Guatemala, 1981-1984

Picture courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Repression of Mayan Indians in Guatemala began with the 16th century Spanish conquest, and they continue to represent the underprivileged majority of the country’s population.  In the late nineteenth century, under dictatorial rule, Guatemala’s economy expanded through the creation of coffee plantations.  Within several decades, the United States became a major investor.  A powerful military and police force protected wealthy landowner interests while indigenous peasants and laborers struggled in poverty. 

From 1944 to 1954, Guatemala experienced “Ten Years of Spring,” during which time life improved for native populations.  However, social and land reforms threatened US business interests and prompted fears of communism.  The CIA therefore spearheaded a bloody operation in 1954 to depose the president and install a US-selected military dictator. Civil war broke out in the early 1960s, but not before a series of right-wing military leaders reversed reforms, suppressed and disenfranchised competition from the left, and killed dissidents.  Various left-wing guerilla groups arose in opposition to the US-backed right-wing military and paramilitary organizations.  Initially, ladino (non-indigenous) peasants from eastern Guatemala comprised the majority of the guerilla forces; in the 1970s, however, surviving guerilla groups began to attract support from indigenous Maya populations living in the western highlands.  In 1981, the primary guerilla groups joined to form Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).  During this time, Mayans also began to gain more prominence in ladino-dominated municipal governments and demand greater linguistic and cultural equality.


“An army-led unit massacred more than 250 indigenous villagers at Dos Erres, El Petén in December 1982. The clothing and remains recovered clearly illustrate that many of the victims were children: Seventy-seven were aged under 12; many skeletons still bore milk teeth.”- Photo courtesy of Amnesty International 

The Guatemalan army and counter-insurgency forces systematically repressed, disappeared, or killed Mayan Indians, whom they targeted for allegedly planning a communist coup.  Violence against the Mayans was at its highest from 1978 to 1986, during the regimes of Generals Romeo Lucas García, Efraín Ríos Montt, and Oscar Mejía Victores.  The violence peaked in 1982; the grisly massacre at Las Dos Erres in December of that year, which left approximately 250 people dead, is an infamous example.  The army and its paramilitary teams moved methodically through Mayan villages, forcibly conscripting local men into “civil patrols.”  An estimated 626 indiscriminate massacres of men, women, and children occurred on behalf of the state, whose modus operandi included forced disappearances, torture, sexual violence, and mass executions.  It also practiced a scorched earth policy, decimating the villages and completing the physical and cultural genocide.  In addition, so-called “death squads” – comprised largely of criminals – and military and intelligence-backed units called Commandos terrorized the country. 

Despite claims from the government, the guerilla groups were never large enough to constitute a threat.  URNG’s small numbers could not aid the Mayan Indians, who were being targeted due to long-standing racial prejudice.  A 1999 UN-sponsored report by the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) found that the state and army committed 93% of the recorded human rights violations during the civil war (1960-1996), while the guerillas were responsible for 3%.  Accountability for the remaining 4% remains unclear.  Furthermore, 83% of the victims were Mayan.  In total, about 200,000 people were disappeared or executed during the 36-year period.  Throughout the era of genocide, the United States aided the Guatemalan government by training officers, cooperating with intelligence officials, and providing military supplies or fiscal support.  All evidence suggests that the U.S. was aware of the human rights violations being perpetrated.


“Survivors of 22 massacres carried out in 1981 and 1982 marked the National Day of Dignity for the victims by making a large ‘manta’ with details of all their relatives killed during the massacres.”-  Photo courtesy of Amnesty International 

A new civilian government and constitution in 1986 brought little change and UN peace talks in the early 1990s initially proved unsuccessful, but Guatemala finally reached a peace agreement in 1996.  Later that year, the Guatemalan Congress passed a National Reconciliation Law, which legalized URNG groups but also granted broad amnesties to perpetrators of crime and human rights abuses.  As part of the peace agreement, the investigative Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) was established in 1997.  Protected by the UN, the three commissioners collected 9,000 witness statements.  The CEH’s work was subject to several limitations: the military could not provide records for 1981-1983, names of human rights violators could not be disclosed, and the final report – “Memory of Silence” (1999) – could have no legal impact.  In an effort to circumvent these difficulties, the Catholic Church released its own report entitled “The Recuperation of Historical Memory” in April 1998.  Two days after Bishop Juan Gerardi publicly presented the document, he was murdered.  Three military personal were convicted for the murder in 2001 but the decision was overturned upon appeal.  Moreover, this case along with others was fraught with attacks and threats against witnesses, judges, and prosecutors.  The two truth commissions provided a wealth of detail about the crimes committed in the 36 years of civil war.  “Memory of Silence” charged the state and army with genocide against the Mayan Indians, criticized Guatemala’s institutional structure for being conducive to such atrocities, and recommended measures to compensate the victims, preserve their memories, and strengthen democracy. 

On the whole, there has been little notable success for prosecutions relating to war-crimes and human rights violations.  Often, the convictions result in the sentencing of low-level officers, enlisted individuals, or forcibly conscripted leaders of the “civil patrols.”  Typically, investigations and convictions depend less on the Guatemalan judicial system than friends and families of the victims aided by international support.  In February 2009, Amnesty International released a publication assessing the progress in the ten years since the CEH report, calling for greater reparations and recognition for victims.  There have been several landmark arrests and sentences since then, including the June 2011 arrest of Héctor Mario López Fuentes, Guatemala’s military Chief of Staff who authorized twelve massacres in 1982 and 1983.  He is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.  Nevertheless, the highest-ranking officials who masterminded most of the terrors and violations remain at large.  Organizations dedicated to human rights and victim support continue to seek retribution and justice for the crimes suffered by the indigenous Mayans over the course of several decades.


“Identification of the clothing of 74 massacre victims exhumed from the former military base at Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, July 2008.”- Photo courtesy of Amnesty International