Throughout most of the history of post-colonial Guatemala its “leaders” were accommodating to U.S. business and political interests. Beginning in the 1930s, Guatemala’s government and army (which were hardly distinguishable) worked closely with the U.S. State Department and military to keep a tight rule over its citizens, in the interests of American politicians and businesses. The installation of General Jorge Ubico in 1931 as president, with U.S. backing and mainly in support of United Fruit Company, initiated a pattern of brutally repressive military regimes that continued to the late 1990s. Ubico identified as a fascist; he greatly admired Mussolini, Franco, Napoleon, and Hitler. His expressed slogan was, “I am like Hitler. I execute first and ask questions later.” He considered the indigenous Maya to be “animals.” During his rule, he gave away hundreds of thousands of hectares of public and private land to United Fruit, and opposition groups were savagely suppressed.
In October 1944, a small group of soldiers and students led by Jacabo Árbenz Guzmán and Francisco Javier Arana successfully attacked the National Palace in what became known as the “October Revolution.” They ousted Ubico’s then-puppet-successor-president, Federico Ponce Vaides, and declared democratic elections would take place. The winner of those elections was a progressive university teacher named Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo won with 85% of the popular vote in what is considered one of Guatemala’s first fair and open elections. He immediately put social reforms in place, including minimum wage laws, increased education funding, near-universal suffrage, and labor reforms. He quickly became the enemy of large landowners, United Fruit Company, the Guatemalan military, and the U.S. government. At least 25 unsuccessful coup attempts took place during his presidency, mostly led by wealthy military officers who were closely tied to United Fruit and the U.S. government.
By the early 1950s, the U.S. government, under pressure from United Fruit, ordered the newly-created CIA to stop Guatemala’s “communist revolt” which was, in fact, no more than a fair-labor and human rights movement. The CIA and State Department chose right-wing Guatemalan Army Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas to lead a 1954 coup d’état and depose leftist president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (Arévalo’s successor). Castillo Armas quickly undid the social reforms of the past seven years, banning labor unions and progressive political parties. From then on, a series of coups d’état and fraudulent elections took place, in which only military officers were installed as presidents. The Spanish-descended oligarchy controlled the land, the military controlled the government, and the U.S. controlled the politics. For the next 42 years, Guatemala was a client state of America, and right-wing military presidents were installed with assistance or the blessings of the CIA and the State Department, electoral fraud, and countless coups d’état.
In 1960, General Ydigoras Fuentes, perhaps the most corrupt president in Guatemala’s history until that time, gave the U.S. permission to train an invasion force in Guatemala to prepare for the planned Bay of Pigs assault on Cuba. On November 13 of that same year, a group of left-leaning junior military officers of the Escuela Politécnica National Military Academy led a failed revolt against the government of General Ydigoras. In response, the CIA flew B-26 bombers disguised as Guatemalan military planes to bomb the rebel bases. The rebels fled to the hills of eastern Guatemala and neighboring Honduras and formed the kernel of what became known as MR-13 (Movimiento Revolucionario 13 Noviembre). Guatemala’s civil war had begun.
In 1962, U.S. Special Forces established a secret military training base in Guatemala where they trained Army personnel in the use of counterinsurgency strategies and technology being employed in Vietnam. By 1964, the Guatemalan Army was using those tactics in counterinsurgency actions against the MR-13, with assistance from the CIA and the Green Berets. From that point on, Guatemala’s G-2 (military intelligence), Army patrols, and Judicial Police greatly increased the number of house raids and disappearances in Guatemala City and in the countryside. Death squads, consisting of heavily armed men operating out of army and police installations, roamed the country, the most notorious being MANO (Mano Blanca). MANO had a largely military membership but received its funding primarily from wealthy landowners. MANO and the other death squads, most comprising civilian right-wing fanatics as well as off-duty police and military, operated with impunity.
In November 1966 a nationwide “state of siege” was declared in Guatemala in which civil rights were suspended. Press censorship was imposed. The National Police were transformed into an adjunct of the military. The influx of American military and security advisors, and up to 1,000 Green Berets, flooded the country with U.S. training and arms.
Numerous claims have been made that U.S. Embassy personnel were involved in the creation of paramilitary groups. And then, in August 1968, U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein was assassinated by the guerrilla group FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes) one block from the U.S. Consulate in Guatemala City. The Guatemalan police claimed to have solved the crime almost immediately, announcing that they had located a suspect on the same day—a French woman named Michele Firk. Firk shot herself and died before the police could interrogate her. In her notebook she had written: “It is hard to find the words to express the state of putrefaction that exists in Guatemala, and the permanent terror in which the inhabitants live. Every day, bodies are pulled out of the Motagua River riddled with bullets and partly eaten by fish. Every day, men are kidnapped right in the street by unidentified people in cars, with no intervention by the police patrols.”
In 1977, the Carter administration published a report citing the Guatemalan government a “gross and consistent human rights violator.” Congress reduced military aid to Guatemala that year and prohibited it after 1978. However, covert U.S. support for the Guatemalan Army continued, and equipment and arms continued to pour into the country though the CIA or as military equipment reclassified as non-military. Israel provided supplementary military and intelligence support, and up to 300 Israeli advisors operated in the country. With funds from US-AID, Israeli specialists also held torture workshops with the Nicaraguan Contras in Guatemala. By the late 1970s, nearly half of the Guatemala military’s weapons were supplied by Israel, including Galil automatic rifles, IMI Uzi submachine guns, and FN-MAG general purpose machine guns.
The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission estimated 42,000 civilians were killed or disappeared between 1966 and 1974 alone, half of them between 1970 and 1974. The murders continued into the 1980s, and the Maya and other citizens lived in terror of the death squads. In 1980 alone, an estimated 5,000 Guatemalans were killed by the government. By 1981, death-squad killings of 35 to 40 people a day were being reported; almost all were indigenous Maya and showed signs of torture.
In 1980, peasants from Quiché Department took over the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City. Among the rebels was the father of Rigoberta Menchú, a young Mayan woman. Menchú's brother and mother had earlier been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Menchú's father, and 38 others, died when the Guatemalan Army set fire to the embassy building. Most of the structure and its contents were destroyed, and the Army’s actions led to Spain severing its official relationship with Guatemala. Menchú had to flee the country, and she lived the next twelve years in exile in Mexico. During her exile, she traveled to Europe as a representative for the Frente Popular 31 Enero. While in Paris in January 1982, Menchu met the Venezuelan author and anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and tape-recorded her life story. Debray transcribed and edited the 26 hours of tape, and in 1983 Menchu's narrative was published in Spanish. Menchú went on to serve on UN commissions, receive honorary doctorates, and speak in support of human rights throughout Europe and North America. Her memoir (I, Rigoberta Menchú, An Indian Woman in Guatemala) described her life during years of government suppression and genocide. It gained worldwide attention and in 1992, the 500-year anniversary of Spain’s invasion of Central America, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for social justice. Her book and Nobel Prize were key factors helping to build international pressure on the Guatemalan government, especially from other Latin American countries. Today, Menchú's Nobel Prize medal is safeguarded in the Museo del Templo Mayor in the grand Zócolo of Mexico City.
During the Reagan presidency (1981-1989), the U.S. provided overt military support to the Guatemalan Army, despite a congressional embargo. U.S. Special Forces were secretly operating in the country under the guise of a Personnel Exchange Program. Despite criticism from around the world, and from the organization Human Rights Watch, Reagan met with President Ríos-Montt and dismissed the human rights abuses, claiming Ríos-Montt was getting a “bum rap.”
By 1981, the insurgency had recruited enough supporters to mount their largest offensive in the country’s history. Villagers worked to sabotage roads and army establishments, and destroy anything of strategic value to the armed forces. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Maya were actively supporting the rebels. In response, the Army Chief of Staff (and president’s brother), Benedicto Lucas-García (“General Benny”) initiated a tierra quemada, or scorched earth policy. In a strategy developed between Lucas-García and U.S. Lieutenant Colonel George Maynes, 15,000 troops were deployed on a sweep through Mayan villages in the highlands. Tens of thousands of Maya were killed, but the effect was to further increase support for the insurgency. Even within the military, there was strong opposition to this strategy. In March 1982, junior officers under the command of General Efraín Ríos-Montt staged a coup d’état and deposed Lucas-García.
But Ríos-Montt initiated a new scorched-earth tactic, which he called Victoria 82, renaming Lucas García’s paramilitary groups “Civilian Self-Defense Patrols” (PACs) and conscripting large numbers of rural civilians into the militias. Over Ríos-Montt’s first year in office, the PACs grew from 25,000 to an astonishing 700,000 civilians due to the forced conscription. Dissenters (and their families) were marked for death or brutal torture. Ríos-Montt also gave all government agents free reign to interrogate (i.e., torture) and “dispose of suspected guerrillas” as they saw fit. In a 1982 interview with ABC News, Ríos-Montt attributed the success of his coup to the fact that his soldiers were trained by the Israelis.
In August 1983, Ríos-Montt was deposed by his own Minister of Defense, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores. However, Ríos-Montt went on to found the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front Party in 1989 and was elected to Congress.
In July 1984, an election was held for representatives to a Constituent Assembly to draft a democratic constitution, which was completed in May of 1985. General elections were held and civilian candidate Vinicio Cerezo won the presidency. Cerezo was a 43-year old, pistol-packing, charismatic, black belt in karate. It marked the end of 30 years of military domination and the people of Guatemala had high hopes. However, death squads, disappearances, and extrajudicial state violence had become so engrained in the country’s political culture that they barely abated.
New organizations were founded to try to force the government to provide information on the tens of thousands of missing civilians, los desaparecidos, but they were stonewalled by the judicial system; Guatemala’s culture of corruption was too deeply ingrained in the political, judicial, and military systems. Early in Vinicio Cerezo’s government, the army and death squads began abducting members of the new civilian organizations, torturing and killing them. Héctor Gómez Calito, the leader of GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, or Mutual Support Group) was tortured and murdered. Shortly after GAM’s co-leader Rosario Godoy de Cuevas delivered the eulogy at his funeral, she was found dead at the bottom of a ditch two miles outside Guatemala City, along with her 2-year-old son and 21-year-old brother. All three victims bore signs of extreme torture prior to death. Human rights monitors who had seen the bodies reported that Godoy’s 2-year-old son’s fingernails had been ripped out.
Under intense international pressure, the U.S. finally began to encourage civilian rule and fair elections in Guatemala. The 1985 elections were carefully monitored and acclaimed procedurally fair. But from then through 1995, civilian presidents continued to yield to Army rule from behind the scenes.
In 1994 the United Nations stepped in to oversee a “peace process” in Guatemala. National elections finally became more free and participatory. The November 1995 presidential election had nearly 20 parties competing. Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen won. Shortly thereafter, an umbrella resistance group, URNG, became a legal party, and in December 1996 they signed peace accords officially ending the 37-year Civil War. The government finally made peace with the resistance and the longest civil war in Central America’s history came to an end. The door had been opened for the Maya of Guatemala to be recognized as full-fledged citizens, and to have the same human rights as the Ladinos, or Spanish-speaking upper class. The General Secretary of the URNG, Rolando Morán, and President Arzú jointly received the UNESCO Peace Prize for their work to end the war. The U.N. sent military observers to Guatemala to monitor the implementation of the peace agreements. By the end of the war, it is estimated that nearly a quarter-million people had been killed or disappeared, and countless villages massacred and burned to the ground. The U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission concluded that the government had been responsible for 93 percent of all human rights violations committed during the war, and that 83 percent of the victims were Maya. World rights organizations have labeled the government slaughter of the Maya as genocide. In retrospect, by destroying the popularly elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (1950-1954), the U.S. initiated a four-decade-long cycle of terror, repression, and ethnic cleansing in the country that included the sanctioning of Maya genocide.
In 1999, after release of a Truth Commission report, President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology to the people of Guatemala, declaring, “It is important that I state clearly, that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong.” Few leaders paid a price for these decades of slaughter of Guatemalan people. The 2013 genocide trial of former president Efraín Ríos-Montt for the killing and disappearances of more than 1,700 indigenous Ixil Maya during his 1982-83 rule resulted in his conviction and sentencing to 80 years in prison. But a few days after the trial ended, Guatemala’s high court declared the mistrial due to “alleged judicial anomalies.” A new trial began again in July 2015, but did not reach a verdict before Ríos-Montt’s death on April 1, 2016.
Although violence still occurs in Guatemala, the peace process is holding. Indigenous Maya have been returning from Mexico and Honduras to their home villages in the highlands and the Petén region. The populations of the small villages visited by Odel Bernini in the early 1980s have grown significantly, and travel in the Quiché and other Departments is now relatively safe.
In August 2023, anticorruption crusader and polyglot sociologist Bernardo Arévalo took 58% of the vote to win Guatemala’s presidential election. It was a watershed moment in a country historically plagued by extreme corruption and social injustice. Arévalo’s party’s (Movimiento Semilla) primary platform message was to stop political persecution and corruption, and improve human rights and the environment in Guatemala. President Arévalo is the son of Juan José Arévalo, a former president who is still exalted for creating Guatemala’s social security system and protecting free speech (and who was forced into exile in the 1950s).