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The history of Guatemala began with the arrival of human settlers c. 18,000-11,000 BC. The Mayan civilization (2,000 BC – 250 AD) was among those that flourished in the region, with little contact with cultures outside Mesoamerica.
Most of the great Classic-era (250–900 AD) Maya cities of the Petén Basin region, in the northern lowlands of Guatemala, had been abandoned by the year 1000 AD. The states in the Guatemalan central highlands flourished until the arrival in 1525 of Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish Conquistador. Called "the invader" by the Mayan peoples, he began subjugating the Indian states with his forces.
Guatemala was part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, for nearly 300 years; this Captaincy, or Capitania, included the territories of Chiapas, Campeche, Tabasco in modern Mexico, and the modern countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The Capitania became independent in 1821, and became a part of the First Mexican Empire until 1823. From 1824 it was a part of the Federal Republic of Central America, until the Republic dissolved in 1841, when Guatemala became fully independent. In the late 19th century, Guatemala experienced a series of authoritarian governments and significant political instability.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Guatemala's potential for agricultural exploitation attracted several foreign companies to it, the most prominent being the United Fruit Company (UFC). These companies were supported by the countries authoritarian rulers and the United States government through their support for brutal labor regulations and massive concessions to wealthy landowners. In 1944, the policies of Jorge Ubico led to a popular uprising which began the ten-year Guatemalan Revolution. The presidencies of Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz saw sweeping social and economic reform, including a significant increase in literacy and a successful agrarian reform program.
The progressive policies of Arévalo and Árbenz led to the United Fruit Company lobbying the United States government for their overthrow, and a US engineered coup in 1954 ended the revolution and installed a military regime in its place. This was soon followed by other military governments, and sparked of a civil war between the government and leftist guerrillas that lasted from 1960 to 1996. The war saw human rights violations, including a genocide of the indigenous Mayan population by the United States backed military. Following the end of the war in 1996, Guatemala re-established a representative democracy. It has since struggled to enforce the rule of law and suffers a high crime rate, as well as continued extrajudicial killings, often executed by security forces.
The earliest human settlements in Guatemala date back to the Paleo-Indian period and were made up of hunters and gatherers.[page needed] Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiché in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast.
Though it is unclear when these groups of hunters and gatherers turned to agricultural cultivation, pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate maize cultivation as early as 3500 BC. By 2500 BC, small settlements were developing in Guatemala’s Pacific lowlands in such places as Tilapa, La Blanca, Ocós, El Mesak, and Ujuxte, where the oldest pieces of ceramic pottery from Guatemala have been found.[page needed] Excavations in the Antigua Guatemala Urías and Rucal, have yielded stratified materials from the Early and Middle Preclassic periods (2000 BC to 400 BC). Paste analyses of these early pieces of pottery in the Antigua Valley indicate they were made of clays from different environmental zones, suggesting people from the Pacific coast expanded into the Antigua Valley.[page needed]
Guatemala's Pre-Columbian era can be divided into the Preclassic period (from 2000 BC to 250 AD), the Classic period (250 to 900 AD) and the Postclassic period (900 to 1500 AD). Until recently, the Preclassic was regarded as a formative period, consisting of small villages of farmers who lived in huts and few permanent buildings, but this notion has been challenged by recent discoveries of monumental architecture from that period, such as an altar in La Blanca, San Marcos, from 1000 BC; ceremonial sites at Miraflores and El Naranjo from 801 BC; the earliest monumental masks; and the Mirador Basin cities of Nakbé, Xulnal, El Tintal, Wakná and El Mirador.
In Monte Alto near La Democracia, Escuintla, giant stone heads and potbellies (or barrigones) have been found, dating back to around 1800 BC. The stone heads have been ascribed to the Pre-Olmec Monte Alto Culture and some scholars suggest the Olmec Culture originated in the Monte Alto area. It has also been argued the only connection between the statues and the later Olmec heads is their size. The Monte Alto Culture may have been the first complex culture of Mesoamerica, and predecessor of all other cultures of the region. In Guatemala, some sites have unmistakable Olmec style, such as Chocolá in Suchitepéquez, La Corona in Peten, and Tak'alik A´baj, in Retalhuleu, the last of which is the only ancient city in the Americas with Olmec and Mayan features.
El Mirador was by far the most populated city in pre-Columbian America. Both the El Tigre and Monos pyramids encompass a volume greater than 250,000 cubic meters. Richard Hansen, the director of the archaeological project of the Mirador Basin, believes the Maya at Mirador Basin developed the first politically organized state in America around 1500 BC, named the Kan Kingdom in ancient texts. There were 26 cities, all connected by sacbeob (highways), which were several kilometers long, up to 40 meters wide, and two to four meters above the ground, paved with stucco. These are clearly distinguishable from the air in the most extensive virgin tropical rain forest in Mesoamerica.
Hansen believes the Olmec were not the mother culture in Mesoamerica. Due to findings at Mirador Basin in Northern Petén, Hansen suggests the Olmec and Maya cultures developed separately, and merged in some places, such as Tak'alik Abaj in the Pacific lowlands.
Northern Guatemala has particularly high densities of Late Pre-classic sites, including Naachtun, Xulnal, El Mirador, Porvenir, Pacaya, La Muralla, Nakbé, El Tintal, Wakná (formerly Güiro), Uaxactún, and Tikal. Of these, El Mirador, Tikal, Nakbé, Tintal, Xulnal and Wakná are the largest in the Maya world, Such size was manifested not only in the extent of the site, but also in the volume or monumentality, especially in the construction of immense platforms to support large temples. Many sites of this era display monumental masks for the first time (Uaxactún, El Mirador, Cival, Tikal and Nakbé).
The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization corresponds to the height of the Maya civilization, and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala. The largest concentration is found in Petén. This period is characterized by expanded city-building, the development of independent city-states, and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures.
This lasted until around 900 AD, when the Classic Maya civilization collapsed. The Maya abandoned many of the cities of the central lowlands or died in a drought-induced famine.[page needed] Scientists debate the cause of the Classic Maya Collapse, but gaining currency is the Drought Theory discovered by physical scientists studying lakebeds, ancient pollen, and other tangible evidence.[page needed]
Second-in-command to Hernán Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado was sent to the Guatemala highlands with 300 Spanish foot soldiers, 120 Spanish horsemen and several hundred Cholula and Tlascala auxiliaries.
Alvarado entered Guatemala from Soconusco on the Pacific lowlands, headed for Xetulul Humbatz, Zapotitlan. He initially allied himself with the Cakchiquel nation to fight against their traditional rivals the K'iche'. The conquistador started his conquest in Xepau Olintepeque, defeating the K'iché's 72,000 men, led by Tecún Umán (now Guatemala's national hero). Alvarado went to Q'umarkaj, (Utatlan), the K'iche' capital, and burned it on March 7, 1524. He proceeded to Iximche, and made a base near there in Tecpan on July 25, 1524. From there he made several campaigns to other cities, including Chuitinamit, the capital of the Tzutuhils, (1524); Mixco Viejo, capital of the Poqomam; and Zaculeu, capital of the Mam (1525). He was named captain general in 1527.
Having secured his position, Alvarado turned against his allies the Cakchiquels, confronting them in several battles until they were subdued in 1530. Battles with other tribes continued up to 1548, when the Q'eqchi' in Nueva Sevilla, Izabal were defeated, leaving the Spanish in complete control of the region.
After more than a century of colonization, during which mutually independent Spanish authorities in Yucatán and Guatemala made various attempts to subjugate Petén and neighbouring parts of what is now Mexico. In 1697 the Spanish finally conquered Nojpetén, capital of the Itzá Maya, and Zacpetén, capital of the Ko'woj Maya.
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Independence was short-lived, for the conservative leaders in Guatemala welcomed annexation by the First Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide on 5 January 1822. When Mexico became a republic the following year, it acknowledged Central America's right to determine its own destiny. On 1 July 1823, the congress of Central America declared absolute independence from Spain, Mexico, and any other foreign nation, including North America and a Republican system of government was established. For a period it belonged to a federation called the United Provinces of Central America. This broke up in civil war in 1838–1840 (See: History of Central America).
Guatemala's caudillo Rafael Carrera was instrumental in leading the revolt against the federal government and breaking apart the United Provinces, beginning in 1840. Belgium became important as an external source of support for his efforts. In 1843 the Guatemalan parliament authorized the Compagnie belge de colonisation (Belgian Colonization Company), commissioned by Belgian King Leopold I, as the administrator of Santo Tomás, Guatemala. It replaced the failed British Eastern Coast of Central America Commercial and Agricultural Company. Belgium continued to administer Santo Tomas until 1854, when it withdrew because of financial issues and personnel losses due to endemic diseases such as yellow fever and malaria.
Carrera gained control, leading the country from 1844 to 1848, and from 1851 to his death in 1865. He dominated Guatemalan politics during that period more than any other individual, and was backed by a coalition of conservatives, large land owners and the Catholic Church.
Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era, coffee became an important export crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America, and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to attain this. He died on the battlefield in 1885 against forces in El Salvador.
The U.S.-based United Fruit Company (UFC) started becoming a major force in Guatemala in 1901, during the long presidencies of Manuel José Estrada Cabrera and General Jorge Ubico. During the latter's dictatorship in the 1930s, Ubico encouraged foreign investment, extending special favors to the United Fruit Company in particular. The UFC responded by pouring investment capital into the country, buying controlling shares of the railroad, electric utility, and telegraph. It gained control of more than 40% of the country's best land and de facto control over its only port facility. As a result, the Guatemalan government was often subservient to the interests of the UFC. While the company helped build some schools, it opposed building highways, as they would compete with the UFC's railroad monopoly.
In 1944, General Jorge Ubico’s thirteen-year dictatorship (1931–44) was overthrown by the October Revolutionaries, a group of Guatemalan nationalists made up of military officers, university students, and liberal professionals. In this period, there were also revolutions that deposed superannuated dictatorships in Venezuela, Cuba, and El Salvador. When a Guatemalan soldier killed a school teacher, widespread civil unrest precipitated a coup d’ état; the population had expressed their moral outrage in a general strike that halted the national economy and stilled the country. The general strike deposed General Ubico, who surrendered power to a military junta of his generals: the triumvirate of Major General Bueneventura Piñeda, Major General Eduardo Villagrán Ariza, and General Federico Ponce Vaides, who established a junta. Further civil unrest prompted two officers, Captain Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán and Major Francisco Javier Arana, to lead a final coup d’ état and depose the dictatorship of the generals.
The army officers stepped aside from political office (the national presidency), and made way for a general election of the national government of Guatemala. That military respect for law began The Ten Years of Spring, a democratic period of free speech and open political activity, accompanied by plans for national land reform. The intelligentsia believed that great political progress could be made by developing civil government in Guatemala. In 1945, the civilian president, Juan José Arévalo, was elected, and served until 1951. A former university professor, Arévalo introduced social reforms, such as allowing the free establishment of political parties, and the restricted establishment of trade unions.
Arana and Arbenz, both highly regarded at the time, had ambitions to succeed Arévalo. Arana tried to hasten the process with a coup; his failure resulted in his death in a controversial arrest-gone-wrong. Arbenz secured power in a landslide general election in 1951. Arbenz, together with Arévalo, continued the progressive social change that characterized the latter's presidency. He removed most of the old restrictions on political parties and labour unions, and purged the Army hierarchy of remaining pro-Arana officers. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was removed at the time; he later played a major role in Guatemalan politics. In 1952 Arbenz also permitted the Communist Guatemalan Party of Labour to achieve legal status. The party subsequently gained a new and noticeable role in the government decision-making process.
In 1953, when the government implemented Agrarian Reform, it intended to redistribute large holdings of unused land to peasants, both Ladino and Amerindian, for them to develop for subsistence farming. It expropriated 250,000 of 350,000 manzanas held by the United Fruit Company (UFC). According to the government's Decree 900, it would redistribute the land for agricultural purposes. UFCo continued to hold thousands of acres in pasture as well as substantial forest reserves. The Guatemalan government had offered the company a Q 609,572 in compensation for the appropriated land.
The company fought the land expropriation, making several legal arguments. It said the government had misinterpreted its own law. The Agrarian Reform Law was directed at redistributing unused land able to be developed for agricultural purposes. Thus land in pasture, specified forest cover and under cultivation was to be left with the owners and untouched by the expropriators. The company argued that most of the land taken from them was cultivated and in use, so it was illegal for the government to take it.
Secondly, they argued that the offered compensation was insufficient for the amount and value of the land taken. However, the valuations of United Fruit Company's rural property were based on the values declared by the company in its own tax filings. In 1945 Arevalo's administration ordered new assessments, to be complete by 1948. UFCo had submitted the assessment by the due date; but, when the Agrarian Reform was implemented, the company declared that they wanted the value of its property changed from the values the company had previously used to dodge taxes. The government had investigated in 1951, but a new assessment was never completed. UFCo said that the 1948 assessment was outdated, and claimed its land value was much greater. They had estimated just compensation would be as high as Q 15,854,849, nearly twenty times more than what the Guatemalan government had offered.
The U.S. State Department and the embassy actively began to support the position of UFCo, which was a major US company. The Guatemalan government had to fight the pressure. The US officially acknowledged that Guatemala had the right to conduct their own politics and business, but U.S. representatives said they were trying to protect UFCo, a US company that generated much revenue and contributed to the US economy.
Arbenz's administration said that Guatemala needed Agrarian Reform to improve its own economy. Arbenz said he would adopt policies for a nationalist economic development if necessary. He argued that all foreign investment would be subject to Guatemalan laws. Arbenz was firm in promoting the Agrarian Reform and within a couple of years had acted quickly. He claimed that Guatemalan government was not prepared to make an exception for the U.S. concerning Decree 900.
Because Arbenz could not be pressured to take into consideration the arguments made to prevent expropriation from UFCo, his government was undermined with propaganda. For U.S. the national security was also highly important. They had combined both political and economic interests. The fear of allowing communist practices in Guatemala was shared by the urban elite and middle classes. All the papers, such as El Imparcial, were critical of communism and of the government's legal recognition of the party. The opposing political parties organized anticommunism campaigns. Thousands of people appeared at the periodic rallies, and the membership in anticommunist organizations had grown steadily.
The Church also criticized the government at this time. Despite the warning that constitutionally the church was not allowed to interfere with the politics, the church paper, Accion social cristiana, published articles about the issues. One of them was against PGT, a faction Arbenz was attempting to support. The article compared the leader of the PGT, Jose Fortuny, to the devil. The campaign against the communism was exaggerated. Arbenz’ government was attempting to be neutral; however constant pressure eventually had led him to rely more heavily on more dedicated reformers in revolutionary organizations.
Arbenz had attempted to appoint a range of persons as his cabinet, but some observers felt that more moderate figures were forced out of the leading positions. Major government parties were becoming more radical. Those who thought that revolution was to bring about electoral democracy and economic and social reforms, either resigned or could not maintain their place in the parties. Some of the moderates complained that communists were taking over their positions. During the Cold War and with other Central American governments concerned about the growth in communism, such propaganda was influential. The public opinion in Guatemala and the US was trending toward U.S. interference to correct the leaning toward communism. By 1952 a "Liberation army" had invaded several towns in Oriente. Guatemala's appeals to the United Nations to stop the U.S. invasion failed. By June 1954, Arbenz had resigned.
The Communist Party was never the center of the Communist movement in Guatemala until Jacobo Arbenz came to power in 1951. Prior to 1951, Communism lived within the urban labor forces in small study groups during 1944 to 1953 which it had a tremendous influence on these urban labor forces. Despite its small size within Guatemala, many leaders were extremely vocal about their beliefs (for instance, in their protests and, more importantly, their literature). In 1949 in Congress, the Communist party only had less than forty members, however, by 1953 it went up to nearly four thousand. Before Arbenz come to power in 1951, the Communist movement preferred to carry out many of their activities through the so-called mass organization. In addition to Arbenz success, Guatemalan Communist Party moved forward its activities into public.
After Jacobo Arbenz came to power in 1951, he extended political freedom, allowing Communists in Guatemala to participate in politics. This move by Arbenz let many opponents in Ubico’s regime to recognize themselves as Communists. By 1952, Arbenz supported a land reform, and took unused agricultural land, about 225,000 acres (910 km2), from owners who had large properties, and made it available to rural workers and farmers. These lands were to be taken from the United Fruit Company with compensation; however, the UFC believed the compensation was not enough. Meantime, Arbenz allowed the Communist Party to organize and include leaders notably his adviser who were leftist. The propaganda effort that was led by United Fruit Company against the revolution in Guatemala persuaded the U.S. government to fight against communism in Guatemala. The United States clutched on small details to prove the existence of widespread Communism in Guatemala. The Eisenhower administration at the time in the U.S. were not happy about the Arbenz government, they considered Arbenz to be too close to Communism; there have been reports that Arbenz’s wife was a Communist and part of the Communist Party in Guatemala. Even though it was impossible for the U.S. to gather evidence and information about Guatemala’s relations to the Soviet Union, Americans wanted to believe that Communism existed in Guatemala. Many groups of Guatemalan exiles were armed and trained by the CIA, and commanded by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas they invaded Guatemala on June 18, 1954. The Americans called it an Anti-Communist Coup against Arbenz. The coup was supported by CIA radio broadcasts and so the Guatemalan army refused to resist the coup, Arbenz was forced to resign. In 1954 a military government replaced Arbenz' government and disbanded the legislature and they arrested communist leaders, Castillo Armas became president.
Arbenz proceeded to nationalize and redistribute un-utilized land owned by the United Fruit Company, which had a practical monopoly on Guatemalan fruit production and some industry. In response, United Fruit lobbied the Eisenhower administration to remove Arbenz. Of still greater importance, though, was the widespread American concern about the possibility of a so-called "Soviet beachhead" opening up in the Western Hemisphere. Arbenz's sudden legalization of the Communist party and importing of arms from then Soviet-satellite state of Czechoslovakia, among other events, convinced major policy makers in the White House and CIA to try for Arbenz's forced removal, although his term was to end naturally in two years. This led to a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1954, known as Operation PBSUCCESS, which saw Arbenz toppled and forced into exile by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. Despite most Guatemalans' attachment to the original ideals of the 1944 uprising, some private sector leaders and the military began to believe that Arbenz represented a Communist threat and supported his overthrow, hoping that a successor government would continue the more moderate reforms started by Arevalo. After the CIA coup, hundreds of Guatemalans were rounded up and killed.
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The government, right-wing paramilitary organizations, and left-wing insurgents were all engaged in the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–96). A variety of factors contributed: social and economic injustice and racial discrimination suffered by the indigenous population, the 1954 coup which reversed reforms, weak civilian control of the military, the United States support of the government, and Cuban support of the insurgents. The Historical Clarification Commission (commonly known as the "Truth Commission") after the war estimated that more than 200,000 people were killed — the vast majority of whom were indigenous civilians. 93% of the human rights abuses reported to the Commission were attributed to the military or other government-supported forces. It also determined that in several instances, the government was responsible for acts of genocide.
In response to the increasingly autocratic rule of Gen. Ydígoras Fuentes, who took power in 1958 following the murder of Col. Castillo Armas, a group of junior military officers revolted in 1960. When they failed, several went into hiding and established close ties with Cuba. This group became the nucleus of the forces who mounted armed insurrection against the government for the next 36 years.
Four principal left-wing guerrilla groups — the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the Guatemalan Party of Labour (PGT) — conducted economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of government security forces in armed attacks. Shortly after President Julio César Méndez Montenegro took office in 1966, the army launched a major counterinsurgency campaign that largely broke up the guerrilla movement in the countryside.
The guerrillas concentrated their attacks in Guatemala City, where they assassinated many leading figures, including U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein in 1968. During the next nearly two decades, Méndez Montenegro was the only civilian to head Guatemala until the inauguration of Vinicio Cerezo in 1986.
These guerrilla organizations in 1982 combined to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). At the same time, extreme right-wing groups of self-appointed vigilantes, including the Secret Anti-Communist Army (ESA) and the White Hand (La Mano Blanca), tortured and murdered students, professionals, and peasants suspected of involvement in leftist activities.
On March 23, 1982, army troops commanded by junior officers staged a coup d'état to prevent the assumption of power by General Ángel Aníbal Guevara, the hand-picked candidate of outgoing President and General Romeo Lucas García. They denounced Guevara's electoral victory as fraudulent. The coup leaders asked retired Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt to negotiate the departure of Lucas Guevara. Ríos Montt had been the candidate of the Christian Democracy Party in the 1974 presidential election and was widely regarded as having been denied his own victory through fraud.
Ríos Montt was by this time a lay pastor in the evangelical Protestant Church of the Word. In his inaugural address, he stated that his presidency resulted from the will of God. He was widely perceived as having strong backing from the Reagan administration in the United States. He formed a three-member military junta that annulled the 1965 constitution, dissolved Congress, suspended political parties and canceled the electoral law. After a few months, Ríos Montt dismissed his junta colleagues and assumed the de facto title of "President of the Republic".
Guerrilla forces and their leftist allies denounced Ríos Montt, who sought to defeat them by a combination of military actions and economic reforms; in his words, "rifles and beans". In May 1982, the Conference of Catholic Bishops accused Ríos Montt of responsibility for growing militarization of the country and for continuing military massacres of civilians. An army officer was quoted in the New York Times of 18 July 1982 as telling an audience of indigenous Guatemalans in Cunén that: "If you are with us, we'll feed you; if not, we'll kill you." The Plan de Sánchez massacre occurred on the same day.
The government began to form local civilian defense patrols (PACs). Participation was in theory voluntary, but in practice, many rural Guatemalan men (including young boys and the elderly), especially in the northwest, had no choice but to join either the PACs or be considered guerrillas. At their peak, the PACs are estimated to have included 1 million conscripts. Ríos Montt's conscript army and PACs recaptured essentially all guerrilla territory. The insurgents' activity lessened and was largely limited to hit-and-run operations. Ríos Montt won this partial victory at an enormous cost in civilian deaths.
Ríos Montt's brief presidency was probably the most violent period of the 36-year internal conflict, which resulted in thousands of deaths of mostly unarmed indigenous civilians. Although leftist guerrillas and right-wing death squads also engaged in summary executions, forced disappearances, and torture of noncombatants, the vast majority of human rights violations were carried out by the Guatemalan military and the PACs they controlled. The internal conflict is described in great detail in the reports of the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) and the Archbishop's Office for Human Rights (ODHAG). The CEH estimates that government forces were responsible for 93% of the violations; ODHAG earlier estimated that government forces were responsible for 80%.
On August 8, 1983, Ríos Montt was deposed by his Minister of Defense, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, who succeeded him as de facto president of Guatemala. Mejía justified his coup, based on problems with "religious fanatics" in government and "official corruption". Seven people were killed in the coup. Ríos Montt survived to found a political party (the Guatemalan Republic Front) and to be elected President of Congress in 1995 and again in 2000.
Awareness in the United States of the conflict in Guatemala, and its ethnic dimension, increased with the 1983 publication of the "testimonial" account I, Rigoberta Menchú, a memoir by a leading activist. Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in favor of broader social justice. In 1998 a book by U.S. anthropologist David Stoll challenged some of the details in Menchú's book, creating an international controversy. After the publication of Stoll's book, the Nobel Committee reiterated that it had awarded the Peace Prize based on Menchú's uncontested work promoting human rights and the peace process.
General Mejía allowed a managed return to democracy in Guatemala, starting with a July 1, 1984 election for a Constituent Assembly to draft a democratic constitution. On May 30, 1985, after nine months of debate, the Constituent Assembly finished drafting a new constitution, which took effect immediately. Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian politician and the presidential candidate of the Christian Democracy Party, won the first election held under the new constitution with almost 70% of the vote, and took office on January 14, 1986.
Upon its inauguration in January 1986, President Cerezo's civilian government announced that its top priorities would be to end the political violence and establish the rule of law. Reforms included new laws of habeas corpus and amparo (court-ordered protection), the creation of a legislative human rights committee, and the establishment in 1987 of the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman. The Supreme Court embarked on a series of reforms to fight corruption and improve legal system efficiency.
With Cerezo's election, the military returned to the more traditional role of providing internal security, specifically by fighting armed insurgents. The first two years of Cerezo's administration were characterized by a stable economy and a marked decrease in political violence. Dissatisfied military personnel made two coup attempts in May 1988 and May 1989, but the military leadership supported the constitutional order. The government was strongly criticized for its reluctance to investigate or prosecute cases of human rights violations.
The final two years of Cerezo's government were marked by a failing economy, strikes, protest marches, and allegations of widespread corruption. The government's inability to deal with many of the nation's social and health problems — such as infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services, and rising levels of violence — contributed to popular discontent.
Presidential and congressional elections were held on November 11, 1990. After a runoff ballot, Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías was inaugurated on January 14, 1991, completing the first successful transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another. Because his Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS) Party gained only 18 of 116 seats in Congress, Serrano entered into a tenuous coalition with the Christian Democrats and the National Union of the Center (UCN) to form a government.
The Serrano administration's record was mixed. It had some success in consolidating civilian control over the army, replacing a number of senior officers and persuading the military to participate in peace talks with the URNG. He took the politically unpopular step of recognizing the sovereignty of Belize, which had long been officially, though fruitlessly, claimed as a province by Guatemala. The Serrano government reversed the economic slide it inherited, reducing inflation and boosting real growth.
In 1992 Efraín Bámaca, a notable guerrilla leader also known as Comandante Everardo, "disappeared." It was later found that Bámaca was tortured and killed that year by Guatemalan Army officers. His widow, the American Jennifer Harbury, and members of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, based in Washington, DC, raised protests that ultimately led the United States to declassify documents going back to 1954 related to its actions in Guatemala. It was learned that the CIA had been funding the military, although Congress had prohibited such funding since 1990 because of the Army's human rights abuses. Congress forced the CIA to end its aid to the Guatemalan Army.
On May 25, 1993, Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and tried to restrict civil freedoms, allegedly to fight corruption. The autogolpe (palace coup) failed due to unified, strong protests by most elements of Guatemalan society, international pressure, and the army's enforcement of the decisions of the Court of Constitutionality, which ruled against the attempted takeover. In the face of this pressure, Serrano fled the country.
On June 5, 1993, Congress, pursuant to the 1985 constitution, elected the Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, to complete Serrano's presidential term. De León was not a member of any political party. Lacking a political base but with strong popular support, he launched an ambitious anti-corruption campaign to "purify" Congress and the Supreme Court, demanding the resignations of all members of the two bodies.
Despite considerable congressional resistance, presidential and popular pressure led to a November 1993 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church between the administration and Congress. This package of constitutional reforms was approved by popular referendum on January 30, 1994. In August 1994, a new Congress was elected to complete the unexpired term. Controlled by the anti-corruption parties: the populist Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) headed by Ríos Montt, and the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), the new Congress began to abandon the corruption that characterized its predecessors.
Under de León, the peace process, now brokered by the United Nations, took on new life. The government and the URNG signed agreements on human rights (March 1994), resettlement of displaced persons (June 1994), historical clarification (June 1994), and indigenous rights (March 1995). They also made significant progress on a socioeconomic and agrarian agreement.
National elections for president, Congress, and municipal offices were held in November 1995. With almost 20 parties competing in the first round, the presidential election came down to a January 7, 1996 runoff in which PAN candidate Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen defeated Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of the FRG by just over 2% of the vote. Arzú won because of his strength in Guatemala City, where he had previously served as mayor, and in the surrounding urban area. Portillo won all of the rural departments except Petén. Under the Arzú administration, peace negotiations were concluded, and the government signed peace accords ending the 36-year internal conflict in December 1996. (See section on peace process)
The human rights situation remained difficult during Arzú's tenure, although some initial steps were taken to reduce the influence of the military in national affairs. The most notable human rights case of this period was the brutal slaying of Bishop Juan José Gerardi on 24 April 1998, two days after he had publicly presented a major Catholic Church-sponsored human rights report known as Guatemala: Nunca Mas, summarizing testimony about human rights abuses during the Civil War. It was prepared by the Recovery of Historical Memory project, known by the acronym of REMHI. In 2001 three Army officers were convicted in civil court and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for his murder.
Guatemala held presidential, legislative, and municipal elections on November 7, 1999, and a runoff presidential election on December 26. Alfonso Portillo was criticized during the campaign for his relationship with the FRG's chairman, former president Ríos Montt. Many charge that some of the worst human rights violations of the internal conflict were committed under Ríos Montt's rule.
In the first round the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) won 63 of 113 legislative seats, while the National Advancement Party (PAN) won 37. The New Nation Alliance (ANN) won nine legislative seats, and three minority parties won the remaining four. In the runoff on December 26, Alfonso Portillo (FRG) won 68% of the vote to 32% for Óscar Berger (PAN). Portillo carried all 22 departments and Guatemala City, which was considered the PAN's stronghold.
Portillo's impressive electoral triumph, with two-thirds of the vote in the second round, gave him a mandate from the people to carry out his reform program. He pledged to maintain strong ties to the United States, enhance Guatemala's growing cooperation with Mexico, and join in the integration process in Central America and the Western Hemisphere. Domestically, he vowed to support continued liberalization of the economy, increase investment in human capital and infrastructure, establish an independent central bank, and increase revenue by stricter enforcement of tax collections rather than increasing taxation.
Portillo also promised to continue the peace process, appoint a civilian defense minister, reform the armed forces, replace the military presidential security service with a civilian one, and strengthen protection of human rights. He appointed a pluralist cabinet, including indigenous members and individuals who were independent of the FRG ruling party.
Progress in carrying out Portillo's reform agenda during his first year in office was slow. As a result, public support for the government sank to nearly record lows by early 2001. The administration made progress on such issues as taking state responsibility for past human rights cases and supporting human rights in international fora. It struggled to prosecute past human rights cases, and to achieve military reforms or a fiscal pact to help finance programs to implement peace. It is seeking legislation to increase political participation by residents. The prosecution by Portillo's government of suspects in Bishop Gerardi's murder set a precedent in 2001; it was the first time military officers in Guatemala had been tried in civil courts.
Faced with a high crime rate, a public corruption problem, often violent harassment and intimidation by unknown assailants of human rights activists, judicial workers, journalists, and witnesses in human rights trials, the government began serious attempts in 2001 to open a national dialogue to discuss the considerable challenges facing the country.
In July 2003, the Jueves Negro demonstrations rocked the capital, forcing the closing of the US embassy and the UN mission. Supporters of Ríos Montt called for his return to power, demanding that the courts lift a ban against former coup leaders participating in government. They wanted Ríos Montt to run as a presidential candidate in the 2003 elections. The FRG fed the demonstrators.
On November 9, 2003, Óscar Berger, a former mayor of Guatemala city, won the presidential election with 38.8% of the vote. As he failed to achieve a fifty percent majority, he had to go through a runoff election on December 28, which he also won. He defeated the center-left candidate Álvaro Colom. Allowed to run, Ríos Montt trailed a distant third with 11% of the vote.
In early October 2005, Guatemala was devastated by Hurricane Stan. Although a relatively weak storm, it triggered a flooding disaster, resulting in at least 1,500 people dead and thousands homeless.
Determined to make progress against crime and internal police corruption, Óscar Berger in December 2006 came to agreement with the United Nations to gain support for judicial enforcement of its laws. They created the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent institution, which is to assist assist the Office of the Prosecutor of Guatemala, the National Police Force, and other investigative institutions. Their goal was to prosecute cells linked to organised crime and to drug trafficking. CICIG has the authority to conduct its own inquiries, and to refer the most significant cases to the national judiciary. The stated objective of CICIG is to "reinforce the national criminal justice system and to help it with its reforms."
As of 2010, CICIG has led inquiries into some 20 cases. It is acting as Deputy Prosecutor in eight other cases. CICIG conducted the investigations leading to an arrest warrant against Erwin Sperisen, former Head of the National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC) from 2004 to 2007. With dual Swiss-Guatemalan citizenship, he fled to Switzerland to escape prosecution in Guatemala for numerous extrajudicial killings and police corruption. In addition, 17 other persons are covered by arrest warrants related to these crimes, including several former highly placed political figures of Guatemala.
The 2007 presidential election was won by the centre-left Álvaro Colóm.