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Timeline: Guatemala’s Brutal Civil War

BY Talea Miller  March 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST

Overlooking Antigua, Guatemala

The NewsHour is airing a two-part series on Guatemala this week, beginning with a focus on the high levels of violence against women. Over and over again in our reporting, the legacy of brutality left by decades of civil war was referenced as a major contributor to both the abuse and murder of women in Guatemala and the general attitude of impunity with which many violent crimes are committed in Guatemala.

More than 200,000 people were killed over the course of the 36-year-long civil war that began in 1960 and ended with peace accords in 1996. About 83 percent of those killed were Mayan, according to a 1999 report written by the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification titled “Guatemala: Memory of Silence.” The report also concluded that the vast majority, 93 percent, of human rights violations perpetrated during the conflict were carried out by state forces and military groups.

U.S. involvement in the country was also singled out by the commission as a key factor contributing to human rights violations, including training of officers in counterinsurgency techniques and assisting the national intelligence apparatus.

Timeline of some key events:

1954 – The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency backed a coup commanded by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas against the democratically-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. He was considered a communist threat, especially after legalizing the communist party and moving to nationalize the plantations of the United Fruit Company.

Following the coup, Castillo was declared president, and set about reversing land reforms that benefited poor farmers. He also removed voting rights for illiterate Guatemalans.

1960- Guatemala’s 36-year civil war began as left-wing guerilla groups started battling government military forces. The country was now under autocratic rule by Gen. Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, who assumed power in 1958 following the murder of Col. Castillo Armas.

The long conflict was marked by abductions and violence, including mutilations and public dumping of bodies. 

1966 - Civilian rule was restored to Guatemala and Cesar Mendez was elected president, but the civil war only intensified with a major counterinsurgency campaign by the army.

1970 – Military-backed Carlos Arana was elected president, and he immediately placed the country under a state of siege, giving the military more control over civilians.  For the next decade, a series of military-dominated governments escalated violence against guerilla groups and indigenous communities.  

1981- The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report blaming the Guatemalan government for thousands of illegal executions and missing persons in the 1970s, and documenting accounts of the slaughter of members of Indian communities.

1982 - General Efrain Rios Montt seized power following a military coup. He annulled the 1965 constitution, dissolved Congress and suspended political parties.

Montt formed local civilian defense patrols alongside the military in the country and rural indigenous regions, through which he was able to reclaim most guerrilla territory.

This crackdown against the newly-united coalition, the Guatemalan Revolutionary National Unity, marks one of the most violent periods of the civil war during which a large number of indigenous civilians killed.

1985 – A new constitution was drafted and democratic elections for president resumed two years after Montt was ousted in another coup.

1993 – Then-President Jorge Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and restricted civil rights, but was later forced to resign.

1994 – Under President Ramiro De Leon Carpio, the former human rights ombudsman, peace talks between the government and rebels of the Guatemalan Revolutionary National Unity began and agreements were signed on several issues including human rights.

1996 –A new president, Alvaro Arzu, was chosen in a runoff election. Under Arzu peace negotiations were finalized. Peace accords ending the 36-year internal conflict were signed in December of 1996.

Today Guatemala is led by President Álvaro Colom of the National Unity for Hope. Almost 15 years after the end of the civil war, violence and intimidation continue to be a major problem in political and civilian life. Organized crime groups operate with relative impunity, an issue that appears likely to factor prominently in the country’s next presidential election later this year.

Sources: The U.S. State Department, Inter-American Commission on Human Right, Human Rights Watch, Commission for Historical Clarification, New York Times, BBC, Frontline