Causes and consequences
For most of Guatemala's history since independence, the country has used its armed forces to repress any disquiet among peasants and workers. In the countryside, this has largely involved indigenous migrant workers who work the fincas, formerly compelled by legislation but more recently by economic necessity. In the 1970s, with escalating guerrilla activity and civil and political unrest, unionists, human rights defenders, and community leaders were increasingly targeted. These people were 'disappeared' or extra-judicially executed.
Between 1981 and 1983, when this campaign was at a peak, it resulted in the destruction of 440 villages, the death or disappearance of some 75,000 people and the displacement of an estimated one million people ( Burge 1995 ). Massacres in this period are said to have left more than 75,000 widows and 250,000 orphans ( Piedrasanta 1995 ; Bartos and Camus 1993 ). By 1985, there are estimated to have been 136,000 widows, although this is clearly an underestimate, given the danger involved in admitting that one's husband had 'disappeared' or had been killed for being a 'subversive' ( Zur 1993 ). Although many of those who were displaced returned to their communities or resettled within months of their initial flight, at least 300,000 (some estimates put the figure much higher) remained displaced within Guatemala. Those who fled Guatemala sought refuge in Mexico (numbering at least 150,000) as well as in El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, US and Europe.
This military assault was mainly targeted against rural indigenous peasants in the departments of Petén, Quiché and Huehuetenango. In its efforts to wipe out any kind of opposition to their authority, the military waged war against the entire civilian population but particularly the indigenous in rural areas who they had come to regard as generally supportive of the insurgency. Clearly, beyond their alleged political affiliation, indigenous people were targeted simply because of their ethnicity in what Menchú ( 1994 ) has called genocide. Entire communities were massacred; others fled en masse to avoid the same fate. Those who stayed behind and survived, or had returned, were put into Vietnam-style 'model villages', where the army was able to monitor and control most aspects of daily life through their monopoly on reconstruction and development projects and through the introduction of Civil Defense Patrols (PACs) in 1982.
Supposedly voluntary, paramilitary forces, most adult indigenous males in this region, were forced to contribute a number of unpaid hours per week in the PACs, which numbered around one million men at one point ( Jonas 1988 ). They were the eyes and ears of military, required to seek out subversives and themselves became perpetrators of human rights abuses on a large scale, often in their own communities. The countryside had become highly militarised and any allegation of links or sympathy with the guerrillas would invariably lead to the death of the accused. By 1984, the army was successful in almost completely annihilating the insurgency. Armed resistance did continue but it was at a much abated level.
One of the groups most visibly affected by the civil war were those forcibly displaced, both internally and in exile. Of the estimated 200,000 Guatemalans arriving in Mexico during the 1980s, some 48,000 were settled in camps in Chiapas by the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR) and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who recognised them as refugees. These people had often fled as entire communities who joined other communities in the camps. Although the Mexican government (which is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees) was initially reluctant, it eventually bowed to pressure from multilateral agencies and local NGOs and allowed them to stay temporarily. Guatemalans in the camps were provided with refugee-like protection and emergency assistance in the form of food, health care, shelter and sometimes education. Generally well received by the local population, they were allowed to move around fairly freely and to work; many families gained access to land and credits.
Initially, in remote areas of Guatemala, and subsequently all over the country, the army's tactics became more selective in the post-emergency phase (since 1985), targeting particular individuals for extra-judicial execution, disappearance or intimidation. Typically, victims tended to be active and leading figures in the community, such as campesino and cooperative leaders, human rights workers, journalists, union leaders, student activists, opposition politicians and Church leaders. People who fled this persecution also largely went to Mexico, usually arriving as individuals, families or small groups. They were generally not recognised as refugees and thus were not entitled to UNHCR assistance. The total number of unregistered Guatemalan 'refugees' in Mexico was at least 150,000 during the 1980s, but many have now returned home. If apprehended by the Mexican authorities, they were usually deported back to Guatemala as economic migrants. As a consequence of this and their need to find employment, these people were forced to conceal their nationality and thus their ethnic identity and language. Women were disproportionately affected since, unlike men, indigenous women generally wore traditional dress and were less often Spanish-speakers.
Organized, armed resistance to the ruling elite, the armed forces, and those whose interests they protected began in the early 1960s in the form of former army officers turned left-wing revolutionaries. These foquista guerrillas operated in the country's ladino eastern regions, but failed to galvanize the population, neglected the Mayans, and were relatively swiftly defeated. Shortly afterwards, in 1962, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) emerged, seeking political and economic reform through insurgent military operations. From the remnants of the foquista movement emerged the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) in 1972, and after spending eight years organizing secretly, the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) appeared in 1979. Both of the latter two groups principally operated in rural areas, mainly populated by Mayans. FAR (who operated in the Petén) and the PGT played more minor roles.
By the late 1970s, the insurgent forces, numbering as many as 12,000 combatants, were becoming increasingly militarized and had wide support or sympathy, particularly from the rural population. In 1982, the principal guerrilla groupings unified forming the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), comprising ORPA, EGP, FAR, and a section of the PGT. By the end of the 1970s, large areas of the departments of Quiché, Huehuetenango, and San Marcos were effectively under guerrilla authority. They controlled towns, destroyed infrastructure, and carried out raids in other departments.
The guerrillas began talks with government officials in the late 1980s which became a formal peace in the early 1990s. The URNG became a legal political party in 1997, after the peace talks were completed and the conflict was officially over.
- The Latin American Studies Program: Guerrillas in Guatemala - http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/guatemala-rev.htm
During the 1960s, in attempting to suppress the insurgency, the army increasingly established itself as the dominant political force in Guatemala and the most powerful and nationalistic military force in Central America ( Smith 1990 ). Only a slight relaxation in the repression in the early 1970s allowed for the re-emergence of some grassroots organizations such as labour unions and agricultural cooperatives, which communities of campesinos (with the support of some members of the Catholic Church) were consolidating at the regional level.
However, as the decade drew to a close, any opposition to the prevailing system, and the interests it protected, was met with brutal, institutionalized terror by successive military governments. Indeed, by now the military was not only protecting the economic interests of the oligarchy but its own as well. It had established its own bank, credit institutions and its own publishing house, as well as the means to take over productive resources.
The tactics employed by the Guatemalan armed forces bear a strong resemblance to those adopted by troops from the USA in Viet Nam. This included resettling those who had survived and not fled, into thirty-three 'model villages' in which the military was able to monitor all aspects of daily life. They were trying to prevent any further opposition to their authority through surveillance and re-education.
Another key aspect of the strategy of the army was the introduction of Civil Defence Patrols (PACs) in 1982. Though these were ostensibly voluntary, in vast swathes of the country the majority of indigenous men aged between 18 and 50 years were compelled by the army to contribute a number of unpaid hours each week to these paramilitary forces, which became the first line of defence against the guerrillas. Under the authority of military commissioners, they acted as the eyes and ears of the army, being required to inform the military of those in the community they suspected of being subversives. If they failed to denounce fellow villagers, they often faced death themselves. Subsequently, the PACs themselves became perpetrators of human rights on a large scale, including carrying out killings, 'disappearances', and rapes. There were approximately two million patrollers in 1982-3, but the numbers were to dwindle to some 270,000 by 1996, just prior to their demobilization. During 2002 and 2003, former members of the PACs campaigned for compensation which, in April 2003, the government controversially agreed to pay.
Although up to one and a half million Guatemalans were displaced at the peak of the violence, many of these quickly settled into other communities, or fled to urban centres, while a smaller number were settled into the army-controlled 'model villages'. At least 200,000 people went into hiding within Guatemala, particularly in the north and north-western regions of the country. An estimated further 200,000 fled over the border into Mexico. Others fled to Belize, El Salvador, and the USA. Some left alone, leaving their families behind, but most were entire families and communities who had fled en masse.
Although they were initially reluctant, the authorities in Mexico granted refugee status to about 46,000 of the Guatemalans. (Mexico was not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol until 2000.) UNHCR has been able to operate in Mexico thanks to two bilateral agreements signed in 1980, the year in which the large influx of Guatemalans to Mexico began. In these agreements UNHCR committed itself to providing assistance to the refugees through the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR), established by the Mexican government to assist the refugees. Until 1991, refugees in Mexico were categorized initially as border migrants and later as foreigners with the right to work. Since 1991, the General Population Law has included refugees as a category.
The refugees were settled into camps in the southern state of Chiapas by COMAR and UNHCR. Initially, the camps were established in the south of Chiapas close to the Guatemalan border, on the assumption that the refugees would soon be returning to Guatemala. The refugees were provided with protection and assistance in the form of food, shelter, health care, and sometimes access to education. Generally the refugees were well received by the local population, which consisted mainly of Mayans like most of the refugees. Like the regions they had fled from, Chiapas is poor and largely rural, where agriculture is the mainstay of economic activity. Although some refugees were allowed access to land and credits, there were restrictions on their freedom of movement and their ability to work in Mexico.
The existence of the refugee camps caused tension between Mexico and Guatemala. For many years the Guatemalan armed forces refused to recognize the refugees, as well as internally displaced persons (IDPs), as civilian populations. The security of the refugees very soon became a problem, as the Guatemalan army was conducting military operations against the refugees over the border into Mexico. Consequently, in 1985, provisional camps and then four settlements were established for about 20,000 of these refugees in Campeche and Quintana Roo, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Here the Mexican authorities and UNHCR adopted policies geared towards self-sufficiency and integration. These refugees were either settled on land which was bought with grants from the international community through UNHCR, or on land allocated for the refugees' use by Mexican state or federal authorities. These policies seem to have been generally successful. By the early 1990s, these refugee communities had gradually become self-sustaining, no longer requiring basic assistance. They are regarded as having achieved a high level of local integration and as being productive members of society.
At least 150,000 of the Guatemalans who fled to Mexico at about the same time and under similar conditions were not recognized as refugees and thus received no protection or assistance (Salvadó 1988). If apprehended by the Mexican authorities, they were subject to deportation as illegal economic migrants. Some returned to Guatemala of their own accord once the violence had subsided. Those that remained were obliged to conceal their nationality and thus their ethnic identity including language, dress, and traditions. This disproportionately affected women as they were more often than men non-Spanish speakers and wearers of traditional dress.
- CERLAC Working Paper Series - http://www.yorku.ca/cerlac/papers/pdf/Hanlon.pdf
- OAS: Guatemalan refugees in Mexico - http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/ortize.html
Internally displaced persons (IDPs)
During the early 1980s in particular, at least 200,000 people were estimated to have become displaced within Guatemala. Many of those hiding in the highland jungle areas were considered to be guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers by the army. These IDPs began to organize collectively to defend themselves from attacks by the army, not by taking up arms, but through surveillance and sharing information about movements of the army. They decided not to flee to Mexico but to remain in hiding in Guatemala, resisting domination by the army in spite of the harsh and dangerous conditions. Some established a collective voice, calling themselves the Communities of People in Resistance (CPRs). They developed collective means of production since this was safer and more practical. They also developed the ability for the whole community to pack up and leave at very short notice when an army patrol was approaching. After more than ten years in flight in the jungle, in 1993 they publicly declared their intention to come out of hiding.
- Global IDP Database - http://www.db.idpproject.org/Sites/idpSurvey.nsf/wCountries/Guatemala
- NTNU Research group on forced migration - http://www.idp.ntnu.no/conference/conference_papers.asp?page=literatur&literaturid=348552873
- Migraciones Forzadas Revista - http://www.migracionesforzadas.org/
- FMR: Land issues in Guatemala - http://www.fmreview.org/FMRpdfs/FMR07/fmr7full.pdf
In the second half of the 1980s, the beginnings of a dialogue emerged in Guatemala which became the precursor to the peace process. This peace process was a long and fraught one, culminating in the signing of a series of peace accords, the last of which, the Firm and Lasting Agreement, was signed at the end of 1996. The package of agreements signed by the government and the URNG in December 1996 included detailed commitments on political, legislative, social, economic, agrarian, ethnic, military, and public security issues, which were bound together into a national peace agenda.
Crucial for the refugees was the signing, in October 1992 after years of negotiations, of an agreement concerning the return of refugees from Mexico between the Guatemalan government and the representatives of the refugees in Mexico, called the Permanent Commissions of Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico (CCPP). This agreement has been the foundation upon which over 36,000 refugees have returned. The agreement obliges the government to: allow the refugees to return in groups; facilitate this return process including their documentation upon return; assist these returnees to reclaim their former land or to purchase new land; and allow them the right to organize and move freely. It also includes the right to be exempted from military service for three years following their return, and to ensure only a limited military presence in areas of return (Stepputat 1994).
Repatriation and local settlement
In the Guatemalan context, 'repatriation' is generally considered a process undertaken by individuals, as the Guatemalan government was proposing. However, the CCPP adopted the term retornado or 'return' to describe the process which they favoured, in which communities in Mexico would go back to Guatemala in a collective, organized, and refugee-directed manner. It was envisaged that 'return' would enable them to maintain their identity both culturally and as communities, and link their subsequent development to the social transformation of Guatemala as a whole. The returnees were provided some protection by the presence of international observers and development projects aimed at reintegrating them into the economy and society generally ( Loughna and Vicente 1997 ). The first collective return took place in 1993 from Chiapas to 'Victoria 20 de Enero', named by the refugees after the date of their arrival home - Victory 20 January.
In 1998, the Mexican government told those refugees still residing in Campeche and Quintana Roo that they could stay permanently and would eventually be entitled to Mexican citizenship. They had previously been entitled only to temporary work visas with no provision to adjust their status. The new Migration Stabilization Plan, funded by the UNHCR, set forth steps for the refugees to change their status and allow them legally to remain permanently in Mexico. The plan permits them to move freely in Mexico without the need for permission; to seek work as any Mexican would; and to have the right to live outside the camps or in settlements. The refugees in Campeche and Quintana Roo who are in settlements have mainly elected to remain where they currently reside and many are trying to purchase small plots of land.
- CERLAC Working Paper Series - http://www.yorku.ca/cerlac/papers/pdf/Hanlon.pdf
The peace accords were signed over a three-year period between March 1994 and the end of 1996. Formally, the peace negotiations only involved the participation of the government, the armed forces, and the URNG, with input from the Coordinating Committee of Farming, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF). Civil society played a critical role in the form of the Assembly of Civil Society (ASC). However, the ASC was only allowed to make proposals to the official participants in the talks, not to negotiate at the table.
At the time, the ASC was made up of representatives of the following sectors of Guatemalan society: the National University of Guatemala, political parties, research centres, indigenous organizations, women's organizations, journalists, human rights groups, development NGOs, unions, religious institutions, and uprooted populations. The women's sector comprised over thirty women's groups including representatives of trade unions, academia, feminist groups, human rights, and indigenous organizations.
The first accord to be signed was the Global Accord on Human Rights in March 1994, the only agreement that was subject to immediate implementation. Following this signing, the Guatemalan government and the URNG together requested to the UN Secretary-General that he establish a mission to verify the implementation of the accord. The Mission for the Verification of Human Rights in Guatemala (MINUGUA) was deployed in November 1994, with the purpose of verifying the Global Accord on Human Rights and to strengthen key governmental and non-governmental institutions.
The Agreement for the Resettlement of Populations Uprooted by the Armed Conflict, signed in June 1994, was generally seen as sufficient in its commitments to address the needs and concerns of returning refugees and internally displaced people. This accord establishes guarantees for the resettlement of communities, including protection of the rights of the indigenous population. It commits the government to providing uprooted populations with access to means of production, food security, social infrastructure, legal documentation, and employment and local markets, as well as training in the use of resources and in management skills. It also calls for the urgent removal of mines and explosives. Importantly, the accord recognizes female-headed households as in particular need of protection, and widows and orphans as the most affected. The government also commits itself to eliminating discrimination, both legal and attitudinal, in preventing women gaining access to land, housing, and credits, and participating in development projects. However, it has been criticized for failing to establish mechanisms to facilitate the fulfilment of these commitments (ASC 1995).
Other accords include the Agreement for the Establishment of the Commission for the Historical Clarification (CEH) of Human Rights Violations and Acts of Violence which have caused Suffering to the Guatemalan People, which was signed in June 1994. Aimed at contributing to national reconciliation, preserving the memory of the victims of the conflict, and promoting a culture of mutual respect, the Commission's findings did not apportion individual responsibility, nor were its investigations and recommendations to have judicial ramifications.
In parallel, the Guatemalan Archbishop's Human Rights Office (ODHA) established an alternative 'truth commission' called the Recovery of the Historic Memory (RHEMI). This investigation took thousands of testimonies from people all over Guatemala. On 24 April 1997, the project presented the findings of its three-year investigation into human rights abuses committed during the conflict. This impressively comprehensive report named many of the conflict's victims, and blames the army and PACs for perpetrating most of the killings. Two days after the report's publication, the project's coordinator, Bishop Juan José Gerardí, was murdered.
A significant step forward in the peace negotiations occurred in March 1995, with the signing of the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous People. Regarded by many analysts as unique in the history of Latin America, this agreement recognized Guatemala as a multi-ethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual society in which the indigenous peoples have particularly suffered discrimination, exploitation, and injustice. It pledged to eradicate discrimination by creating laws making discrimination on an ethnic basis illegal, by abolishing discriminatory legislation, and by publicizing indigenous rights. In addition, it made sexual harassment of indigenous women a crime, and created an organization to defend the rights of indigenous women, to educate the population regarding the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, and to guarantee the approval, implementation, and compliance with ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (which was finally ratified in November 1996). The government also agreed officially to recognize indigenous languages in Guatemala's Constitution, incorporating them in the education system, social services, the courts, and public programmes ( Loughna and Vicente 1997 ).
The Accord on Socioeconomic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation was signed in May 1996. This agreement attempted to tackle issues which are regarded by some as the fundamental root causes of the conflict. However, the URNG is seen as having made large concessions in signing this accord, especially on agrarian reform, so as to bring the negotiations to a hurried conclusion and thus allow for their own participation in the political system. The accord allowed for the setting up of a Trust Fund for Land, but contained no constitutional or legislative reforms to address the grossly unequal distribution of land.
In September 1996, an accord was signed which agreed to strengthen civilian power and redefine the role of the armed forces in a democratic society. Here the 44,000-strong army committed itself to reducing its number by a third and cutting its budget significantly. The armed forces had demobilized the PACs by late 1996, although there was some criticism at the lack of international verification of this process and claims that not all weapons had been handed in. There were also allegations that key organizational structures had been maintained, which allowed the army to continue to wield considerable power and influence in communities (EIU 1998). Indeed, the army also came under much criticism for non-fulfilment in the demobilization of its own forces.
The final accord in the peace negotiations, the Accord for Firm and Lasting Peace, was signed on 29 December 1996. The signing marked the end of the negotiation process, a formal end to the conflict, and the beginning of the implementation of all the other accords (apart from the Human Rights Accord which became effective immediately upon its signing). In 1997 the URNG became a legal political party.
Mexico's accession to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol in April 2000 was an important step forward for the protection of refugees. Guatemalan refugees still residing in Mexico continued to integrate, largely through naturalization.
In 2000, the Network for the Protection and Assistance of Refugees and Asylum Seekers ( Red de Protección y Asistencia a Refugiados y Asilados, REPARA) was set-up. It consists of over twenty key government ministries and departments, as well as church groups, NGOs, academic groups, and human rights organizations.
- CEH - http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/toc.html (Summary - English)
- http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/gmds_pdf/index.html (Full version - Spanish)
- FMR: Historical Memory article - http://www.fmreview.org/FMRpdfs/FMR02/fmr2full.pdf
Guatemala is a country with many volcanoes, some of which remain active. By far the most destructive disaster in recent history was the earthquake of 4 February 1976. It killed 22,000 people, mostly the poor living in unsafe housing in the rural highlands or in squatter settlements in Guatemala City. The middle and upper classes were left virtually unscathed, leading one New York Times journalist to describe it as a 'class-quake'. Some 1,200 were killed and 90,000 made homeless in Guatemala City alone. It was exceedingly difficult for the indigenous people affected and those living in slums to obtain post-disaster relief from the government. In the years that followed, official recovery widened the gap between rich and poor, fuelling the resentment of the impoverished as well as the insurgency. The earthquake highlighted the disparities in landownership in the country and the degree of vulnerability of the majority. By 1980, the elite were under increasing pressure to introduce land reform, and as a result community workers and NGOs working with disaster victims were seen as a threat. One response was the assassination of construction workers and health workers by right-wing death squads.
In late 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, causing devastating destruction to life and property in Honduras, but also causing serious damage to the agricultural sector in Guatemala. The rapid response of the emergency services through preventative evacuation meant that loss of life in Guatemala as a result of the hurricane was limited to a few hundred. The main affected area in Guatemala was the south coast, where the damage to infrastructure, crops, housing, schools, and health clinics was estimated at US$550 million.
- The Disaster Center - http://www.disastercenter.com/hurricmr.htm
- USAID - http://hurricane.info.usaid.gov/updates/mitch_english.pdf; http://www.state.gov/www/regions/wha/mitch_index.html
The most notorious case of state-sanctioned abuse against the civilian population in favour of a development project in Guatemala involved not only the displacement of villagers but also their large-scale massacre. On 13 March 1982, the Guatemalan military and PACs slaughtered 107 children and 70 women in the isolated community of Rio Negro. This was the third and largest of five massacres committed against this community for their refusal to leave their lands to enable the construction of the Chixoy Dam. The flooding of the reservoir began a few months after the last massacre. This project was funded by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. The World Bank's subsequent internal inquiry absolved it of any responsibility.
The survivors of Rio Negro never received adequate compensation for the land, homes, and personal property they lost, much less reparations for the violence perpetrated against them. Survivors continue to seek such compensation and reparations through legal actions against the Guatemalan government and the World Bank.
- International Rivers Network - http://www.irn.org/index.html