20 Years of “Peace” in Guatemala

Two decades after the end of Guatemala’s violent internal armed conflict, challenges to peace remain – from criminalization of indigenous authority to remilitarization.

January 4, 2017

Queqchí people carrying their loved one's remains after an exhumation in the Ixil region of Guatemala, in 2012 (Cafca Archive/ Wikimedia Commons)

This past Thursday marked the twenty-year anniversary of the signing of Guatemala’s 1996 Peace Accords, an agreement between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla organization that ended one of Latin America’s longest-running internal armed conflicts. The Peace Accords led to state recognition of the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous communities for the first time in the country’s history, and set the stage for subsequent government recognition of women’s rights.

The war itself sprung from the deep chasms wrought by historical inequalities in the country. Colonization followed by centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement and lack of legal rights had left the country’s majority-indigenous population trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty. After democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz attempted to address some of these inequalities through a platform of land expropriation and redistribution, he was removed from power by a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954. The CIA put Carlos Castillo Armas, a former military coronel, in power, who was assassinated in 1957. Thus began a power grab by military officials. 

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was entrenched in a conflict that utterly divided the country between right and left, Evangelical Christian and Catholic, and Spanish-descendent Ladinos and indigenous Maya. The war left 200,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared, and over a million displaced both within and outside of the country’s borders.

The Peace Accords sought to disband the guerrilla forces and end combat. They also included neoliberal structural reforms that opened the country up to foreign direct investment, and made way for the prosecution of military leaders for war crimes, the reduction of the role of the military, the recognition of indigenous rights, and the redistribution of land.

Twenty years later, few aspects of the Accords have been fully implemented, while those that have have often brought about new conflicts, as poverty and crime have steadily increased. According to statistics from the United Nations Development program, poverty rose from 64% to 67% between 2011 and 2014. The majority of the poor are rural indigenous farmers who have faced land conflicts and competition with imported goods. All the while, funding for public services such as health care and education has dropped, making them inaccessible for the majority of the population.

Furthermore, the Accords opened the door for neoliberal market development that has undermined indigenous authority and militarized government tactics, echoing the abuses that occurred during the war. Under neoliberal reforms, transnational companies have continued the historic dispossession of indigenous lands for mines, hydroelectric dams, and export agriculture.

The end of the war did not mean that conflicts ceased in Guatemala, but rather established a peace without social justice that has failed to address the root problems and inequalities that drove the war. Today, thousands of families across the country have yet to learn the fate of their loved ones who were disappeared during the war. Other communities are still attempting to recuperate their ancestral lands.


There are a number of reasons why the Guatemalan government failed to comply with the Accords: lack of funding for government institutions created by the Accords, lack of will on the part of the military and the government, the re-mobilization of rightwing organizations, and opposition from the country’s oligarchy.

The post-war years have been marked by a contradiction between the narrative of human rights and the neoliberal economic consensus that emphasizes foreign direct investment as the key to development. This focus has contributed to the re-concentration of land into the hands of a few large landholders focused on export agriculture, as well as the expansion of mining and hydroelectric projects across the country. As one retired air force general from Guatemala was quoted in Jennifer Schirmer’s The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy: “Development is war carried on by economic means.”

Undermining Indigenous Authority

The Peace Accords included new rights for indigenous peoples and state recognition of their languages and cultures. But this has done little to strengthen the representation of indigenous authorities and social structures.

As Gladys Tzul Tzul, a K’iche Maya sociologist from Totonicapán, said: “[The Peace Accords] refused to recognize the struggles for collective rights. It is a conflict between liberal and communal rights.” Such policies have led to renewed conflicts with indigenous communities seeking to recuperate communal lands and communal authority across the country.

Among the few successfully implemented elements of the Peace Accords was the formation of the Consejos Comunitarios de Desarrollo (Community Development Councils, COCODES), and the creation of five Centers for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) in communities such as Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango and Nebaj, Quiche. In theory, these new entities would improve the development of rural communities and increase indigenous access to the national judicial system. Today, nearly every indigenous community has an indigenous authority that oversees communal lands, resolves conflicts, and administers justice.

However, according to research conducted by Tzul Tzul, these measures have had the opposite effect, eroding the role of indigenous authorities and undermining the use of communal lands due to corruption, racism, and manipulation by transnational companies. Though this is not the case in all parts of Guatemala, this process has impacted the region known as the Franja Transversal del Norte (Northern Transversal Strip, FTN), or Franja, which stretches from the department of Huehuetenango to the department of Izabal, designated as a development zone in the 1970s. Nearly 50 years later, the same development plans are impacting the indigenous communities of the region, despite legal protections outlined in the Peace Accords.

Some communities, such as the Ixil in the highlands of Quiche, have indeed used the designation of CODOCES to protect themselves from these encroaching development projects. But according to Tzul Tzul, the indigenous authority offices created by the Accords have destabilized the Plural-National Government, a coalition of indigenous ancestral authorities made up of Akateco, Chuj, and Q’anjob’al Maya in the region of northern Huehuetenango. This has resulted in the criminalization of coalition leaders by the companies involved in the development projects with support from the Guatemalan Public Ministry. Tzul Tzul explained, “Since 1996, we can see an aggressive project against communal authorities, against communal lands in terms of justice and in terms of political representation with the COCODES.”

According to Tzul Tzul, indigenous communities made a number of demands during the war, including restitution of land for those returning from exile, the removal of the army from their communities, and justice for those killed by the military. In part, such aggressive acts continued because in many areas across the Franja, the new rural offices failed to remove members of military commissions, who found new positions within the COCODES, violating the demands made by indigenous communities at the end of the war.

Though the Accords afforded indigenous communities the right to consultation prior to the implementation of any development projects in Guatemala, at times the position of the COCODES has contradicted the will of residents. In two specific cases between 2006 and 2007, the residents of the northern Huehuetenango towns of Santa Cruz Barillas and Santa Eulalia voted overwhelmingly against any extractive projects in the region during a series of popular consultations. However, the members of the local COCODES voted in favor of the projects.

Since 2005, nearly 85 communities have held consultations in accordance with these laws. But the state has done little to recognize the concerns of communities that participate in the consultations. The dividing of communal lands facilitates the encroachment of mega-development projects into indigenous territories across the country. This has contributed to a rise in social conflicts within rural communities facing the expansion of private development projects, mining, and export agriculture.

Militarization and Criminalization

As the country has seen an increase in conflicts over land, Guatemala’s armed forces themselves have taken on a greater role in society since 1996, despite the fact that the Accords sought to reduce the presence and influence of the military within public security. The Accords cut funding for the Guatemalan military by a third, limiting their presence to national defense, border patrol, and natural disaster response. But these reforms quickly began to unravel.

However, the military’s presence and funding has slowly increased since 1996. As Susanne Jonas warned in a May 1997 article published in the NACLA Report, “if it turns out that the logic of the Guatemalan Peace Accords is subordinated to the logic of neoliberal fundamentalism, this could well be the Achilles heel of the whole arrangement, and could eventually undermine democratic gains.” Jonas suggested that “an increase in social violence and common crime, driven partly by poverty, could spark calls to re-involve the army in maintaining internal security.”

Twenty years on, this is exactly what has unfolded. The security situation deteriorated in the first 10 years after the signing of the Accords. The murder rate skyrocketed, quickly becoming far higher than it was during the years of the internal armed conflict. Faced with rising crime, the administration of Alonso Portillo (2000-2004) passed Accord 40-2000, which for the first time since the end of the war permitted the Guatemalan military to assist the struggling Policia Civil Nacional (National Civilian Police, PNC) in combatting organized crime, undermining the tenets of demilitarization so crucial to any democratic process.

“There is a remilitarization that has occurred since the signing of the Peace Accords,” said Sandino Asturias, a security expert and director of the Center for Guatemalan Studies. “Today we are seeing an inversion of the Peace Accords. There are more militaries involved in the areas of social conflict, as well as more militaries involved in social problems across the country,” he said.

The mixing of military and police duties contributed to the militarized response to social conflicts over extractive industries that followed the reforms, as well increased military presence—including established encampments—in areas such as San Juan Sacatepéquez and San Mateo Ixtatán in 2014.

The remilitarization has also included a number of declarations of states of sieges, exceptions and alarm in which constitutional rights are suspended. This has occurred in communities such as in Coban (2011), Santa Cruz Barillas (2012), San Juan Sacatepéquez (2008 and 2014), Santa Rosa (2013), and Jalapa (2013). During these periods, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense deployed hundreds of police and soldiers to quell social movements in the regions. They also issued arrest warrants for the leaders of various movements.

The administration of Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015) oversaw the largest expansion of military presence in the decades since the signing of the Peace Accords. During this time, the Guatemalan military established new task forces along the borders with Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, and assisted in combatting gang activity in these areas. The task forces were also deployed in towns across the country and they continue to conduct regular patrols around Guatemala City.

 “The most violence that we find in the country is along the borders, or concentrated in the capital,” Asturias said. “The areas where there is less violence are the indigenous regions… But these are also the zones where the state has begun to build new military encampments. They have begun to respond to the presence of social conflict with the military.”

The Q'am'balam River, for example, which runs through northern Huehuetenango, is the site of some of the most intense conflicts over the expansion of mining and hydro-energy interests. “Today, militarization has become the means of protection of projects like hydroelectric dams,” said Tzul Tzul. “It is worse [than at the end of the war].”

According to Q’anjob’al Maya leader Rigoberto Juarez, there are currently 15 projects in the region, and four specifically along the Q’am’balam river. Residents have mobilized to defend their communal and private lands, but the leaders of the movement have faced false criminal allegations for kidnapping, illicit association, and criminal intent. Seven leaders were released from jail this summer, including Juarez, but new charges continue to be filed at the CAJ in Santa Eulalia.

Activists have even found their lives threatened due to their activism. In March 2015, the body of community leader Pascual Pablo Francisco was found in a ditch near the town of Santa Cruz Barillas. He had been missing for 3 days, and his body showed signs of torture. Cases such as this led Amnesty International to name Guatemala one of the most dangerous countries for environmental activistsin 2016.


The post-war years have brought economic growth for the economy in general, but for indigenous communities they have been marked by continued land dispossession and increased military presence. The state has failed to address the concerns of indigenous communities and to bring development that reflects and benefits the interests of the community. Peace has never arrived. This has been a major driver, too, of increased migration to the United States.

Until the Guatemalan state addresses the abuses and inequalities that led to the war, these social conflicts will continue into the foreseeable future.

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, and Upside Down World. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo

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