Guatemala Civil War 1960-1996
Guatemala suffered more than 36 years of internal conflict, which formally ended with the signing of the Peace Accords at the end of 1996. The war is over, 200,000 paramilitary troops have been disbanded, nearly 3,000 guerrillas have been demobilized and resettled and are now being integrated into the political and economic life of the country.
Despite some progress, many Peace Accord commitments remain unfulfilled. There are still enormous problems of poverty -- especially in the rural areas -- and of participation, credit and economic opportunity.
Guatemala is a democratic republic with separation of powers and a centralized national administration. The 1985 Constitution provides for election by universal suffrage of a one-term president and a unicameral congress. President Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) took office in January 2000 following a generally free and fair December 1999 runoff election. The FRG maintains its majority (63 seats) in the 113-member Congress. Despite significant pledges, the Portillo administration and Congress took only limited steps to implement the 1996 Peace Accords concluded with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas in 1996.
More than half of Guatemalans are descendants of indigenous Mayan peoples. Westernized Mayans and mestizos (mixed European and indigenous ancestry) are known as Ladinos. Most of Guatemala's population is rural, though urbanization is accelerating. The predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, into which many indigenous Guatemalans have incorporated traditional forms of worship. Protestantism and traditional Mayan religions are practiced by an estimated 40% and 1% of the population, respectively.
Although indigenous Guatemalans outnumber the westernized "Ladino" community, they historically have been dominated by the Ladinos and generally excluded from the mainstream of social, economic, and political activity. The Ladino community long has regarded indigenous people with disdain. Reports of discrimination against indigenous religious practices must be viewed in the context of this widespread Ladino rejection of indigenous culture.
Protestant churches historically have been less tolerant of syncretistic practices than the Catholic Church, whose current policy is to accept any pre-Columbian or traditional practices that are not in direct conflict with Catholic dogma. Some observers maintain that a majority of the indigenous members of evangelical churches secretly practice traditional Maya rituals. Catholic and Protestant churches are distributed throughout the country, and their adherents are distributed among all major ethnic groups and political parties. However, evangelical Protestants appear to be represented in greater proportion in the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), which became the governing party when it won the presidency and a majority in Congress in the winter 1999 elections. The FRG is headed by former de facto President and retired General Efrain Rios Montt, now President of Congress and a long-time elder of the evangelical Protestant Church of the Word.
1960-1996 Civil Wars
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 activities.
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.
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.
1994-1996 Peace Process
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. The human rights situation also improved during Arzu's tenure, and steps were taken to reduce the influence of the military in national affairs.
An agreement signed in September 1996, which is one of the substantive peace accords, mandated that the mission of the armed forces change to focus exclusively on external threats. However, both former President Arzu and his successor President Portillo have used a constitutional clause to order the army on a temporary basis to support the police in response to a nationwide wave of violent crime.
The United States, as a member of "the Friends of Guatemala," along with Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Norway, and Venezuela, played an important role in the UN-moderated Peace Accords, providing public and behind-the-scenes support. The U.S. strongly supports the six substantive and three procedural accords, which, along with the signing of the December 29, 1996 final accord, form the blueprint for profound political, economic, and social change. To that end, the U.S. Government has committed nearly $400 million to support peace implementation since 1997.
1996 Peace Accord Implementation
In December 1996, decades of violent turmoil in Guatemala ended with the signing of a peace accord that established immediate plans for the demobilization and initial incorporation of the rebel forces, the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatematelca (URNG), and reduction of the Guatemalan army. Demobilization processes are often accompanied by sharp increases in crime. For this reason, careful attention has been paid to criminal activities of ex-combatants, both former government soldiers and ex-rebels.
The accord calls for a one-third reduction in the army's authorized strength and budget--already achieved--and for a constitutional amendment to permit the appointment of a civilian Minister of Defense. A constitutional amendment to this end was defeated as part of a May 1999 plebiscite, but discussions between the executive and legislative branches continue on how to achieve this objective.
The army has met its accord-mandated target of 28,000 troops, including subordinate air force (1,000) and navy (1,000) elements. It is equipped with armaments and materiel from the United States, Israel, Yugoslavia, Taiwan, Argentina, Spain, and France. As part of the army downsizing, the operational structure of 19 military zones and three strategic brigades are being recast as several military zones are eliminated and their area of operations absorbed by others. The air force operates three air bases; the navy has two port bases.
The advent of peace has opened the way for progress. Documented human rights violations have declined significantly in recent years, and institutions are being built to ensure fair and equal treatment for all Guatemalans. A new civilian police force is learning to serve the people and not instill fear. The President's Human Rights Commission and the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman are also now in place and have an important role to play. The new Supreme Court has made clear its intention to address shortcomings. The international community, multilaterally and bilaterally, is a committed ally in these efforts.
The 1996 signing of the peace accords, which ended 36 years of civil war, removed a major obstacle to foreign investment, but numerous corruption scandals associated with the PORTILLO administration have dampened investor confidence. The distribution of income remains highly unequal, with perhaps 75% of the population below the poverty line. Ongoing challenges include increasing the government revenues, negotiating further assistance from international donors, upgrading both government and private financial operations, and narrowing the trade deficit.
On 08 June 2001, a court convicted three military officers, former Presidential Military Staff (EMP) specialist Obdulio Villanueva; active-duty EMP Captain Byron Lima Oliva; and Lima Oliva's father, retired Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, of the April 26, 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Coordinator of the Archbishop's Office on Human Rights. The court sentenced them to 30-year, noncommutable sentences. Because the murder occurred just 2 days after Bishop Gerardi delivered the final report of the Office's "Recovery of Historical Memory" project, which detailed many of the human rights abuses committed during the internal conflict and held the military, military commissioners, and civil self-defense patrol forces responsible for more than 90 percent of war-related human rights violations, some observers had suspected a political motive for the crime.
In December 2001, in violation of the spirit of the Peace Accords, the President named the former Minister of Defense, General Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, who had retired only the previous day, to be the new Minister of Interior. The President has not yet carried out his commitment to dissolve the Presidential Military Staff (EMP), and the Government increased its budget in the year. In addition, the Finance Ministry increased the overall military budget.
During 2001 the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) reported increased signs of the participation of clandestine armed groups in illegal activities linked to employees of the Prosecutor's Office, justice system, and police. MINUGUA reported increases in violent deaths, killings in prisons, and "social cleansing" operations in which persons deemed socially undesirable (e.g., gang members, local delinquents, and released or escaped convicts) were murdered. Security forces tortured, abused, and mistreated suspects and detainees. Prison conditions remained harsh. After a massive jailbreak in June, the Government instituted a State of Alarm for 2 months, during which the rights to freedom of movement and legal representation, as well as protection against arbitrary detention were suspended in principle. On August 2, in response to violence associated with protests against tax increases, a state of exception was declared in Totonicapan; and the military patrolled the state capital for three days.
In September 2001 MINUGUA reported investigating 26 of the 43 allegations of extrajudicial killings received between July 2000 and June and confirming the validity of the claims in 18 cases. These figures represented an increase over the previous reporting cycle (October 1999 to June 2000) during which MINUGUA investigated 15 of 21 alleged extrajudicial killings and confirmed 13.
The number of attempted lynchings and resultant deaths increased in 2001 compared to 2000, but did not reach the very high levels of 1999. MINUGUA reported 75 lynchings by year's end, which resulted in 27 deaths and 140 injuries. These figures are significantly higher than in 2000, when 52 lynchings resulted in 32 deaths and 83 injuries. Since MINUGUA began tracking individual lynching cases in 1997, up until June of 2001, it recorded a total of 251 cases. Of these, only 48 of them, or 13 percent, have gone to trial. In only 29 cases have sentences have been handed down. Of these sentences, 20 cases, or 6 percent of the total, resulted in convictions. MINUGUA noted that lynchings, especially those that result in the death of the victims, increasingly are planned and premeditated events. There continued to be cases in which municipal officials or other local leaders were involved in lynching attempts. The large majority of the attacks took place in rural areas most severely affected by the internal conflict, which still suffer from the lowest levels of human development.
During 2002 Guatemala experienced a grave crisis of public security. Assassinations, lynchings, kidnappings, theft, drug trafficking, prison uprisings, among other acts of violence, affect the entire population and made of 2002 one of the most violent years of the country's post-war period. During the last years the pattern of violence in the country has increased markedly. The number of assassinations has risen 33 percent since 1999. 426 deaths, or 13 per day, were registered just during the month of December 2002. The national authorities have not been able to stop this spiral of violence that has recently targeted indigenous leaders, judges, public prosecutors and witnesses. The prevailing situation of insecurity is directly related to the inability of the National Civil Police (PNC), the Office of the Prosecutor and the judicial authorities to prevent and punish crimes. The deterioration of the PNC has prompted the Government to continue its dependence on the military to resolve public security problems. This continues to damage the image of the PNC and fails to achieve positive results as soldiers are not adequately trained nor efficient in carrying out public security responsibilities.
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