A timeline explores more than 50 years of violent suppression and revolving dictatorships in the country and the role played by the U.S.
-- By María José Calderón
With a population of 13 million people, Guatemala is the second most populated country in Central America (after El Salvador). Guatemala has a long history of violence, political instability, and foreign corporations exploiting the country’s natural and economic resources. There’s a marked disparity in income distribution within Guatemala, and Mayan Indians, the majority of the population, are the most impoverished. A former Spanish colony, the country has been run by an oligarchy of wealthy landowners. For decades, one of Guatemala’s most influential corporations has been the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company, what some Guatemalans call el pulpo ("the octopus"). The company is the largest landowner and employer in the country, and many people have criticized it for receiving large tax breaks and using its political influence to instigate a U.S.-backed coup in 1954 that led to an era of human rights violations against Guatemalans.
Early Democratic Reform
In 1944 Jorge Ubico, who had ruled Guatemala as a pro-American dictator since 1931, was overthrown by a civilian revolt. Under Ubico, the United Fruit Company became the most important business in Guatemala and received tax exemptions from the government. In the following years, new President Juan Arevalo brought in vigorous education, labor and economic reforms. These reforms were extended by his Democratic successor, Jacobo Arbenz. He legalized unions and introduced agrarian law reform that by 1952 had benefited more than 100,000 poor rural families. Idle land was expropriated and former owners were compensated. The United Fruit Company, the largest landowner in Guatemala, was hugely affected by the new law, as the company was only using 8 percent of its property in Guatemala. In early 1953, a month after President Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in to office, the Guatemalan government expropriated 40 percent of the United Fruit Company's land. Fearful of the spread of communism in Guatemala, President Eisenhower approved "PBFortune," a covert CIA operation to supply weapons and funding for paramilitary groups to oppose President Arbenz.
U.S.-Backed Coup, Civil War Starts
On July 2, 1954, the U.S.-backed coup, commanded by Guatemalan exile Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, overthrew the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz. Castillo installed himself as president, and the U.S. administration cast him as a hero for his victory over communism. In September of the same year, Castillo was formally declared president. Once in office, he removed voting rights for illiterate Guatemalans and cancelled the new agrarian reform law, which forced peasants to give up their newly acquired lands. Castillo also decreed a Preventive Penal Law against Communism, which led to the arbitrary arrest of individuals labeled as communists. The regime imprisoned thousands of people indefinitely, allowing them no right of appeal. Meanwhile, resentment began to surface of the CIA's role in toppling the alleged communist-backed government of Arbenz and Guatemalans protested during Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s trip to South America in 1958.
The coup set the stage for Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, which officially began in 1960 -- fueled by a broad polarization between rich and poor in the country. Government military forces and right-wing militias battled leftist rebels, mostly Mayan insurgents, who were fighting for economic and social justice.
Government-backed militias largely acted as death squads, creating terror in the Guatemalan population with forced "disappearances" of victims, often followed by torture and murder. The mutilated bodies of victims (many of them labor leaders and political opponents) were dumped in ditches, on sidewalks and along roads.
In the next three decades the U.S. continued its war against communism in Guatemala and throughout Latin America, in supporting right wing military governments that openly violated human rights.
Civilian Rule Restored, Human Rights Violations Continue
The 1966 election brought to power the Revolutionary Party (PR) candidate Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro, the first civilian president since President Jacobo Arbenz. During his campaign, Montenegro promised to revitalize the economy, head off inflation and work toward social justice with a government free of military influence. Few voters realized that he had a secret agreement with the army not to interfere in its war against left-wing guerrillas, who were believed to be backed by Cuba. Montenegro easily won the majority vote in the election, but violence continued to intensify between the right and the left. State-sponsored death squads continued their harsh tactics against guerrilla members and anyone suspected of collaborating with them.
In November 1970, Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio, a conservative military commander was elected president. Campaigning to restore law and order as fighting raged between right- and left-wing paramilitaries, he immediately suspended civil liberties and placed the country in a state of siege. The siege lasted a year and in the countryside, where the bloodiest fighting was taking place, he gave the military total control to squash the violence. By March 1971, there had been more than 700 political killings. The victims included labor leaders, students and politicians.
By the mid-1970s, repression in rural areas had intensified, and in 1977, President Jimmy Carter passed a bill to cut off military aid and credit to Guatemala. A year later, General Fernando Romero Lucas Garcia became president in what the international community labeled as a fraudulent election. During his rule, Garcia launched a campaign of unprecedented terror against any potential opposition, including labor unions, student and political leaders, and the country’s indigenous population.
In 1981, addressing decades of violence and military dictatorships in Guatemala, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report blaming Garcia’s government for "thousands of illegal executions." The era between 1970 and 1983 became known as the worst for human rights violations in Guatemala. At least 50,000 people died in the violence, and 200,000 Guatemalans fled to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands more were internally displaced because of systematic repression by the military.
Efrain Rios Montt Seizes Power, Amnesty for Human Rights Violators
In March 1982, General Efrain Rios Montt seizes power in a coup. During his 17-month reign, the worst atrocities against the indigenous population occurred, though the situation improved for some Guatemalans.
Despite the confirmation of massacres in Guatemalan villages across the country by anti-guerilla forces, in early 1983, a newly elected President Ronald Reagan overturned the arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter in 1980. Reagan claimed Guatemala’s human rights conditions were improving, and he authorized the sale of military hardware, including weapons and vehicles, to the country’s government. Meanwhile, a then-secret 1983 CIA cable noted a rise in "suspect right-wing violence" and an increasing number of bodies "appearing in ditches and gullies."
By August 1983, Rios Montt’s dictatorship was out of control, and the country was ripe for yet another coup. This time, General Mejia Victores led the revolt, which paved the way three years later for the country’s first civilian president in 16 years. Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat, won the election with 70 percent of votes. Many Guatemalans and outsiders saw Cerezo as an opportunity to bring justice to the country. Instead, Cerezo offered members of the army an amnesty that protected them from being prosecuted for any prior human rights violations. From 1980 to 1989, the civil war death toll grew to 100,000 and more than 40,000 civilians had "disappeared."
Jorge Serrano Elias succeeded Cerezo through elections in 1991. Under his mandate, the government attempted to prosecute human rights violators; but those efforts were thwarted after Serrano's government was weakened by accusations of corruption and appropriating state funds. In 1993, Serrano was forced to resign as he maneuvered his presidency toward a total dictatorship. Since then, he has lived in exile in Panama. The same year, Guatemala’s legislature elected Ramiro de Leon Carpio to replace him.
After Guatemalan Indian-rights activist Rigoberta Menchu wins the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1992, international pressure to bring justice to Guatemala grows.
Peace Negotiations, Civil War Ends
In 1994, peace talks between the government and guerilla insurgents begin. In 1996, rebels declare a ceasefire, and the Clinton administration suspends military training for the Guatemalan army. In 1996, Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ends with the signing of peace accords. Still, human rights and peace activists continue to be threatened and assassinated. To this day, most of these abuses have not been investigated, and the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.
In May 1997, the CIA declassified 1,400 pages of reports on its participation in the orchestration of the 1954 coup that removed President Jacobo Arbenz from office. The documents show U.S. participation in distributing guns and money to opposition forces and facilitating training to mercenaries through the almost four decades of the Guatemalan civil war.
In 1999, the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification released a report that says Guatemalan security forces were behind 93 percent of all human rights atrocities committed during the civil war, which claimed 200,000 lives. Of these, 23,671 were victims of arbitrary execution and 83 percent of fully identified victims were Mayans from the Quiche area. The report also recognized the role of the U.S. and its anti-communism foreign policy in assisting Guatemala’s national intelligence apparatus and the training of a counterinsurgency, key factors which had "significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation."
Reconciliation Begins, Immunity Remains
In March 1999, after more than 40 years since the U.S. first financed the counter-terrorism campaign that led to thousands of civilian deaths in Guatemala's civil war, President Bill Clinton publicly apologized to Guatemalans during a short visit to the country.
In July 2005, thousands of records were discovered at the Guatemala National Police archive. The documents contain information about the 36 years of internal armedconflict that resulted in 200,000 deaths and "disappearances." Families of the victims and human rights organizations believe that the documents could lead to knowledge about the whereabouts of the "disappeared."
On July 12, 2005, the court issued a historic ruling authorizing the PDH (Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman) to inspect the files and documents. The PDH is working on the restoration of the documents. With a $2 million grant from the governments of Switzerland and Sweden, archive workers are focusing on the restoration and organization of the documents.
In July 2006, Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz Gomez issued international arrest warrants for former Guatemalan military dictators, Efrain Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores. Later in the year, the Spanish government requested their extradition based on “universal jurisdiction” law for cases of genocide committed during Guatemala’s civil war. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court denied the request.
Twelve years after the end of the civil war, impunity remains, as little progress has been made toward promoting accountability and to bringing human rights perpetrators to justice. Human rights investigators and defenders continue to be the targets of threats, and clandestine security organizations still operate with impunity.
Guatemalans continue to face high levels of violence and weak and corrupt law enforcement institutions. Sixty percent of the country lives in poverty, and the increasing levels of crime, gang violence and drug dealing show a society where inequality, racism and poverty dominate many peoples' lives.
Sources: Amnesty International, BBC, Britannica, The Commission for Historical Clarification (“Guatemala Memory of Silence” report), Consortiumnews.com, Global security.com,The National Security Archive, Nations Encyclopedia, The New York Times.