Peace & Conflict In Guatemala: An Overview

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Peace & Conflict In Guatemala: An Overview

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 which help to explain much of the peace and conflict climate in Guatemala today. 

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 influence of The United Fruit Company, the root cause of 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 and 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 and 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.

During the mass exodus, several events by the opposition took place such as 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, 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, 100,000 people fled and became refugees in Mexico, and a million 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 and ran for the presidency twice without success. Before announcing her candidacy, Menchú filed charges in Spain’s national court 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 and 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 officially 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 – and included a strong coalition of women’s groups in the formal peace process through a formal consultation body. Thus, 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 Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples was signed, which 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. The Peace Agreement was signed in Guatemala City in December 1996 between the two parties; The rebel groups and the government. As of 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). As mentioned, URNG was originally a guerilla group that later became a political party and ultimately a judicial political party in the Guatemalan peace process. The ceasefire agreement was signed by the delegations of the respective parties in Oslo, Norway, in December 1996 – in the presence of representatives from the “Group of Friends of the Guatemala Peace Process,” United Nations officials, and a diplomatic corps. The agreement entered into force together with the final peace agreement in Guatemala City the same month. 

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 to advance women’s rights, particularly those of indigenous women. The main agreements in the accords concerned topics of human rights; a truth commission; resettlement of refugees and displaced people; the identity and rights of indigenous peoples; the socio-economic and the agricultural situation; strengthening civilian power and the role of the armed forces; and reform of the constitution and electoral system. An Accompanying Commission (Comisión de Acompañamiento) was the formal body overseeing the timely implementation of the peace treaty from all points of view. At the same time, new provisions to the constitution and policy reforms were under formation in the Guatemalan Congress and Electorate. The Commission exists today but without influence, and the peace accords have no legal status as the majority of Congressional representatives is not supportive. 

Two hundred representatives from 15 participative bodies from the state, society and international agencies were in charge of carrying out the agenda with strong involvement by the catholic church. A critique concerning the peace process was the lack of coherent leadership in implementing the peace agreement.

[In 1996, Guatemala ratified the International Labor Organization Convention (169), which obliges the Government of Guatemala 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 Guatemala Civil War

After signing the peace accords, civil society involvement vanished, leaving the international community to uphold Guatemala’s commitment to peace. Regardless, Guatemala has taken many concrete steps on the way to 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. And 1.8 million USD was paid 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, a national reparations program was established, following a public apology in the case of the Plan de Sánchez Massacre (1982) issued by then-Vice President Eduardo Stein. Following a ruling by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court in 2008 declaring that the 1996 amnesty excludes serious human rights violations.

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. 

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 and each sentenced to over 6,000 years for murders and crimes against humanity. In 2013, the Maya Genocide trial led to the arrest of former general Efraín Ríos Montt. The trial remains historic internationally, although the case was overturned and Montt died before serving the complete sentence of 80 years. 2013 was also the 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.

Three significant events occurred during the three following 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 several migration flows, immigration and migration agreements with the US, and border conflicts. This comes in addition to a high level of inequality, environmental disasters, a shift in presidency, a slow handling of COVID-19 since March 2020 and an equally slow vaccination process. 

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. 

There are multiple reconciliation marks in Guatemala today and delayed trials that stem from the internal armed conflict. Although judgments and orders have been issued, as in the Molina Theissen case (2003), the state of Guatemala has not executed many actions regarding investigations or reparation measures. 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 known to be one of Latin America’s largest disappearance cases surrounding 85 graves of 565 individuals in Cobán, Alta Verapaz – The country’s Western Highlands. The fourth trial in the Dos Erres Massacre was set for January 2021, and there are said to be about 1000 complaints at the Attorney General’s Office in relation to civil war times. 

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 approach and platform provide a gateway to the development sector in Guatemala and strengthen the work of individual organizations. Via Pionero Philanthropy, you can choose to support or invest in one of our partner organizations. Our partners and organizations affiliated with Pionero Philanthropy carry out the social impact work in the present and directly to Guatemalans still affected by the 36-year-old civil war and internal conflict. We ensure that the organization of your choice is carefully examined and vetted, transparent in its organizational structure, and efficient in carrying out its objectives and mission. We believe that gathering community-based organizations under one umbrella strengthens the sector locally and the visibility of each organization.

Start by finding out more about our nonprofit partners and their work by navigating our unique database and interactive map over the Guatemalan NGO 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)