Guatemalan Civil War and Government

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What major political upheavals has your country experienced in the last century? Did the military play a role in politics in the last century? If so, how? Has your country experienced a civil war in recent decades?

Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996)

• The Guatemalan civil war officially began in 1960 but there was much leading up to it. The president, Jacobo Arbenz, had adopted Marxist ideas and implemented them by taking land from large multinational companies and giving it back to the common people. In the height of the Cold War, this was a "red flag" to those on the right in Guatemala and the United States. Jacobo Arbenz, and his government were overthrown in 1954 by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas who was supported by the United States.

• A rebel force began organizing in 1960 and they called themselves The Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). They were defeated, along with 9000 civilians in 1966 by the Army that maintained the most power in the country. After the FAR was defeated, two new rebel forces organized: the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) and the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). They fought to dismantle the Army and they staged some successful attacks in Guatemala City and were able to control parts of the highlands.

• An election was held in 1966 which Julio Montenegro, a civilian (non-military officer), campaigned and won by a large margin. He was an advocate for economic stability and for peace but he had secretly agreed to not interfere with the military. His case was similar to the civilian presidents after him throughout the 1980s as well with little political power. The only true power was the military.

• In 1982 General Efrain Rios Montt seized power and the country witnessed the worst atrocities of the entire civil war due to his scorched earth policies. Montt was succeeded by a civilian president, Vinicio Cerezo, who was the first civilian president since Montenegro. The country was hopeful but Cerezo turned out to be on the side of the military and the death toll grew to 100,000 from 1980-1989.

• A Guatemalan Indian-rights activist named Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel peace prize in 1992 and the problems of Guatemala finally got the attention of the world

• In 1994 peace talks started between insurgents and the government and end with a signing of peace accords in 1996.


• The Guatemalan security forces were responsible for 93% of the human rights atrocities according to the Commission for Historical Clarification
• The war claimed roughly 200,000 lives

- The Right-wing military gained control of the government with help from the US when they overthrew Arbenz.
- Both violent and nonviolent organizations formed in opposition to the military government.
- Mayans were targeted and blamed for supporting the insurgents resulting in many civilian massacres which has led to the acknowledgment that the 36-year conflict was indeed a genocide
- Guatemala has suffered from instability largely due to its government and military
- Instability, violence, and inequality are still issues in Guatemala


Works Cited:

"Timeline: Guatemala's History of Violence." Guatemala: The Secret Files. PBS, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.<>.