Guatemala: Displacement, Return and the Peace Process

  • Author: Patrick Costello
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    1 April 1995


Guatemala has suffered 33 years of civil war. While the shorter wars of the other Central American countries, El Salvador and Nicaragua, received huge international attention during the 1980s, the world's media has remained relatively silent about Latin America's longest running armed conflict. Inevitably, the war in Guatemala has left a humanitarian crisis in its wake. Since 1980 alone, it is estimated that over 100,000 Guatemalans have died, 40,000 have been the victims of disappearance, at least 100,000 have become refugees in Mexico and a further million have at some time been forced into internal displacement. While Guatemala is the largest of the Central American republics, these figures represent a significant proportion of a population of only 9.7 million.

Most of the victims of the war in Guatemala have been part of the country's indigenous majority. Estimates of their numbers vary, but around half of the country's population are descendants of the Mayan civilization, speaking 21 distinct Mayan languages. Historically marginalised, they make up the vast majority of Guatemala's poor, the landless peasants and the urban shanty-town dwellers. The conflict in Guatemala has assumed an ethnic dimension and racism has been an important factor in the brutality of the massacres of civilian indigenous populations by the army.

The roots of the conflict lie in the distribution of land. In 1952, the government of Jacobo Arbenz introduced an agrarian reform law which provided for the expropriation of idle land from holdings over 223 acres and its distribution to eligible recipients. By June 1954, 2.7 million acres were affected and approximately 100,000 peasant families had received land. Unfortunately for the Arbenz government, the reform brought it into conflict with the U.S. multinational, the United Fruit Company (UFC). As Guatemala's largest landowner, UFC kept only 15 per cent of its lands under cultivation. Under the reform, a total of almost 400,000 acres was expropriated from UFC. Disputes over the levels of compensation for the land led UFC to enlist the aid of two close contacts: John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State, and Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA. The result was a destabilization campaign followed by a coup d'état. In June 1954, the CIA led an army of exiles from neighbouring Honduras and, on 27 June 1954, President Arbenz resigned.

Colonel Castillo Armas, who took over the reins of government with U.S. support, launched a programme of reversal of the reforms of the Arbenz government. Of all the land expropriated, 99.6 per cent was returned to its former owners. Almost all social organizations, including trade unions, were destroyed and a number of political parties went underground. The U.S. intervention set a pattern of political and economic development which remains largely intact today. Firstly, the nature of the intervention, at the height of McCarthyism in the U.S. itself, meant that the restructuring of the Guatemalan state was designed to limit the popular protests that could produce an alternative. Guatemala became the national security state par excellence. Cycles of repression followed by limited democratic openings mirrored the levels of tension in the Cold War internationally.

Secondly, the state was militarised:

Nearly all of Guatemala's constitutionally elected presidents after 1954 came from a military background and had firm military support - or got such support, as did Mendez [1966-1970] by signing a pact with the army. During long periods of supposedly civilian rule ... effective power remained in the hands of the military.

Thirdly, the reversal of the land reform and the subsequent expansion of the agroexport sector left Guatemala with the most skewed distribution of land in Latin America. The last comprehensive land survey, undertaken by USAID in 1979, showed that 89.8 per cent of Guatemala's farms were smaller than the minimum necessary to support the average family:

The cry for land is without any doubt the loudest, most insistent and most desperate cry to be heard in Guatemala.

Finally, and as a consequence of the above, the political space to represent the demands of the landless poor was so restricted that illegal resistance often became the only possible form of opposition to the inequalities engendered by the régime. The first guerrilla movement appeared in 1962, a movement which developed after a failed nationalist uprising by military officers against the government of Ydígoras Fuentes in 1960. It grew with the support of poor, mainly non- indigenous (ladino) peasants in the east of the country but was largely wiped out by a counter- insurgency campaign in 1966-7.

During the 1970s, large numbers of landless Mayan peasants migrated to virgin lands in the rain forests on the borders of Mexico. Land colonisation programmes were promoted by the U.S. Agency for International Development and a series of cooperatives were set up separately on land bought by U.S. Maryknoll priests. Tensions in this area grew as military landowners attempted to encroach on land belonging to the settlers. The beginnings of new guerrilla activity in these areas provided the excuse for a repression of the church cooperatives which began as selective arrests and ended in the wholesale massacre of communities.

The political and military repression of peasant, union and church-linked organizations by the military government of Lucas García (1978-1982) led large numbers of their members to swell the ranks of the new armed opposition, particularly in the Mayan highlands. At the height of the military offensive by the guerrillas, they were said to have up to 6-8,000 armed fighters and up to half a million active supporters operating in most departments of the country. In 1982, the four guerrilla movements formed a unified military and diplomatic command as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Nacional Revolucionaria Guatemalteca - URNG).

The army's response was one unprecedented in the region. A scorched-earth counterinsurgency war in the highlands from 1981-1983 aimed to literally depopulate the Mayan areas where the guerrillas were operating. The offensive intensified after March 1982, when General Ríos Montt took state power in a coup d'état. The vast majority of today's refugees and internally displaced were victims of these military offensives. Entire sectors of the population became military targets and over 440 villages were completely destroyed, leaving at least 100,000 civilians killed or 'disappeared'. In addition to the massacres, there were huge forced relocations of people and large areas of the highlands were destroyed to deny physical cover to the guerrillas.


The scale of the Guatemalan genocide made the country an international pariah. By 1983, a significant sector of the army was convinced of the need to return to civilian rule. A new constitution was promulgated by the military government of General Mejía Victores in 1985 and presidential elections brought to power a civilian president, Vinicio Cerezo of the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiana - PDC), with 67 per cent of the vote. The elections were internationally welcomed, especially for being free of fraud. The U.S. State Department described the elections as 'the final step in the reestablishment of democracy'.

Nationally and internationally, hopes were raised by the return to civilian rule. During the election campaign, promises were made about land reform, demilitarization and a negotiated return of the refugees. New social movements were created in order to take advantage of the democratic space representing indigenous people, women, the displaced, trade unionists and the victims of the armed conflict in general. Unfortunately, following Cerezo's election, the power of the military and the private sector proved too great for any substantial changes to take place.

2.1 Human Rights and the Continuing Power of the Military

While the large scale massacres were largely over by 1984, the civil war continued. A consolidation of military control of rural areas went hand in hand with the return to democracy. As the army's forces advanced into guerrilla held territory, they set up new military bases and created so called development poles (polos de desarrollo) in areas of conflict. These poles were comprised of newly constructed population centres, known as model villages, and reception centres for refugees and displaced people returning from the mountains after the scorched earth campaign. Within development poles, Inter-Institutional Coordinating Councils (Coordinadores Inter-Institucionales) centralised the administration of development and infrastructure projects.

In addition, the villages were militarised by a system of civil defence patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil - PAC). All males over sixteen years old were required to serve in these patrols. Although supposedly a voluntary organization, failure to volunteer meant being branded a guerrilla sympathiser. At their height, there were 900,000 patrollers in Guatemala, described by Lord Avebury, a British peer, as the 'only example in recorded history when an army of occupation has been forged out of a native population'. Typically, patrol duty consisted of guarding the village, checking the identification of everyone entering and reporting anything suspicious to the civil patrol commander, who in turn, reported to the nearest military base. Patrols were also involved in periodic sweeps of the local countryside to search for guerrilla units. The patrols, together with the system of military commissioners, civilians responsible for army recruitment in each village, became the eyes and ears of the army.

Army control extended to the land itself. The army prohibited the cultivation of large tracts of land located in conflict areas. In other areas, farmers were allowed to travel to their fields to plant crops but were not allowed to resettle in their villages. Sometimes they were accompanied to their crops by civil patrollers. In addition, the army began an extensive campaign to resettle abandoned lands. Resettlement improved the army's image: some 2,000 land titles were awarded to peasants in the most conflict-ridden areas by the end of 1985. Most of the land being resettled was national land previously colonised and belonging to peasants who were now in refugee camps or internally displaced. The National Institute of Agrarian Transformation (Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria - INTA) allowed the resettlement, arguing that the land's previous owners had 'voluntarily abandoned' their land. The resettlement helped to cover up physical evidence of the large-scale violence. It also contributed to the army's larger strategy of control: '[these lands] are being deliberately resettled by the army with those they have handpicked, who will stay there on army terms and replace those who the army considered "troublemakers".'

Thus, in large areas of the country, the army became the most visible authority of the Guatemalan state. The new institutions were legalised by the 1985 Constitution and President Cerezo confirmed his approval of the development poles and civil patrols by inaugurating the Chisec development pole in Alta Verapaz. The Inter-Institutional Coordinators were formally replaced by Councils of Development under civilian governors but the army's National Reconstruction Committee maintained a high degree of control over their work to ensure that development work promoted the army's project of national security. The civil patrols were renamed Voluntary Civil Defence Committees, but by 1988 there were still around 700,000 patrollers.

Military power was confirmed under civilian rule by the failure of the Cerezo government to undertake any investigation into human rights violations by the security forces during the military governments. Decree 08-86, passed before Vinicio Cerezo assumed the presidency, granted an amnesty for all crimes committed by the security forces after 1982. Even before he was elected, he made no promises on this issue and was quoted as saying that if investigation into the past took place, 'we would have to put the whole army in jail'. This failure left the structures of military power intact, and over Cerezo's four year term the numbers of human rights violations attributed to the security forces steadily increased. By 1989, the U.S. based Council on Hemispheric Affairs was naming Guatemala once again the worst human rights violator in Latin America. The violations took a number of forms, from death threats against leaders of human rights organizations and church leaders proposing land reform to the murder and disappearance of students, trade unionists, political leaders and members of other social movements. The killings were highly selective: leaders of organizations who had international support were allowed to continue their work while key local organisers were assassinated creating a generalised atmosphere of fear which demobilised democratic organization.

The failure to investigate previous human rights violations made it difficult to investigate the new wave of violence. In July 1990, USAID terminated its judicial reform programme in Guatemala. It's director, Philip Heymann, blamed the lack of willingness on the part of senior military and civilian authorities to investigate cases of political violence. Referring to a series of student murders in August and September 1989, he declared that 'nothing was done, not the slightest effort was made, to mount a vigorous and determined investigation of the student killings'.

President Cerezo's replacement in 1991 by a second elected civilian, Jorge Serrano, made little difference to the human rights situation and the militarization of the country. Despite successive recommendations by UN Special Experts on Human Rights, the civil patrols remained in existence and the government failed to demilitarise government and judicial institutions. As late as December 1992, after six years of civilian rule, UN Special Expert Professor Christian Tomuschat had to to report that:

The internal armed conflict which has affected Guatemala for many years now is continuing. Because of the conflict, the armed forces are the only authority present in vast areas of the national territory, especially in the rural areas where military detachments have installed themselves, together with the military commissioners and the civilian self-defence patrols (PAC)

2.2 Hopes for a Negotiated Refugee Return from Mexico

Of the at least 100,000 refugees who fled across Guatemala's northern border to Mexico, around 46,000 were officially recognised by UNHCR and the Mexican government. Most of these refugees initially fled to Chiapas State, but in 1984, UNHCR and the Mexican government agency COMAR (Comisión de Ayuda a Refugiados - Commission to Aid Refugees) transferred thousands of refugees from Chiapas to larger refugee camps in the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo. Individual repatriation began in 1984 but the numbers were small. Returning refugees found themselves subject to army interrogation and detention. Repatriated refugees were unable to recover the homes and land they had left behind and were often granted disputed alternative land titles or were settled on lands subject to flooding and erosion.

New hopes were raised by the Central America peace plan signed in August 1987 in the Guatemalan town of Esquipulas by the five Central American presidents. Esquipulas II, as it came to be known, called for parallel peace processes in all of the Central American countries. The accord identified displacement as a priority area and point 8 urged that the needs of the displaced should be attended to with urgency. Esquipulas II provided the basis for a mass repatriation process in neighbouring El Salvador in the late 1980s which in turn, raised hopes among the refugees for a similar process in Guatemala. In December 1987, the refugee communities in Mexico established the Permanent Commissions (Comisiónes Permanentes - CCPP) to plan a collective repatriation and to present demands to the government. Hopes were high for a negotiated return, particularly since President Cerezo had established a Special Commission for the Assistance of Repatriates (Comisión Especial de Atención a Repatriados - CEAR) in 1986.

In January 1989, the Permanent Commissions presented a series of six conditions for an organised return of the refugees. The return was to be voluntary with the rights of returnees to return to and take possession of their lands secured. The rights of refugees to free association, to life and to personal integrity were to be recognised. The government was to allow the return to be accompanied by international and national organizations and the Permanent Commissions were to be allowed freedom of movement both nationally and internationally. However, the government refused to negotiate with the Permanent Commissions until over a year later. The first concrete result of these negotiations was the repatriation of around 350 refugees from the El Tesoro refugee camp in Honduras to a private estate bought by the government in Alta Verapaz province.

Negotiations for the return were supposed to run parallel to negotiations to end the internal armed conflict that had created the problem. However, the army were now unwilling to allow negotiations to take place, particularly at a time when they had launched new military offensives (September 1987 and 1988) in an attempt to defeat the URNG militarily. The URNG, who had abandoned hopes of insurrection, had started to see the armed conflict as a means to force the government and army into negotiations. In response to international pressure, an initial meeting took place between the government and the URNG in Madrid in October 1987, but the dialogue rapidly lapsed due to the army's resistance. It was not until March 1990 that a URNG delegation met with the National Commission for Reconciliation (Comisión Nacional de Reconciliación - CNR), a body set up by the government under the terms of Esquipulas II. This meeting decided that, through a series of meetings sponsored by the CNR, the URNG would meet with the country's key economic, social and political groups. The aim of these meetings was to lay the foundation for direct talks between the government, the army and the URNG.

The initiation of negotiations for the return of refugees began at around the same time as these talks. The change of government policy was due to a variety of factors. The army offensives had failed in their objective of defeating the URNG militarily. President Cerezo's government had become discredited internationally and this was threatening both military and humanitarian aid. In addition, an important sector of the army believed that in the international context of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, negotiations with the URNG would simply involve their disarming and integration into political life. Parallel with this change of strategy, it made sense for the government to begin direct negotiations with the refugees in Mexico since the return of the refugees would give the failing democratic government a good deal of international credibility. CEAR's promotion of individual and family repatriations had resulted in the return of only 5,700 refugees during the four years of President Cerezo's government. The negotiations also increased the chances that Guatemala would receive a share of the sizeable quantities of international aid promised for refugee returns in Central America in the wake of Esquipulas II.

Protracted negotiations between the Permanent Commissions and the government, represented by CEAR, resulted in an accord signed in October 1992 based on the six conditions of the Permanent Commissions. The signing of the accord marked the first time in the hemisphere that refugees voluntarily returning to a country with an unresolved civil war, did so on the basis of a bilateral agreement with the government. The agreement was comprehensive but contained two flaws. One concerned the accord's omission of any reference to the militarization surrounding communities of returnees. While returnees were free to refuse to participate in civil patrols, the patrols and military barracks were not prevented from locating close to any settlements of returnees. This created possibilities of army-returnee confrontation, particularly as the refugees were considered by the government as the social base of the URNG guerrillas. Secondly, one of the weakest parts of the accord was the agreement on land. The agreement states that in cases where refugees have title to land that has since been occupied by someone else, the government will negotiate with the occupiers to leave. If that fails, either the refugee can take a legal case against the occupants or the government promises to find land of equal status. However, no guarantees were provided in the agreement for the population that might be evicted. The scene was set for land disputes between the returnees and the peasants who had been given title to the land belonging to them.

2.3 Internal Displacement and Communities in Resistance

The refugees received a great deal of international attention and protection by crossing the Guatemalan border. The million or so internally displaced people were in many ways more vulnerable. They live in a wide variety of circumstances. Many fled to the Southern Coast plantations where, as citizens without documentation, many were hired to work on farms at lower than even the small minimum wage. Others fled to the capital, swelling the numbers in the shanty towns and limited by linguistic and cultural barriers from finding work and housing. Still another group was moved into model villages by the army. Non-governmental organizations have found it dangerous to work with internally displaced populations. For example, Myrna Elizabeth Mack Chang, an anthropologist who was investigating the conditions of displaced populations in conflict areas, was stabbed to death outside her office in September 1990. The National Council of Displaced Guatemalans (Consejo Nacional de Desplazados de Guatemala - CONDEG), founded in September 1989, is a grassroots organization working with the displaced, trying to gain identity documents, land and work for displaced communities all over the country. However, its leaders have received a good deal of harrassment including threats and disappearances and it faced difficulties in trying to work in development poles given the army control over NGO activity in those areas.


While most of those fleeing the army repression of the early 1980s escaped from the conflict areas, some 50,000 indigenous peasants escaped into areas of refuge as yet not under the control of the army. These communities, which called themselves the Communities of Peoples in Resistance (Comunidades de Poblaciones en Resistencia - CPR), remained hidden in three areas of the country: the jungle area of Ixcán in the north of Quiche province, the mountains of the Ixil triangle, also in Quiche, and the jungles of Peten province. They refused to participate in civil patrols or to collaborate in any way with the army and for this reason they faced continuous army harrassment, bombings and destruction of crops. Without the international protection afforded by refugee status, they were forced to live a semi-nomadic existence, ready to move their whole communities at a few minutes notice in response to army attacks. Army offensives in 1987-89 forced an exodus of around 5,000 people from the CPR refuge zones. However, there were still around 23,000 people in the CPRs of Ixcán and the Ixil triangle by the middle of 1992.


In September 1990, the Ixil CPRs broke the silence which had surrounded their communities. Within months the Ixcán and Peten CPRs followed suit. In public statements, they announced their existence as displaced persons living in conflict areas and called for national and international support for recognition of their status as civilians. It was a risky strategy since their public demands antagonised the army at the same time as giving away more precise descriptions of the location of their communities. Following their announcement, numerous national and international delegations visited the area to verify the conditions in which they lived and the human rights violations they were subjected to. The army justified the continuing repression of the CPRs on the grounds that the CPRs were communities linked to the URNG. Yet:

Regarding the military authorities' claim that the CPRs are groups of [forcibly] 'retained' people, the Commission has listened to evidence and found that there is no reliable proof indicating that the communities or their members are retained by the guerrillas or by their own authorities.

The OAS' verdict reiterated similar statements by the UN Special Expert on Human Rights and resolutions passed by the UN Human Rights Commission which called for both warring parties to 'respect the rules of international humanitarian law in the internal armed conflict and to refrain from activities that may seriously endanger the rights of the great majority of Guatemalans, who are not involved in this conflict'.

In May 1988, President Cerezo broadened the mandate of CEAR to include the internally displaced. However neither his government nor that of his successor, President Serrano, proved willing to negotiate with the CPRs since it would have involved interfering directly with the military counter-insurgency strategy. However, even if the problems of military repression were to be resolved through a successfully concluded peace process, the land problems facing the CPRs would remain. They are similar to those facing the refugees in Mexico. Many CPR members in the Ixcán were landowners in cooperatives before the repression began. Their land was systematically resettled by the army with landless families from other areas. Similarly, in the Ixil triangle, where there is a lack of land titles and much of the land is possessed 'de facto', the mistrust between the CPRs and the neighbouring army-controlled communities is a serious problem. Neither the CPRs in this area nor the neighbouring communities have adequate legal safeguards to ensure control over their land.


Despite the continuing human rights crisis, President Serrano's government (1991-3) seemed to be presiding over a slow but inexorable move towards a peace settlement with the URNG which would allow a massive return of the refugees and some kind of resolution of the causes of the armed conflict and associated displacement. New sectors of the economy, particularly those associated with tourism, which has been the third biggest source of foreign exchange since 1989, saw the war as potentially damaging to their prospects. The end of the Cold War also took away one of the rationales behind the militarization of the country, namely the protection against international communism. Also, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchú, a Mayan human rights activist, in the face of public opposition by the Guatemalan government, provided an important boost to the demands of the social movements. The army began to fragment into factions, with a hard line group opposing negotiations and maintaining its belief in a military solution to the armed conflict and a more sophisticated faction which believed that the army would achieve its goals more effectively by participating in negotiations. These divisions explain the paradox that peace negotiations continued while, at the same time, there was an increasing level of killings, bombings and other human rights violations.

3.1 Peace Negotiations - Round One

During 1990, the URNG leadership met with representatives of political parties (May), the business sector (September), the churches (September), the popular movement (October) and cooperatives, small businesses and academics (October). The meetings were presided over by Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, President of the CNR. However, following these meetings, the army refused to accept a meeting between the URNG, government and army, as had been agreed in the initial meeting in Oslo. By this stage, President Cerezo's government was so weak that it was unable or unwilling to persuade the army high command to change its mind.

Following President Serrano's election, the army entered the negotiations. At an initial meeting in April 1991 in Mexico City, an accord was signed establishing the agenda of the negotiations. It consisted of eleven points:

1.         Democratization and human rights

2.         Strengthening of civilian power

3.         Identity and rights of indigenous peoples

4.         Constitutional reforms

5.         Socio-economic aspects

6.         The agrarian situation

7.         Resettlement of populations uprooted by the armed conflict

8.         The incorporation of the URNG into the political system

9.         Arrangements for a definitive ceasefire

10.       Timing of the implementation and verification of the accords

11.       The signing of a firm and lasting peace.

The idea was that accords would be signed on each point leading to their implementation following the signing of the final agreement.

Talks on the first point of the agenda started positively, with an initial agreement signed on democratization in July 1991. Deadlock was rapidly reached on the discussion of human rights, however. The disagreements centred on the setting up of a truth commission to investigate human rights violations after 1978, the abolition of the civil patrols, the application of international humanitarian law to the armed conflict and the date of entry into force of the agreement. Direct dialogue was suspended while Bishop Quezada Toruño engaged in a series of 'shuttle' meetings between each of the parties. The dialogue resumed in August 1992, over a year after the previous agreement was signed. A preliminary agreement was signed concerning the civil patrols, under which the government agreed unilaterally not to encourage the organization or arming of new patrols while the human rights ombudsman was to verify whether patrol members were compelled to join the patrols. This agreement attracted criticism from the social movement who were demanding the abolition of the patrols in line with the recommendations of the UN experts.

By the end of 1992, Bishop Quezada Toruño stated that there were only three obstacles to the signing of the accord: the truth commission, the date of entry into force of the agreement and its international verification. Negotiations continued into 1993 but were broken off by the government on 5 May 1993. Manuel Conde, head of the government delegation, announced that they would win the war by military means.

The continuing deadlock and the failure of the sides to agree an accord on human rights while the social violence in the country continued, gave more power to hardline groups within the army. By 1993, President Serrano was repeatedly threatening to 'do a Fujimori' and take emergency powers to stabilise the country. This would enable the army to wipe out the guerrilla movement and remove those individuals, communities and organizations it saw as its civilian base without any of the national and international restrictions imposed by a formally democratic government.

3.2 The Refugee Return to Victoria 20 de Enero

The threat of a coup coincided with the first collective return of refugees from Mexico under the 1992 accord. On 20 January 1993, 560 families returned to the Polígono Catorce farm in Ixcán, close to the CPR-Ixcán communities on the Mexican border. The returnee community was named Victoria 20 de Enero. It was originally envisaged as a transitional base from which groups of refugees acquiring land could move out, and the lack of land on the site created a dependence on humanitarian aid. Nonetheless, the first return was an extremely important symbolic event which could have proved a turning point in the process of national reconciliation. However, only weeks after their return, the army began an offensive in the CPR-Ixcán communities which forced all seven communities to flee their settlements into the jungle. In the wake of aerial bombings and advancing troops, over 700 people fled over the border into Mexico. More than once, army troops followed the fleeing communities over the border and, on one occasion, they were stopped by Mexican troops accompanying UNHCR officials causing a minor diplomatic incident.

The paradox of refugees returning home while neighbouring communities were fleeing from continued conflict over the border reflected the untenable tension between the publicly stated desire of the government for peace and the army's policy of a military solution to the war. This tension was resolved by President Serrano's auto-coup on 25 May 1993. The President closed the Congress, the Supreme Court and the Attorney General's office and suspended a broad range of constitutional rights. Given Guatemala's history, many expected the worst: a new round of military rule and repression which would in turn create a new humanitarian crisis.

In fact, one week later, President Serrano was forced to resign. A combination of strong popular protest in Guatemala City and determined international pressure forced the military to back down for the first time since they had taken power in 1954.

Fearing that Guatemala's events would derail the peace process in El Salvador, the US threatened to block IMF and World Bank loans. This measure panicked the business sector, and when CACIF condemned the coup, the game was up.

Once again, as in 1954, the US were to determine the outcome. This time, however, they were opposed to their former allies, the military. Perhaps the most significant point about the events of that week was that they proved that the military was not as independent of international pressure as had been previously assumed: there were limits beyond which it was unacceptable for the generals to go.

A week after President Serrano's resignation, on 5 June, the Guatemalan Congress confirmed Ramiro de León Carpio, previously the human rights ombudsman, as President, resolving the constitutional crisis. A new opportunity had been provided to resolve the armed conflict and associated human rights crisis through negotiations. The new President had played an important role under both civilian presidents in criticising human rights violations by the security forces and had publicly supported the abolition of the civil patrols. The social movements who had played an important part in resisting the coup, were also poised in the new atmosphere to play a part in the process while the military looked weaker than at any period since 1954.


The opportunity for the new President to take decisive action was rapidly lost. Without a political party and therefore lacking an independent base of support, President de León rapidly turned to the army. In the countryside, this meant the civil patrols. Less than two months after becoming president, he spoke at a demonstration of 5,000 patrollers and became the first civilian president to publicly identify himself with them. After years of supporting their abolition, he became their leading advocate. Instead of tackling the human rights situation, he embroiled himself in a political conflict in an attempt to purge the Congress and the Supreme Court of corrupt members and justices. The ensuing struggle paralysed the political process for nearly a year, allowing the military to once again gain the upper hand over a civilian president.

Acts regarded internationally as serious violations of human rights - enforced or involuntary disappearances, summary or extra-judicial executions, torture - are still taking place in Guatemala and no appropriate political or legal measures have been adopted. Putting an end to them depends on political will, and penalising them depends on the legal will, to do so. This is all possible in a democratic setting. It is enough simply to take the decision.

Certain significant reforms did take place, including the demilitarization of the police and the setting up of a special police unit to investigate human rights violations. Also, the Security Directorate of the Presidential Guard, identified by Amnesty International as 'the centre of the Guatemalan government's programme of 'disappearances' and political murder.' was dismantled. However, the architects of the reforms, Police Chief Mario Rene Cifuentes and Interior Minister Arnoldo Ortiz Moscoso, were removed from office in February and March 1994 and replaced by officials associated with army hardliners. In addition, it is widely suspected that the files of the Security Directorate were simply transferred to the department of military intelligence (D2). Human rights violations continued, as exemplified by one of the most high profile killings of recent years. On 1 April 1994, Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubón, President of the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial authority, was murdered with automatic weapons.

4.1 Peace Negotiations - Round Two

Since the background to the May coup included the military's reluctance to continue the negotiations process, the new government faced significant international pressure to put the negotiations back on track. On 7 July, President De León outlined his future policy. The negotiations were to be divided into two sections: a peace forum in Guatemala chaired by Bishop Quezada Toruño to deal with the agenda items considered as causes of the armed conflict and a second forum outside Guatemala, with the assistance of UN mediation, in which the government and the URNG would define the necessary procedures (ceasefire, demobilization etc.) to bring the armed conflict to an end. The proposal recognised the need to bring civil society into the negotiations process since the peace forum was to be composed of representatives of different sectors of Guatemalan society. However, it lacked detail, particularly on how the peace forum discussing substantive issues would relate to the procedural negotiations involving the URNG.

The plan was presented in detail to the UN General Assembly in September. However, it was rejected by the URNG on the grounds that it ignored the agreements and the negotiations of the previous three years. More surprisingly, it was also rejected by the majority of organised sectors of civil society. In contrast, the army and the business sectors (CACIF) accepted it. Following meetings and more 'shuttle' negotiations, the government and the URNG finally, on 10 January 1994, concluded a framework agreement for the resumption of the dialogue. The framework accepted the accords signed so far but modified the mechanism of dealing with the remaining agenda items. Under the agreement, an Assembly of Civilian Sectors (Asamblea de los Sectores Civiles - ASC) would be convened, open to all legal non-governmental organizations. The Assembly would discuss each of the themes of the negotiations and present a set of consensus proposals which would form the basis of separate talks between the goverment, army and URNG. The Assembly was chaired by Bishop Quezada Toruño while the UN moderated the talks between the parties to the conflict. This reflected the increasing interest on the part of the international community in a successful conclusion to the process, an interest further emphasised by the formal involvement of the governments of Colombia, Mexico, Norway, Spain, the U.S. and Venezuela as a 'Group of Friends of the Peace Process'.

The talks were initiated with the signing, on 29 March 1994, of both the Human Rights Accord, which the two sides had been close to agreeing on before the coup, and a timetable which would lead to the signing of a final peace by the end of the year. The Accord was a detailed document which committed the government not just to a general respect for human rights, but to implementing detailed measures for strengthening the judiciary and modernising the penal code to ensure punishment for human rights violators and an end to the generalised impunity enjoyed by the armed forces. The question of the truth commission and the civil patrols was left pending for future negotiations. However, there was a breakthrough on the issue of international verification of the accord, with the parties agreeing to ask the UN to provide a mission to verify human rights and compliance with the commitments of the accord. This was a significant step since the experience of neighbouring El Salvador was that once an accord on human rights was signed and the UN mission was in place, neither side was able to stop the momentum towards peace.

Negotiations continued in Oslo, where, on 17 June 1994, an agreement on resettlement of the population groups uprooted by the armed conflict was signed. This accord refers to the refugees and the displaced, including the CPRs. It provides a series of guarantees for the security of resettled populations, most significantly with respect to land rights. The government agreed to promote judicial security of land tenure by the displaced including the recognition that land abandoned during the violence was not abandoned voluntarily. The accord also set the terms of reference for a resettlement strategy involving the provision of land (either land owned by the displaced or alternative land provided by the government), credit facilities and the development infrastructure to enable a successful reintegration of the displaced population. The execution of this strategy was put in the hands of a technical commission composed of representatives of government, the displaced populations and international donors. However, unlike the human rights accord, this accord will only enter into effect after the final peace is signed. In the interim, the technical commission is to prepare the necessary projects based on evaluations of needs and availability of land and resources.

The following week, on 23 June 1994, the parties signed an agreement on the establishment of a 'Commission for the historical clarification of human rights violations and acts of violence which have caused suffering to the Guatemalan people'. This agreement, which will establish a Truth Commission after the peace agreement is signed, fell far short of the proposal of the Assembly of Civilian Sectors (ASC). Criticisms from human rights groups pointed out that the work, recommendations and report of the Commission will not 'individualise responsibilities' nor will they 'have legal objectives or effects'. In other words, individuals will not be named and the agreement has already decided that the Commission will make no recommendations on prosecutions. This could effectively sanction impunity for human rights violators. It was an agreement which reflected the continuing ability of the Guatemalan military to protect their own interests.

Following these agreements, the negotiations stagnated. The URNG published documents denouncing the deteriorating human rights situation and accusing the government of violating the human rights accord. In particular, they referred to military harrassment of returnees and displaced people, continuing forced recruitment and campaigns of intimidation by civil patrols. Military actions by the URNG increased in frequency during this period and it was not until after the UN General Assembly authorised the establishment of its verification mission, on 19 September 1994, that small delegations began to meet again. Deployment of the mission, known as the UN Mission in Guatemala (Misión de Naciones Unidas en Guatemala - MINUGUA), during November and December, eased the tension by providing an ostensibly independent arbitrator of accusations by the two sides.

Full negotiations were resumed on 20 October in Mexico City. However, the discussions, on the theme of the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, provoked serious disagreement and it became clear that the timetable of a signed peace by the end of 1994 was unrealistic. By 18 December, four rounds of talks had failed, with disagreements reported on the proposed ratification of the ILO Convention 169 on indigenous peoples, the question of regional and linguistic autonomy and the constitutional recognition of the Maya.

The differences reflected once again the fundamental differences between the two sides as to the nature of the negotiations:

Of course the agreements signed between the government and the URNG have no consitutional basis. It is only after peace is signed that we can really solve the serious problems affecting our country.

The URNG are under pressure from the international community to sign a peace agreement quickly. What many do not understand is that the negotiations are dealing with problems which have never been tackled in our country.

However, both sides now recognise the need to complete the peace process soon if they are not to lose the vital support of the international donor community in the reconstruction after the war is over. Following direct intervention by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and a visit in January 1995 by UN Undersecretary-General Marrack Goulding to meet President De León and the URNG commanders, a new timetable was drawn up under which a final agreement is due to be signed in August 1995. Talks on the basis of a UN draft led to the signing of an agreement on indigenous rights on 31 March. The accord commits the government to the constitutional and practical recognition of Mayan languages and culture within all institutions of the state, most significantly in the judiciary and the education system. In addition, the accord recognises the rights of the indigenous communities of Guatemala to ownership of communal lands and commits the government to measures to return previously expropriated land.

4.2 Refugees and Internally Displaced: Security and Land Concerns

Advances in the peace talks bore little relation to events in Guatemala itself. Part of the problem was the fact that most of the accords will only be implemented after the final peace agreement is signed. The only exception, the human rights accord, made little immediate difference to the human rights situation in Guatemala. Reports from the UN Independent Expert, the US State Department and the Archbishop's Human Rights Office (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado - ODHA) showed that the human rights situation did not improve during 1994. The ODHA reported 355 extrajudicial executions during the year, compared to 248 in 1993 and 204 in 1992. Even the presence of MINUGUA, with its 220 international staff, 60 police observers and 10 military liaison officers, deployed in offices all over the country, has failed so far to remove the climate of violence and fear. Their first report, issued on 13 March 1995, 'verified the existence of a high and persistent number of grave human rights violations, violations which, almost in their entirety, remain without response by competent authorities'. In some cases, the report outlined preliminary evidence pointing to the police, army or people under its control as responsible.

However, in spite of the violence, the return of refugees continued. To facilitate the return, the Permanent Commissions (CCPP) divided into three branches (vertientes) according to the areas of the country they planned to return to: the North Western vertiente, organising returns to Quiche, Huehuetenango and part of Alta Verapaz provinces, a Northern vertiente organisng returns to Peten and the Verapaces, and a Southern vertiente organising returns to the South Coast. By February 1995, all the returns had been organised by the North Western vertiente. Undoubtedly, part of the strategy of this vertiente was to achieve a kind of de facto reconciliation whereby the presence of returnees in areas of conflict, with the protection and presence of international agencies, would in itself help to ease some of the tensions.

The first new returns were to Pueblo Nuevo, in the middle of the conflict area where the Ixcán- CPRs remained in hiding (on 8 December 1993) and to Chaculá farm in Nenton, Huehuetenango (on 12 January 1994). In support of the vertiente's strategy, the CPR -Ixcán communities came out from refuge to resettle the villages they lived in before they were forced into hiding twelve years earlier. In their announcement, on 2 February 1994, representatives explained their decision as a 'necessary step to force the government and the army to respect us as campesinos [peasants]'. Another factor changing the scenario in the highlands was the slow trickle of displaced people, for years under the control of the army in model villages, back to their own villages. The flows were small, anonymous and without humanitiarian assistance but by the early 1990s some model villages in the Ixil triangle area had begun to dissolve.

The next return, on 13 May, involved an airlift to resettle refugees in the new CPR villages. The military and the government were unhappy about the returns, as communities of returnees were in a position to interfere with and denounce the continuing counter-insurgency methods being employed. Referring to the 13 May return, when returnees had refused to continue their journey until the local military base was removed, President de León commented: 'If they choose to return to combat areas, there must be the presence of the army and it is thus impossible to meet their demands that the army pull out'. Army spokesmen went further, reiterating their charges that the CPR and the refugees were mouthpieces for the guerrillas. Nonetheless, the base was removed: the strategy of invoking international protection to create demilitarization of conflict areas seemed to be working.

The returns continued: on 15 October 1994, 90 families returned by air to the Xamán estate in Chisec, Alt Verapaz. On 18 November, 216 families returned to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in Alta Verapaz, and on 29 November, 38 more families returned to the Ixcán. While there have been a number of cases of civil patrol harrassment of returnees by neighbouring communities, their survival has on the whole been guaranteed with one grim exception. On 27 October, the body of Manuel Lopez, a 30 year old returnee, was found in the community of Veracruz, Ixcán. His murder was the first killing of a Guatemalan returnee and the lack of serious investigation by the local judicial authorities is a demonstration of how fragile the conditions of security are for the returnee community as a whole.

The numbers of returnees so far have been relatively small compared to the numbers in Mexico. According to UNHCR, around 20,000 refugees have returned to Guatemala over the last ten years. However, around the same number of children have been born in the refugee camps, leaving the number of officially recognised refugees in Mexico at over 40,000. These figures do not include the refugees not registered as official refugees, 25,000 of whom have been organised by the Association of Dispersed Guatemalan Refugees (Asociación de Refugiados Dispersos de Guatemala - ARDIGUA). The relatively slow pace of returns is mainly due to delays by the government over the provison of loans and authorization to buy land and the failure to resolve land disputes between returnees and communities resettled on their land by the army. In Ixcán, for example, in an area of seven communities of smallholdings administered by the governmental agrarian institute (INTA), the government has failed to help the refugees and displaced people who are owners of smallholdings to recover their lands, in violation of the 1992 accord.

The returns of the Southern and Northern vertientes have been paralysed by the difficulties of land acquisition. The Southern vertiente, for example, spent more than a year in an attempt to buy fertile lands on the southern coast in order to escape the vicious cycle of poverty in the communities of the highlands. While the government has never formally said that that the only lands which the refugees can have access to are the cheapest, and therefore the poorest, it eventually denied the requests of the vertientes on the grounds of cost. Rumours abounded that the land owners on the coast have also had an influence in preventing refugee returns to this area. The Northern vertiente has been trying for over a year to return to a farm within the Mayan Biosphere in Peten province, an area protected by law on ecological grounds. They have been negotiating with CEAR and the National Council of Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas - CONAP) for permission to settle the El Quetzal farm. The refugees argue that CONAP has done nothing to stop the illegal trade in woods and drug-trafficking across the border with Mexico and thus has no grounds for preventing the return.

By February 1995, the problems faced by all three vertientes were coming to a head. The armed conflict in Chiapas was creating additional pressures for return to take place as soon as possible. Occupations of Guatemalan consulates in Quintana Roo and Campeche as well as of the INTA offices in Guatemala City were organised by the vertientes as a way of putting pressure on the government. Also, on 16 February, an advance group of 26 families began an unaided return with the aim of illegally occupying the southern coast farms denied them by the government. The government reacted immediately. On the afternoon of 16 February, an agreement was reached through which the government agreed to purchase one of the farms by 10 March. Agreement was also reached with the Northern vertiente, with CONAP agreeing to allow the resettlement of 20 per cent of the area of the El Quetzal farm. The North Western vertiente reached an agreement with CEAR and INTA in which the government agreed to offer alternative lands to the people settled on land belonging to the returnees.

There is little doubt that the returns will continue to involve protests of this kind and limited government concessions. The government faces an enormous problem since the refugees are one of many different populations which face the problem of lack of land. The granting of concessions to the returnees, due to the national and international pressure which they can mobilise, creates demands from other groups and it is no coincidence that the last few months have seen a massive increase in the numbers of illegal land occupations, organised by peasant groups impatient for concrete results from the peace process. Over 104 farms have been taken over in the countryside, inevitably followed by police evictions and associated violence. The ability of any government in Guatemala to manage the demands for land is going to be limited by the sheer scale of the problem and the historic refusal of landowners and the military to consider the kind of land reform that would be necessary to resolve the conflicts. The history of Guatemala since 1954 is returning to haunt the would-be peacemakers in Guatemala, since for over 40 years land reform has been equated with communism. While the option of a coup is no longer viable, the possible candidature of Ríos Montt for presidential elections this autumn is an ominous sign of the continuing possibility that the whole process could easily go into reverse.


The prospects look mixed in Guatemala for a successfully concluded peace process. There have certainly been significant advances over the last two years with detailed agreements signed by both sides on human rights, displaced peoples and indigenous rights. Both parties now recognise the need to complete the negotiations and it is not wildly optimistic to hope for a final peace to be signed by early 1996. The presence of MINUGUA, assuming that its mandate continues to be renewed, should, over a period of time, help to transform the atmosphere of fear inside the country and allow people to express their demands without the repression which it has always brought in its wake.

Within Guatemala, however, there is little sign of the commitments from the negotiating table transforming the reality on the ground. Human rights violations continue and seem to be getting worse while the impunity of the security forces, continually written about by international observers, has hardly been touched. The resettlement of displaced people and the return of the refugees is taking place but so slowly that, taking into account the children born in Mexico, the number of refugees has remained roughly constant. As social demands start being made more forcefully, the structural inequalities which were kept in place by military repression for almost half a century are becoming more visible and the scale of the task of removing them is becoming clear. The question pending is whether the agroexport elite and their military allies will allow the peace accords to be implemented, which would mean giving up a significant amount of power, or whether they will obstruct the process, generating such a level of social chaos that the electorate will turn to Ríos Montt as a candidate of law and order.

The answer to this question is not as yet clear, but there are two hopeful signs. Firstly, there are elements of the military who have publicly recognised that without a resolution of the present armed conflict, the genuine possibility exists of a new guerrilla movement taking root in the next century. The Zapatista uprising across the border in Mexico has shown how feasible it is to return to the armed struggle. The difference in Guatemala is that a new guerrilla movement would be an indigenous guerrilla fighting not for social justice but for a Mayan state. The experience of nationalist wars of this kind in other parts of the world may be enough to convince the Guatemalan elite that it is worthing paying a price for peace now.

Secondly, the recent revelations of CIA involvement in the Guatemalan apparatus of military repression, and the possible consequence that the military will lose their support from the Agency is potentially a very positive signal from Washington. It suggests that Guatemala's important neighbour is also concerned to ensure that there is no further sabotage of the Guatemalan peace process. Given the U.S. strategic interest in stability on the southern border of the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), it would make sense if they were to promote some kind of genuine reconciliation in the divided society which they were so involved in creating.


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