The political instability that affected the country following the 1954 coup d’état reached its peak in the 1980s, in which the terrible extermination of the Mayan community by the army led by the dictator Efrain Rios Montt took place, who did not spare even the women and children or the elderly.
On that occasion, the State fielded a new strategy, supported by the new ‘doctrine of national security’ which, in addition to legitimizing the indiscriminate violence of the State against anyone claiming greater social justice, no longer envisaged the use of repression that was selective but immediately went ahead with repression en masse, implementing a real systematic plan for the elimination of entire indigenous communities of the Mayan ethnic group.
This was a genocide that took place in front of the indifferent eyes of the entire international community and which nobody could stop, neither the movements of civil society nor the Church. The goal of stemming the feared spread of communism, and therefore of a potential pro-Soviet government on the border with the United States, was, in fact, placed above any respect for human rights. Thus, to guarantee national security by means of the appropriate doctrine, anyone deployed on the opposite side was liable to annihilation.
Any form of opposition was identified as a breeding ground for the ‘internal enemy’ and even the commitment of many priests to defend the rights of the weakest was considered subversive.
Despite the considerable aid from Washington to the government army, both in terms of weapons and economic funding, whose special anti-insurgency units were directly trained by some nuclei of US ‘green berets’, numerous localities close to urban centres remained in the hands of guerrilla groups. Guatemala had become a country split in two, with dividing lines changing according to the outcome of the clashes between government troops and rebel formations.
It took more than a decade before the army and the death squads stopped inflicting themselves on indigenous communities and the guerrillas in turn decided to give up hostilities to sign a peace agreement.In 1996, under pressure from the international community and the commitment of the United Nations, the warring parties met in Oslo to agree on a cessation of hostilities. On that occasion, a Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) was born, with the mandate to reconstruct the course of events during those years and to promote reconciliation on the basis of historical truth.
The investigation ended in 1999 with an official report that was presented by the commission itself and from which an even more terrifying balance emerged. The Commission has also demonstrated that the massacres, of which there are 626 episodes against innocent civilians by government forces, were only marginally caused by military actions against the guerrillas, amounting in the vast majority of cases as crimes against humanity, in this case against the Mayan population.
The signatory of the peace agreement was President Alvaro Arzù Irigoyen, elected in 1995 with a centre-right government with limited room for manoeuvre due to the restraints of the far right, the expression of the military leaders who became protagonists of such atrocities. But, in 1999 with the victory of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) which sent Alfonso Portillo Cabrera into power, the situation became more complicated as the new President, disregarding all the promises made during the electoral campaign, immediately proceeded to re-establish the top of the army and of the police, some officers involved in the repression unleashed in the past against the guerrilla and the Indian communities. This action did nothing but reopen the wounds of the civil war at a time when the country was already coming to terms with a severe economic crisis. A large part of the population, in fact, lived below the poverty line, getting by with means of subsistence and various archaic forms of barter. Furthermore, drug trafficking and the ‘buying and selling of children’ legalized by the government, thrived in the country through a chain of agreements between the poorest local families and those in the United States who ensured their adoption with the money in hand. The climate was further heated even by the paramilitary bands that had fought the guerrillas in the past and who now claimed an economic consideration for the services they had rendered.
The insecurity being regenerated, together with the state of poverty, forced many to cross the borders of the country and migrate to Mexico and the United States where over a million Guatemalans settled legally, even if thousands of them were repatriated from time to time to time by the US authorities. In December 2006, thanks to the support of the international community, a new truce was reached which led to the stipulation of an agreement signed between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government. Its aim was to establish an independent commission whose purpose is to assist the office of the Prosecutor, the National Police and other institutions to investigate crimes committed by members of the illegal security forces, clandestine state apparatuses often linked to former military and even government officials, as well as to proceed with the dismantling of illegal security groups. On January 7, 2019, the agreement between the United Nations and Guatemala was terminated by Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, evoking CICIG’s alleged participation in illegal acts, abuse of authority and acts against the constitution. The UN rejected this unilateral termination, and the country’s highest law court ruled against the president’s decision. CICIG’s term ended in September 2019. The CIGIG helped Guatemalan law enforcement dismantle over 70 criminal structures between 2008 and 2019. According to a 2022 study, this may have prevented between 20,000–30,000 homicides over that period. (Open Photo: 123rf.)