From 1960 to 1996, the nation-state of Guatemala was convulsed by a civil war that caused the deaths of at least 200,000 people. The worst years of the violence were 1981–82, when the U.S.-backed government launched what has been accurately characterized by the Report of the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification as “acts of genocide” against the country’s majority indigenous population. The same report concluded that “[the] majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the State.” An important component of the cold war in the Western Hemisphere, the history of Guatemala from 1954 to 1996 was mostly shaped by the country’s extreme inequalities in landowning, wealth, and power; U.S. military assistance and economic and political intervention expressly intended to combat the perceived threat of international communism; a dictatorial Guatemalan state dominated by the military and backed by the U.S. government, the country’s traditional landholding oligarchy, and right-wing paramilitaries; and the struggles of civil society—including labor unions, peasant leagues, indigenous and human rights groups, political parties, and guerrilla organizations—to create a more just and equitable society.
The short-term origins of the civil war have been traced to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency– orchestrated coup of 1954, following a decade of farreaching reforms, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz and installed a military dictatorship headed by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. In 1960 a group of junior officers revolted and formed an even more hard-line military government. In the early 1960s several guerrilla organizations became active in rural districts, including the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP); the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA); and the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). In 1982, the guerrilla organizations combined to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Beginning in 1966 the army launched a major counterinsurgency campaign in rural areas that eliminated most armed resistance to the regime. Guerrilla operations continued in urban areas through economic sabotage and targeted assassinations. Repression by the military, right-wing paramilitaries, and death squads such as the White Hand intensified—with tortures and murders of labor organizers, community activists, students, professionals, and other suspected leftists.
In March 1982 a military coup installed as president General Efraín Ríos Montt, a right-wing extremist, 1974 presidential candidate, and lay pastor in the evangelical Protestant “Church of the Word.” His presidency (1982–83) is linked to the worst human rights abuses in the 36-year civil war, with human rights organizations amply documenting the “acts of genocide” perpetrated by his government. In March 1994 a United Nations–sponsored peace process resulted in an accord between the URNG and the government. In January 1996 Álvaro Arzu, candidate of the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), was elected as president. The final peace accord was signed on December 29, 1996, formally ending the 36-year civil war, the major events of which are amply documented in the 1999 CEH Report and related reports.