The Guatemalan Civil War: History and Impact

Leftist Guerrilla Banners Found During Civil War
Local residents watch as Guatemalan army soldiers show captured banners made by a militant guerrilla group October 1, 1982 in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Members of the Guatemalan Army of the Poor, or EGP, was the most active and violent of leftist groups fighting the Guatemalan military government. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The Guatemalan Civil War was the bloodiest Cold War conflict in Latin America. During the war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, over 200,000 people were killed and one million people were displaced. The 1999 UN Truth Commission found that 83% of casualties were indigenous Maya, and 93% of human rights violations were perpetuated by state military or paramilitary forces. The U.S. contributed to human rights violations, both directly—through military aid, provision of weapons, teaching counterinsurgency techniques to the Guatemalan military, and helping plan operations—and indirectly, through its involvement in overthrowing the democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 and paving the way for military rule.

Fast Facts: Guatemalan Civil War

  • Short Description: The Guatemalan Civil War was a particularly bloody, 36-year national conflict that ultimately resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Maya.
  • Key Players/Participants: General Efraín Ríos Montt, several other Guatemalan military rulers, rebel insurgents in both Guatemala City and the rural highlands
  • Event Start Date: November 13, 1960
  • Event End Date: December 29, 1996
  • Other Significant Dates: 1966, the Zacapa/Izabal campaign; 1981-83, state genocide of indigenous Maya under General Ríos Mont
  • Location: all over Guatemala, but particularly in Guatemala City and the western highlands.

Background: The U.S.-Backed Coup Against Jacobo Árbenz 

During the 1940s, a leftist government came into power in Guatemala, and Jacobo Árbenz, a populist military officer with support from communist groups, was elected to the presidency in 1951. He made agrarian reform a major policy agenda, which clashed with the interests of the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company, the largest landowner in Guatemala. The CIA initiated efforts to destabilize Árbenz’s regime, recruiting Guatemalan exiles in neighboring Honduras. 

In 1953, an exiled Guatemalan colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas, who had been trained in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was chosen by the CIA to lead a coup against Árbenz and thus provide a front for American efforts to oust him. Castillo Armas crossed into Guatemala from Honduras on June 18, 1954, and was immediately aided by American air warfare. Árbenz couldn’t convince the Guatemalan military to fight against the invasion—largely because of psychological warfare used by the CIA to convince them that the rebels were stronger militarily than they actually were—but managed to stay in office for nine more days. On June 27, Árbenz stepped down and was replaced by a junta of colonels, who agreed to allow Castillo Armas to take power.

Ousted President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman Talking to Newsmen
Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (center), ousted as president of Guatemala in an anti-Communist revolt, speaks with a group of French reporters in Paris. In 1955, Arbenz Guzman and his wife traveled to Switzerland, where he negotiated with Swiss authorities for recognition of his Swiss citizenship, based on the nationality of his father. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Castillo Armas went about reversing the agrarian reforms, crushing communist influence, and detaining and torturing peasants, labor activists, and intellectuals. He was assassinated in 1957, but the Guatemalan military continued to rule the country, eventually leading to the emergence of a guerilla resistance movement in 1960.

The 1960s

The civil war officially began on November 13, 1960, when a group of military officers attempted a coup against the corrupt General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, who rose to power after Castillo Armas was killed. In 1961, students and leftists protested the government’s participation in training Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and were met with violence by the military. Then, in 1963, during national elections, another military coup took place and the election was canceled, strengthening the military’s grip on power. Various rebel groups—including military officers involved in the attempted 1960 coup—merged into the Armed Rebel Forces (FAR) with the political guidance of the Guatemalan Worker’s Party (PGT).

In 1966, a civilian president, lawyer and professor Julio César Méndez Montenegro, was elected. According to scholars Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert Spirer, “For a moment, open political competition again appeared possible. Méndez received the support of the PGT and other opposition parties, and the military respected the results.” Nonetheless, Méndez was forced to allow the military to fight leftist guerillas on its own terms, without interference from the government or justice system. In fact, the week of the election, 28 members of the PGT and other groups were “disappeared”—they were arrested but never tried and their bodies never turned up. Some law students who pushed the government to produce the detained people were themselves disappeared.

Wall Of Disappeared Guatemalans
An Ixil Maya woman looks at pictures of disappeared civilians on a wall in Nebaj, Guatemala on January 5, 2019. Over 240,000 civilians were killed in Guatemala's 36-year civil war and 45,000 people were forcefully disappeared and never found. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

That year, U.S. advisors designed a military program to bomb villages in the guerilla-heavy areas of Zacapa and Izabal, which was largely a Ladino (non-indigenous) region of Guatemala. This was the first major counterinsurgency, and it resulted in the killing or disappearing of anywhere between 2,800 and 8,000 people, mostly civilians. The government established a network of counterinsurgency surveillance that would exercise control over civilians for the next 30 years. 

Paramilitary death squads—mostly security forces dressed as civilians—emerged, with names like “Eye for an Eye” and the “New Anticommunist Organization.” As described by Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer, “They converted murder into political theater, often announcing their actions through death lists or decorating their victims bodies with notes denouncing communism or common criminality.” They spread terror throughout the Guatemalan populace and allowed the military to deny responsibility for extra-judicial killings. By the end of the 1960s, the guerrillas had been cowed into submission and retreated to regroup. 

The 1970s

Instead of loosening its grip in response to the guerillas’ retreat, the military nominated the architect of the cruel 1966 counterinsurgency campaign, Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio. As noted by Guatemala scholar Susanne Jonas, he had the nickname of the "butcher of Zacapa." Arana declared a state of siege, seized power in the countryside from elected officials, and began kidnapping armed insurgents. In an attempt to stave off political protest regarding a proposed deal he wanted to make with a Canadian nickel-mining company—which many opponents felt amounted to selling off Guatemala’s mineral reserves—Arana ordered mass arrests and suspended the constitutional right of assembly. Protests occurred anyway, leading to an army occupation of the University of San Carlos, and death squads began a campaign of assassinating intellectuals.

In response to the repression, a movement called the National Front Against the Violence brought together opposition political parties, church groups, labor groups and students to battle for human rights. Things had calmed down by the end of 1972, but only because the government had captured the leadership of the PGT, torturing and killing its leaders. The government also took some steps to alleviate the extreme poverty and wealth inequality in the country. Death squad killings never stopped completely, however. 

Garcia Meets Franco
Guatemalan President Kjell Eugenio Laugerud Garcia (1930 - 2009, left) is received by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892 - 1975) at the Royal Palace of El Pardo, Madrid, 14th May 1974. Keystone / Getty Images

The 1974 election was fraudulent, resulting in the victory of Arana’s hand-picked successor, General Kjell Laugerud García, who had run against a general favored by the opposition and leftists, Efraín Ríos Montt. The latter would become associated with the worst campaign of state terror in Guatemalan history. Laugerud implemented a program of political and social reforms, permitting labor organizing again, and the levels of state violence decreased.  

A major earthquake on February 4, 1976 resulted in the death of 23,000 people and one million others lost their housing. Added to difficult economic conditions, this led to the displacement of many indigenous highland peasants, who became migrant laborers and began to meet and organize with Ladino Spanish speakers, students, and labor organizers.

This led to a growth in the opposition movement and the emergence of the Committee for Peasant Unity, a national peasants and agricultural workers organizations led primarily by Maya.

Guatemala Earthquake
Destroyed homes and other buildings in the Guatemalan town of Tecpan following a major earthquake, 1976. Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

The year 1977 saw a major workers’ strike, the “Glorious March of the Miners of Ixtahuacán,” that began in an indigenous, Mam-speaking region of Huehuetenango and attracted thousands of sympathizers as it made its way to Guatemala City. There were reprisals from the government, however: three student organizers from Huehuetenango were killed or disappeared the following year. By this time, the government was selectively targeting militants. In 1978, a death squad, the Secret Anticommunist Army, published a death list of 38 figures and the first victim (a student leader) was gunned down. No police pursued the assassins. Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer state, “Oliverio's death typified state terror in the early years of the Lucas García government: a selective assassination by heavily-armed, non-uniformed men, often performed in broad daylight in a crowded urban location, for which the government would then deny any responsibility.” Lucas García was elected president between 1978 and 1982.

Other major opposition figures were murdered in 1979, including politicians—Alberto Fuentes Mohr, leader of the Social Democratic Party, and Manuel Colom Argueta, former mayor of Guatemala City. Lucas García was worried about the successful Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, where rebels brought down the Somoza dictatorship. In fact, the rebels had begun to reestablish their presence in rural areas, creating a base in Maya communities of the western highlands. 

The Terror Campaigns of the 1980s

In January 1980, indigenous activists went to the capital to protest the killing of peasants in their community, occupying the Spanish Embassy to try and publicize the violence in Guatemala to the world. The police responded by burning 39 people alive—both protesters and hostages—when they barricaded them inside the embassy and ignited Molotov cocktails and explosive devices. This was the start of a brutal decade of state violence, with a major spike between 1981 and 1983; the 1999 UN Truth Commission later classified the military’s acts during this time as “genocide.” The year 1982 was the bloodiest of the war, with over 18,000 state killings. Jonas cites a much higher figure: 150,000 deaths or disappearances between 1981 and 1983, with 440 villages “entirely wiped off the map.”

General Garcia On Radio
During the ongoing civil war, Guatemalan Army General Benedicto Lucas Garcia uses a map to brief journalists about leftist guerrilla locations in the highlands outside of Santa Cruz de Quiche, Guatemala, January 1, 1982. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Kidnappings and public dumping of tortured bodies became common in the early 1980s. Many rebels retreated into the countryside or exile to escape the repression, and others were offered amnesty in exchange for appearing on television to denounce their former comrades. At the beginning of the decade, most state violence was concentrated in the cities, but it began to shift to Maya villages in the western highlands.  

In early 1981, rebels based in the countryside launched their biggest offensive, aided by villagers and civilian supporters. Jonas states, “The active involvement of up to half a million Mayas in the uprisings of the late 1970s and early 1980s was without precedent in Guatemala, indeed in the hemisphere.” The government came to see unarmed villagers as insurgents. In November 1981 it began “Operation Ceniza (Ashes),” a scorched-earth campaign that made its intent clear in terms of dealing with villages in the guerilla zone. State forces attacked entire villages, burning houses, crops, and farm animals. Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer state, “What had been a selective campaign against guerrilla sympathizers turned into a mass slaughter designed to eliminate any support or potential support for the rebels, and included widespread killing of children, women and the elderly. It was a strategy that Ríos Montt called draining the sea that the fish swim in.”

At the height of the violence, in March 1982, General Ríos Montt engineered a coup against Lucas García. He quickly annulled the constitution, dissolved congress, and set up secret courts to try suspected subversives. In the countryside, he set up forms of population control, such as a civil patrol system in which villagers were forced to report opponents/rebels within their own communities. In the meantime, the different guerilla armies unified as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG).

PGT Guerrillas In Camp
Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT) guerrillas, some masked, pose with their weapons at a training camp (near the Mexican border) in the western region of Guatemala, July 1, 1981. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

By later 1983, the military had turned its attention to Guatemala City, trying to purge all support for the revolutionary movement. In August 1983, there was yet another military coup and power changed hands again, to Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, who sought to return Guatemala to civilian rule. By 1986, the country had a new constitution and a civilian president, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo. Despite the fact that the extra-judicial killings and disappearances didn’t cease, groups began to emerge to represent the victims of state violence. One such group was the Mutual Support Group (GAM), who brought together urban and rural survivors to demand information about missing family members. In general, violence waned in the mid-1980s, but death squads still tortured and murdered the founders of GAM soon after its formation.

With a new civilian government, many exiles returned to Guatemala. The URNG had learned the brutal lesson of the early 1980s—that they couldn’t match state forces militarily—and, as Jonas states, “gradually moved toward a strategy of gaining a share of power for the popular classes through political means.” However, in 1988, a faction of the army once again attempted to overthrow the civilian government and the president was forced to meet many of their demands, including cancelling negotiations with the URNG. There were protests, which were once again met with state violence. In 1989, several student leaders supportive of the URNG were kidnapped; some corpses were later found near the university with signs of having been tortured and raped.

The Gradual End to the Civil War

By 1990, the Guatemalan government began to feel international pressure to address the widespread human rights violations of the war, from Amnesty International, Americas Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America, and groups founded by exiled Guatemalans. In late 1989, Congress appointed an ombudsman for human rights, Ramiro de León Carpio, and in 1990, the Catholic Archbishop's Office for Human Rights opened after years of delays. However, despite these apparent attempts to rein in state violence, Jorge Serrano Elias’ government simultaneously undermined human rights’ groups by linking them to the URNG.

Nonetheless, negotiations to end the civil war moved forward, beginning in 1991. In 1993, de León Carpio assumed the presidency, and by 1994, the government and guerrillas had agreed to a United Nations mission charged with guaranteeing compliance on human rights and demilitarization agreements. Resources were dedicated to investigating abuses of the military and following up on allegations, and members of the military could no longer commit extrajudicial violence.

PAN Candidate Alvaro Arzu
Guatemalan politician Alvaro Arzu and member of the National Advancement Pary (PAN) speaks at a rally during his presidential campaign. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

On December 29, 1996, under a new president, Álvaro Arzú, the URNG rebels and Guatemalan government signed a peace agreement that ended the bloodiest Cold War conflict in Latin America. As stated by Ball, Kobrak, and Spirer, “The States main pretext for attacking the political opposition was now gone: the guerrilla insurgency no longer existed. What remained was the process to clarify exactly who did what to whom during this conflict and to hold the aggressors responsible for their crimes.” 

Legacy

Even after the peace agreement, there were violent reprisals for Guatemalans attempting to bring to light the extent of the military’s crimes. A former foreign minister has called Guatemala a “kingdom of impunity,” referring to the obstacles to holding the perpetrators accountable. In April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi presented a Catholic Church report detailing state violence during the civil war. Two days later, he was murdered inside his parish garage.

Military Officers Sentenced in Guatemala Murder Trial
Guatemalan Bishop and human rights activist Juan Jose Gerardi poses for a portrait in this undated photo. Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death in his house in April 1998 shortly after presenting a report blaming the Central American nation''s military for most of the human rights abuses during Guatemala''s 36-year civil. Andrea Nieto / Getty Images

General Ríos Montt was able to avoid justice for decades for the genocide he ordered on indigenous Maya. He was finally prosecuted in March 2013, with statements from over 100 survivors and relatives of victims, and was found guilty two months later, sentenced to 80 years in prison. However, the verdict was quickly vacated on a technicality—many believe this was due to pressure by Guatemalan elites. Ríos Montt was released from military prison and placed under house arrest. He and his intelligence chief were set to be retried in 2015, but the proceedings were delayed until 2016, at which point he had been diagnosed with dementia. The court decided that no punishment would be given even if he was found guilty. He died in the spring of 2018.

By the end of the 1980s, 90% of the Guatemalan population lived below the official poverty line. The war left 10% of the population displaced, and there was mass migration to the capital and the formation of shantytowns. Gang violence has skyrocketed in the past few decades, drug cartels have spilled over from Mexico, and organized crime has infiltrated the judicial system. Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and femicide is particularly prevalent, leading to a spike in Guatemalan unaccompanied minors and women with children fleeing to the U.S. in recent years.

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