What Happened in the 1950s? What were the political trends?
In 1954, the CIA , looking to extend US influence in Central America collaborated on
the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala. The US goal was to
establish friendly allies that would aid in military actions against communist threats in
the Americas, specifically Cuba. The unfortunate result was an increasingly militarized
government in Guatemala rife with corruption.
By the early 60s the trend of militarization of the government was irreversible
which resulted in early protests and insurgencies. By 1962 the government had established
a military cabinet. Primary among its priorities were to initiate repression of opposition
groups and leaders and policies of forceful intimidation and threats of violence became
common. Early student protests were repressed by the military. The more militant groups
splintered off and started to mobilize arms. By 1963 these early insurgent groups began to
unite and look to sabotage and violent guerrilla as the solution. These trends would only
escalate and in turn define Guatemalan politics for the next 30 years.
In 1963, a military coup detat completed the shift from civilian to military
government and the army began to extend its influence into all facets of government. The
military established a widespread intelligence gathering agency in an attempt to solidify
control over rural areas. Networks of informants and commissions for investigation of
insurgent groups were widespread. Repression of opposition leaders and religious
organizations became more violent with assassinations and forced disappearances of
prominent leaders. Meanwhile the size of the army doubled, the police were brought under
military control and rural patrols extended their reach to most rural corners of the
1965 saw the first civilian massacres and significant violence by insurgent groups . 28
prominent members of the two main insurgent groups MR-13 and PGT went "missing",
the victims of a military kidnapping operation meant to break the insurgent groups. In
retribution, the FAR insurgent group kidnapped government officials to pressure the
military for the release of the 28 prisoners. Guerrilla action and military
counter-insurgencies would continue on this scale until the late 1970s
When was the most violent period of military action?
The period from 1978 to the mid 1980s was the peak period of violence. Over %90 percent
of the violations and atrocities reported by the Commission for Historical Clarification
happened during this period. The military employed selective and intense repression,
mostly assassinations, of opposition groups. Guerrilla sympathizers, or perceived
sympathizers, usually innocent rural Mayan communities, were systematically wiped out, and
random assassinations for the purpose of intimidation were common. In the urban areas,
sabotage of police and military installations and occupation of government buildings
increased. 1980 was marked by the massacre at the Spanish Embassy and 1981 saw the peak
guerrilla activity. Meanwhile the innocent victims in the struggle in rural communities
were being killed and taking refuge in Mexico.
Who were the perpetrators and the victims?
There are three sides of the conflict represented by the military government, the
insurgent groups and the various ethnic Mayan communities that were victimized by both.
The military was comprised of various factions that all perpetrated common policy
against the insurgents. Besides the main army, the police, rural and urban patrols and
Death squads all were involved in military operations. The police had been taken under
military control in the early 1960s. The urban and rural patrols were paramilitary
civilian groups organized by and operating under the endorsement of the army for local
intelligence gathering and select military operations. The Death Squads were initially
private anti-Communist paramilitary groups that ran operations with tacit support of the
army and eventually became organized as elite special forces units.
The insurgent groups were factionalized and numerous until unification in the early
1980s. Early groups such as the PGT, FAR, EGP and MR-13 operated independently with
similar goals in the 1960s and became unified in their efforts in the late
1970s, often recruiting members from local communities by force. The result of the
unification in 1981 was the URNG, the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unit.
The rural indigenous peoples became the pawns in the deadly struggles between the
insurgent groups and the military. The members of Guatemalas rural communities are
mostly made up of different subgroups of Mayan descendents. Generally sympathetic to the
insurgents they were often forced into cooperation and victimized by both sides.
Guerrillas requesting food and support or new members often used the threat of violence
and ostracism on any non-compliant communities. The military, upon receiving any
intelligence of cooperation with guerrillas, often massacred the entire village and dumped
the bodies in unmarked mass graves.
How and why did the political situation change and what led to the formation of the
After the rampant violence of the early 1980s, the international community began
to take notice. The primary incident that brought the plight of the Guatemalans to light
was the massacre in the Spanish Embassy in 1980 where peasant farmers, mostly Mayan,
occupied the building. Their intent was solely to bring international attention to their
plight. They paid with their lives. The greatly accelerated military campaign to eradicate
the guerrillas became the focus of much international scrutiny. By 1986, under pressure
from the UN, the Catholic church and numerous governments, political solutions were being
discussed. And for the first time in more than 30 years a non-military president was
elected to office. A period of rapprochement ensued and both the military and the
insurgent URNG agreed to negotiations as the only solution for a peace accord. The first
major step was the establishment of the 1993 UN brokered Commission of Truth.
In the final report from the Commission for Historical Clarification, its stated
charter is as follows:
"The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) was established through the
Accord of Oslo on 23 June 1994, in order to clarify with objectivity, equity and
impartiality, the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed
confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people. The Commission was not
established to judge. That is
the function of the courts of law but rather to clarify the history of the events of more than three decades of
"The Commissions mandate was to provide an answer to questions that continue
to be asked in peacetime: why did part of society resort to armed violence in order to
achieve political power? What can explain the extreme acts of violence committed by both
parties ·of differing types
and intensities ·in the armed
confrontation? Why did the violence, especially that used by the State, affect civilians
and particularly the Mayan people, whose women were considered to be the spoils of war and
who bore the full brunt of the institutionalized violence? Why did defenseless children
suffer acts of savagery?" (from the CEH Final Report, Feb. 25, 1999)