Guatemala'Silent Holocaust': The Mayan Genocide
Over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or forcibly disappeared in a civil war that raged from 1960-1996. Of those victims identified in the U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, 83% were indigenous Maya. 93% of these human rights violations were carried out by government forces.
Origins: 1500-1954The roots of the Guatemalan civil war reach back through nearly 500 years of violence and ethnic exclusion. The Spanish conquest of Guatemala replaced the socio-economic order of the ancient Mayan civilization with a harsh plantation economy based on forced labor. Although Guatemala gained independence in 1821, it continued to be ruled by a series of military dictators aligned with the landed oligarchy.   
In 1944, a civilian government was elected on a platform of ambitious land reforms. However, President Jacobo Arbenz’ reforms soon came to conflict with the interests of the powerful multinational corporations. The C.I.A. helped orchestrate a coup d'état in June 1954 and installed a right-wing military dictator. For the next forty years Guatemala would be plunged into political violence. 
Internal Conflict: 1960-1978
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Guatemala’s military rulers continued to liquidate their political opponents, and with the reform movements defeated, the Left grew increasingly militarized and launched a full-scale civil war against the government. The new leftist guerilla movements initially obtained the support of some indigenous Maya, who viewed the guerillas as the last hope for redressing the economic and political marginalization of the indigenous communities. However, this link between the Maya and the guerillas eventually became an idée fixe for the government, who promulgated an ideology that perceived all Maya as natural allies of the insurrection, and thus as enemies of the state. The natural extension of this belief was the deliberate targeting of the civilian population, in order to 'starve' guerilla forces of their popular support. This essential tenet of counterinsurgency strategy found fertile ground in Guatemala, which soon became a laboratory for 'dirty war' tactics. In 1966, Guatemala pioneered the use of forced disappearances: a U.S.-trained death squad captured thirty leftists, tortured and executed them, and then dropped their bodies into the Pacific. This hallmark tactic would reappear throughout Latin America in the coming decades. 
Silent Holocaust: 1978-1983The conflict saw a major escalation with the election of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García in 1978. According to the Historical Clarification Commission, recorded cases of extrajudicial killings rose from 100 in 1978 to over 10,000 in 1981. A collection of statistical databases on the massacres is available here. 
To protest this wave of massacres, a group of Mayan leaders occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City in 1981. Despite the Spanish ambassador’s pleas to avoid violence, Guatemalan forces raided the embassy. In the chaos that followed, a fire broke out and killed 36 people. Among the dead was activist Vicente Menchú, father of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a future Nobel Peace Prize-winner who would file the original criminal complaint in Spain against Guatemalan officials responsible for the incident. 
Scorched Earth: 1982-1983
In 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt replaced Lucas García as head of state. Ríos Montt enjoyed close ties with the Reagan administration and with Christian conservatives in the United States. His reign from March 1982 to August 1983 was the bloodiest period in Guatemala's history. During that time, the Guatemalan government led a campaign to wipe out large portions of the country's indigenous populations: an estimated 70,000 were killed or disappeared. In April 1982, Ríos Montt launched a ‘scorched earth’ operation against the Maya. The army and its paramilitary units – including 'civilian patrols' of forcibly conscripted local men – systematically attacked 626 villages. The inhabitants were raped, tortured and murdered. Over three hundred villages were completely razed. Buildings were demolished; crops and drinking water were fouled. A number of secret CIA cables from the period – declassified years later – documented the military's sweeps through Mayan villages. In one cable describing a raid on a Quiché village, the author notes that the guerillas were often a phantom enemy, and that the army's successes consisted of slaughtering civilians for their suspected rebel sympathies: "The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike." 
Terrorized by the violence, between 500,000 and 1.5 million Mayan civilians fled to other regions within the country or became refugees abroad. Ríos Montt was finally ousted in a coup in 1983. Later, in 1986, a civilian government passed a new constitution and eventually initiated a gradual peace process that culminated in the signing of a U.N.-brokered peace accord in 1996.   
The Kingdom of Impunity: 1996-2009
Edgar Gutiérrez, a former foreign minister, has called post-conflict Guatemala a "kingdom of impunity".  Two truth commissions examined human rights abuses committed during the civil war and discovered unequivocal evidence that the government had perpetrated genocide against the Mayan people. Nevertheless, efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable have faced many obstacles. All too often, those who have attempted to unmask the perpetrators of atrocities have themselves become targets: In September 1990, Myrna Mack Chang, a renowned Guatemalan anthropologist, was stabbed to death in Guatemala City by a military death squad. She was targeted in retaliation for her courageous fieldwork on the destruction of rural Mayan communities. 
“The eyes of the buried will close together on the day of justice, or they will never close.”
- Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemala’s Nobel Laureate for Literature 
In April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi presented Guatemala: Nunca Más, the four-volume report of The Guatemalan Catholic Church's REMHI project (Recovery of Historical Memory), the first of two truth commissions for Guatemala. Two days after the release of the report, Bishop Gerardi was found beaten to death in the garage of his home.  A second truth commission, the U.N. mandated Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), published its findings in 1999. Its report Guatemala: Memory of Silence documented the government’s campaign of genocide under Generals Lucas García and Ríos Montt. The CEH attributed 93% of the atrocities and 626 massacres to government forces, while only 3% of the atrocities were attributable to the guerrillas. Out of 200,000 documented victims, the CEH report found that 83% were indigenous. 
Despite the efforts of the truth commissions, an ambitious reparations program, and several landmark judgments from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,  prosecutions for past (and present) crimes have been obstructed by the lingering influence of former officials implicated in human rights abuses and by the intimidation and corruption of the domestic legal system by narco-traffickers.  
For all of these reasons, transnational accountability efforts, such as CJA’s Guatemala Genocide Case in Spain, now play a vital role in redressing Guatemala’s legacy of human rights abuse.
 Guatemala: Memory of Silence: Report of the Commission for Historical Clarifications, Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), 1999. Available at: http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/toc.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 "Background Note: Guatemala", Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs, U.S. Department of State, February 2009. Available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2045.htm Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 Guatemala 1982, Peace Pledge Union Information on Genocide. Available at: http://www.ppu.org.uk/genocide/g_guatemala.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 "Country profile: Guatemala", BBC News. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1215758.stm Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 The Unholy Trinity: Death Squads, Disappearances and Torture From Latin America to Iraq, Greg Grandin, TomDispatch.com, December 11, 2007. Available at: http://www.truthout.org/article/greg-grandin-death-squads-disappearances-and-torture-from-latin-america-iraq Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 "Counterinsurgency Operations in El Quiché", February 1982, Central Intelligence Agency, secret cable, in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 11 U.S. POLICY IN GUATEMALA, 1966-1996 Kate Doyle and Carlos Osorio. Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB11/docs/ Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 "Dedicated to Democracy", Corey Robin, London Review of Books, November 18, 2004. Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n22/robi02_.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, Greg Grandin, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. ISBN 0-226-30571-6. Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 "The Novelist and the Murderers", Nathaniel Popper, The Nation, July 7, 2008. Available at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080707/popper Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 "Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala: the Case of Myrna Mack Chang", Human Rights First. Available at: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/defenders/hrd_guatemala/hrd_mack/hrd_mack.htm Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 Extract from The Art of Political Murder, Francisco Goldman, published in The Times, Jan. 18, 2008, http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3209901.ece.
 See "Inter American Court of Human Rights Makes Historic Awards to Families of Murdered Guatemalan Street Children," June 13, 2001, Casa Alianza. Available at: http://www.essex.ac.uk/armedcon/Countries/Americas/Future/Text/Guatemala006.htm ; (For a list of cases) UNHCR RefWorld: Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Guatemala. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,IACRTHR,,GTM,4562d94e2,,0.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 Hidden Powers: Illegal Armed Groups in Post-Conflict Guatemala and the Forces Behind Them, Susan C. Peacock and Adriana Beltrán Washington Office on Latin America, September 2003. Available at: http://www.wola.org/media/Guatemala/HiddenPowersFull.pdf [PDF] Accessed: August 18, 2009.
 "Guatemala at a Crossroads", Testimony by Mark L. Schneider, Senior Vice President, International Crisis Group on “Guatemala at a Crossroads” to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. 9 June 2009, Washington, DC. Available at: http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6175 Accessed: August 18, 2009.
by Tim Johnson, McClatchy DC
February 10th, 2014