Guatemala Facts
Area:    42,042 sq. km.
Capital:    Guatemala City
Total Population:    12,008,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Four factors increase the likelihood of future indigenous rebellion in Guatemala: (1) persistent protest in past decade, (2) territorial concentration, (3) high levels of group organization and cohesion, and (4) regime instability in the last five years. Four factors favor the containment of rebellion: (1) its history of democratic elections throughout the 20th century, (2) efforts at negotiation and reform, (3) transnational support for settlement and reform, and (4) lack of serious

armed conflicts in neighboring countries.

Despite increasing protests surrounding land distribution, the prospects for continued stability in Guatemala are good. However, progress in the peace process has resulted less from government efforts at negotiation and reform, which have been hampered by a corrupt judicial system, than

from strong transnational support for peace led by the UN peacekeeping mission to Guatemala (MINGUA), the URNG's transformation into a conventional political party, and the momentum of three successive democratic elections. The November 2003 presidential election in particular bodes well for continued stability: the overwhelming defeat of General Efrain Rios Montt, who was Guatemala's dictator in 1982-83, is seen as another step toward peacetime stabilization and democracy.

Analytic Summary

The majority of indigenous peoples in Guatemala are of Mayan descent and are dispersed throughout the country with the largest populations in rural departments north and west of Guatemala City, most notably Quiché, Alta Verapaz, Sololá, and Totonicapán. (GROUPCON = 2). They are identified by language, with Quiche, Cakchiquel, Mam (Maya), Tzutujil, Achi, and Pokoman being the most common of the approximately 26 indigenous languages spoken (LANG = 2). As colonists and other foreign entities took control of lands held communally prior to colonization (TRADITN = 1), indigenous groups moved to smaller land plots in higher elevations and were subject to indentured labor on foreign-held lands in the encomienda land system. Over time, the decreasing size of their land plots has forced indigenous Guatemalans into wage labor on

non-indigenous owned lands. Today, less than one percent of agricultural producers control 75 percent of the best land in Guatemala. Indigenous peoples find wage labor through seasonal migration.

Indigenous Guatemalans experience demographic stress in the form of poor public health conditions (DMSICK03 = 3) and migration both internally and abroad (DMEMPO03 = 1; DMURB03 = 1; DMEMEC03 = 2). In 2001, the indigenous in the southeast region of Guatemala faced a drought, causing further deterioration of living conditions (DMFOOD01 = 2). Economic stresses include social exclusion and limited land access (ECDIS03 = 3). Social practices and apathy in the government result in political exclusion of indigenous people (POLDIS03 = 3). Despite a few remedial laws passed in recent years, little has been done to improve the lot of the indigenous after the 36-year civil war, when over 200,000 indigenous were killed and tens of thousands disappeared. Historical exclusion accounts for limited political access to civil service and high office (POLIC703 = 1; POLIC803 = 1). Political discrimination can also be seen in the restrictions of indigenous rights in judicial proceedings (POLIC303 = 2). Many indigenous have been recently tried in Spanish, even though they do not speak the language. Few of the people responsible for the massacre of 200,000 indigenous people during the civil war have been brought to justice. While constitutional law permits universal suffrage, the voting rights of indigenous people are limited by exclusionary social practices such as lack of transportation, tedious voter registration requirements, and elections scheduled during harvest season (POLIC503 = 1). In 2002 and 2003 there was a rise in death threats and abductions against human rights and indigenous leaders (REP0302-03 = 1). In particular, activists working to bring government officials and military officers to trial over the atrocities committed during the civil war have faced threats. These are not idle threats: since 2002 there have been scattered murders of indigenous and human rights leaders (REP0802-03). Many illiterate indigenous men are forced into the military against their will, and, in a country that is 43% indigenous, only 14% of the police force is indigenous and much of this is due to social discrimination (POLIC603 = 1).

Although there is no government policy of discrimination regarding the promotion of indigenous cultural rights, the free expression of indigenous religion and language has been limited by a shortage of resources and a lack of political will to enforce laws and implement the 1996 peace accords. Currently there is no official recognition of Maya culture, no free access for indigenous Guatemalans to sacred sites (CULPO403 = 1), and no government policy guaranteeing the preservation or protection of ceremonial sites as archaeological preserves (CULPO703 = 1). Many indigenous groups consider the use of sacred grounds by the government as profitable tourist destinations an affront to their spiritual rights. Even though there was legislation passed in 2002 to protect indigenous languages and provide money for bilingual education, most human rights and indigenous leaders are skeptical that it will change current practice (CULPO203 = 1; CULPO303 = 1).

Indigenous Guatemalans' principal grievances are protection of and access to lands being used for the advantage of other groups(ECOGR503 = 1); improved working conditions and wages(ECOGR403 = 1); equal civil rights and status (POLGR403 = 1); the location and identification of indigenous persons missing or dead since the civil war; the prosecution of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the civil war; the right to teach, publish, and deal with the government in their own language (CULGR303 = 1; CULGR403 = 1); promotion of group culture and life ways (CULGR203 = 1); greater political rights in their own community (POLGR203 = 1); less discriminatory police services (POLGR503 = 3); and greater participation in central state decision making (POLGR303 = 1).

Representing nearly half of Guatemala's population, indigenous groups maintain a strong identity (COHESX9 = 5). In recent years, indigenous Guatemalans experienced only one intra-group conflict (FACTCC4 = 2). From 2002 to 2003, several people were killed in a rising tide of political violence attributed to the reactivation of the Civilian Self-Defense Patrols (PACs) that are connected to the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). The PACs' main role is to harass, threaten, and sometimes kill human rights and indigenous leaders who do not support the FRG. The PACs are mostly made up of indigenous men, most of whom were forced to work for them during the 36-year civil war. The reactivation of the PACS in 2002 was connected to the presidential election campaign of General Efrain Rios Montt, the founder of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party. Rios Montt was Guatemala's dictator in 1982-83, during which the military and the PACs were largely responsible for thousands of deaths. Rios Montt lost the 2003 election on November 9, capturing less than 20 percent of the vote. His defeat is seen as a further step toward peacetime stabilization and democratization, and it is likely that political violence by PACs will decrease.

Indigenous rights in Guatemala are represented chiefly by the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unit (URNG), formerly an umbrella organization of guerilla groups which evolved into a conventional political party by 1998. Labor and land rights are represented by the National Federation of Peasant Organizations (CNOC) and the Equality Committee on Indigenous People's Land Rights. A number of small NGOs, most notably the Mutual Support Group (GAM) and Families of Guatemalan Disappeared (FAMDEGUA), have also emerged to lobby for the prosecution of human rights abuses and to locate persons dead and missing since the civil war (GOJPA03 = 2). Aside from the continued funding of the United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINGUA), established to ensure the implementation of the 1996 peace accords between the URNG and the government, indigenous Guatemalans have received ideological transnational support from the European Union and numerous regional and non-governmental organizations on issues including human rights, constitutional reform, and judicial access. They include the Latin American Human Rights Association, the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA), the International Indian Treaty Council, Amnesty International, and the World Bank.

In 1960, a Castro-backed rebellion attempt in the wake of the 1954 U.S. invasion set off what would become a 36-year civil war (REBEL60-96 = 7) pitting the military-dominated government against leftist guerrilla forces and suspected indigenous sympathizers. Increasing military repression and massacres of indigenous communities throughout the 1960s prompted an increase in indigenous organization in the 1970s which became militant by 1980. After the 1980 killing of 39 Mayans who occupied the Spanish Embassy seeking redress, fighting escalated between the government and indigenous groups, represented under the umbrella of the URNG, until the signing of the 1996 peace accords. Since 1996, indigenous groups have demanded the public exposure and prosecution of human rights violations committed by the government during the civil war, which claimed some 200,000 lives and caused the displacement and migration of hundreds of thousands more. The government's efforts to acknowledge and prosecute human rights abuses, including its cooperation with a UN-sponsored "truth commission," have been marred by charges of judicial corruption in the light sentencing of human rights cases. Similarly, international praise for legislation protecting indigenous dress in schools, and for the democratic presidential election of 1999 has been weighed against criticism of unsanctioned voter intimidation during a 1999 referendum on indigenous rights. More recently, indigenous groups have protested in large numbers for more equitable labor rights; for the fulfillment of peace accords related to land distribution; and against lack constitutional support for indigenous people in Guatemala

(PROT01-03 = 4). Though protests have been met with some limited force, the absence of open government repression has underscored the relative stability of its relationship with the indigenous community since 1996.


Adams, Richard. "A Report on the Political Status of the Guatemalan Maya." In Van Cott, Donna Lee. Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America. New York. St. Martin's Press. 1994.

Lexis-Nexis: All News Files 1995-2000.

Loucky, James and Robert Carlsen. "Massacre in Santiago Atitlan." Cultural Survival Quarterly. Summer 1991: 65-70.

Psacharopoulos, George and Harry Anthony Patrinos. Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America. Washington, D.C. The World Bank. 1994.

"The Maya of Guatemala." Minority Rights Group International London. September 1994.

Trudeau, Robert H. Guatemalan Politics. Boulder, CO. Lynne Rienner Publishers. 1993.

U.S. Department of State. March 4, 2002. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2001. Date accessed: 11/06/2003.

U.S. Department of State. March 31, 2003. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2002. Date accessed: 11/06/2003.

Inter Press Service, June 26, 2002, Rights-Guatemala: Nobel Laureate Menchb Warns Of New Threats.

EFE News Service, November 22, 2002, 306 words, Guatemala-Protests Guat. Peasants Press For Approval Of Indian Nationality Law.

New Internationalist, July, 2003, Guatemala.

Inter Press Service, October 11, 2002, Years Of Discrimination Against Indians.

Inter Press Service, January 16, 2003, Rights-Guatemala: Rising Tide Of Violence Spurs Call For Inquiry. Paramilitaries Resurface in Guatemala, November 1, 2003.

Inter Press Service, April 15, 2002, Rights-Guatemala: Death Threats Follow Mayan Genocide Lawsuits.

Hamilton Spectator (Ontario, Canada), October 10, 2002, Indigenous people in turmoil; Travelling activist shines perspective on deaths, disease.

EFE News Service, April 2, 2001, Guatemala-Peace Guatemalan Indians Protest Govt's Failure To Comply With Accords.

The Economist, November 8, 2003, Return Of A Smiling Dictator, Rabinal, Guatemala.

Canadian Woman Studies, January, 2003, v.22(2) Fall'02/Wint'03 pg 40-46; Peace As A Masquerade: Militarization And Post-War Terror In Guatemala.

Inter Press Service, January 10, 2003, Friday, 840 words, Trade-Central America: Secrecy Denounced In Upcoming Trade Talks.

EFE News Service, November 22, 2002, Guatemala-Protests Guat. Peasants Press For Approval Of Indian Nationality Law.

Agence France Presse, October 12, 2001, Farmers Block Roads In Guatemala Demanding Agrarian Reform, Pay Hikes.

** Also utilized Reuters News Agency articles and articles from the New

York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.