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Guatemala: its massacres, negationism and the reality of conflict

Lessons for Colombia

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

02 September 2020

The Guatemalan oligarchy signed  an accord with the URNG (National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity) insurgency in 1996, which promised, amongst other things to put an end to violence in the country.(1)  The name of the final agreement left no room for doubt, Strong and Lasting Peace Agreement.  The country would be a haven of peace from then on, respecting the rights of peasants and building a new country for all.  Or least that is what it claimed.

When peaceniks analyse peace agreements, be they the agreement in Palestine, Ireland, South Africa, Colombia or El Salvador their starting point is always what the Accord states and the promise of peace and then if some problems come up along the way, they are unforeseen problems, structural problems that can't be solved in a short period despite the honest statements of the signatories or on the other hand, and this is particularly the case with Colombia, the accords "fail" due to obstacles imposed by nefarious rotten personalities like Álvaro Uribe Vélez.  They rarely ask if the signatories were sincere, or if the accord really aimed to solve the country's problems.  There are so many "failed" accords that we should ask whether they really failed.  It is hard to believe that so many peace accords in the world have been signed and none of them fulfilled their promise and that their "failures" are an undesired outcome.  It is hard to believe that the UN and the states that support these processes and other institutions acted in good faith but never learned the lessons of their "failures".

One of the points the peace agreements "fail" on is the question of land and that of violence, both interconnected issues in many countries, Ireland being one exception.  Now we see the close link between the agrarian question and violence in the waves of violence that Colombia went through during the peace process and those it suffers now after the Havana Accord was signed.  But in Colombia, left politicians treat it all as an aberration, as if Colombia was the only country in the world where such a thing has happened, when in reality it is quite common.  Not even in South Africa were blacks as part of the peace process got the vote, did they solve the land question.  The issue of land was not solved and the African National Congress never tried to solve it.  In the peace agreement they promised to share out 30% of commercial agricultural land and by 1999 had only shared out 1% and by 2018, 9.7% and barely 7% of the landowners own 97% of the agricultural land and of that 7%, 72% are white and only 4% are black.(2)

The ANC began to worry about the land question very late on when it saw that its electoral power was declining in the face of more radical sectors in some cases and more traditional white sectors in other cases.  There is also political violence in South Africa, though the high levels of violence are due to factors such as crime, poverty, unemployment.  However, the Marikana Massacre, in which 34 miners were murdered by the Police in front of TV cameras, emulated to a point of perfection the massacres under Apartheid, not just in terms of violence but also in terms of the later whitewash by President Zuma, the Police and the Farlam Commission in charge of the investigation.  They all replied to the media as if they had recycled a speech from the previous white regime.  One of the directors at the mine where the massacre happened was Cyril Ramaphosa, former general secretary of the mineworkers' union (NUM) turned mining magnate and now the president of South Africa.  So we should ask ourselves whether the problem is with the peace process in South Africa or a general problem with peace processes.

In Guatemala, there was no agrarian reform either and the violence did decrease a lot but never totally stopped.  Guatemala lived through one of the worst periods of violence in Latin America with more than 200,000 dead.  The Historical Clarification Commission recorded a total of 626 massacres committed by official state forces, but 420 of them were in an 18-month period between 1981 and 1983.  Furthermore, between 500,000 and 1.5 million people were displaced by the army and around 45,000 were disappeared.(3)  The current population of Guatemala is a little over 18 million and in 1981 it was just over seven million, statistics which put the horrifying figures of violence in context and allow one to imagine the level of terror.  The report of Inter-Diocesan Project for the Recovery of Guatemalan Historic Memory: Never Again, (REMHI) was a project led by progressive sectors of the Catholic Church, amongst them Monsignor Gerardi who was murdered shortly after its publication, also places the period of greatest intensity in the years 1981-83.  Their figures are a sample only, as they themselves state they are based on interviews.

In the 5,180 testimonies gathered by the REMHI project, there are 55,021 victims of human rights (and IHL) violations documented that are connected to 14,291 events.  This data shows that the human rights violations were frequently of a collective nature against communities and groups.  The individual and collective deaths were the most commonly reported: 6,146 events and 25,123 victims (46%).  In order of their frequency the other victims of violence were: 8,675 people who were threatened (16%) and 5,497 victims of attacks (10%), 5,516 cases of torture and other cruel and inhumane or degrading treatment (10%), arbitrary arrests (9.2%); 3,893 victims of forced disappearances (7.1%); 723 kidnap victims that later turned up alive (1.3%); 152 registered victims of sexual violence (this figure underestimates the reality).(4)
There is an explanation to the intensity of the violence recorded by various bodies in those years and marks a clear difference with other conflicts.  There is no doubt about the use of the term genocide in the case of Guatemala.  As part of the Plan Sofia, between 1981 and 1983 there were three large scorched earth military operations, the first one being Operation Ashes launched in October 1981 with 15,000 troops, in July 1982 they launched Operation Victory 82, involving 60% of the armed forces and Plan Firmness 1983.  The result was bloody and brutal.(5)  It was a genocide and as Roddy Brett has stated it wasn't an attempt at the partial destruction of the indigenous population but an attempt at the complete destruction of their world, its networks of meanings and social relationships that defined it.(6)  After those military campaigns, the levels of violence fell, as is obvious and it has been stated many times in some regions or amongst some groups in Colombia that after an intense campaign there are simply less people left to kill, there is not as much need for it and fear also functions as factor in limiting opposition within a country.  The same REMHI report points to five collective impacts of fear.
Social Effects of Fear
a. Inhibits communication
It was very dangerous and risky, each, it was very dangerous, you couldn't talk or say anything, every day they gave orders to say nothing.  That is how I saw it, it was very dangerous how everyone lived.  Case 553, Chiquisis, Alta Verapaz 1982.
b. Leave organisational processes.
As back then you began to see deaths, there was a lot of fear, people began to disengage. Case 2267, Nojoyá, Huehuetenango, 1980.
c. Social Isolation.Sometimes I thought I was dying, who could calm me down? I no longer had my mother and and my father was afraid of being with me and the only consolation that they gave me was they were going to come and kill me and my children.  Case 5334, Pozo de Agua, Baja Verapaz 1983.
d. Questioning ValuesThey frightened us so you let yourself be humiliated, you couldn't say anything.  Case 6259, Nentón, Huehuetengango, 1983.
e. Community Distrust
People changed their view of the army.  It was difficult to trust them.  Case 771, Ixcán, Quiché, 1975.(7)
In effect, violence disengages people, and makes them fearful of making political or socio-economic demands.  The levels of violence fell, even way before the signing of the Peace Accord, as such levels of violence could not be maintained nor were they necessary.

So when we look at the current situation in Guatemala with regards to violence and we ask ourselves whether it continues or not, there is an obvious answer, those levels of violence do not exist, nor the intentions of the Ríos Montt regime and his successors to commit genocide in the same way.  But there is another obvious answer, the required violence from the point of the elites continues, and it does so in the required dosage.  The human rights organisation the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protective Unit (UDEFEGUA) goes into detail in its reports on the aggressions against communities and human rights defenders' organisations.  According to this organisation between 2000 and 2019 there was a constant increase in aggressions rising from 55 in 2000 to 494 in 2019, reaching a peak of 820 cases in 2014.(8)  Amongst the cases registered in 2019, there were 15 murders, five attempted murders and 13 cases of torture.  The most common aggression or rather the one with the highest number of cases registered is the defamation of people or organisations with 255 cases per year i.e. felon setting, false accusations etc. Uribe doesn't have a copyright on that either.(9)

This organisation has recorded aggressions by the media, criminal prosecutions, intelligence operations against organisations and all of this without an Uribe or Duque type personality in the midst of it, i.e. the murders and prosecutions and other acts are not due to the actions of a nefarious personality that breaks with the spirit of the Peace Accord.  Part of the problem in Guatemala is a mirror image of the problem in Colombia: mining.

The dispute for land and the use it is put to generates violence in the country as Amnesty International documented at the time.

The development of mining in Guatemala has been accompanied by community protests and regular incidents of violence involving protestors, state security forces and private security personnel employed by mine companies.(10)
Mining production in Guatemala experienced a frenzied increase between 2005 and 2019, according to official state figures.  The metallic minerals (11) increased from 102.3 million quetzals in 2005 to 1,961 million in 2017, reaching a peak of 7.110 million in 2011.(12)  Mining is not the only problematic activity in the current context of Guatemala, the building of hydro-electric dams, just as in Colombia, have also been very problematic.  There are 30 hydro-electric dams in the country and the rise in them is partly due to the Law for Incentives for the Development of Renewable Energy Projects.
Despite the 1996 Peace Accords providing for the creation of mechanisms and institutions to protect the human rights of the indigenous populations, its implementation couldn't be more disappointing.  The judicial system, government, police or the tax office are institutions that are permeated by corruption in the service of private interests.  The fall of the Pérez Molina government in September 2015 over the bribery network in Customs & Excise, more commonly known as the "La Línea" case [The Line Case] revealed the close links between economic and political power.  According to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) both the Vice President Baldetti and the President Otto Pérez Molina were charged with the crimes of unlawful association, passive bribery and customs fraud for the alleged participation in the fraud network, and were forced to resign from their posts.  The institutionalised corruption offered an unequalled breeding ground for transnational companies to act with impunity, as there no sanctions or penalties for breaking the law.  In this context the violation of human rights becomes, in the eyes of the transnational companies that operate unscrupulously, an on hand strategy to access strategic natural resources.(13)
There is a deep rooted problem with the economic aperture and the entrance of extractive industries. There is a structural problem that has nothing to do with political personalities, although as in any part of the world, they play a role.  The structural problem in Guatemala is the same one as in Colombia, a reprimarisation of the economy and foreign direct investment in those sectors.  A look at the figures from the Bank of Guatemala shows that sectors such as mining and quarries, agriculture and electricity received huge amounts of investments, with mining and quarries representing 34.1% of the total in 2012 and the electricity sector 10.4% in that same year, although at it height it reached 31.6% of the total with Mexico being the main investor country.(14)  The economic panorama is easily recognised by any Colombian.

When we see murders in areas of economic interest in Colombia, what takes place is what happens in other parts of the world and is due to the same structural causes, and are not the simple results of the actions of a demon like Uribe, but rather flow from capitalism as such and in the cases of Colombia and Guatemala they take place in a so called post-conflict context.  The following description of Guatemala, written in 2015 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) is still valid and furthermore can be easily applied to Colombia now.

The fact-finding mission focused on land rights defenders because of the grave concerns the Observatory held about the gravity of violence faced by human rights defenders who were speaking out against the negative impacts of the activities of natural resource extraction companies.  However, it is also necessary to mention that during this time the rapporteurs also investigated the situation of womenís rights defenders and defenders fighting impunity.
In this sense, land rights defenders are the second most vulnerable social group in Guatemala.  The most common types of attacks suffered by this group include: harassment and threats, attempts against their lives and physical attacks, and criminal persecution and defamation.  This is all part of a strategy to delegitimise and disparage the proposals and efforts of social organisations, the indigenous people and the legal advisors and organisations that represent them. At the same time, this de-legitimisation opens the door to further aggressions including the criminalisation of their actions, threats or physical harm.
Under the phenomenon of criminalisation, it is also possible to observe a consistent pattern in which human rights defenders are denied justice, how promptly proceedings are under- taken, and the lack of effective responses to complaints presented by the community, indigenous peoples, or human rights defenders who are defending either individualís rights or the rights of specific groups against attacks on their rights, which could also be interpreted as a pattern of discrimination with regards to access to justice.(15)
Guatemala after many years of war and many years of a peace process continues to suffer from violence.  There is no Guatemalan Uribe, but rather a bourgeois social class i.e. an elite that has not had the political will to implement all of the peace accord.  Uribe is sort of like a wild card that can be blamed for everything, and not just what he did on his own but he can also be blamed for everything he did with others.  Thus there are those who want to have him tried for crimes against humanity but don't want to mention the late President Barco (1986-1990) for the Trujillo Massacre, for example, not even now that he is dead.  Neither do they want to mention former president Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994).  They only want to mention Uribe.  There are those who want the International Criminal Court to try Uribe for the thousands of murders known as False Positives, but don't want to put on trial his Minister for Defence, Juan Manuel Santos, the so called Nobel prize winner.  During the peace process there was a proposal to nominate Timochenko from the FARC, Santos and various representatives of victims.  The proposal included amongst the victims one of the Mothers of Soacha.(16)  They saw no problem in including Santos and his victims in the same proposal, without naming Santos as the victimizer.  Now we can't even mention Santos' victims, "they don't exist".

The peace processes and the violence that continues after the signing of the agreement, the "breaches" or "failures" should be looked at.  But rather than talk of failures we should ask a real question about all peace processes in the world.  There are always some points that gain a certain acceptance amongst the population such as justice or land and are never carried through, why not?  It can't be the case that in each process the UN and other institutions repeat the same mistakes over and over and then after a few years raise their hands in exasperation to talk of failures etc.  Rather these are exercises in public relations they are not real proposals, they don't want them to go ahead.  The real aim is to bring an end to an armed opposition and to gut any ideological proposal.  In Santos' second mandate whilst he negotiated a land agreement with the FARC he introduced in his National Development Plan an article (Art. 50) that prevented the devolution of land to the peasants, which one was a mistake and which one a lie?  Article 50 or the proposal to share out three million hectares amongst the peasants?  I think the answer is obvious, but for the politicians in the Polo Democrático we can spell it out, the lie was to share out three million hectares amongst the peasants.  It is worth recalling that these land proposals are always half-hearted, they are not substantive proposals, so their lack of implementation or failure is minor, if we accept such terminology.

Ríos Montt one of the key figures in the genocide in Guatemala died an old man and like him there are quite a few in Colombia who will die of old age, especially those we can't name because the so called left has an agreement with them.  The victims of the 1988 Segovia massacre in the north east of Antioquia had to wait 25 years to bring the murderer Cesar Pérez to justice, partly because some sectors of the supposed left made a not so public electoral type alliance with him in the years after the massacre.  Carlos Lozano, the director of the Communist Party's newspaper Voz even testified on behalf of this paramilitary in the Supreme Court and we should remember that Pérez was the head of the Liberal Party in the region.  Uribe's victims are going to have to wait many more years to achieve justice and Samper and Santos' victims, in the name of the peace process will never get justice as they don't exist and the opposition and the human rights NGOs don't want to mention them except when it is to nominate them for a Nobel prize or something of the sort.  It is a sad country that has thousands of victims and mourns them, sadder still is the country that does not even mention them or criticise their executioners.


(1) In reality it was a series of agreements.

(2) Pigou, P. (06/09/2018) Land Reform in South Africa: Fact and Fiction

(3) Statistics taken from

(4) Informe Remhi Tomo IV

(5) Brett, R. (2016) The Origins and Dynamics of Genocide: Political Violence in Guatemala. Palgreave MacMillan.  Londres. pp 119-146

(6) Ibíd., p. 229.

(7) Informe REMHI Tomo I

(8) Udefegua (2020) Informe de Situación de Personas, Comunidades y Organizaciones Defensoras de Derechos Humanos. Guatemala. Udefegua p.4

(9) Ibíd., p.5

(10) Amnesty International (2014) Guatemala: Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk. AI. London. p.9
(11)The most common ones are Iron oxide, nickel, lead and gold.
(12)Statistics taken from

(13) Rodríguez Carmona, A. y De Luis Romero, E. (2016) Hidroeléctricas insaciables en Guatemala. Paz Con Dignidad. Madrid. p.16

(14)Statistics taken from the Bank of Guatemala

(15) OMCT-FIDH (2015) Guatemala "Smaller Than David": The Struggle of Human Rights Defenders. p.39

(16) Pacifista (08/02/2016) Estos son los siete colombianas nominadas al Nobel de Paz.

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