The Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the
surrounding region long before the Spanish arrived, but it was already
in decline when the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523-24.
During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control
of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
The first colonial capital, Ciudad Vieja, was ruined by floods and an
earthquake in 1542. Survivors founded Antigua, the second capital, in 1543.
In the 17th century, Antigua became one of the richest capitals in the
New World. Always vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes,
Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773, but the remnants of its
Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument.
The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776, after Antigua was
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821; it briefly
became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation
called the United Provinces of Central America. From the mid-19th century
until the mid-1980s, the country passed through a series of dictatorships,
insurgencies (particularly beginning in the 1960s), coups, and stretches
of military rule with only occasional periods of representative government.
1944 to 1986
In 1944, Gen. Jorge Ubico's dictatorship was overthrown by the "October
Revolutionaries," a group of dissident military officers, students, and
liberal professionals. A civilian president, Juan Jose Arevalo, was elected
in 1945 and held the presidency until 1951. Social reforms initiated by
Arevalo were continued by his successor, Col. Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz permitted
the communist Guatemalan Labor Party to gain legal status in 1952. By the
mid-point of Arbenz's term, communists controlled key peasant organizations,
labor unions, and the governing political party, holding some key government
positions. Despite most Guatemalans' attachment to the original ideals
of the 1944 uprising, some private sector leaders and the military viewed
Arbenz's policies as a menace. The army refused to defend the Arbenz government
when a U.S.-backed group led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas invaded the
country from Honduras in 1954 and quickly took over the government.
In response to the increasingly autocratic rule of Gen. Ydigoras Fuentes,
who took power in 1958 following the murder of Colonel Castillo Armas,
a group of junior military officers revolted in 1960. When they failed,
several went into hiding and established close ties with Cuba. This group
became the nucleus of the forces that were in armed insurrection against
the government for the next 36 years.
Four principal left-wing guerrilla groups--the Guerrilla Army of the
Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), the
Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT)--conducted
economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of
government security forces in armed attacks. These organizations combined
to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) in1982. At the
same time, extreme right-wing groups of self-appointed vigilantes, including
the Secret Anti-Communist Army (ESA) and the White Hand, tortured and murdered
students, professionals, and peasants suspected of involvement in leftist
Shortly after President Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro took office in
1966, the army launched a major counterinsurgency campaign that largely
broke up the guerrilla movement in the countryside. The guerrillas then
concentrated their attacks in Guatemala City, where they assassinated many
leading figures, including U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein in 1968. Between
1966 and 1982, there were a series of military or military-dominated governments.
On March 23, 1982, army troops commanded by junior officers staged a
coup to prevent the assumption of power by Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara, the
hand-picked candidate of outgoing president and Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia.
They denounced Guevara's electoral victory as fraudulent. The coup leaders
asked retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt to negotiate the departure of Lucas
and Guevara. Rios Montt had been the candidate of the Christian Democracy
Party in the 1974 presidential elections and was widely regarded as having
been denied his own victory through fraud.
Rios Montt was by this time a lay pastor in the evangelical protestant
"Church of the Word." In his inaugural address, he stated that his presidency
resulted from the will of God. He formed a three-member military junta
that annulled the 1965 constitution, dissolved Congress, suspended political
parties, and canceled the electoral law. After a few months, Rios Montt
dismissed his junta colleagues and assumed the de facto title of "President
of the Republic."
Guerrilla forces and their leftist allies denounced Rios Montt. Rios
Montt sought to defeat the guerrillas with military actions and economic
reforms; in his words, "rifles and beans." In May 1982, the Conference
of Catholic Bishops accused Rios Montt of responsibility for growing militarization
of the country and for continuing military massacres of civilians. General
Rios Montt was quoted in the New York Times of July 18, 1982 as telling
an audience of indigenous Guatemalans, "If you are with us, we'll feed
you; if not, we'll kill you."
The government began to form local civilian defense patrols (PACs).
Participation was in theory voluntary, but in practice, many Guatemalans,
especially in the heavily indigenous northwest, had no choice but to join
either the PACs or the guerrillas. Rios Montt's conscript army and PACs
recaptured essentially all guerrilla territory--guerrilla activity lessened
and was largely limited to hit-and-run operations. However, Rios Montt
won this partial victory at an enormous cost in civilian deaths.
Rios Montt's brief presidency was probably the most violent period of
the 36-year internal conflict, which resulted in about 200,000 deaths of
mostly unarmed indigenous civilians. Although leftist guerrillas and right-wing
death squads also engaged in summary executions, forced disappearances,
and torture of noncombatants, the vast majority of human rights violations
were carried out by the Guatemalan military and the PACs they controlled.
The internal conflict is described in great detail in the reports of the
Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) and the Archbishop's Office for
Human Rights (ODHAG). The CEH estimates that government forces were responsible
for 93% of the violations; ODHAG earlier estimated that government forces
were responsible for 80%.
On August 8, 1983, Rios Montt was deposed by his own Minister of Defense,
Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who succeeded him as de facto president
of Guatemala. Mejia justified his coup, saying that "religious fanatics"
were abusing their positions in the government and also because of "official
corruption." Seven people were killed in the coup, although Rios Montt
survived to found a political party (the Guatemalan Republic Front) and
to be elected President of Congress in 1995 and 2000. Awareness in the
United States of the conflict in Guatemala, and its ethnic dimension, increased
with the 1983 publication of I, Rigoberta Menchu, An Indian Woman in Guatemala.
General Mejia allowed a managed return to democracy in Guatemala, starting
with a July 1, 1984 election for a Constituent Assembly to draft a democratic
constitution. On May 30, 1985, after 9 months of debate, the Constituent
Assembly finished drafting a new constitution, which took effect immediately.
Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian politician and the presidential candidate of
the Christian Democracy Party, won the first election held under the new
constitution with almost 70% of the vote, and took office on January 14,
1986 to 2003
Upon its inauguration in January 1986, President Cerezo's civilian government
announced that its top priorities would be to end the political violence
and establish the rule of law. Reforms included new laws of habeas corpus
and amparo (court-ordered protection), the creation of a legislative human
rights committee, and the establishment in 1987 of the Office of Human
Rights Ombudsman. The Supreme Court also embarked on a series of reforms
to fight corruption and improve legal system efficiency.
With Cerezo's election, the military moved away from governing and returned
to the more traditional role of providing internal security, specifically
by fighting armed insurgents. The first 2 years of Cerezo's administration
were characterized by a stable economy and a marked decrease in political
violence. Dissatisfied military personnel made two coup attempts in May
1988 and May 1989, but military leadership supported the constitutional
order. The government was heavily criticized for its unwillingness to investigate
or prosecute cases of human rights violations.
The final 2 years of Cerezo's government also were marked by a failing
economy, strikes, protest marches, and allegations of widespread corruption.
The government's inability to deal with many of the nation's problems--such
as infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services,
and rising levels of violence--contributed to popular discontent. Presidential
and congressional elections were held on November 11, 1990. After a runoff
ballot, Jorge Serrano was inaugurated on January 14, 1991, thus completing
the first transition from one democratically elected civilian government
to another. Because his Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS) Party gained
only 18 of 116 seats in Congress, Serrano entered into a tenuous alliance
with the Christian Democrats and the National Union of the Center (UCN).
The Serrano administration's record was mixed. It had some success in
consolidating civilian control over the army, replacing a number of senior
officers and persuading the military to participate in peace talks with
the URNG. He took the politically unpopular step of recognizing the sovereignty
of Belize. The Serrano government reversed the economic slide it inherited,
reducing inflation and boosting real growth.
On May 25, 1993, Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme
Court and tried to restrict civil freedoms, allegedly to fight corruption.
The "autogolpe" (or self-initiated coup) failed due to unified, strong
protests by most elements of Guatemalan society, international pressure,
and the army's enforcement of the decisions of the Court of Constitutionality,
which ruled against the attempted takeover. In the face of this resistance,
Serrano fled the country.
On June 5, 1993, the Congress, pursuant to the 1985 constitution, elected
the Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro De Leon Carpio, to complete Serrano's
presidential term. De Leon, not a member of any political party and lacking
a political base but with strong popular support, launched an ambitious
anticorruption campaign to "purify" Congress and the Supreme Court, demanding
the resignations of all members of the two bodies.
Despite considerable congressional resistance, presidential and popular
pressure led to a November 1993 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church
between the administration and Congress. This package of constitutional
reforms was approved by popular referendum on January 30, 1994. In August
1994, a new Congress was elected to complete the unexpired term. Controlled
by the anti-corruption parties--the populist Guatemalan Republican Front
(FRG) headed by ex-Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, and the center-right National
Advancement Party (PAN)--the new Congress began to move away from the corruption
that characterized its predecessors.
Under De Leon, the peace process, now brokered by the United Nations,
took on new life. The government and the URNG signed agreements on human
rights (March 1994), resettlement of displaced persons (June 1994), historical
clarification (June 1994), and indigenous rights (March 1995). They also
made significant progress on a socioeconomic and agrarian agreement. National
elections for president, the Congress, and municipal offices were held
in November 1995. With almost 20 parties competing in the first round,
the presidential election came down to a January 7, 1996 runoff in which
PAN candidate Alvaro Arzu defeated Alfonso Portillo of the FRG by just
over 2% of the vote. Arzu won because of his strength in Guatemala City,
where he had previously served as mayor, and in the surrounding urban area.
Portillo won all of the rural departments except Peten. Under the Arzu
administration, peace negotiations were concluded, and the government signed
peace accords ending the 36-year internal conflict in December 1996. (See
section on peace process) The human rights situation also improved during
Arzu's tenure, and steps were taken to reduce the influence of the military
in national affairs.
Guatemala held presidential, legislative, and municipal elections on
November 7, 1999, and a runoff presidential election on December 26. In
the first round the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) won 63 of 113 legislative
seats, while the National Advancement Party (PAN) won 37. The New Nation
Alliance (ANN) won 9 legislative seats, and three minority parties won
the remaining four. In the runoff on December 26, Alfonso Portillo (FRG)
won 68% of the vote to 32% for Oscar Berger (PAN). Portillo carried all
22 departments and Guatemala City, which was considered the PAN's stronghold.
Portillo was criticized during the campaign for his relationship with the
FRG's chairman, former Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the de facto president of
Guatemala in 1982-83. Many charge that some of the worst human rights violations
of the internal conflict were committed under Rios Montt's rule. Nevertheless,
Portillo's impressive electoral triumph, with two-thirds of the vote in
the second round, gave him a claim to a mandate from the people to carry
out his reform program.
President Portillo pledged to maintain strong ties to the United States,
further enhance Guatemala's growing cooperation with Mexico, and participate
actively in the integration process in Central America and the Western
Hemisphere. Domestically, he vowed to support continued liberalization
of the economy, increase investment in human capital and infrastructure,
establish an independent central bank, and increase revenue by stricter
enforcement of tax collections rather than increasing taxation. Portillo
also promised to continue the peace process, appoint a civilian defense
minister, reform the armed forces, replace the military presidential security
service with a civilian one, and strengthen protection of human rights.
He appointed a pluralist cabinet, including indigenous members and others
not affiliated with the FRG ruling party.
Progress in carrying out Portillo's reform agenda has been slow, at
best, with the notable exception of a series of reforms sponsored by the
World Bank to modernize bank regulation and criminalize money laundering.
The administration made some progress on such issues as taking state responsibility
for past human rights cases, supporting human rights in international forums,
and pressing labor rights reforms, but it failed to show significant advances
on combating impunity in past human rights cases, military reforms, and
legislation to increase political participation. It renounced a so-called
Fiscal Pact that had been established together with business and civil
society groups to finance the reforms called for under the peace accords.
The government has since been involved in a series of high-level corruption
scandals, none of which have led to successful prosecution of those responsible.
The United States determined in April 2003 that Guatemala had failed to
demonstrably adhere to its international counternarcotics commitments during
the previous year. The popularity of the government, as measured by opinion
polls, has steadily declined as evidence of corruption and mismanagement
Faced with a high crime rate and a serious and worsening public corruption
problem, often violent harassment and intimidation by unknown assailants
of human rights activists, judicial workers, journalists, and witnesses
in human rights trials, the government began serious attempts in 2001 to
open a national dialogue to discuss the considerable challenges facing
the country. This dialogue has not taken place, despite the creation of
the Guatemalan Forum, a coalition of civil society and private sector interests
calling for political reforms.