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‘Peace is not just something that you sign on paper: it needs to be built,’ is a frequent comment by Guatemalan human-rights activists. Although it is nearly seven years since peace accords were signed, officially ending 36 years of armed conflict, life is not much improved for most Guatemalans.

The war began with a guerrilla uprising in 1960 – six years after a CIA-backed coup deposed the democratically elected government which had confiscated lands for redistribution from a US fruit company. The economic and social discrimination in which the insurgency was rooted has not been resolved. About 60 per cent of the population is indigenous but political power, wealth and land is firmly concentrated in the hands of people who proudly trace their roots to Germany or Spain.

The conflict – one of the most brutal in the hemisphere – was deeply influenced by the Cold War. A UN-sponsored truth commission reported in 1999 that about 200,000 people were killed – 80 per cent of them unarmed civilians. It also established that government forces were guilty of genocide.

The worst violence in the countryside took place in the early 1980s, and yet the dictator of that time – retired General Efraín Ríos Montt – is now president of Congress, and his party – the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) – is in government. Ríos Montt is constitutionally barred from the presidency because he previously came to power through a coup, but he is the party’s preferred candidate and many people say they would vote for him.

The FRG – traditionally on the far Right of the spectrum – initially co-opted many formerly well-respected figures of the Left, but soon gained a reputation for corruption and has generally failed to implement the recommendations of the peace accords or the truth commission.

Photo: Peter Stalker

Some communities have better access to telephones, electricity, roads and schools since the conflict ended, but violent crime has soared. Former military figures have been implicated in drug trafficking and kidnappings by organized criminal gangs.

The rule of law is clearly weak, and there are constant rumours of an imminent coup, but human-rights activists say there would be little benefit for the army, since it already enjoys extensive power and impunity. They suggest that the spectre of a coup provides the perfect pretext for delaying demilitarization.

Political violence has increased in the last two years, with threats, abductions, assassinations and violent robberies directed against human-rights organizations, campaigners for land and indigenous rights, women’s groups, journalists, academics, students, lawyers and judges.

Several groups – including one led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú – are pursuing prosecutions against former dictators. Few prosecutions for political crimes have been successful, though, and most of these have been later overturned. There have been small victories at a local level, with villages achieving exhumations of mass graves, reburying their dead and erecting monuments.

Natural disasters, war, poverty and the hope of earning large amounts of money have led thousands of Guatemalans to make the trip north through Mexico to the United States – usually illegally – and everyone has an uncle or a brother there. Most migrants work for several years before coming back.

More than a million people were displaced during the armed conflict. Groups of refugees returned from Mexico between 1993 and 1999, but many remained.

Guatemalans are largely pessimistic about the future, and yet face life day-to-day without despairing. This attitude is reflected in a phrase you hear in the countryside as encouragement from one peasant to another carrying an enormous bundle of wood up a steep hill – ‘poco a poco’ , which roughly translates as ‘one step at a time’.

Ruth Gidley

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled December 1993

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)