10 May 2019

Text & Translation: Corinna

#Mayas & Ladinos

Until 1821 Guatemala was a Spanish colony. The country experienced almost four decades of civil war between 1960 and 1996. At around 60%, the country has the largest indigenous population in the world. It is rare for the minority to rule over the majority. The gap between rich and poor, between the Ladinos and Mayans on the one hand and the former occupiers on the other, is large. The Mayas and Ladinos (a cultural rather than ethnic identity) were exploited and discriminated against by the Latinos for decades; natural disasters and the country’s poor economic situation hit them hardest.1

GuatemalaPhoto: Dennis Jarvis/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Communist guerrillas

In 1960, a left-wing guerilla movement was formed to fight injustice. The movement scarcely had any success and a planned coup failed. The movement committed mainly economic sabotage and attacked government security forces. The four main guerrilla groups were:

# EGP – Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army Of The Poor)

# ORPA – Organización Revolucionario del Pueblo en Armas (Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms

# FAR – Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (Rebel Armed Forces)

# PGT – Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (Guatemalan Party of Labour)

From 1982, all four groups formed into the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG – Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca). URNG was able to mobilize a broad base of supporters, particularly among the Mayas, as they fought against discrimination and exploitation. The URNG followed Marxism and claimed that the Guatemalan government enslaved people and resources to the USA.2

Guatemala 2Photo: Christopher Crouzet/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Climax of violence 1981- 1983

Since the 1960s, the country experienced a civil war. However, the violence reached its sad peak between 1981 and 1983. A total of around 200,000 people were killed in these two years alone. Around 150,000 of them were unarmed civilians. 1.5 million people were displaced, 200,000 fled to Mexico and countless died fleeing through the mountains. About 83% of all casualties belonged to the indigenous population (most of which were Mayans). The Guatemalan military committed mass murder, torture and raped men, women, children and the elderly. It used forced disappearances and pursued a “scorched earth policy”. A total of 626 villages were burned and many inhabitants were resettled in concentration camps.3

There was „extreme cruelty … such as the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killings of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive[…]“.4

„[…] in the village of La Cubre Papal […] the soldiers removed a man named Juan Ordonez from his house, and another neighbour, and they set both of their houses on fire. The houses were made of straw. As the houses were burning, they threw both men, who were tied up very tightly, into the fire [….]“.5

Guatemala 3Photo: Dennis Jarvis/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons


According to the government, the violence was merely a reaction to the uprising led by communist guerrillas. However, the violence was directed not only against the guerrillas, but mainly against the Mayas, who have always been seen as inferior and potentially dangerous, as they were allegedly lazy, barbaric and primitive and therefore to blame for the country’s poverty. While the guerrilla movement was mainly supported by the Mayas, the murder of women, children and the elderly suggests that this was not just a defensive action to defeat the guerrillas, but that belonging to the Mayan ethnic group was a death sentence.6

The four largest victim groups were mainly the Indians of the following tribes:

#Maya-Q’anjob’al & Maya-Chuj




In addition, it should be mentioned that the guerrilla groups never had the skills, resources and equipment to become a real threat to the Guatemalan state. The violence with which the movement was confronted was completely exaggerated.8


In the case of Guatemala, there was no external intervention. The war ended in 1996 with a peace agreement between the guerrillas and the government, but the violence and corruption remained consistently high in a country marked by civil war.

The main perpetrator was the Guatemalan military, led by the top generals Efraín Ríos Montt, Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, Fernando Romeo Lucas García and Benedicto Lucas García. All four were trained in the USA. However, the military also had support from government-created mercenary groups and death squads such as the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, La Mano Blanco, and the Secret Anticommunist Army.9

According to the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico), the army is responsible for 93% of all crimes, 3% is attributed to guerrillas and 4% cannot be clearly attributed. The violence was centrally organised and well coordinated with daily high-level briefings.10 The Commission also confirmed that genocidal acts were committed. Guatemala’s intention was therefore not to exterminate the indigenous group, but to pursue certain political, economic, social and military goals, which could only be achieved by exterminating the group.11

In the meantime, some perpetrators have been arrested and sentenced, but the majority was never sentenced. In May 2013 General Ríos Montt was indicted for genocide and war crimes and sentenced to 80 years in prison, however his conviction was overturned by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala ten days later on the basis of procedural irregularities. In January 2015, the case was re-opened, and after various delays and legal rulings, his retrial began in 2017. It was ruled that Ríos Montt could stand for trial, but could not be sentenced due to his age and health. As Ríos Montt died in 2018 at the age of 91 the trial was still ongoing. General Mejía Víctores was declared physically and mentally unfit for trial. General Fernando Romeo Lucas García died in Venezuela in 2006, his brother General Benedicto Lucas García has been arrested in January 2016 in connection with crimes committed between 1981 and 1988. In May 2018 Benedicto Lucas Garcia has been convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 58 years in jail.

Guatemala 4Photo: Marcoe Reyes via www.pixabay.com/Creative Commons

#USA & the Cold War

The genocide in Guatemala took place during the Cold War with the support of the USA as it trained military personnel and supplied weapons and equipment to “avert the danger from the left”. The CIA worked closely with the Guatemalan secret service, some secret service agents were even paid by the CIA, even though they were known for their human rights violations. US President Carter condemned Guatemala’s actions relatively late and temporarily suspended the delivery of American aid. Guatemala’s government, however, ignored this action, and its successor, President Reagan, re-established links with Guatemala and even defended the military’s actions.12


# Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive Introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.
# Oettler, A. (2006) “Guatemala in the 1980s: A genocide turned into a ethnocide?”. In GIGA working Papers, No. 19. Available at: http://www.giga-hamburg.de/de/system/files/publications/wp19_oettler.pdf (Accessed 24.05.15)
# Spencer, P. (2012) Genocide since 1945 – Making of the Contemporary World. London and New York: Routledge.
# www.combatgenocide.org Guatemala 1981- 1983. Available at: http://combatgenocide.org/?page_id=158 (Accessed 24.05.15)
# www.ppu.org.uk Guatemala. Available at: http://www.ppu.org.uk/genocide/g_guatemala1.html (Accessed 24.05.15)

1 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 72
2 www.combatgenocide.org<
3 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 74
4 Jones, A. (2010) S. 143
5 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 73
6 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 76
7 Oettler, A. (2006) S. 12
8 Oettler, A. (2006) S. 7
9 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 75
10 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 75
11 Oettler, A. (2006) S. 12
12 Spencer, P. (2012) S. 72, 79 / ppu.org.uk

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