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Recent History of Guatemala

The Peace Accord and the Commission for Historical Clarification

For 45 years of violence, 150,000 deaths, countless massacres, destruction of nearly 700 villages, assassinations, death squads and dislocation of over a million people in Guatemala, most of the outside world knew nothing. It is only with the 1999 release of the final report by the Commission for Historical Clarification established by the UN in 1994 that we begin to understand the horror of Guatemala’s history and the violence against its mostly indigenous population.

  • What happened in the 1950’s that started Guatemala on its tragic course?
  • What were the political trends?
  • Who were the perpetrators, who were the victims?
  • When did the insurgencies and governmental military actions reach a peak?
  • How and why did the political situation change and what led to the formation of the Truth Commissions?
  • Where can you go to read the full report and find out more?

On this page we wish to give you a brief summary of historical events of the last 45 years, answers to common questions about the political environment that produced so much tragedy and some important background information on the Truth Commissions. We encourage you to investigate the other links to learn more about Guatemala’s unfortunate legacy as the setting for one of the most violent periods in modern history in all of the Americas

After 36 years of insurgencies, governmental corruption, military control and countless massacres and acts of violence Guatemala embraced peace in 1994 with the establishment for a Commission for Historical Clarification. The past 45 years since the CIA led overthrow of the democratically elected government in 1954 has been the most violent. Militarization of the state, massive corruption among the government, police and army, repression of opposition groups, religious persecution and massacres of innocent people all bred insurgencies and guerilla violence that factionalized the country, marginalized the poorest ethnic groups and led to massive dislocation of over a million Guatemalans. Refugees fled to other countries, villages were wiped out, and thousands merely disappeared. Five years have passed since guerrilla factions and the government agreed to a UN brokered peace accord and established truth commissions in a search for justice and retribution. Refugees by the thousands are coming home to rebuild their fractured lives. There are tensions and problems and resentments still remaining on all sides and Guatemala still has a long way to go before its people can come to grips with their ethnic differences and prejudices and jealousies borne of ignorance and 45 years of propaganda and politics of fear. The report released by the CEH Commission for Historical Clarification in the Spring of this year (1999) is the first big stride towards deeper understanding and progress.


What Happened in the 1950’s? 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 60’s 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 d’etat 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 country.

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 1970’s

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 1960’s. 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 1980’s. Early groups such as the PGT, FAR, EGP and MR-13 operated independently with similar goals in the 1960’s and became unified in their efforts in the late 1970’s, 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 Guatemala’s 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 Truth Commissions?

After the rampant violence of the early 1980’s, 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 fratricidal war

"The Commission’s 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)


How can you learn more about the Commissions of Truth and Guatemala’s tragic recent history?

We encourage you to read the full unabridged document, the CEH Final Report, published on the United States Institute of Peace website at the following link:

It is an incredibly moving and thorough recounting of the atrocities and political environment that spawned them over the 36 year period.

As well, the Commission for Historical Clarification has helped create "Memory of Silence" a eulogy and a memorial for the victims of the conflict that attempts to account for missing persons and fatalities for the sake of dislocated family members and for the public record for the international community.

From Spring of 2000 the CASKE 2000 site will feature documentary material on indigenous communities of Guatemala and how they are coping with relocation of returning refugees and resulting social issues.

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