A Brief History of Guatemala’s 36-Year-Long Civil War That Ended in 1996
Did you know that the Guatemalan civil war caused over 200,000 deaths during 36 years of fighting?
And that the US played a big role in this war by supporting successive military governments that have been accused of genocide?
Many books have been written about the Guatemalan civil war and the atrocities perpetrated during this conflict, but today I’m providing you with a brief history of it, its main causes and protagonists, as well as a list of important facts and outcomes from this war.
What Was the Guatemalan Civil War?
The Guatemalan civil war was fought between the government of Guatemala and a series of leftist rebel groups formed mainly by Mayan indigenous peoples.
This war is better understood in the context of the global Cold War fought between the communist system promoted by the Soviet Union, and the capitalist one, promoted by the US and its allies. Actually, the Guatemalan civil war was the bloodiest Latin American conflict fought during the Cold War.
How Long Did the Guatemalan Civil War Last?
The war officially took place between 1960 and 1996, however its origins can be traced back to 1954 when a CIA-supported military operation overthrew the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz.
What Caused the Guatemalan Civil War?
This is a hard question to answer without inserting the Cold War background in the conversation. After the coup d’état of 1954, the Guatemalan political system was completely broken and military governments were installed, but violence and economic instability kickstarted a series of events that would eventually start the Guatemalan civil war in 1960.
The direct cause of the war was an attempt to overthrow the government of General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes by a group of military officers. However, the deep causes of the war are set in the struggle between the capitalist elites of the country, and the leftist groups of peasants and activists who saw communist ideas as a way to improve their lives.
What Happened in the Guatemalan Civil War?
To explain what happened in a conflict as long and complex as the Guatemalan civil war, it’s always helpful to use a visual timeline as a summary and to understand how the conflict evolved over the decades.
Check out this visual timeline of the Guatemalan Civil War and read the explanations for every event in the sections below:
In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz was elected as Guatemala’s president and quickly started implementing his leftist policies such as legalizing the communist party and trying to nationalize the United Fruit Company plantations in the country.
These policies weren’t seen with good eyes either by the Guatemalan elites or by the CIA who saw any incursion of communism in the country as a menace to the US. So, just three years after Arbenz took power, he was overthrown in 1954 by a coup organized by the CIA and commanded by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas.
This type of CIA-backed coups were a common occurrence in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century, all of them part of the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Why did the Guatemalan Civil War Start?
In 1957, Colonel Castillo Armas was assassinated and replaced by General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes. However, the Guatemalan civil war started on November 13, 1960, when a different group of military officers attempted a coup to overthrow Ydigoras. This event gave rise to an all out war between the military governments of the time and a series of leftist groups inspired in great part by the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba.
From 1957 to 1966, military infighting saw the country move away from its constitution and civilian rule, until Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president in 1966. However, the military officers kept controlling the country and fighting the leftist guerrillas that appeared throughout the country.
In this same year, the villages of Zacapa and Izabal, home to large numbers of guerrilla members, were bombed as part of a military program designed by the US. Between 2,800 and 8,000 people were killed, most of them innocent civilians.
The 1970s Guerrillas
In 1970, Colonel Carlos Arana was elected president of Guatemala. Arana was known as “the butcher of Zacapa” as he was the man in charge of the 1966 bombings. Arana declared a state of siege and started a period of political kidnappings, mass arrests, and the assassination of intellectuals.
During the 1970s, the military governments embarked on vicious persecution of dissidents and kept fighting different guerrillas across the country. However, this resulted in the consolidation of several peaceful opposition movements such as the National Front Against the Violence and the Committee for Peasant Unity formed mainly by Mayan people.
As if things weren’t bad enough, in 1976, Guatemala suffered a devastating earthquake that killed 23,000 people and left one million Guatemalans without a house. Next year, an indigenous protest called the “Glorious March of the Miners of Ixtahuacán” arrived in Guatemala City in 1977.
This social unrest was answered with more violence. In 1978, the Secret Anticommunist Army was created and published a death list of 38 dissidents. This death squad started killing students and opposition leaders, without any reaction from the government, which meant that the assassinations were nothing else but state terrorism.
The 1980s Terror Campaigns
However, the worst was still to come. In 1980, indigenous activists occupied the Spanish Embassy to bring attention to the situation in Guatemala, only to be killed by the police who burnt 39 people alive, between protesters and hostages, inside the embassy.
In 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt was named President of the military junta. He would later be found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The worst stages of state violence were about to start. According to the 1999 report of the UN Truth Commission, from 1981 to 1983, a Guatemalan state genocide against its own people took place. It’s estimated that between these years there was a death toll of up to 150,000 citizens and 440 villages completely destroyed.
This map created by the Commission for Historical Clarification shows the documented massacres that took place during the Guatemalan civil war.
At this point it’s important to mention that most of this state violence was directed at the Mayan communities and not to the general Guatemalan population. In many cities, Guatemalan people were able to keep up with their normal lives as if no genocide was taking place in their own country. This suggests that what started as a typical “Cold War struggle” developed into more complex and historical questions of race, class, and a divided society.
How Did the Guatemalan Civil War End?
With time, international pressure started to grow and get directed at the Guatemalan government to stop the violence and restore peace and civil liberties. The work of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu was very important to bring international attention to the genocide taking place in Guatemala. In 1992, Rigoberta Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize and this helped to put the Guatemalan government in the international spotlight.
After months of intense negotiations brokered by the United Nations, Spain, and Norway, the guerrillas accepted to disarm and receive land to work in exchange. In 1996, President Álvaro Arzú signed a peace accord with the guerillas and the Guatemalan civil war was finally over.
Guatemalan Civil War Facts
The following is a list of some of the most gruesome effects of the Guatemalan civil war:
- More than 200,000 people were killed over the 36 years of the war.
- About 83% of those killed were Mayan.
- 93% of human rights violations were carried out by the state.
- In 1999, US President Bill Clinton apologized for Washington’s backing of right-wing governments in Guatemala.
- The Guatemalan civil war left 10% of the population displaced.
- By the end of the 1980s, 90% of the Guatemalan population lived below the poverty line.
Guatemala’s History, Culture, and Language
Every country has its own struggles, complexities, and disasters. Guatemala isn’t the exception to this rule, and learning about its history in general and the Guatemalan civil war in particular, helps you to better understand its fascinating culture, and to appreciate the extraordinary country that it is today.
Guatemalan people are strong-willed and have moved forward. Visit this country – and learn Spanish. Sign up for a free class with one of our certified, native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala. They teach more than 24,000 actively enrolled students every month and have been providing reliable service to Spanish learners for more than 10 years.
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