead determined that Guatemalans live according to deep divisions: between the countryside and the capital, rich and poor, men and women, educated and illiterate, propertied and landless, the Ladino (nonindigenous) minority and the Mayan majority. …. Since the Spanish conquest… Guatemala has been a society of the included and excluded, and the lines between the two are as clear today as they were in the sixteenth century.” Davis (1988, 14) states, “With the exception of the agrarian reform program instituted by the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán between 1952 and 1954 … no regime has attacked the agrarian roots of racial and cultural discrimination in Guatemala…. [W]ell into the [twentieth] century Maya Indian communities remained localized and highly exploited ethnic enclaves within the larger social structure of the country.”

Davis (1998, 14-16) attributes the Indian involvement in the conflict and its surrounding political atmosphere largely to two factors. The first is the exacerbation of the already poor agrarian situation in peasant communities from 1950 to 1970 and the resulting increase in seasonal Indian migration to coastal plantations from 1960 to 1974, a period of economic boom for the plantation owners but subhuman working conditions for the peasants. The second is the sociopolitical mobilization of the Indian population based on the organizations created during the social reform period of 1945 to 1954 and built upon by the Catholic Action movement during the 1960s and early 1970s. He notes that opposition political parties increasingly were involving rural Indians during the early 1970s and argues (1988, 20) that “[u]nder different socioeconomic conditions … this mobilization would have naturally evolved into Indian participation in all aspects of Guatemalan society. The Guatemalan military and the wealthy agrarian and commercial elites … were not prepared to allow Indians to participate as independent actors in national politics. Nor were the recently reorganized revolutionary movements … ready to accept a nonviolent path to change. … [A]fter two decades of right-wing death squads and left-wing guerrilla movements it was not surprising that the country fell into widespread violence, chaos, and civil war.”

Economic factors played a large part in this collision. The 1973 energy crisis that had such a negative impact on the U.S. economy had a devastating effect on Guatemala and was one of several factors that exacerbated the existing socioeconomic cleavages within the country. It worsened the circumstances of the already growing number of farm families living on plots of land too small to sustain life. The controversial U.S. program called the Alliance for Progress died a natural death around that time. The alliance had been paying for services that under another type of government would have been funded by taxes on the rich and on large commercial enterprises. Without the assistance of the Alliance for Progress, the Guatemalan government did not continue those services (LaFeber 1984, 167).

The reformist era of the 1940s to 1950s provided a background of attempts to redistribute land and the formation of early peasant groups, labor unions, and other activist organizations. Those progressive moves had given peasants hope, and subsequent military oppression had taken it away. The current conflict was made all the more inevitable by that sequence of events.

Revolutionary activity increased in the mid-1970s, and state repression increased accordingly. Manz (1988, 170) described the Guatemalan political environment halfway through the conflict as “a society in which the oligarchy and the military have blocked any social or economic reform, [based on] a confident, disdainful, ruthless, and fully autonomous military, an unyielding and intolerant plantation and business class, and their expectation of political passivity on the part of the overwhelmingly poor majority of the country.” According to one anthropologist, “Indians began joining with the guerrilla organizations [during the late 1970s] not because of a deep ideological understanding of or commitment to their cause but rather as a means of individual and community defense against the selective killings and acts of terror by the army and the death squads” (Davis 1988, 23). However, it might be more accurate to say that the indigenous groups took the guerrillas’ ideological cause and made it their own. Consider the 500-year rage of people who have watched personal subsistence land appropriated for commercial use, who find their children denied the basics of education and care, and who are considered outsiders in their own country. They understood all too well what had happened to them since the country’s aborted attempts at land reform decades before. They had the nerve to raise their heads out of the dirt, and the boot came down. No ideology was needed to understand that impact.

The CEH concluded that “throughout Guatemala’s history… the violence was fundamentally directed by the State against the excluded, the poor and above all, the Mayan people, as well as against those who fought for justice and greater social equality…. [A] vicious circle was created in which social injustice led to protest and subsequently political instability, to which those were always only two responses: repression or military coups” (CEH 1999, 1-2).


Conflict Status

Refugees had been returning individually since 1985, but their organized return did not begin until 1993. The groundwork for this movement was an agreement signed in October 1992 between the Guatemalan government and Guatemalan refugees located in refugee camps in Mexico. However, the government still viewed refugees as the guilty ones and influenced the civil patrols to treat the refugees in a hostile manner. Returning refugees sometimes met with violence and often were forced to resettle in places other than their original community sites. An extensive treatment of this situation is found in a Human Rights Watch report dated January 1996. By 1995, 15,000 refugees had returned to Guatemala, and another 45,000 thousand were awaiting the outcome of the peace discussions (Weiss and Collins 1996, 73-74).

Early in 1994, the government and the URNG agreed to begin peace talks, and months of discussions ensued. When Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen came to power by a free election in 1996, he moved quickly to pull power away from the military. In December 1996, the Guatemalan government and the URNG signed the final document in a set of peace accords that provided for new human rights policies, resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons, the establishment of a Historical Truth Commission to investigate the violence against civilians involved in the long-running civil war, and a statement of the rights of indigenous peoples. The process had been a rough one, with the talks often stalling for long periods of time and with mixed results. As an example, violence by death squads briefly increased just after the human rights accord was signed.

The restructuring of Guatemala’s military during 1996-1999, in compliance with the peace accords, has had an unfortunate backlash. Some of the officers who were forcibly retired have shifted their career focus to organized crime as a means of maintaining a hold on society. The cartels they have formed are involved in illegal drugs. Through these cartels, the former officers have engaged in violence against the same types of people as when they were military commanders—those involved in the legal system, the church, the press, and human rights organizations. One sign of how little the underlying sociopolitical structure of the country has changed is the repeated election of Ríos Montt to high-level government positions, including speaker of parliament. One writer has suggested that he is being voted in by people who enjoy the power that comes with membership in civilian patrol units (Pumpyansky 2005, 3).

In February 1999, the Historical Clarification Commission released a summary of its conclusions and recommendations (CEH 1999). In early 2000, the entire twelve-volume report, detailing incidents of violence from interviews around the country, was made available in electronic form (CEH 2000). Over the next several years, public apologies were made for various incidents of government aggression. As an example, on July 18, 2005, Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein traveled to the highland village of Plan de Sánchez to extend the government’s apology for the massacre of 226 villagers exactly thirteen years before.

Duration Tactics

The length of this particular conflict can be attributed largely to the use of guerrilla tactics, to the unwillingness of the government to seek a peaceful resolution until the war had already gone on for a number of years, to the readiness of other countries to feed the madness, and to the fact that the underlying issues had been unresolved for centuries. Fearon (2004, 277) classifies civil wars as “peripheral insurgencies” if they involve “rural guerrilla bands typically operating near the state’s borders” and concludes that this type of war is much more likely to be a long one. If we take some liberties with the word borders, letting it include the remote, mountainous areas throughout the country, his description is close to the Guatemalan experience. Fearon also concluded that the “sons of the soil” type of peripheral insurgency, one involving natural resource conflicts among ethnic groups, was especially lengthy. The recruitment of indigenous fighters, the fact that one of the guerrilla organizations was formed by an indigenous group, the historical division of class in Guatemala along ethnic lines, and, above all, the extent of government violence against indigenous groups made this conflict an ethnic war as much as or more than a class war.

External Military Intervention

For most of this period and for decades before it, the United States provided military aid to Guatemala in the form of weaponry and training. The estimated amount of military aid provided to the Guatemalan military by the United States from 1955 to 1977 was $23 million. During the same period, more than 3,000 Guatemalan military officers were trained by the United States (English 1984, 266). For a few years in the late 1970s, when Guatemala rejected aid at the point at which the United States was about to withdraw that aid because of human rights violations, Israel stepped in and provided weapons and supplies. From all indications, the major impact of this assistance was to keep one oppressive regime after another, and the entrenched oligarchy supported by those regimes, in power.

Conflict Management Efforts

Working on groundwork laid by Guatemala’s President Marco Vinicio Cerezo in 1986, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias worked with other Central American leaders to develop a peace process for Central America. Although this process resulted in the Central American Peace Accords in 1987, it did not bring about measurable improvement in the Guatemalan situation (Moreno 1994, 1). To the contrary, Guatemala was “the Central American state least affected by the peace process” (Moreno 1994, 146). Ironically, both the summit led by Cerezo and that led by Arias were held in the Guatemalan border town of Esquipulas (Moreno 1994, 75-77).

The first steps toward a peaceful resolution to the long-running civil war in Guatemala were taken in 1987. Nine years of negotiations led to the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords in December 1996.

Probably the most valuable contribution of international agencies was their public advocacy for an end to the human rights violations in Guatemala. They consistently worked to focus media attention where established news organizations were reluctant to look. Although major newspapers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times, reported many of the incidences of violence, they often did not encourage their reporters to delve deeper into the story. Television news coverage was skimpy and late, and many ordinary citizens of other countries went about their lives not knowing that a civil war was taking place in Guatemala, much less what the issues were. Human rights organizations brought the story to people who were in a position to work toward an end to the conflict.


Guatemala’s hold on its prospects for a lasting peace is tenuous, but peace is not out of the question. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have periodically reported new incidences of repression and violence like those that occurred during the civil conflict (e.g., Amnesty International 2005). Specific challenges to be overcome include extremist organizations on both sides, continued land exploitation by commercial interests to the disadvantage of indigenous groups, and the government’s continued disregard for the well-being of individuals and communities.

Returning refugees have encountered violence at the hands of those who took over their homes and villages or those who believe the refugees to be tainted by the insurgents’ influence. In her discussion of Guatemalan refugees, Beatriz Manz listed the central issues in Guatemala’s prospects for successful repatriation of its refugees as “human rights; military power in civilian spheres; economic conditions; land; the 1985 elections; attitudes toward refugees; and dissent and resistance” (Manz 1988, 30). Her reference to the 1985 presidential elections was concerned with the new civilian administration’s attitude of amnesty for military personnel involved in the killings of civilians. Not surprisingly, these issues are directly applicable to Guatemala’s chances for a lasting peace.

One of the lessons of Guatemala is that international assistance cannot be limited to refugees but must be extended to internally displaced persons in order to be meaningful in a conflict such as this one. Long-term effects of the conflict include the dismantling of the rural cooperative system and the installation of military structures within the rural Indian communities. Davis (1988, 27) names the civil patrol system as “the dominant institutional legacy of the period of violence in rural Guatemala.”

Part of the tragedy of violence during the 1974-1994 conflict is that we will never know what contributions to Guatemalan culture, politics, and society could have been made by those whose bodies now lie in mass graves. Marcie Mersky, coordinator for the CEH report, emphasizes that privatization of the violence has taken place to too great an extent—“as if those 200,000 lives didn’t mean anything in terms of the country’s potential toward the future, as leaders, as thinkers, as producers or as creators” (Mersky 2003, 4). Although the violence was intensely personal, it also carries a great societal weight. The failure of the upper classes to recognize the potential of the peasant class is a sign of the great underlying contempt under which Indian peasants are thought to have no possible value except as cheap labor. As long as an environment of economic inbreeding is the norm, there will be little chance for meaningful participation by the rest of the country.

Probably the most tragic outcome, and one that in time may be ameliorated but can never be reversed, is the effect on the cohesiveness of Indian identity. Guatemalan Mayas, like any other indigenous group, were closely tied to land and community for centuries. “The community was the stronghold of indigenous culture, a refuge from national economic and political dominance, a reinforcing place where Indian identity was formed and maintained. Today, the pervasive military interference in the most isolated of communities has violated and at times shattered this sanctuary … Not since the Spanish Conquest have the highlands seen such a general cultural breakdown” (Manz 1988, 11-12).

Faced with an indigenous population that increasingly refused to be bound by the unnatural labor and economic systems of the country, the Guatemalan government found a way to use the negative side of tribalism. They learned from the British and French, who used the native tribes of North America against each other and against American colonists, and went on to carry out similar control methods in Africa. They learned from African tribes, who sold each other into slavery. They built an army of terror out of the same indigenous peoples who were being recruited into the growing insurgency. In so doing, they ripped apart ancient bonds and exacerbated ancient rivalries. Old bonds must be rediscovered and new bonds formed in order for peace to be something more than the eye of the storm.