The Civil War (1960–1996)
With the professionalization of Guatemala’s army now in place thanks to the policies of Barrios and Ubico, the military was now poised to become the country’s dominating political force and would do so for the next 30 years. Further paving the way for military dominance over Guatemalan politics was the Cold War climate and the fight against Communism. U.S. policy and military aid would assist the dictators’ rise to power and facilitate their increasingly repressive nature, all in the name of defeating Communist insurrection.
Among the new regime’s first move was the revocation of the 1945 constitution, with the consequent reversal of the reforms of the previous years. The rule of the oligarchy was firmly reestablished and a wave of repression against peasants, labor unions, and agrarian reformers was unleashed.
Castillo Armas would only be in power only until 1957, when he was shot by one of his own palace guards. Political turmoil ensued, followed by the rise to power of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, an army officer from the Ubico years now representing the National Democratic Renovation Party. His five years in office were characterized by incompetence, corruption, nepotism, patronage, and economic decline. Opposition to Ydígoras grew, with young army officers led by Marco Yon Sosa and Turcios Lima attempting an unsuccessful coup in 1960. Ydígoras was finally ousted by a military coup in 1963 with approval from Washington after Arévalo threatened to return to Guatemala to run in the next election, firmly putting the establishment in both Guatemala and Washington on edge.
During the subsequent military government of Alfredo Enrique Peralta Azurdia, Turcios Lima and Yon Sosa launched a guerrilla offensive from the eastern highlands, marking the beginning of a protracted armed conflict between leftist rebels and the Guatemalan government. Ironically, both had received U.S. military training while serving in the Guatemalan forces and now used their skills to attack local army garrisons. The battle was soon joined by another armed rebel group, the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR, Rebel Armed Forces). The PGT, meanwhile, formed an alliance with the rebels while advocating the return of Arévalo.
A self-proclaimed “third government of the revolution” came to power in 1966 under Julio Cesar Montenegro of the center-left Partido Revolucionario, who tried to continue in the vein of Arévalo and Arbenz. It was clear, however, that his hands were tied and power was in the hands of the military. Political violence escalated during his administration with death squads killing hundreds of students, unionists, academics, and peasant leaders.
By the end of the decade the guerrilla movement had been virtually eliminated from the eastern highlands. FAR shifted its focus to Guatemala City, where it kidnapped and murdered the U.S. ambassador in 1968.
Electoral fraud and political violence, accompanied by economic decline, would mark much of Guatemala’s history between 1970 and 1990. A reign of terror became firmly entrenched, with successive governments each going to greater lengths to contain the guerrilla threat and repress an increasingly unsatisfied populace from which the movement drew its support. At the heart of the matter was a system of government that ensured the continued prosperity of a wealthy minority to the detriment of a poor, landless, illiterate peasant class forced to work the elites’ land. The demands of a growing urban middle class, meanwhile, were repressed with the help of the armed forces and right-wing death squads.
The United States, meanwhile, continued to pour money and logistical support into the increasingly bloody repression. Three years after the election of Carlos Arana Osorio in 1970, who was nicknamed “the butcher of Zacapa,” 15,000 Guatemalans had been killed or disappeared. The United States did its share by training 32,000 Guatemalan policemen through the Agency for International Development (AID) via its public safety program. Guatemala’s Policía Nacional was notoriously linked to the paramilitary death squads operating with impunity in the cities and countryside. Many off-duty policemen filled the ranks of these right-wing extremist groups working parallel to, but with unofficial sanction from, the more traditional forms of counterinsurgency.
In 1971, another guerrilla unit, the Organización Revolucionario del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA, Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms), was formed. The unit was led by Rodrigo Asturias, the son of Nobel Prize novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias. It operated in the vicinity of Lake Atitlán, Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, and Suchitepéquez, setting up operations in a strategically important corridor between the highlands and the agriculturally rich coastal lowlands. ORPA spent eight years recruiting local combatants, then training and indoctrinating them into its ranks. Believed to be the most disciplined of the rebel organizations, it launched its first offensive in 1979 with the occupation of a coffee farm near Quetzaltenango.
Yet another guerrilla organization, the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP, Guerrilla Army of the Poor), exploded onto the scene in 1975 with the much-publicized execution of a notoriously ruthless Ixcán landlord. It had spent three years developing political consciousness among the peasantry in the remote Ixcán jungle where it operated prior to launching its first assault. The Guatemalan military began increasingly violent reprisals against the peasantry living in remote jungle outposts, some of whom kept the guerrillas fed and supplied. In Ixcán, as well as throughout Guatemala, peasants would become increasingly caught in the cross-fire between the military and the rebel groups often serving as a scapegoat for the army’s wrath.
On February 4, 1976, a massive earthquake struck the Guatemalan highlands, leaving 23,000 dead, 77,000 injured, and about a million homeless. The reconstruction efforts saw a renewed push to reform the inherent injustices of Guatemalan society with increased activity on behalf of the trade unions. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, citing increasingly gross human rights violations, cut off military aid to Guatemala.
The 1978 elections were rigged to the benefit of Romeo Lucas García, who unleashed a fresh wave of repression against the usual victims but now also added academics, journalists, and trade unionists to the mix. The guerrilla war grew increasingly strong in rural Guatemala at this time, with the number of total combatants estimated at 6,000 distributed among the four guerrilla groups, along with some 250,000 collaborators. The guerrillas actively recruited from a historically disenfranchised peasant base, particularly in the Ixil and Ixcán regions, which only strengthened the army’s resolve to do away with the insurgency and intensified punitive measures against real and perceived collaborators. Peasants, priests, politicians, and anyone perceived to have ties to the guerrillas were massacred in the thousands. It is estimated that 25,000 Guatemalans were killed during the four-year Lucas regime.
Many atrocities were committed by the Lucas regime in a spiral of violence—making the Spanish conquest look increasingly benign by comparison—including an army massacre in the village of Panzós, Alta Verapaz, and the firebombing of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City during a peaceful occupation by peasant leaders. In Panzós, at least 35 peasants, including some children, lay murdered in the town square with dozens more injured or killed as they tried to make their escape. The occupation of Guatemala City’s Spanish Embassy was carried out by the Guatemalan military and eventually led to all-out genocide by Ixil peasants on January 31, 1980. Without regard for embassy staff or the Spanish ambassador, Policía Nacional forces stormed the embassy and firebombed it. The sole survivor was the Spanish ambassador. The victims included the father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, who recounts this and other atrocities in her book, I, Rigoberta Menchú. Spain severed diplomatic relations with Guatemala in the aftermath of the massacre, not restoring them until several years later.
In addition to the ambassador’s survival, it should be noted that one of the peasant activists also survived the tragedy, only to be murdered a few days later by a paramilitary death squad while recovering in a local hospital.
In 1982, Guatemala’s armed rebel groups—FAR, EGP, ORPA, and PGT-FA—consolidated to form the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity), which would go on to fight for its ideals as a political force, while continuing armed resistance, and negotiate a peace treaty with the government in 1996.
Efraín Ríos Montt
The 1982 elections were again manipulated by the extreme right, this time to the benefit of Aníbal Guevara, but a coup on March 23 orchestrated by young military officers installed General Efraín Ríos Montt as the head of a three-member junta. The coup leaders cited the rigging of elections three times in eight years as justification for their actions, which were supported by most of the opposition parties. It was hoped Guatemala could be somehow steered once again on the path of peace, law, and order and that the terror would stop.
Ríos Montt was an evangelical Christian with ties to Iglesia del Verbo, one of several U.S.-based churches gaining ground in Guatemala after the 1976 earthquake. Among his many eccentricities was the delivery of weekly Sunday night sermons in which he expressed his desire to restore law and order, eliminate corruption, and defeat the guerrilla insurgency, allowing for the establishment of a true democracy.
On the surface things did seem to get better, particularly in the cities, thanks to an odd mix of heavy-handed discipline and strict moral guidelines governing all facets of government operations. Montt, for example, made a regular show of executions of alleged criminals before firing squads. He also offered amnesty to the guerrillas during the month of June 1982, but only a handful of these accepted. Some later accounts of the Guatemalan civil war attribute this to communities’ being either held hostage by guerrilla occupation and unable to make the trip down from the mountains or simply too frightened and distrustful of the military.
Whatever the reason, the cool response to Montt’s amnesty offer unleashed a new wave of counterinsurgency terror against the guerrillas and the indigenous peoples believed to be aiding and abetting them. Under a scorched-earth campaign, entire villages were destroyed, with survivors being resettled into a series of so-called “model villages,” allowing the army to keep a close watch on the peasantry while indoctrinating them with anti-Communist rhetoric. The repression was made worse by a new system of conscripted labor in the form of civil defense patrols (PACs) composed of rural peasants controlled by the army. PACs were forced to make routine night patrols and report any suspicious activities. Failure to do so would result in their own suspicion in the army’s eyes, meaning further reprisals on their villages. In this way, two modern-day variants of important colonial structures survived well into Guatemala’s recent history, the congregación and the encomienda.
An estimated 100,000 of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan descendants fled the violence, flooding refugee camps in neighboring Mexico or migrating farther north to the United States during the reign of Lucas García and Ríos Montt.
Cerezo and the Democratic Opening
Ríos Montt was eventually overthrown in August 1983 after just over a year in power by a military coup with U.S. backing. The underlying ideal was to get Guatemala firmly on the road back to democracy. Elections were called to take place in 1985 and General Mejía Víctores was installed as an interim chief-of-state. Repression in the countryside continued to escalate under the military’s tireless scorched earth campaign. The Ixil Triangle alone saw the displacement of 72 percent of its population and the destruction of 49 villages. Totals for Guatemala at this time included the destruction of 440 villages and more than 100,000 dead. In this context, the first free election in more than three decades took place. A new constitution was also drawn up.
Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, a Christian Democrat, won the election with an overwhelming majority of the vote and widespread hope for change in Guatemala with the country firmly on the road to democracy. It was clear that the military still held the cards, however, and kept Cerezo under a tight leash via the Estado Mayor Presidencial, a notorious military security force officially charged with presidential protection but in reality designed to keep presidential power in check. Cerezo candidly admitted that the military still held 75 percent of the power.
Cerezo sought to give the democratic opening a chance, knowing that the military’s power could not be broken in the five years his term in office would last, by taking a nonconfrontational approach to the demands of Guatemala’s various societal sectors. He kept a happy courtship with the powerful business interests, landowners, and generals. Among the latter was his defense minister, General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo, who curtailed much of the violence in the countryside and allowed Cerezo to survive numerous coup attempts.
In September of 1987, the Central American heads of state convened in the eastern highland town of Esquipulas, where they signed a treaty aimed at bringing the pacification and democratization of the region. Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias Sánchez would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing the peace plan to fruition. Esquipulas II, as it was called, would open the doors for peace negotiations between the Guatemalan government and the URNG.
Although the levels of repression and violence dropped, they by no means disappeared. The armed struggle continued in remote corners of the highlands and Petén while death squads continued their reign of terror.
Formal labor organization was once again given the official go-ahead and widespread protests marked much of Cerezo’s later years as the average Guatemalan saw little economic improvement.
Jorge Serrano Elías
Barred from running for a second term under the 1985 Constitution, Cerezo yielded power to his successor, Jorge Serrano Elías, in 1991. Also barred from running under the new constitution was Efraín Ríos Montt, though there was much speculation as to his role behind the scenes because Serrano had served in his government. The new constitution specifically prohibited anyone rising to power as the result of a military coup from running for president, a decision Montt has repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to have rescinded.
Indigenous-rights advocates, already enjoying greater freedom since the democratic opening, received a huge bolster from the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 to activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum for her efforts in bringing worldwide attention to the genocidal civil war still raging on in the countryside. The Guatemalan military issued an official protest to what it saw as disgraceful approval for an advocate of Communist insurrection but removed its opposition on the wave of worldwide fanfare for the awarding of the prize to Menchú.
Guatemala’s historical problems continued to plague the nation and Serrano’s incompetence at the helm soon became evident. The peace process stalled with the Catholic Church’s mediator accusing both sides of intransigence. Popular protests against Serrano’s government, bolstered by corruption charges involving his suspected links with Colombian drug cartels, forced him to declare an autocoup in May 1993. He assumed dictatorial powers, citing the country’s purported spiral into anarchy and also dissolved congress, citing the gross corruption of the legislative body while calling for the election of a new one.
Widespread protests and the withdrawal of U.S. support for Serrano’s government resulted in his removal from office just two days later. Congress met and voted on the appointment of Ramiro de León Carpio, the country’s human-rights ombudsman, to succeed Serrano and finish out his term.
De León quickly set about rearranging the military high command in an attempt to purge some of the more radical elements and achieve a measure of political stability, though it was clear his powers over the military were limited. The URNG declared a cease-fire as a measure of goodwill toward the new administration. The guerrillas made some progress with the new administration, eventually signing an accord on indigenous rights and identity as well as a human rights accord establishing the creation of U.N.-mandated MINUGUA to oversee the implementation of the peace accords once the final agreement was reached. Although optimistic at first, Guatemalans soon lost hope in the De León administration when they saw he was incapable of addressing crime, constitutional reform, and land and tax issues.
Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen
Former Guatemala City mayor Alvaro Arzú won the 1996 presidential elections thanks to a strong showing in the capital despite widespread electoral abstention elsewhere. Arzú, a businessman, represented the Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN, National Advancement Party), with deep roots in the oligarchy and a commitment to economic growth fostered by the development of the private sector under a free market. He quickly appointed new defense, foreign, and economic ministers and set out to sign a final peace accord with the URNG.
The agreement for a “Firm and Lasting Peace” was signed on December 29, 1996, in the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, which once served as the presidential palace. After years of bloodshed, the final death toll stood at 200,000 with about 50,000 being cases of forced disappearance. A subsequent U.N. report by the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) squarely placed blame for most of the violence in the hands of the military and the civil-defense patrols, with 80 percent of the victims said to be of Mayan origin. “The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state,” the report declared. It further stated that, “State terror was applied to make it clear that those who attempted to assert their rights, and even their relatives, ran the risk of death by the most hideous means. The objective was to intimidate and silence society as a whole, in order to destroy the will for transformation, both in the short and long term.”
The ambitious peace accords marked the culmination of years of negotiations between the government and guerrillas; if properly implemented, they would serve as the basis for the construction of a completely different Guatemala. Unfortunately, the provisions set forth in the accord have yet to be fully adopted. One example of this disappointing trend was the failure to amend the constitution via a May 1999 referendum to officially redefine the country as “multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual,” as stipulated in the accord on indigenous rights and identity. Voters stayed away from the polls in droves and the few who did vote decided against the reforms.
The Catholic Church issued its own report on the violence during the country’s civil war, which also placed the blame for the majority of the atrocities in the hands of the military. Two days after issuing his report, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was murdered in his garage, much to the outrage of the general populace. By this time, most political killings had all but ceased and the murder sent shock waves of indignation throughout Guatemalan society, which was clamoring for justice against Gerardi’s killers. It soon became clear the act was a reprisal from military factions intent on demonstrating their continued hold on the country’s power structure.
Subsequent investigations and attempts to bring the guilty parties to justice ended in frustration as key witnesses, prosecutors, and judges fled the country in the face of death threats. While political kidnappings and disappearances became mostly a thing of the past, the country’s security situation drastically worsened in the aftermath of the civil war. Bank robberies, murders, extortionary kidnappings, and armed robbery were at an all-time high. Using many of the same methods as in the “disappearance” of thousands of Guatemalans, kidnappers unleashed a wave of terror in which 1,000 people were abducted in 1997 alone. The country, at the time, had the fourth-highest kidnapping rate in the world.
U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Guatemala in March 1999 for a summit meeting with the Central American presidents. In a surprising declaration, he expressed regret on behalf of the United States government for its role in the atrocities committed during the country’s civil war, saying that U.S. support for military forces that “engaged in violent and widespread repression” in Guatemala “was wrong.”
The crime spree was largely blamed on a power vacuum created during the departure of Guatemala’s Policía Nacional and its subsequent replacement by the new Policía Nacional Civil, in accordance with the peace accords. The new police force was trained by experts from Spain, Chile, and the United States. It was hoped that a more professional police force would help bring greater security once fully established, but it quickly became evident that this was not the case. Meanwhile, political murders such as the Gerardi and Myrna Mack murders remained unresolved, shedding light on the lackluster state of Guatemala’s judicial system, a situation exacerbated by widespread lynching of supposed criminals in remote areas where the rule of law was merely a vague concept.
Security issues aside, Arzú was a gifted administrator and government corruption remained at low levels, for Guatemala. Arzú’s strengths as Guatemala City’s mayor had always been infrastructure and public works. His time as president was no different in this regard, with various infrastructure projects being completed during his term in office. Guatemalans widely recognize his hard work backed by a concrete list of accomplishments, and he is still popular in opinion polls. If Guatemala were to ever allow former presidents to run in elections, it is speculated that Arzú might give opponents a run for their money.
Arzú also privatized many state entities, including the notoriously inefficient telephone company, as part of a neoliberal economic approach to state participation in the economy. Guatemala’s telecommunications laws have subsequently been heralded for their contributions to vast improvements in service coverage, increased competition, and lowered prices. At the end of Arzú’s presidency, however, many critics pointed to a perceived affinity for serving the interests of Guatemala’s wealthy elite, a criticism his successor would play largely to his advantage at the polls in the 1999 election campaign.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com