The oldest traces of human activity in Guatemala, dating to about 9000 BC, are so-called clovis spearheads found at San Rafael outside Guatemala City and Los Tapiales in the highlands (compare clovis culture). The domestication of maize may have begun in the highlands 5000 BC through the cultivation of theosine and other grasses. At the beginning of our era, a precursor to the Mayan culture had emerged at Izapa in southern Mexico. In addition to an art style similar to the Mexican Olmec style, hieroglyphs and a calendar system were also developed.
People belonging to the Mayan language family were found in Guatemalan highlands probably around 2000 BC. Pyramid-like temple bases and rich tombs were built at the town of Kaminaljuyú, and during the classical era of Mayan culture (300–900 AD), large religious and political centers were built at Tikal, Uaxactún and El Mirador, among others.
Around 900 AD collapsed Mayan civilization in the lowlands. The region came under the influence of Mexican or Toltic, as with the quiché-maya in the Guatemalan highlands (see Toltecs). To see more information other than history, please visit Abbreviationfinder to learn more about climate, population, government, and economy for the country of Guatemala. The last Maya city, Tayasál (now Flores) in Pétén, was conquered by Spaniards as late as 1679.
Guatemala was incorporated into the Spanish colonial empire in the 1520s. Pedro de Alvarado, one of Hernán Corté’s officers, defeated the Maya-Quiché Indians for a long time without much difficulty. However, Guatemalan mountainous scenery offered effective protection to the Indians, and unusually many Indians survived the Spanish conquest, which has given the country its distinctive character in the Central American region.
During colonial times, Guatemala as an administrative unit covered almost all of Central America, Panama excepted. After a short period of gold exports, based on regular Native American slavery, Guatemala stagnated financially. Only at the end of the colonial period did Guatemala receive a new significant export product, indigo. English, French and Dutch pirates, from the middle of the 16th century, made the coasts unsafe, and the English eventually anchored in the present Belize.
The break with Spain came in connection with Mexico’s independence, and Guatemala joined the newly formed Mexican empire in 1821. Vicente Filisola (1789-1850) broke with Mexico in 1823 and became head of state for the independent Central American Union. This began two decades of devastating disputes between various parties and regions of Central America, which ended with the Union’s collapse in the context of Rafael Carreras’s (1814-65) conquest of Guatemala’s capital in 1838. Carrera, a conservative caudillo (see caudillism) who gathered behind him both the church and large crowds of Indians, ruled Guatemala directly or indirectly until his death in 1865. A liberal uprising ended in 1871 the power holdings of the Conservatives, and in 1873 Justo Rufino Barrios (1835-85) came to power.
The Barrio government marks a turning point in Guatemala’s history. The power of the church was crushed, and large church properties were sold to a new generation of landlords, often with German onus, which turned Guatemala into a major coffee exporter. The village communities of the Indians were also affected, and by various forced methods, the new coffee growers were provided with cheap Native American labor. Coffee production in the highlands was given an equivalent in the lowlands in the early 1900s in large banana crops, controlled by the powerful American company United Fruit Company. Infrastructure as well as healthcare and education systems were built up.
- Countryaah: Check to see the location of Guatemala on the world map. Also covers major mountains, rivers and lakes in Guatemala.
Dictatorship and Civil War
Manuel Estrada Cabrera was overthrown in 1920 in a bloody revolt after 22 years in power. During the 1920s, political instability prevailed until 1931, when Jorge Ubico (1878-1946) was elected president. Ubico’s reign was marked by increasingly dictatorial methods and a social polarization between an extremely rich elite and the great mass, who lived in misery. This paved the way for the popular uprising that ended Ubico’s dictatorship in 1944.
A period of social and economic reforms began with the government of Juan José Arévalo (1904–90) and continued under Jacobo Arbenz. The Land Reform Act of 1952 and the success of the Communists aroused an increasingly unified opposition from conservative Guatemalans and the mighty United Fruit Company. With active support from the United States, Guatemala was invaded by exile Guatemalans in 1954 under the leadership of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1914–57). Arbenz was overthrown, and an extremely violent period in Guatemalan history took place, characterized by mass executions, death squads, guerrilla movements and the military’s direct or indirect control over government power.
After the coup, the military ruled the country and the political opposition was oppressed with brutal means. The Communist Party was banned and unions and other social movements were persecuted.
Elections were held in the 1960s and 1970s, but the military manipulated the results and participation was very limited. In the early 1960s several small guerrilla groups were formed and the fighting spread across the country. However, the guerrilla was relatively weak and is estimated to have had at most about 4,000 members.
In 1982, three guerrilla groups and parts of the Communist Party merged into the Revolutionary National Guatemalan Unit (URNG). The same year, General Efraín Ríos Montt took power through a coup d’état and justified his actions with the threat of the newly formed guerrilla alliance. He suspended the constitution, closed the congress and created special courts with the mission of judging political opponents.
Under Ríos Montt’s rule, the worst and most systematic abuses were committed during the entire civil war. In the hunt for the guerrillas, entire villages were wiped out and some regions were emptied of people by forced removals. The military forced the men in conflict areas to join “civilian self-defense patrols,” and these peasant militia were used to carry out murders and massacres. During the period between 1981 and 1983, 81 percent of the abuses that were later documented by a Truth Commission on the Civil War were committed. In the Ixil region of the north of the country, the military wiped out 90 percent of all the villages accused of providing guerrilla support.
Peace and democratization
Despite initial support from Ríos Montt’s colleagues, the wave of violence and the repeated massacres led to fragmentation in the military, and in August 1983 Ríos Montt was overthrown by his defense minister who wanted to see a transition to civilian rule. The constitution was rewritten and elections were held in 1985, which was won by Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo who went to elections on promises of democracy and legal security as well as an end to the conflict.
Cerezo began conversations with the URNG guerrillas, which were followed by his successor. In 1990, the government and the guerrillas signed an agreement in Oslo that regulated the continued peace process.
In 1992, the K’iche Indian Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight for the rights of indigenous peoples, but the peace talks had stalled. President Jorge Serrano Elías then tried to conduct a coup in 1993 but failed and was forced to flee the country. The congress then elected the human rights ombudsman to transition president.
In 1994, peace negotiations were resumed with the support of the UN and in 1996 President Alvaro Arzú (1946–2018) signed a definitive peace agreement with the URNG guerrilla. This ended the then 36-year-old conflict, which had cost about 200,000 lives and created over one million refugees. The Truth Commission stated that the military and government-backed militia were behind more than 90 percent of the abuses.
The peace agreement contained political, social and economic reforms and guaranteed the rights of indigenous peoples as well as disarmament of the guerrillas and slimming of the military. However, several of the reforms, which included, among other things, the judiciary and restrictions on the military’s power, were stopped in a referendum in which only 20 percent of the population voted. Despite peace agreements, the contradictions in society did not decrease and the hope of a radical change in the country was not met.
In 1999, the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), founded by former dictator Ríos Montt, came to power through its presidential candidate Alfonso Portillo (born 1951). The term of office was marked by corruption and persecution of lawyers who tried to drive processes against the military, critical journalists and human rights activists.
Guatemala during the 2000s
Only during President Óscar Berger (2004–08) did the state officially apologize for the first time for the human rights violations committed by the country’s military and police during the civil war. During Berger’s time, several charges of corruption and abuse of power were also opened against former members of government, military and former President Portillo, who at the same time were prosecuted in the United States for money laundering.
The election campaign at the end of 2007 became very violent and about 50 candidates and election workers were murdered. A center-left alliance, Unión Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), became the largest party in Congress and its candidate Álvaro Colom (born 1951) was elected president. The alliance was a co-operation between the former URNG guerrilla and other political parties and it was the first time since the 1954 military coup that a leftist group sat in power. However, Colom lacked its own majority and found it difficult to finance its reform proposals that would be paid for by tax increases.
In 2009, the country was hit by a prolonged drought that, combined with lack of stocks and poor preparedness, led to acute food shortages and pure starvation in some regions. The government appealed for food aid and about 500 people are estimated to have died of starvation. Drought was the trigger for starvation, but the government also pointed to the uneven distribution of land and resources and poverty as structural causes of the disaster.
Former General Otto Pérez Molina (born 1950) from the right-wing party Partido Patriota (PP) took office as President in 2012 and was the first military to become the country’s leader after the establishment of democracy in 1986 and the peace agreement in 1996. His party also won a majority of seats in Congress, and Molina promised to stop the growing crime rate in the country by training more police and sending soldiers out on the streets. He started a social program aimed at poor families to access the widespread malnutrition among children.
In early 2012, Efraín Ríos Montt was placed under house arrest when his immunity as a Member of Parliament expired. Ríos Montt was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, responsible for massacres and expulsion of the ixil people’s group during his time as defacto president in 1982–83. According to the indictment, Ríos Montt was responsible for 100 massacres that claimed nearly 1,800 lives and driven 29,000 people from their homes. It was the first time a former head of state has been charged with genocide in his home country.
In May 2013, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. According to the judgment, Ríos Montt was “the architect of the genocide of the Mayan people ixil who was classified as a lower-ranking race and as state enemies”. However, the judgment was revoked by the Constitutional Court, which pointed out that procedural errors had been committed and ordered that parts of the trial be redone. In January 2015, it restarted but was immediately postponed while another court declared that Ríos Montt was too demented to serve his sentence. After several trips it was decided that the trial would resume in January 2016 but that Ríos Montt could not be sentenced to any punishment even if the court declares him guilty.
Molina’s first term as president became troubled, with widespread protests in several parts of Guatemala. At a demonstration in late 2012, the military killed six people. In 2013, the government introduced a state of emergency in a region following new violent clashes.
In April 2015, a comprehensive corruption deal involving ministers and senior officials at the Swedish Tax Agency and the Social Insurance Institute was revealed. Among those involved were the vice president’s secretary, the head of the tax office and some 50 officials. As the investigation continued, more and more people were accused in the country’s leadership and the governor, among other things, was arrested.
The scandal led to growing protests around the country demanding the resignation of the government and the president. Pérez Molina claimed he was innocent, but the demonstrations continued and more and more sections of society joined the demand for the president’s departure. When the Supreme Court upheld Molina’s immunity, the political crisis culminated. The inquiry pointed out that both the president and the vice president, who were already forced to resign, knew of and participated in the corruption. When a court issued an arrest warrant against Molina, he opted to resign and the newly-appointed Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre (born 1936) took over.
Three days later, the election was held. Comedian Jimmy Morales from the Conservative Party National Convergence Front (FCN) won the most votes but far from the 50 percent required, making a second round of elections necessary.
Jimmy Morales was pitted in the second round against Sandra Torres (born 1955) from UNE. Morales, who won a lot of support by presenting himself as a candidate based on the traditional establishment, received 68 percent of the vote and promised a policy based on the fight against corruption and poverty.
When Morales took office, both the former president and vice president were imprisoned accused of corruption crimes. Police and prosecutors had been supported by the UN-led Commission Against Impunity Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in their investigations and Morales promised continued cooperation with the UN.
Thanks to the support of CICIG, several corruption legacies with high-ranking politicians, military and businessmen had been revealed. But when the president’s brother Sammy Morales (born 1967) and even his son were arrested, including those suspected of corruption, Morales began to criticize CICIG’s work instead. When prosecutors, supported by CICIG, demanded that Parliament revoke the President’s prosecution immunity to investigate suspicions of illegally financing Morale’s party, the President sought to force the Commission to leave the country. However, the attempt to remove CICIG from the country failed.
When former President and incumbent Guatemala City Mayor Alvaro Arzú (born 1946, was accused of involvement in corrupt business, Jimmy Morales again tried to stop CICIG’s work, as did the country’s former president Alvaro Colom (born 1951) and several ministers In his government, suspects of embezzlement were arrested, with Sweden being one of the Commission’s most important financiers, Morale’s criticism of Sweden led to a diplomatic crisis.
The country’s state prosecutor Thelma Aldana (born 1955), who worked closely with CICIG and conducted several of the major investigations on corruption cases, resigned shortly thereafter and left the country for security reasons.
On Morale’s initiative, CICIG’s and the Commission’s investigation into corruption corruption was interrupted and CICIG’s director, Ivan Velásquez (born 1955), refused entry into the country. In September, Aldana and Velásquez were awarded this year’s honorary award by the Swedish Right Livelihood Foundation for their work against the corruption in Guatemala. Thelma Aldana then ran for office as president in the 2019 election but was forced to withdraw her candidacy and leave the country after the death threat.
As the Guatemalan president cannot be re-elected, Morales was barred from running for the 2019 election.
Vamo’s candidate Alejandro Giammattei won the second round of the election in which he was put against UNE candidate Sandra Torres, who also ran in 2015. Giammattei won the election with 59 percent of the vote. In the congress, however, UNE became the largest party with 54 seats while Giammattei’s party Vamos got 16 seats. A total of 19 different parties were elected to Parliament. Giammattei will take over as president in 2020.
Corruption continues to be a widespread problem in the country, and although many of the country’s politicians are running for election promises to fight economic crime, no major successes have been made.