Civil war ravaged Guatemala from 1960-1996. The war was waged between the Guatemalan government and a leftist movement comprised of the rural poor and indigenous communities. Leftist guerrilla fighters and a social movement calling for land reform and political rights were both challenging the corrupt, repressive government. The conflict stemmed from years of oppressive colonial rule, military dictators, and US interventions and interference. The turmoil began in 1944 when Guatemala forced president Jorge Ubico to resign over cruel labor practices by United Fruit Company. His replacement did not last in office and was overthrown in a military coup that organized the nation’s first free elections in 1945. A modern, liberal capitalist, Juan Jose Arevalo won. He pushed through liberal reforms in the 6 years he held office. His successor Jacobo Guzman, though freely chosen by the people of Guatemala, and the liberal government were not in the favor of the United States or large corporations such as the United Fruit Company.
The US was in the middle of the Cold War and let anti-communist measures shape its policy and agenda. The US government along with the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, plotted for the overthrow of the Guatemalan president; they were successful and a new president in line with US views came to power. The US kept meddling in Guatemalan politics funding a central intelligence agency that would collect intelligence on leftist enemies of the state and would attack those with beliefs not aligned with the regime. The killings and forced disappearances first started when trade union members meeting in Guatemala City were captured and afterwards disappeared. No explanation was given for their vanishing. The Guatemalan government led by Julio César Méndez Montenegro, and backed by the US, instituted a “scorched earth” policy against the leftist rebellion. The military was to use any means necessary to win the war and eliminate the leftist opposition. Death squads were employed as a counter insurgency measure used by the government from 1966 until 1974, killing or disappearing more than 200,000 people and leading massacres against 626 Maya communities.
Women became targets of the military and rape and sexual abuse became commonplace in the conflict. The government used cruel tactics to maintain power and quash and degrade the moral of opposition. When a village was suspected of harboring guerillas, the Guatemalan army would implement the scorched earth policy using cruel tactics to weed out suspected guerillas. Kate Doyle, with the National Security Archive described government tactics as:
“A patrol would enter the community, usually on market day when everybody was gathered. And they would immediately separate out the men from the women and children. And they would put them into some of the village's biggest buildings, like the school or the church. And then, the soldiers would proceed to destroy everything. They would burn the fields where the villagers grew their food. They would slaughter the animals. They would destroy the houses. They would burn them to the ground. They would bring the men, then, out and execute them. They would then take the women and the children. They would rape most of the girl children and the women. And then they would kill them”
An example of this is the massacre at Dos Erres, where the government suspected rifles were being stored for guerillas. More than 200 people were brutally murdered, their bodies tossed in a well not to be recovered for more than 20 years. The government forces recovered no rifles in the village at the time of the carnage. One-sided violence continued to be perpetrated by Guatemalan government against the population, especially indigenous communities. Maya communities were resistant to the government’s military dictatorship and were targeted and killed by the government for their resistance. It is estimated over 80% of the victims of the government’s violence were Maya. Men hid in their villages afraid to go out into the fields and unable to work in fear of being captured or killed. Mass killings, disappearances, and sexual abuses and rapes against women were used as a weapon of war repeatedly. Though presidents changed through military coups, the harsh military tactics kept up through the 1970s and 1980s. The government committed widespread human rights abuses against civilians over the course of the 36-year war with the government and army ultimately responsible for 93% of the deaths in the conflict.
Peace finally came to Guatemala in 1996, 36 years after the conflict began and six years after peace negotiations started. The United Nations brokered a peace between the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, the leftist political group, and the Guatemalan government; 150 UN soldiers were sent in to oversee the demobilization of government forces in Guatemala. In the peace accords, promises were made including: land reform, the return and resettlement of displaced people, a fair democratic justice system, improved human rights situation, and an inclusive government.
The peace has held, but the peace building and reconciliation process has largely failed, leaving those who committed acts of murder without consequences and still holding important positions in the post-conflict government. Even after the peace agreement had been reached, it was forbidden to talk about the violence, specifically the mass murders and the attacks against women that occurred during the civil war. Those who spoke out were killed, creating a culture of silence of the victims and impunity for the perpetrators. In the case of Dos Erres, the village where more than 200 villagers were brutally murdered, when archeologist Myrna Mack tried to uncover the truth of the fate of the village, she was stabbed 27 times by an intelligence agent working for the president. This was the standard treatment of anyone wishing to dig into the past atrocities of the war and seek justice by finding those soldiers accountable. The institutions set up after the conflict have been weak and inept at serving justice to those perpetrated against during the long civil war. It wasn't until 2009, 13 years after the peace accords were signed, that the first person was to be judicially held accountable for the mass atrocities committed during the war. Felipe Cusanero, a former military commissioner was found guilty of the forced disappearances of six farmers. Though human rights groups believe he is responsible for many more deaths in the region, only six families came forward to testify. There is still fear and taboo in talking about the conflict. Cusanero was sentences to 150 years in prison. General Efraín Ríos Montt who held the presidency from 1982 to 1983 is currently on trial for the killings of 1,771 people while in office. He had previously had immunity from charges as the president of Guatemala’s legislature but finally faced charges once his term was over in 2012. He was finally convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013 only to have the court annul his sentence due to judicial and clerical errors. This trial has been difficult to conduct as the defendant is now 89 and suffers from dementia. Even if convicted, he will probably serve his sentence in a hospital. On May 4, 2016 his trial was delayed once again, this time it was suspended by a civil party motion to have this trial separate from Montt’s former intelligence chief. No date for a new trial was given. With Montt’s declining mental and physical health, it is unknown if justice will ever be served. The impunity given to those perpetrators has lasting effects on the nation as offenders continue to act without fear of repercussion or criminal prosecution.
Glass, Ira. "What Happened at Dos Erres." This American Life. WBEZ. Chicago, IL, 25 May 2012. Radio. Transcript.
Gonzalez, David. "Searching for Peace and Justice in Guatemala." Lens Blog. The New York Times, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/15/searching-for-peace-and-justice-in-guatemala/?rref=collection/timestopic/Ríos Montt, Efraín&_r=0>.
Grainger, Sarah. "Guatemala Makes Landmark Civil War Conviction." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-guatemala-rights-idUSTRE5800F720090901>.