Peace & Conflict In Guatemala: An Overview

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Looking back 60 years, there were many historic legal, political, and social events regarding peace and conflict in Guatemala. Authoritarianism, a military coup, U.S involvement, human rights cases, and protests are just a few examples. 

The following summary will cover; The Guatemalan Civil War; The Peace Process, and the Aftermath. These explanations will help to explain much of the peace and conflict climate in Guatemala today. 

The Causes of Guatemala’s Civil War

Guatemala’s 36-year-old Civil War was the bloodiest and longest in the region. The conflict began with U.S. interventions such as The United Fruit Company. This intervention was a key cause the conflict between rebel groups and the Government. In 1982, The Marxist rebel army, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca URNG) took control. It later became a political party in 1998.

The U.S backed coup resulted in thousands of murders, rapes, tortures, and forced disappearances of the indigenous population. Carlos Castillo Armas became President and he took away voting rights for the illiterate. He also removed land reforms which became a central issue during the conflict and reconciliation process. 

Old Guatemalan Man in Hat
The Guatemalan genocide was the most severe in Latin America to eradicate the indigenous population.

The Consequences of the Conflict

During the mass exodus, several events by the opposition took place. They included student protests and the burning down of the Spanish Embassy resulting in 37 deaths. In 1982, General Ríos Montt seized power and annulled the 1965 Constitution. Furthermore, he also dissolved Congress, and reclaimed guerilla territory using the army. Under his rule, over 626 indigenous villages were attacked. The massacres of the Ixil people and the Dos Erres Massacre were two of the most severe during the genocide. Montt also granted amnesty for human rights violations.

Before the 1990s, the death toll from state violence was 200,000 dead and 40,000 missing. 400 villages were destroyed and 100,000 people fled and became refugees in Mexico. 1 million people were forcibly displaced throughout the country. 83% of the genocide victims were from Indigenous communities.

In 1992 Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her social and cultural work for indigenous communities. She ran for the presidency twice without success. Before announcing her candidacy, Menchú filed charges against senior officials for genocide, forced disappearances, and state terror. One of the complaints against the former Guatemalan officers was issued in the name of Efraín Ríos Montt.

The Guatemalan Peace Process

In the 1980s, Latin American and foreign countries encouraged disarmament and a peaceful transition. After Guatemala’s civil war and in 1986, Central American presidents gathered in Esquipulas, Guatemala, to discuss regional peace and democracy. 

New solution-oriented groups and religious groups formed that strengthened public dialogue concerning peacebuilding internally. In 1989, the government-formed National Reconciliation Commission (CNR) became the first initiative by the catholic church to officially include civil society perspectives in the Guatemalan peace negotiations. The talks between CNR and URNG led to the signing of The Oslo Agreement in March 1990. It forced the parties to find a solution to the internal conflict. One was an agreed consultation between URNG and Guatemalan society. URNG later became acknowledged as a legitimate party in the negotiations due to the following “Oslo consultations” in Norway. 

street protest guatemala
Even before and after the signing of the 1996 peace accords, the Guatemalan state claims to uphold the rule of law.

A Civil Society Assembly (ASC) was created to formally involve all organized parts of society to provide recommendations to the negotiating parties. The recommendations ultimately made it to the final peace accords. 

The peace negotiations took place from 1994 to 1999, leaving the end of the civil war in 1996 with many milestones. Countries like Mexico, Norway, Spain and Canada were strong facilitators in the peace process. The establishment of the UN Truth Commission in Guatemala (1994) became the first truth commission in Latin America and later a regional model. In 1995, the government signed The Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This agreement recognized ethnic discrimination as a crime, and recognized indigenous rights such as language, dress, and practices. The UN Agreement also defined Guatemala as a multilingual nation as it persists. 

The Guatemala 1996 Peace Accords

Under the presidency of Álvaro Arzú, Guatemala ends the 36-year-old civil war with the signing of the Peace Accords. In 1996, the rebel groups and the government signed The Peace Agreement. In 1997, The United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) verified the agreement on a ceasefire between the Guatemalan Government and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). 

Guatemala palace with large flag
To fulfill its promises of peace and justice, the Government of Guatemala needs to address previous and current atrocities and pay justice to victims.

The Guatemalan peace accords contained 28 commitments. Key commitments included; a truth commission, resettlement of refugees and displaced people, and the identity and rights of indigenous peoples. Other commitments include; strengthening civilian power, advancement of women’s rights, particularly those of indigenous women, and constitutional and electoral reform.

200 representatives from 15 state, society and international bodies carried out the agenda with strong involvement from the catholic church. A critique concerning the peace process was the lack of coherent leadership in implementing the peace agreement.

An Accompanying Commission (Comisión de Acompañamiento) oversaw the timely implementation of the peace treaty from all points of view. Simultaneously, new provisions to the constitutional reforms were under formation in the Guatemalan Congress and Electorate. The Commission still exists today but without influence. The Peace Accords have no legal status as the majority of Congress is not supportive. 

In 1996, Guatemala ratified the International Labor Organization Convention (169). This convention obliges the Government to respect indigenous land and traditions and consultation. The ILO Convention is the principal international legal instrument that protects indigenous rights in Guatemala. 

The Aftermath of the Peace Accords

After signing the peace accords, civil society involvement vanished, leaving the international community to uphold Guatemala’s commitment to peace. Nevertheless, Guatemala has taken many steps towards truth and reconciliation for human rights violations endured during the civil war.

In the first landmark case, The Guatemalan state acknowledged state responsibility in the Molina Theissen case in 2000. The state paid 1.8 million USD to the families of the 226 victim soldiers killed in the Dos Erres massacre (1982). This despite immunity and a persistent failure to prosecute and convict perpetrators and issue verdicts. In 2003, the government established a national reparations program. This occured following a public apology from Vice President Eduardo Stein in response to the Plan de Sánchez Massacre (1982) .

Police line up on street in Guatemala
Today, the opposition and the public continue to demand peace, political reforms and justice that stem from civil war times. 

Legal Proceedings after the Guatemala Conflict

The post-war agenda contained establishing the justice system and strengthening Guatemalan democracy. The Law of National Reconciliation (LRN) came into effect in 1997 due to a recognition of the legal system. From 2011 and the following years constituted a shift and a movement in legal proceedings in Guatemalan courts. Four soldiers were found guilty of murder in the Dos Erres Massacre. Each were sentenced to over 6,000 years for murders and crimes against humanity.

In 2013, the historic Maya Genocide trial led to the arrest of former general Efraín Ríos Montt. However, the case was overturned and Montt died before serving his complete 80 year sentence. In the same year, The Ministry of Education and USAID implemented a National Reading Program, which develops educational material in Spanish and four indigenous languages to each of Guatemala’s 22 departments. 

Beyond country borders, 2013, the world witnessed the migrant peak and surge of unaccompanied children and mothers with babies and toddlers fleeing Central America.

3 significant events occurred in following the 3 years:

1) The resignation and arrest of the Molina Administration in 2015.

2) Following the Sepur Zarco case in 2016, which resulted in the conviction of two former military officers and granted 18 reparation measures to the women survivors and the community of Sepur Zarco in the Izabal Department.

3) And in 2017, the self-started fire of the government-run youth shelter in Guatemala City, Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, killed 41 adolescent girls. 

Guatemala Today

The peace and conflict climate in Guatemala is characterized by migration flows, migration agreements with the US, and border conflicts. This comes in addition to a high level of inequality, environmental disasters, a shift in presidency, and a slow handling of COVID-19 since March 2020. 

Government Building on fire with protesters Guatemala
With continuous unrest and turmoils, the process of reconciliation can seem like a never-ending project in Guatemala. 

Although orders have been issued, the Guatemalan government has not taken many concrete actions regarding investigations or reparations. A national commission for the search of disappeared persons and a national registry of victims is one of the reparational measures from court orders. The landmark trial surrounding the detention, torture, and rape of Emma Molina Theissen and the disappearance of her brother Marco Antonio Molina Theissen (14 y/o) is one of many emblematic disappearance cases that stems from Guatemala’s internal conflict. CREOMPAZ is one of Latin America’s largest disappearance cases surrounding 85 graves of 565 individuals in Cobán, Alta Verapaz – The country’s Western Highlands. For the fourth trial in the Dos Erres Massacre there are about 1000 complaints at the Attorney General’s Office in relation to the civil war period. 

As the first in the region, The 1994 UN-sponsored Guatemalan truth commission (officially known as The Commission for Historical Clarification) has become a regional model – for example, in the recent Colombian Peace Process, and to the Colombian Truth Commission. 

Guatemala comes short in fulfilling the social conditions as stated in the peace accords. Part of the continuous peacebuilding is tackling the endemic violence, impunity laws, and the high corruption level. Notably, the peace process transformed the political climate in Guatemala and civil society. A notable change has been strengthening civic groups and civic involvement, new political parties and groupings, indigenous participation, and decentralization reforms. And a consistent focus on poverty alleviation and poverty reduction has pertained politically in addition to organized society and more involvement from different areas of civil society as before the conflict.  

The Impact of Guatemalan Nonprofits 

As a significant part of Guatemalan civil society, most nonprofits of all sizes execute services and assistance that the government should provide in the aftermath of the country’s civil war. 

Man writing on sidewalk in Guatemala
Through Pionero Philanthropy, you can find vetted nonprofits that make a social impact in Guatemala society

Pionero Philanthropy’s platform provides a gateway to the development sector in Guatemala and strengthens the work of individual organizations. Via Pionero Philanthropy, you can choose to support one of our member organizations.

Our member organizations carry out social impact work that directly impacts Guatemalans still affected by the 36-year-old internal conflict. We carefully examine and vet member organizations bases on five pillars of; transparency, sustainability, efficiency, impact, and Need. We believe that gathering community-based organizations under one umbrella strengthens the sector locally and the visibility of each organization.

Find out more about our nonprofit members by navigating our interactive map of the Guatemalan nonprofit sector on our site. 


Timeline: Guatemala’s History of Violence by María José Calderón Timeline compiled by Aimee Orndorf Timeline by UN Women. Britannica International Justice Monitor. Negotiating Rights: The Guatemalan Peace Process International Justice Monitor (Prosecutions)