Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

23 March 2000 Edition

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Guatemala's painful recovery


Fermina López is one of the 60,000 widows of the Guatemalan armed conflict. After 36 years of civil war and 500 years of silent resistance, that country's indigenous communities are still struggling to come to terms with the excruciating pain caused by repression and violence. More than 200,000 people were killed, hundreds of communities were wiped off the map and more than a million people were displaced from their homes and communities by the counterinsurgency policy of the army and the government - a policy that could not have been carried out without the support of Western states. The government tried, unsuccessfully, to wipe out the left-wing guerilla organisation that fought against military rule, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRG).

During the 1980s, when the worst and most numerous human rights violations were carried out, the United States was giving significant financial and military aid to the Guatemalan government - $50m at its peak in 1983. The British government gave various forms of support to the Guatemalan military between 1994 and 1996. Although human rights violations were no longer at their height, the Guatemalan army was responsible for a number of human rights violations during that period, like the massacre of Xamán, when an army patrol attacked a community of refugees who were returning from Mexico, killing 11 people, two of them children, and injuring another 30.

The effects of years of violence have been and still are devastating. More than a decade on, people are still trying to find out what happened to their relatives, how they died and where they were buried, with the hope of reinterring them with dignity.

Fermina López, together with other widows, organised the CONAVIGUA or National Co-ordination for Guatemalan Widows, a group which fought and is still fighting against militarisation and human rights abuses. Now she is member of the Women's Forum, created as a consultative body after the Peace Accords. ``We had to work against human rights violations and at the same time fight for the rights of our sons and daughters to education and to enjoy better living conditions,'' she explains. ``But the most important aspect of the organisation is that allows the participation of women at all levels.''

Despite the extreme violence and genocide carried out by the military, some indigenous communities maintained forms of resistance. After 500 years of genocide and discrimination, people still speak Mayan languages, wear Mayan clothes and live life according to Mayan traditions and values. During the 36 years of civil war, nearly half a million people, most of them Mayan, had to leave their homes and communities. Some 150,000 took refuge in neighbouring countries, mainly Mexico. Thousands of people moved to the cities, becoming fringe dwellers, part of the urban poor. But some communities managed to stay organised. Some of those indigenous who fled to the jungle formed the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR).

The existence of any form of association was important as a form of defiance but also because, as Fermina explains, it allowed the participation of indigenous people in the Peace Accords signed in 1996. ``One of the amazing things about the war is that the people were able to stay organised in spite to the bombings and the threats and were able to maintain their organisations. These were so strong that when the UNRG sat down to negotiate with the government, we were able to put forward proposals on human rights and the indigenous people and they had to be taken into account.''

Although the armed conflict ended even before the final peace accords were signed in December 1996 and these documents were welcomed as a turning point in Guatemala's history, change has been very slow. For the indigenous population, the Accords meant the possibility of living in peace for the first time in 500 years but, as Fermina points out, ``the transition from war to peace is not an easy one and it is not easy to know how to protest, how to make change. But the Peace Accords have given rights to people and the possibility of participation. But it is very difficult to change the military mindset to a more civilian type.''

A series of different committees were set up with the signing of the Peace Accords, bodies which were supposed to tackle the issue of the displaced people, returning refugees, and indigenous women. But as Fermina says, the committees are useless unless the necessary resources are provided.

In the December 1999 general elections, the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front Party of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt won the majority of the votes. The leader of the party, Alfonso Portillo, won the country's presidency with 68% of the votes. Ríos Montt, the man with the worst human rights record in Guatemala, is now the president of Guatemala's Congress.

Fermina does not want to compromise on this issue: ``He is trying to make out that he is a little bit more progressive and liberal than he is, but he is also very aware of the Pinochet case and he has not left the country in quite a while. We are worried about the position he has now, but we will have to wait and see what happens.''

The failure of the judiciary to deal with those responsible for the human rights violations during the war is one of the biggest worries for the indigenous community. For that reason, Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu has had to take the step of bringing the case of Xamán before the Spanish judiciary.

Guatemala now has to face up to all the problems at root of the armed conflict - social inequality, discrimination and land ownership.

Fermina feels that the Peace Accords have brought about the awakening of indigenous culture. ``The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus to America, with the creation of the Indigenous Movement of Resistance, was important, but it was with the peace accords that the presence of the ethnic groups was acknowledged. Before, no one would talk about the 22 linguistic communities in Guatemala, but now people are talking about that and recognising it.''

But there is still a long way to go to achieve the fair and just society that Guatemalans want to achieve.



Guatemala is in Central America, bordering Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. It is slightly smaller than England. The terrain is extremely diverse, with more than 30 volcanoes, jungle areas to the north, lakes and mountains in the north west, arid lands to the east and humid fertile plains on the Southern Pacific coast.


There are 11 million people, from 24 different ethnic groups. Some 60% are Mayan.


Spanish is the official language, but for many it is the second language or not spoken at all. There are 21 Mayan languages, and two other non-Mayan indigenous languages.

Colonial Legacy

The indigenous population was subjugated by Spanish invaders nearly 500 years ago. Vast numbers of Mayans were killed or died from illnesses brought by the Spanish. Independence from Spain in 1821 did not benefit indigenous peoples, who continued to be subjected to repression and discrimination by landowners and successive governments.

Standard of Living

Average life expectancy is 59.3 years. Only 62% of the population have access to safe water. There is only one doctor per 4,000 people. Illiteracy is 44.9%. These reflect worse conditions than anywhere else in Central America (UN, 1999).

Distribution of Resources

Ninety percent of the indigenous population lives below the poverty line.

Less than 3% of the population owns 65% of the arable land. The wealthiest 10% possess 47% of the national income. Guatemala has the second lowest tax rate in Latin America after Haiti.

All statistical information provided by the Guatemala Solidarity Network

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