History of Guatemala


Between 1962 and 1996, Guatemala experienced one of the most violent and horrific armed conflicts in Latin American history. The unrest began in 1954 when President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by an anti-communist military uprising in alliance with the United States. In response, the first guerrilla groups appeared in 1960: the November 13th Revolutionary movement, Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), the armed branch of the Guatemalan Workers party (PGT), and the April 12th Revolutionary Front. They were violently eliminated by the terror tactics of the State Security Forces.


During the 1970s two new guerrilla groups emerged in the North and West of the country, areas predominantly populated by the indigenous population; The Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) and the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). The State Security Forces once again responded with persecution, forced disappearances and assassinations of politicians, union organisers, academics, students and community leaders. Between 1981 and 1983 the army stepped up their campaign and undertook a scorched earth policy against the indigenous population.


In 1984, the intensity of the armed conflicted began to wane and a year later in 1985, a new Constitution was created and subsequently a civilian president was elected to office. In 1990, the Guatemalan government began a formal process of negotiation to put an end to the armed conflict, and in 1996 the peace accords were signed. 


Transitional Justice Efforts

Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), the country’s UN-backed “truth commission”,  has estimated that the balance of deaths and disappearances during the conflict period lies at more than 200,000 and that over a million were internally displaced. According to the CEH, 75% of the victims of grave human rights violations were men; however 99% of the victims of sexual violence were women. The commission found that the Guatemalan state committed forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, genocide against indigenous Mayan groups and in general deprived people of their liberty.


Since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, victims’ and human rights organisations have pressured the Guatemalan state to support the victims’ rights to know, justice and reparation and to promote measures of non-recurrence; however, the State’s efforts have been incomplete and promoted without a comprehensive perspective, rendering their impact weak.


The National Reparations Programme initiated in 2006 for instance included in its design comprehensive measures, both individual and communal, but the process has become stagnated, and only some have received economic or material compensation. Many are still feeling the loss of dignity due to the violations many years onward.


In terms of justice, there have been important advances. Before the signing of the Peace, only two cases had been tried resulting in guilty verdicts (Myrna Mack and Ixtahuacan). In 2004 in the landmark Plan Sanchez case before the Inter-American Court, the Guatemalan state admitted for the first time that their campaign against the Mayan people had a genocidal quality. Nearly 10 years later in May 2013 the former dictator José Efrain Rios Montt was convicted on the charges of crimes against humanity and genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison. This was the first instance in which a head of state was tried in National proceedings, previous trials convicted lower or middle-rank officers. The trial was however annulled by the Constitutional Court on the grounds of fraud and is now being repeated behind closed doors to the public, with Rios Montt declared unfit to stand trial, being represented by his lawyer. 


In 2016, in the Sepur Zarco trial, a military officer and a military commissioner were the first to be convicted by a Guatemalan court, of sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery, as forms of crimes against humanity, committed against 15 Q’eqchi’ indigenous women. There are several other cases presented in national courts and are in previous phases before hearings begin, such as the 21 Military Post  (CREOMPAZ) for forced disappearance, the Molina Theissen case for forced disappearance, torture, and sexual violence.


Although these verdicts show that there has been some progress, the levels of impunity are still high. Guatemala is still a very militarised and violent state and society. Many ex-military members, who are linked to crimes of corruption and crimes, participate in current politics, like for instance the ex-president Otto Perez Molina, a former military General. Nowadays, Guatemala remains a dysfunctional, racist and discriminatory state; responsive to the interests of economic and political elites, which limit the efforts to break the institutionalized impunity and to overcome the structural causes that led to the conflict.


In 2006 with the support of the UN, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established to strengthen the rule of law and to help domestic institutions investigate and dismantle the clandestine security structures and illegal groups which persist in Guatemala, including government officials. It complements the work of the prosecutor’s office to bring criminal charges; and propose public policies, including judicial and institutional reforms. It also has the authority to initiate administrative proceedings against officials who are not fulfilling their duties or blocking the commission’s work.  In May of 2015, the CICIG and the Attorney General’s office revealed facts of corruption and led to the detention of Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldettti along with others in government.



Recent Developments

In 2016 a multi-sectorial dialogue about constitutional reforms was held to promote constitutional reforms in the justice sectors; and to strengthen the independence of justice, among other issues.  The initiative is now debated in Congress, but it still runs the risk of playing into the hands of and supporting the entrenched interests of conservative sectors. Issues such as the recognition of the indigenous legal system and the promotion of legal pluralism have already been withdrawn from the reforms due to the conservative positions in congress and society