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Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG)

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) in 1982. 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.

The Guatemalan insurgents of the 1980s traced their roots to the 1944-1954 "decade of revolution." Today's guerrilla leadership claims a special tie with the "unfinished revolution" of President Jacobo Arbenz. Even though the 1954 "liberation" did not return Guatemala to the pre-1944 era, or even undo most of the major legislation of the Arevalo-Arbenz regimes, it created a sense of "history denied" that has shaped the radical consciousness for twenty-five years. Idealized and romanticized by intellectuals, the "decade of revolution" and the radical leaders involved in it provided later guerrillas with a mythology and a sense of identity.

While Guatemalan military officers and civilians were learning conflicting lessons from the successful counterinsurgency campaign of the 1960s, surviving guerrilla cadres of the Rebel Armed Forces/Guatemalan Workers' Party (Fuerzas Armada Rebeldes / Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo-FAR/PGT) and the FAR went through a self-criticism concerning the intellectual, political, and military assumptions that contributed to their failure.

After several years of travel to Cuba, Vietnam, and other Third World nations that had experienced revolutionary war, several of the survivors, joined by a cadre of new revolutionaries, formed the nucleus of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejercito Guerrillero de Los Pobres-EGP) in the remote Indian region of Ixcan. Beginning with a cadre of twelve members in 1972, the EGP grew strong enough to operate as a military and political force in six highland departments by 1980. The leadership of the EGP began the highland-based insurgency with a revolutionary strategy distinct from that of the 1960s. The guerrilla leadership became more sophisticated than its predecessors about opponents, opportunities, and capabilities.

The second-generation guerrillas rejected the foquista-insurrectionist ("foco") strategy of revolutionary warfare. Although this model proved successful for Cuba's fidelistas in the late 1950s, it had since produced a series of failures throughout the hemisphere. Such a strategy had left the previous Guatemalan insurgents politically and militarily isolated. With no secure geographical and population bases to recruit from, the insurgents could use only one form of action-military. Because the guerrillas had little outside assistance and no international support network, it was easier for government forces to destroy the insurgents as a military force.

The EGP leadership carefully analyzed the failures of the past and developed a new strategy with the three following principles:

  1. Reject foquisino and plan for a guerra prolongada. Establish a guerrilla base and political infrastructure in a remote but populated area.
  2. Involve the Indian population (previously ignored by the radical left and orthodox communists) in the armed revolutionary struggle.
  3. Pursue a second, equally important "front" in the international community

Three years elapsed between the arrival of the small political cadre in Ixcan in 1972 and the first major political act against the armed forces. By 1975 the EGP had established itself as the leading edge of the renewed guerrilla struggle. By late 1980 the EGP was joined in the armed struggle by three other groups: the Armed People's Organization (Organizacion del Pueblo en Armas-ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes-FAR), and a dissident faction of the Guatemalan Workers' Party (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo). In November 1980 these four guerrilla groups signed an agreement to form the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG).

With this agreement the guerrilla struggle assumed a common and unified front - if only on paper. The appearance of unity was important because it was the price of assistance from abroad, especially from Cuba. The leaders of the respective guerrilla organizations also formed the Comandancia General Revolucionaria in order to coordinate internal and external activities, plan military strategies, and formalize links to front organizations and international solidarity networks in Mexico, Central America, the United States, and Europe.

Although little is known about the leadership cadre, the radical challengers' ideas and concepts have been widely published. Their "world view" is dominated by Marxist analysis of the conditions of society and the need for revolutionary conflict.

During the formative years of the EGP there were few prospects for Cuban support. Although many of the leaders of the EGP had been trained in or traveled to Cuba and other socialist countries during the 1960s, there is little evidence of a concrete Cuban interest in the revolutionary struggle in Guatemala. The death of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, closer relations with the Soviets after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the courting of military "progressives" in Peru and Panama in the early 1970s, support for the "peaceful road to socialism" (as exemplified by Chile), and the desire to improve diplomatic relations in Latin America all contributed to a lessening of Castro's commitment to revolutionary armed struggle. After the period of accommodation, Cuba would focus attention on Africa beginning in 1975.

Thus, the EGP developed and evolved virtually independent of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the communist support network. The EGP and other guerrilla organizations had few prospects for significant and sustained Cuban assistance until the success of the Sandinistas in 1979.

By late 1980 guerrilla efforts and government counterinsurgency tactics had combined to increase guerrilla manpower to over 3,000 fighters. By early 1982 guerrilla units operated in at least half the republic's twenty-two departments; maintained a deeply-rooted infrastructure in a six-department region of the northwestern highlands; sometimes operated in columns of as many as 200; and systematically attacked, and often occupied and destroyed, government municipalities, police stations, military outposts, and other symbols of public authority.

Between 1978 and 1982 guerrillas had killed over 1,000 national policemen and military and paramilitary troops. During the Zacapa insurgency government forces accounted for only a small fraction of the casualties. By 1982 the guerrillas had become a formidable political and military force in Guatemala.

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Page last modified: 11-08-2017 14:54:56 ZULU