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Guatemala Program

Country Background Information


In 1954, the democratically elected leader of Guatemala was in the middle of implementing wide-sweeping reforms to redistribute land to peasant workers when the government was overthrown.  Behind this unfortunate event: the United States government. The Central Intelligence Agency launched the so-called "Operation Success" in an attempt to subvert perceived communist activities (and preserve economic interests) in this tiny Central American country.  The vast majority of the Guatemalan people would see this intervention as anything but a success.  In fact, it would mark the beginning of a dark period in Guatemalan history.

With continued outside support made possible by Cold War politics, the military ruled Guatemala with an iron fist.To counter the ongoing repression, a small guerillamovement (later to be called the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity - URNG) was formed.  The military used the ensuing war against the URNG as an excuse to carry out widespread and systematic repression against a mainly civilian population.  Political assassinations, disappearances, massacres, rapes, illegal detentions in clandestine prisons and torture were common fare for not only women and men, but also children. The thirty-six years of fighting left tens of thousands of orphans, especially in the rural Mayan communities.  Approximately 83% of those killed were from indigenous communities. After 10 years of negotiations, the military government and the URNG signed a final Peace Accord on December 29, 1996 formally ending the war. The Peace Accords addressed such issues as: defending human rights and ending impunity; establishing a truth commission; the rights of indigenous peoples; socio-economic inequalities and land reform; the situation of the displaced; and the role of the military in a democratic society.


However, the signing of the peace agreement did not automatically create a situation where real and lasting peace, human rights and democracy can take root in Guatemala . Such peace can only come after a long painful process, with participation from all elements of society as well as the support of the international community.  This process is just beginning...

Eighteen years after the return of civilian rule and seven years after the signing of the Peace Accords, the root causes of the violence remain. From extreme poverty to racial discrimination, Guatemala is searching for ways to resolve these intractable problems that have long brought suffering to its people. Guatemala' s democracy and institutions still remain fragile. Since the arrival of peace, only two major human rights cases have resulted in the conviction of senior army officers. 


The rulings were subsequently overturned.  There are continued reports of politically motivated killings and intimidation of human rights workers.

More than 6.4 million Guatemalans (about half of the population) live in poverty and this poverty disproportionately affects indigenous communities.

Previous GYC Guatemala Program Reports:


Summer 2007

Summer 2006

Winter 2005

 The average monthly wage for workers living in rural areas is $120.  Guatemala has the third most unequal distribution of income in the world.  A large percentage of the population relies on agriculture (and the export of coffee, sugar and bananas to the world market) to make a living.


The indigenous community, which comprises more than half of the country's population, largely remains marginalized from mainstream society. Discrimination is rampant and continues to severely limit economic and political opportunities.  A recent United Nations report noted that 73% of indigenous persons lack economic possibilities and have limited access to basic services, such as health care and education.

43% of the population is under the age of 15.  Although the government provides compulsory education for all children up the 6th grade, less than half of the population actually goes to primary school.  Indigenous children only receive an average of 1.3 years of schooling. Young girls tend to be more likely to drop out of school.


The election of President Oscar Berger in 2003 brought hope to many Guatemalans, particularly as it marked the electoral defeat of former military dictator General José Rios Montt. Many Guatemalans remain critical of President Berger’s neoliberal economic policies and feel that the government needs to do more in the arenas of poverty alleviation and prosecution of human rights abuses.

In 2005, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was signed with the U.S., despite massive protests and a National Strike organized by Guatemalan popular organizations. There is much debate and disagreement as to the short and long-term effects of implementing the provisions of CAFTA and many human rights organizations argue that CAFTA will have a detrimental effect on the poorest communities in Guatemala.


Since the signing of the Peace Accords, there is growing number of civil society organizations and young people who are working hard to re-build and heal their society. Their efforts are making a difference, providing new and innovative solutions to old problems.


For 36 years, the people of Guatemala suffered through a violent civil war that would count among its casualties more than 200,000 lives, 50,000 people disappeared, one million people displaced, and 250,000 refugees in Mexico and other countries. During this time, an entire generation grew up silenced by fear and terror and traumatized by violence and repression.

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