Tumultuous barely begins to describe the series of events that this small piece of land has seen over the past few millennia. Great empires have risen and fallen, conquerors have come and gone, and the population has repeatedly found itself trapped in the crossfire of war. From the ancient Maya to the Spanish Empire and the modern civil war, a tour of Guatemala's history will deepen your experience while traveling in the country.
Preclassic Period (2000 BC–AD 250)
Maya history before the arrival of Europeans is divided into three broad periods: the Preclassic, the Classic and the Postclassic.
The Preclassic Period is generally thought to have coincided with the emergence of stable social structures and early forms of agriculture, pottery and tool-making in what is now Mexico and Guatemala. The improvement in the food supply led to an increase in population, a higher standard of living, and developments in agricultural and artistic techniques. Decorative pots and healthier, fatter corn strains were produced. Even at the beginning of the Preclassic period, people in Guatemala spoke an early form of the Maya language.
By the middle Preclassic period (800–300 BC) there were rich villages in the Copán Valley, and villages had been founded at what would become the majestic city of Tikal, amid the jungles of El Petén. Trade routes developed, with coastal peoples exchanging salt and seashells for highland tribes' tool-grade obsidian.
As the Maya honed their agricultural techniques, including the use of fertilizer and elevated fields, a noble class emerged, constructing temples that consisted of raised platforms of earth topped by thatch-roofed shelters. The local potentate was buried beneath the shelter, increasing the site's sacred power. Such temples have been found at Uaxactún, Tikal and El Mirador. Kaminaljuyú, in Guatemala City, reached its peak from about 400 BC to AD 100; it was home to thousands of inhabitants, and had scores of temples built on earth mounds.
In El Petén, where limestone was abundant, the Maya began to build platform temples from stone. As each succeeding local potentate demanded a bigger temple, larger and larger platforms were built over existing platforms, eventually forming huge pyramids. The potentate was buried deep within the stack of platforms. El Tigre pyramid at El Mirador, 18 stories high, is believed to be the largest ever built by the Maya. More and more pyramids were built around large plazas. The stage was set for the flowering of Classic Maya civilization.
Classic Period (AD 250–900)
The Classic Maya were organized into numerous city-states. While Tikal began to assume a primary role around AD 250, El Mirador had been mysteriously abandoned about a century earlier. Some scholars believe a severe drought hastened this great city's demise.
Each city-state had its noble house, headed by a priestly king who placated the gods by shedding his blood by piercing his tongue, penis or ears with sharp objects. As sacred head of his community, the king also led his soldiers into battle against rival cities, capturing prisoners for use in human sacrifices.
A typical Maya city functioned as the religious, political and market hub for the surrounding farming hamlets. Its ceremonial center focused on plazas surrounded by tall temple pyramids and lower buildings with warrens of small rooms. Stelae and altars were carved with dates, histories and elaborate human and divine figures.
In the first part of the Classic period, most of the city-states were probably grouped into two loose military alliances centered on Calakmul, in Mexico's Campeche state, and Tikal.
In the late 8th century, trade between Maya states waned and conflict grew. By the early 10th century the cities of Tikal, Yaxchilán, Copán, Quiriguá and Piedras Negras had reverted to minor towns or even villages, and much of El Petén was abandoned. Many explanations, including population pressure, drought and ecological damage, have been offered for the collapse of the Classic Maya period.
Postclassic Period (900–1524)
Some of the Maya who abandoned El Petén must have moved southwest into the highlands of Guatemala. In the 13th and 14th centuries they were joined by Maya-Toltecs from the Tabasco or Yucatán areas of Mexico. Groups of these newcomers set up a series of rival states in the Guatemalan highlands: the most prominent were the K'iche' (or Quiché; capital: K’um’arkaj, near modern Santa Cruz del Quiché), the Kaqchiquels (capital: Iximché, near Tecpán), the Mam (capital: Zaculeu, near Huehuetenango), the Tz'utujil (capital: Chuitinamit, near Santiago Atitlán) and the Poqomam (capital: Mixco Viejo, north of Guatemala City). Another group from the Yucatán, the Itzáes, wound up at Lago de Petén Itzá in El Petén, settling in part on the island that is today called Flores.
Spaniards under Hernán Cortés defeated the Aztec Empire based at Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City) in 1521. It only took a couple of years for the conquistadors to turn to Guatemala in their search for wealth. Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortés' most brutal lieutenants, entered Guatemala from the Pacific coast in 1524, forging temporary alliances with local Maya groups while murdering and subjugating their rivals. And then laying waste to them.
And so it went throughout Guatemala as Alvarado sought fortune and renown. The one notable exception was the Rabinal of present-day Baja Verapaz, who survived with their preconquest identity intact and remain one of Guatemala's most traditional groups to this day.
Alvarado moved his base to Santiago de los Caballeros (now called Ciudad Vieja) in 1527, but, shortly after his death in 1541, Ciudad Vieja was destroyed by a flood. The Spanish capital was relocated under the same name to a new site nearby, known today as Antigua.
Colonial Period (1524–1821)
The Spanish effectively enslaved Guatemala's indigenous people to work what had been their own land for the benefit of the Spanish, just as they did throughout the hemisphere. Refusal to work meant death. The colonists believed themselves omnipotent and behaved accordingly.
Enter the Antigua-based Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas. Las Casas had been in the Caribbean and Latin America since 1502 and had witnessed firsthand the near complete genocide of the indigenous populations of Cuba and Hispaniola. Horrified by what he had seen, Las Casas managed to convince Carlos V of Spain to enact the New Laws of 1542, which technically ended the system of forced labor. In reality, forced labor continued, but wanton waste of Maya lives ceased. Las Casas and other friars went about converting the Maya to Christianity.
Part of the Church's conversion success can be attributed to the education provided in indigenous languages and the relative respect extended to traditional beliefs. The latter often enabled Maya beliefs to persist under a veneer of Christianity, as they do to this day.
By the time thoughts of independence from Spain began stirring among Guatemalans, society was rigidly stratified. The European-born Spaniards held the real power, followed by the criollos (Guatemalan-born Spaniards) who lorded it over the ladinos (of mixed Spanish and Maya blood), who in turn exploited the indigenous population who still remained on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
Angered at being repeatedly passed over for advancement, Guatemalan criollos successfully rose in revolt in 1821. Independence changed little for Guatemala's indigenous communities, who remained under the control of the Church and the landowning elite.
Mexico, which had recently become independent, quickly annexed Guatemala, but in 1823 Guatemala reasserted its independence and led the formation of the United Provinces of Central America (July 1, 1823), along with El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica. Their union lasted only until 1840 before breaking up into its constituent states. This era brought prosperity to the criollos, but worsened the lot of the Guatemalan Maya. The end of Spanish rule meant that the Crown's few liberal safeguards, which had afforded the Maya a minimal protection, were abandoned. The Maya, though technically and legally free, were reduced to debt peonage to the big landowners.
The Liberals & Carrera
Guatemala's ruling classes split into two camps: the elite conservatives, including the Catholic Church and the large landowners, and the liberals, who had been the first to advocate independence and who opposed the vested interests of the conservatives.
A short succession of liberal leaders ended when unpopular economic policies and a cholera epidemic led to an indigenous uprising that brought a conservative ladino pig farmer, Rafael Carrera, to power. Carrera held power from 1844 to 1865, undoing many liberal reforms and ceding control of Belize to Britain in exchange for construction of a road between Guatemala City and Belize City, a road that was never built.
Liberal Reforms of Barrios
The liberals returned to power in the 1870s. Justo Rufino Barrios, a rich, young, coffee-plantation owner held the title of president, but ruled as a dictator (1873–79). Barrios modernized Guatemala's roads, railways, schools and banking system and expanded the burgeoning coffee industry. Under Barrios' successors a small group of landowning and commercial families came to control the economy, while foreign companies were given generous concessions, and political opponents were censored, imprisoned or exiled.
Estrada Cabrera & Minerva
Manuel Estrada Cabrera ruled from 1898 to 1920, bringing progress in technical matters, but placing a heavy burden on all but the ruling oligarchy. He fancied himself a bringer of light and culture to a backward land, styling himself the 'Teacher and Protector of Guatemalan Youth.'
In reaction to Cabrera's doublespeak, the Huelga de Dolores (Strike of Sorrows) began around this time. Students from Guatemala City's San Carlos University took to the streets during Lent – wearing hoods to avoid reprisals – to protest against injustice and corruption. The tradition caught on in university towns across the country, culminating with a parade through the main streets on the Friday before Good Friday, a tradition that continues to this day (Desfile de Bufos – The Parade of Fools).
Estrada Cabrera was overthrown in 1920 and Guatemala entered a period of instability, ending in 1931 with the election of General Jorge Ubico as president. Ubico insisted on honesty in government, and modernized the country's health and social welfare infrastructure. His reign ended when he was forced into exile in 1944.
Arévalo & Arbenz
Just when it appeared that Guatemala was doomed to a succession of harsh dictators, the elections of 1945 brought a philosopher – Juan José Arévalo – to the presidency. Arévalo, in power from 1945 to 1951 (despite 25 coup attempts by conservative military forces) established the nation's social security system, a bureau of indigenous affairs, a modern public health system and liberal labor laws – as well as finally granting women the right to vote in 1946.
Arévalo was succeeded by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, who continued Arévalo's policies, instituting agrarian reforms designed to break up the large estates and foster productivity on small, individually owned farms. He also expropriated vast, unused lands conceded to the United Fruit Company during the Estrada Cabrera and Ubico years. Compensation was paid at the value declared for tax purposes (far below its real value), and Arbenz announced that the lands were to be redistributed to peasants and put into cultivation for food. The announcement set off alarms in Washington, and in 1954 the US, in one of the earliest documented covert operations by the CIA, orchestrated an invasion from Honduras. Arbenz stepped down, and the land reform never took place.
Arbenz was succeeded by a series of military presidents. More covert (but well documented) support came from the US government, in the form of money and counterinsurgency training. Violence became a staple of political life, land reforms were reversed, voting was made dependent on literacy (disenfranchising around 75% of the population), the secret police force was revived and military repression was common.
In response left-wing guerrilla groups began to form in the 1960s.
Seeds of Repression
Guatemalan industry developed fast, but the social fabric became increasingly stressed as most profits flowed upwards. Labor unions organized, and migration to the cities, especially the capital, produced urban sprawl and slums. Protests were met with violent repression led by government-sanctioned death squads, kicking off a cycle of extreme violence that would last another two decades. Amnesty International estimated that 50,000 to 60,000 people had been killed during the political violence of the 1970s alone. Rural Maya struggling for enfranchisement were particularly targeted, but students, unionists, journalists and academics were all in the firing line.
Guatemala's troubles were exacerbated by a severe earthquake in 1976 that killed about 22,000 people and left around one million homeless. Most of the aid sent for those in need never reached them.
The 1980s: A Decade of Civil War
In the early 1980s four disparate, mainly indigenous, guerrilla groups united to form the URNG (the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) and military suppression of antigovernment elements in the countryside peaked, especially under the presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt, an Evangelical Christian who came to power by coup in March 1982. Huge numbers of people – mainly indigenous men – from more than 400 villages were murdered in the name of anti-insurgency, stabilization and anticommunism.
It was later estimated that 15,000 civilian deaths occurred as a result of counterinsurgency operations during Ríos Montt's term of office alone, not to mention the estimated 100,000 refugees (again, mostly Maya) who fled to Mexico. The government forced villagers to form Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PACs; Civil Defense Patrols), who were later accused of some of the worst human rights atrocities committed during Ríos Montt's rule.
In August 1983 Ríos Montt was deposed by General Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, but the abuses continued. Survivors were herded into remote 'model villages' surrounded by army encampments. The ongoing reports of human rights violations and civilian massacres led the US to cut off military assistance to Guatemala, which in turn resulted in the 1986 election of a civilian president, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo of the Christian Democratic Party.
There was hope that Cerezo Arévalo's administration would temper the excesses of the powerful elite and the military, and establish a basis for true democracy. But armed conflict festered in remote areas and when Cerezo Arévalo's term ended in 1990, many people wondered whether any real progress had been made. Tens of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans fled into Mexico as refugees.
President Jorge Serrano (1990–93) from the conservative Movimiento de Acción Solidaria (Solidarity Action Movement) reopened a dialogue with the URNG, hoping to bring the decades-long civil war to an end. When the talks collapsed, the mediator from the Catholic Church blamed both sides for intransigence.
Human-rights abuses continued during this period despite the country's return to democratic rule. In one dramatic case in 1990, Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, who had documented army violence against the rural Maya, was fatally wounded after being stabbed dozens of times. Former head of the Presidential Guard, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, was found guilty of masterminding the assassination and sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment, but went into hiding before he could be arrested.
Serrano's presidency came to depend more on the army for support. In 1993 he tried to seize absolute power, but after a tense few days was forced to flee into exile. Congress elected Ramiro de León Carpio, an outspoken critic of the army's strong-arm tactics, as president, to complete Serrano's term.
President de León Carpio's elected successor, Álvaro Arzú of the center-right Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN; National Advancement Party), took office in 1996. Arzú continued negotiations with the URNG and, finally, on December 29, 1996, the 'Firm and Lasting Peace Agreement' was signed. During the 36 years of civil war, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans had been killed, a million made homeless, and untold thousands had disappeared.
Guatemala After the Peace Accords
Hopes for a truly just and democratic society have been regularly frayed in the years since 1996. International organizations regularly criticize the state of human rights in the country and Guatemalan human rights campaigners are threatened or simply disappear on a regular basis. The major problems – poverty, illiteracy, lack of education and poor medical facilities (all much more common in rural areas, where the Maya population is concentrated) – remain a long way from being resolved.
The 1999 presidential elections were won by Alfonso Portillo of the conservative Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG). Portillo was seen as a front man for FRG leader, ex-president General Efraín Ríos Montt. At the end of his presidency Portillo fled the country in the face of allegations that he had diverted US$500 million from the treasury to personal and family bank accounts. Having evaded prosecution for years, Portillo was extradited to the USA to face charges of laundering money using US banks. He was sentenced to almost six years in jail, and was released in 2018.
Ríos Montt was granted permission by Guatemala's constitutional court to stand in the 2003 elections, despite the fact that the constitution banned presidents who had taken power by coup in the past, as Ríos Montt had in 1982.
The 'New' Guatemala
In the end Guatemala's voters dealt Ríos Montt a resounding defeat, electing Oscar Berger of the moderately conservative Gran Alianza Nacional (GANA) as president. Berger managed to stay relatively untouched by political scandal, critics saying this was because he didn't really do anything, let alone anything bad.
The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA; TLC or Tratado de Libre Comercio, in Spanish) was ratified by Guatemala in 2006. Supporters claim it frees the country up for greater participation in foreign markets, while detractors state that the agreement is a bad deal for the already disenfranchised rural poor.
Another round of elections was held in late 2007, bringing to power Álvaro Colom of the center-leftist Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE). Colom followed Berger's example of steady, minimalist governance and spearheaded some much-needed improvements to the country's infrastructure. However, his entire presidency was dogged by corruption claims, from straight-out vote buying to back-room deals granting contracts to companies who had contributed to his campaign fund.
But probably the most bizarre twist of the Colom presidency happened as he was leaving office. The Guatemalan constitution prohibits members of the president's family from running for the subsequent presidency (supposedly an anti-dictatorship measure), so Colom and his wife filed for divorce in the lead-up to the 2011 elections in an attempt to make her a valid candidate. The Constitutional Court banned her candidature anyway, leaving the door open for hard-line, ex–civil war general Otto Pérez Molina to take office in early 2012.
Pérez Molina's election was always going to be controversial – he was a general in Ríos Montt's army in the period when the worst atrocities occurred, in the regions where they occurred. Guatemalans had grown tired of the growing lawlessness in their country, though, and turned a blind eye to history in the hope that Molina would deliver on his two campaign promises – jobs and security.
Despite some heavy-handed reactions to protesters (the army killed seven and wounded 40 in one incident at an anti-dam and anti-mining protest), Pérez Molina did little to combat real crime, and his early presidency was plagued by vague rumors of corruption in the administration. In April 2015, the UN anti-corruption agency CICIG issued a report and things got a whole lot less vague.
The report claimed several senior members of the Pérez Molina administration were involved in taking bribes from importers in return for reduced customs fees. Within days, mass protests were organized over social media and tens of thousands turned out in downtown Guatemala City. Vice president Roxana Baldetti was the first to go – she resigned in early May, unable to explain how she paid for her US$13 million helicopter, among other things.
In the following months more than 20 officials resigned and many were arrested as the scandal snaked its way to the top. Mass protests continued as more findings were released. Baldetti was arrested in August amid calls for Pérez Molina's impeachment. The president hung on for a few weeks more, then resigned in the face of impending impeachment. He was arrested in early September 2015.