go to content go to search box go to global site navigation


Archaic period (up to 2000 bc)

It’s accepted that, barring a few Vikings in the north and conceivable direct transpacific contact with Southeast Asia, the prehispanic inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Siberia. They came in several migrations between perhaps 60, 000 and 8000 BC, during the last ice age, crossing land that is now submerged beneath the Bering Strait, then gradually moving southward.

These early inhabitants hunted mammoths, fished and gathered wild foods. The ice age was followed by a hot, dry period in which the mammoths’ natural pastureland disappeared and the wild nuts and berries became scarce. The primitive inhabitants had to find some other way to survive, so they sought out favorable microclimates and invented agriculture, in which maize (corn) became king. The inhabitants of what are now Guatemala and Mexico successfully hybridized this native grass and planted it alongside beans, tomatoes, chili peppers and squash (marrow). They wove baskets to carry in the harvest, and they domesticated turkeys and dogs for food. These early homebodies used crude stone tools and primitive pottery, and shaped simple clay fertility figurines.

^ Back to top

Preclassic period (2000 bc–ad 250)

The improvement in the food supply led to an increase in population, a higher standard of living and more time to experiment with agricultural techniques and artistic niceties. 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 Mayan language. These early Maya also decided that living in caves and under palm fronds was passé, so they invented the na, or thatched Mayan hut – still used today throughout much of the country. Where spring floods were a problem, a family would build its na on a mound of earth. When a family member died, burial took place right there in the living room, after which the deceased attained the rank of honored ancestor.

The Copán Valley (in present-day Honduras) had its first proto-Mayan settlers by about 1100 BC, and a century later settlements on the Guatemalan Pacific coast were developing a hierarchical society.

By the middle Preclassic period (800–300 BC) there were rich villages in the Copán Valley, and villages had been founded at what came to be the majestic city (and modern Guatemala’s number one tourist attraction), Tikal, amid the jungles of El Petén, northern Guatemala. Trade routes developed, with coastal peoples exchanging salt and seashells for highland tribes’ tool-grade obsidian. A brisk trade in ceramic pots and vessels flourished throughout the region.

As the Maya honed their agricultural techniques, including using fertilizer and elevated fields to boost production, a rich, noble class emerged that indulged in such extravagances as resident scribes and artists – and temples, which consisted of raised platforms of earth topped by a thatch-roofed shelter very much like a normal na. The local potentate was buried beneath the shelter, increasing the site’s sacred power. Pyramid E-VII-sub at Uaxactún, 23km north of Tikal, was a good example of this; others have been found at Tikal itself and El Mirador, another Petén site that flourished during the late Preclassic period (300 BC–AD 250). Kaminaljuyú, in Guatemala City, reached its peak from about 400 BC to AD 100, with thousands of inhabitants and 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 had to have a bigger temple, larger and larger platforms were built over existing platforms, eventually forming huge pyramids with a na-style shelter on top. 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, in much the same way that the common people clustered their thatched houses in family compounds facing a communal open space. The stage was set for the flowering of classic Mayan civilization.

^ Back to top

Classic period (ad 250–900)

During the Classic period the Maya produced prehispanic America’s most brilliant civilization in an area stretching from Copán, in modern Honduras, through Guatemala and Belize to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The great ceremonial and cultural centers included Copán; Quiriguá in southern Guatemala; Kaminaljuyú; Tikal, Uaxactún, Río Azul, El Perú, Yaxhá, Dos Pilas and Piedras Negras, all in El Petén; Caracol in Belize; Yaxchilán and Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico; and Calakmul, Uxmal and Chichén Itzá on the Yucatán Peninsula. All these sites can be visited, with varying degrees of difficulty, today. Around the beginning of the Classic period, Mayan astronomers began using the elaborate Long Count calendar to date all of human history.

While Tikal began to assume a primary role in Guatemalan history 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.

The Classic Maya were organized into numerous city-states. Each city-state had its noble house, headed by a priestly king who placated the gods by shedding his blood in ceremonies during which he pierced his tongue, penis or ears with sharp objects. As sacred head of his community, the king also had to lead his soldiers into battle against rival cities, capturing prisoners for use in human sacrifices. Many a king perished in a battle because he was too old to fight. A typical Mayan 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 – so-called palaces – with warrens of small rooms. Stelae and altars were carved with dates, histories and elaborate human and divine figures. Stone causeways called sacbeob, probably built for ceremonial use, led out from the plazas.

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. Like Kaminaljuyú and Copán, Tikal had strong connections with the powerful city of Teotihuacán, near modern Mexico City. When Teotihuacán declined, Tikal’s rival Calakmul allied with Caracol to defeat a weakened Tikal in 562. However, Tikal returned to prominence under a resolute and militarily successful king named Moon Double Comb, also known as Ah Cacau (Lord Chocolate), who ruled from 682 to 734. Tikal conquered Calakmul in 695.

In the late 8th century, trade between Mayan states started to shrink and conflict began to grow. By the early 10th century the cities of Tikal, Yaxchilán, Copán, Quiriguá and Piedras Negras had reverted to little more than minor towns or even villages, and much of El Petén was abandoned. Many explanations, including population pressure and ecological damage, have been offered for the Classic Mayan collapse. Current theories point to three droughts, each lasting several years, around 810, 860 and 910, as major culprits.

^ Back to top

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-Toltec migrants or invaders from the Tabasco or Yucatán areas of Mexico (the Toltecs were a militaristic culture from central Mexico with powerful, wide-ranging influence). 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’umarcaaj, 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). All these sites can be visited today. Another group from the Yucatán, the Itzáes, wound up at Lago Petén Itzá in the Petén region, settling in part on the island that is today called Flores.

^ Back to top

Spanish conquest

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 in 1524 with about 600 Spanish and Mexican soldiers and the unanswerable advantages of firearms and horses. Alvarado defeated a small K’iche’ force on the Pacific Slope and then the much larger main K’iche’ army near Xelajú (modern Quetzaltenango) soon afterwards – killing the K’iche’ leader Tecún Umán in hand-to-hand combat, or so legend has it. Alvarado then sacked the K’iche’ capital, K’umarcaaj. The K’iche’ had failed to persuade their traditional local enemies, the Kaqchiquels, to join forces against the invaders. Instead, the Kaqchiquels allied with the Spanish against the K’iche’ and Tz’utujils, and so the Spanish set up their first Guatemalan headquarters next door to the Kaqchiquel capital, Iximché. The name Guatemala is a Spanish corruption of Quauhtlemallan, the name Alvarado’s Mexican allies gave to Iximché (Land of Many Trees).

The romance between the Spanish and the Kaqchiquels soured when the latter couldn’t meet the ever-increasing demands for gold, and Alvarado – not surprisingly – turned on them, burning Iximché to the ground. And so it went throughout Guatemala as the megalomaniacal Alvarado sought fortune and renown by murdering and subjugating the Mayan population. 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 from Tecpán to Santiago de los Caballeros (now called Ciudad Vieja) in 1527, but shortly after his death while in Mexico 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.

^ Back to top

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 invaders, just as they did throughout the hemisphere. Refusal to work the land meant death. With the most fertile land and a labor force to work it firmly in hand, the colonists believed themselves omnipotent and behaved accordingly. That is to say, badly.

Enter the Catholic Church and 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. Convinced he could catch more flies with honey than vinegar and horrified at what he saw in the Indies, Las Casas appealed to Carlos V of Spain to stop the violence. Las Casas described the fatal treatment of the population in his influential tract A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The king agreed with Las Casas that the indigenous people should no longer be regarded as chattels and should be considered vassals of the king (in this way they could also pay taxes). Carlos V immediately enacted the New Laws of 1542, which technically ended the system of forced labor. In reality, forced labor continued, but wanton waste of Mayan lives ceased. Las Casas and other Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian friars went about converting the Maya to Christianity – a Christianity that became imbued with many aspects of animism and ceremony from the indigenous belief system.

A large portion of the Church’s conversion ‘success’ can be attributed to the pacifism with which it approached Mayan communities, the relative respect it extended to traditional beliefs, and the education it provided in indigenous languages. In short, the Catholic Church became extremely powerful in Guatemala quite quickly. No clearer evidence existed of this than the 38 houses of worship (including a cathedral) built in Antigua, which became the colonial capital of all Central America from Chiapas to Costa Rica. But Antigua was razed by a devastating earthquake on July 29, 1773. The capital was moved 25km east to its present site, Guatemala City.

^ Back to top


By the time thoughts of independence from Spain began stirring among Guatemalans, society was already rigidly stratified. At the very top of the colonial hierarchy were the European-born Spaniards; next were the criollos, people born in Guatemala of Spanish blood; below them were the ladinos or mestizos, people of mixed Spanish and Mayan blood; and at the bottom were the Maya and black slaves. Only the European-born Spaniards had any real power, but the criollos lorded it over the ladinos, who in turn exploited the indigenous population who, as you read this, still remain on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Angered at being repeatedly passed over for advancement, Guatemalan criollos took advantage of Spanish weakness following a Napoleonic invasion in 1808, and in 1821 successfully rose in revolt. Unfortunately, independence changed little for Guatemala’s indigenous communities, who remained under the control of the church and the landowning elite. Despite cuddly-sounding democratic institutions and constitutions, Guatemalan politics has continued to this day to be dominated almost without pause by corrupt, brutal strongmen in the Pedro de Alvarado tradition, for the benefit of the commercial, military, landowning and bureaucratic ruling classes. While the niceties of democracy are observed, real government often takes place by means of intimidation and secret military activities.

Mexico, which was recently 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, torn by civil strife from the start, 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. Mayan claims to ancestral lands were largely ignored and huge tobacco, sugar-cane and henequen (agave rope fiber) plantations were set up. The Maya, though technically and legally free, were enslaved by debt peonage to the big landowners.

^ Back to top

The liberals & carrera

The ruling classes of independent Central America 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.

During the short existence of the United Provinces of Central America, liberal president Francisco Morazán (1830–39) from Honduras instituted reforms aimed at ending the overwhelming power of the church, the division of society into a criollo upper class and an indigenous lower class, and the region’s impotence in world markets. This liberal program was echoed by Guatemalan chief of state Mariano Gálvez (1831–38).

But unpopular economic policies, heavy taxes and a cholera epidemic led to an indigenous uprising that brought its leader, a conservative ladino pig farmer, Rafael Carrera, to power. Carrera held power from 1844 to 1865 and undid much of what Morazán and Gálvez had achieved. He also naively allowed Britain to take control of Belize in exchange for construction of a road between Guatemala City and Belize City. The road was never built, and Guatemala’s claims for compensation were never resolved, leading to a quarrel that festers to this day.

^ Back to top

Liberal reforms of Barrios

The liberals returned to power in the 1870s, first under Miguel García Granados, next under Justo Rufino Barrios, a rich young coffee plantation owner who held the title of president, but ruled as a dictator (1873–79). Under Barrios, Guatemala made strides toward modernization, with construction of roads, railways, schools and a modern banking system. Everything possible was done to stimulate coffee production. Peasants in good coffee-growing areas (up to a 1400m altitude on the Pacific Slope) were forced off their land to make way for new coffee fincas (plantations), while those living above 1400m (mostly Maya) were forced to work on the fincas. This created migrant labor patterns that still exist among some highland groups. Under Barrios’ successors a small group of landowning and commercial families came to control the economy, foreign companies were given generous concessions, and political opponents were censored, imprisoned or exiled by the extensive police force.

^ Back to top

Estrada Cabrera & Minerva

Manuel Estrada Cabrera ruled from 1898 to 1920, and his dictatorial style, while bringing progress in technical matters, placed 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.’

He sponsored Fiestas de Minerva (Festivals of Minerva) in the cities, inspired by the Roman goddess of wisdom, invention and technology, and ordered construction of temples to Minerva, some of which still stand (as in Quetzaltenango). Guatemala was to become a ‘tropical Athens.’ At the same time, however, Estrada Cabrera looted the treasury, ignored the schools and spent extravagantly to beef up the armed forces. He was also responsible for courting the US-owned United Fruit Company, a business of gross hegemonic proportions that set up shop in Guatemala in 1901.

^ Back to top

Jorge Ubico

When Estrada Cabrera was overthrown in 1920, Guatemala entered a period of instability, which ended in 1931 with the election of General Jorge Ubico as president. Ubico had a Napoleon complex and ruled as Estrada Cabrera had, but more efficiently. He insisted on honesty in government, and modernized the country’s health and social welfare infrastructure. Debt peonage was outlawed, but a new bondage of compulsory labor contributions to the government road-building program was established in its place. His reign ended when he was forced into exile in 1944.

^ Back to top

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 presidential palace. Arévalo, in power from 1945 to 1951, established the nation’s social security system, a government bureau to look after indigenous concerns, a modern public health system and liberal labor laws. He also survived 25 coup attempts by conservative military forces.

Arévalo was succeeded by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, who continued Arévalo’s policies, instituting an agrarian reform law that was meant to break up the large estates and foster high productivity on small, individually owned farms. He also expropriated vast lands conceded to the United Fruit Company during the Estrada Cabrera and Ubico years that were being held fallow. Compensation was paid at the value that the company had 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. But the expropriation set off alarms in Washington, which (surprise! surprise!) supported United Fruit. In 1954 the US, in one of the first documented covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), orchestrated an invasion from Honduras led by two exiled Guatemalan military officers. Arbenz was forced to step down, and the land reform never took place.

Arbenz was succeeded by a series of military presidents elected with the support of the officer corps, business leaders, compliant political parties and the Catholic Church. Violence became a staple of political life. Opponents of the government regularly turned up dead or not at all. Land reform measures were reversed, voting was made dependent on literacy (which disenfranchised around 75% of the population), the secret police force was revived and military repression was common.

In 1960, left-wing guerrilla groups began to form.

^ Back to top

1960s & 1970s

Guatemalan industry developed fast, but the social fabric became increasingly stressed as most profits from the boom flowed upwards, labor unions organized, and migration to the cities, especially the capital, produced urban sprawl and slums. A cycle of violent repression and protest took hold, leading to the total politicization of society. Everyone took sides; usually it was the poorer classes in the rural areas versus the power elite in the cities. By 1979 Amnesty International estimated that 50, 000 to 60, 000 people had been killed during the political violence of the 1970s alone.

A severe earthquake in 1976 killed about 22, 000 people and left around a million homeless. Most of the aid sent for the people in need never reached them.

^ Back to top


In the early 1980s, military suppression of antigovernment elements in the countryside reached a peak, 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, mostly indigenous men, were murdered in the name of anti-insurgency, stabilization and anticommunism. Guatemalans refer to this scorched-earth strategy as la escoba, the broom, because of the way the reign of terror swept over the country. While officials did not know the identities of the rebels, they did know which areas were bases of rebel activity – chiefly poor, rural, indigenous areas – so the government decided to terrorize the populations of those areas to kill off support for the rebels. Over 400 villages were razed, and most of their inhabitants massacred (often tortured as well).

It was later estimated that 15, 000 civilian deaths occurred as a result of counter-insurgency 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) to do much of the army’s dirty work: the PACs were ultimately responsible for some of the worst human-rights abuses during Ríos Montt’s rule.

In February 1982 four powerful guerrilla organizations had united to form the URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity). Perhaps half a million people, mostly peasants in the western and central highlands and El Petén, actively supported the guerrilla movement, but as the civil war dragged on and both sides committed atrocities, more and more rural people came to feel caught in the crossfire. They were damned if they supported the insurgents and damned if they didn’t.

In August 1983 Ríos Montt was deposed by General Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, but the abuses continued. It was estimated that over 100 political assassinations and 40 abductions occurred each and every month under his rule. Survivors of la escoba were herded into remote ‘model villages’ known as polos de desarrollo (poles of development) surrounded by army encampments. The bloodbath 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.

Before turning over power to the civilians, the military established formal mechanisms for its continued control of the countryside. There was hope that Cerezo Arévalo’s administration would temper the excesses of the power elite and the military and establish a basis for true democracy. But armed conflict festered on in remote areas and when Cerezo Arévalo’s term ended in 1990, many people wondered whether any real progress had been made.

^ Back to top

Early 1990s

President Jorge Serrano (1990–93) was an evangelical Christian representing the conservative Movimiento de Acción Solidaria (Solidarity Action Movement). Serrano reopened a dialogue with the URNG, hoping to bring the decades-long civil war to an end. When the talks collapsed, the mediatorfrom the Catholic church blamed both sides for intransigence.

Massacres and other 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 by a military death squad. Later that same year, the army massacred 13 Tz’utujil Maya (including three children) in Santiago Atitlán. Outraged, the people of Santiago fought back, becoming the first town to succeed in expelling the army by popular demand. That unprecedented success was a watershed event for the Mayan and human-rights causes in Guatemala.

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.

^ Back to top

Peace accords

President de León’s elected successor, Álvaro Arzú of the center-right Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN), took office in 1996. Arzú continued negotiations with the URNG and, finally, on December 29, 1996, ‘A Firm and Lasting Peace Agreement’ was signed at the National Palace in Guatemala City. During the 36 years of civil war, an estimated 200, 000 Guatemalans had been killed, a million made homeless, and untold thousands had disappeared. The Peace Accords, as the agreement is known, contained provisions for accountability for the human-rights violations perpetrated by the armed forces during the war and the resettlement of Guatemala’s one million displaced people. They also addressed the rights of indigenous peoples and women, health care, education and other basic social services, and the abolition of obligatory military service. Many of these provisions remain unfulfilled.

^ Back to top

Guatemala since the peace accords

Any hopes that Guatemala might become a truly just and democratic society have looked increasingly frayed as the years have passed since 1996. A national referendum in 1999 (in which only 18% of registered voters turned out) voted down constitutional reforms formally legislating the rights of indigenous people, adding checks and balances to the executive office and retooling the national security apparatus.

The single most notorious and tragic flouting of peace, justice and democracy came in 1998 when Bishop Juan Gerardi, coordinator of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Human Rights Office (Odhag), was beaten to death outside his home. Two days previously, Bishop Gerardi had announced Odhag’s findings that the army was responsible for most of the 200, 000 civil war deaths and many other atrocities.

The 1999 presidential elections were won by Alfonso Portillo of the conservative Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG; colloquially known as the Mano Azul – Blue Hand – for its symbol daubed on lampposts, rocks and trees countrywide). Portillo was just a front man for the FRG leader, ex-president General Efraín Ríos Montt, author of the early 1980s scorched-earth state terror campaign. As one common jibe had it, when the two men discussed important decisions, civilian president Portillo always had the last word – ‘Yes, general.’

President Portillo did pay out $1.8 million in compensation in 2001 to the families of 226 men, women and children killed by soldiers and paramilitaries in the northern village of Las Dos Erres in 1982, but implementation of the Peace Accords stalled and then went into reverse. In 2002 the UN representative for indigenous peoples, after an 11-day Guatemalan tour, stated that 60% of Guatemalan Maya were still marginalized by discrimination and violence. The UN human development index for 2002, comparing countries on criteria such as income, life expectancy, school enrolment and literacy, ranked Guatemala 120th of the world’s 173 countries, the lowest of any North, Central or South American country. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of education and poor medical facilities are all much more common in rural areas, where the Mayan population is concentrated.

International organizations, from the European Parliament to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, queued up to criticize the state of human rights in Guatemala. Those brave souls who tried to protect human rights and expose abuses were being subjected to threats and killings, the perpetrators of which seemed able to act with impunity. The URNG guerrillas had disarmed in compliance with the Peace Accords, but President Portillo failed to carry out a promise to disband the presidential guard (whose soldiers killed Bishop Gerardi and whose chief had ordered the 1990 Myrna Mack killing), and he doubled the defense budget, taking it beyond the maximum level fixed in the Peace Accords.

Lawlessness and violent crime increased horrifyingly. The US ‘decertified’ Guatemala – meaning it no longer considered it an ally in the battle against the drugs trade – in 2002. The same year, Amnesty International reported that criminals were colluding with sectors of the police and military and local affiliates of multinational corporations to flout human rights. According to police figures, 3630 people died violent deaths in 2002. Lynchings were not uncommon as people increasingly took the law into their own hands.

El Periódico newspaper printed an article in 2003 arguing that a ‘parallel power structure’ involving Efraín Ríos Montt had effectively run Guatemala ever since he had been ousted as president 20 years previously. Within days, the paper’s publisher and his family were attacked in their home by an armed gang of 12. Days later, Ríos Montt himself was, incredibly, granted permission by Guatemala’s constitutional court to stand in the elections for Portillo’s successor in late 2003, despite the fact that the constitution banned presidents who had in the past taken power by coup, as Ríos Montt had in 1982. In the end Guatemala’s voters dealt Ríos Montt a resounding defeat, electing Oscar Berger, of the moderately conservative Gran Alianza Nacional, as president till 2008.

The national anticorruption prosecutor, Karen Fischer, fled the country in 2003 in the face of threats received when she investigated Panamanian bank accounts allegedly opened for President Portillo.

The FRG showed its colors fairly blatantly in the run-up to the election by making sizeable ‘compensation’ payments to the former members of the PACs (Civil Defense Patrols), who had carried out many atrocities during the civil war.

^ Back to top