Guatemalan History

Guatemala (country, Central America)

Guatemala (gwätəmä´lə), officially Republic of Guatemala, republic (2015 est. pop. 16,252,000), 42,042 sq mi (108,889 sq km), Central America. The country is bounded on the north and west by Mexico, on the east by Belize and the Caribbean Sea, on the southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, and on the southwest by the Pacific Ocean. The capital and largest city is Guatemala City. In addition to the capital, important cities include Puerto Barrios, San José, Quezaltenango, and Antigua Guatemala.

Land and People

A highland region, where most of the population lives, cuts across the country from west to east. The rugged main range includes the inactive volcano Tajumulco, which is the highest point in Central America (13,816 ft/4,211 m). The range is flanked on the Pacific side by a string of volcanoes (some active), including Tacaná, Santa María, Acatenango, Fuego, and Agua. Volcanic eruptions, floods, and hurricanes have plagued Guatemala throughout history. In the center of the range is Lake Atitlán, and south of the highlands is the Pacific coastal lowland. North of them are the Caribbean lowland and the vast tropical forest known as Petén. Lake Petén Itzá is in N central Guatemala. The largest river is the Motagua, which flows into the Caribbean at the port of Puerto Barrios. North of the Motagua is the Lake Izabal–Río Dulce system, which was a major waterway in colonial times.

About 60% of the population is of mixed Mayan and Spanish descent (Ladinos) and about 40% are of purely Mayan origin. The latter have historically suffered from discrimination, poverty, and relative geographical isolation. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, and there are also Protestant and traditional Mayan minorities. Spanish is the language of about 60% of the people; the balance speak several indigenous dialects.


Coffee, sugar, and bananas are the leading commercial and export crops in Guatemala's mainly agricultural economy. There is some manufacturing, primarily of refined sugar, textiles and clothing for the U.S. market, furniture, and chemicals. Zinc and lead concentrates are mined. There are nickel and petroleum deposits in the north, and a petroleum industry has developed, although it has been limited by political unrest and environmentalist opposition. Extensive jade deposits are found in E central Guatemala. The Mayan town of Chichicastenango is a popular site for the nation's tourist industry. The leading imports include fuel, machinery, transportation equipment, construction materials, grain, fertilizers, and electricity. The United States, El Salvador, and Mexico are the major trading partners.


Guatemala is governed under the constitution of 1986 as amended. It provides for a president who is popularly elected for four years and may not serve consecutive terms. The president is both head of state and head of government. Members of the 158-member, unicameral Congress of the Republic are also elected for four-year terms. Guatemala is divided administratively into 22 departments.


The Maya-Quiché (see Quiché) inhabited Guatemala long before the arrival of the Spanish. They were defeated (1523–24) by the Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado, who became captain general of Guatemala. The conquerors found little of the gold they sought, but cocoa and indigo were raised with forced labor. The first colonial capital, Santiago de Guatemala (Tecpán), was replaced in 1527 by Ciudad Vieja. A volcanic mud and debris flow destroyed the capital in 1541, and Antigua Guatemala was founded to replace it. After a series of earthquakes destroyed Antigua Guatemala in 1773, the capital was moved to its current location at Guatemala City. Central America became independent from Spain in 1821. Guatemala was first a part of the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide and then became a nucleus of the Central American Federation. After the federation collapsed, Guatemala became a separate nation (1839). From independence there have been disputes over the border with what is now Belize (formerly British Honduras); Belize has been wholly or partially claimed by Guatemala at times.

Guatemalan interference in the affairs of other Central American republics during the 19th and early 20th cent., under the conservative dictatorships of Rafael Carrera and Manuel Estrada Cabrera and under the liberal, Justo Ruffino Barrios, caused intense hostility and finally led to the Washington Conference of 1907, which established the Central American Court of Justice. Jorge Ubico became president in 1931, and his tenure was marked by repressive rule and an improvement in the nation's finances.

After Guatemala declared war on the Axis powers in 1941, the large German-owned coffee holdings were expropriated. Popular discontent led to Ubico's overthrow in 1944 and his replacement by Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo launched a series of labor and agrarian reforms that were continued by Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who succeeded him in 1951. A law expropriating large estates angered foreign plantation owners, particularly the United Fruit Company. As Communist influence in the Arbenz government increased, relations with the United States deteriorated. In 1954 the United States aided the anti-Arbenz military force that placed Col. Carlos Castillo Armas in power. When Castillo Armas was assassinated three years later, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes became president. Guatemalan bases were used to train anti-Castro guerrillas in the early 1960s; around the same time, dissident leftist military officers and students combined to form a guerrilla movement.

In 1963 the prospect of the return to power of Arévalo led to a military coup under the defense minister, Enrique Peralta Azurdia. However, leftist guerrilla activity and terrorism mounted, in turn provoking rightist repression. In 1966 the moderate leftist Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president; he allowed the army to conduct a major anti-insurgency campaign against the guerrillas in which thousands were killed. In Aug., 1968, in the continuing violence, the U.S. ambassador was assassinated.

In the 1970 election, Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, an extreme conservative, was chosen president. He imposed a one-year state of siege in an attempt to end the violence. In the early 1970s many labor and political leaders were killed and several foreign diplomats were kidnapped. When no candidate received an absolute majority in the presidential election of 1974, the legislature declared Gen. Kjell Laugerud García the winner, even though Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, the antigovernment candidate, had allegedly won a plurality.

Violence continued in the 1970s and 1980s, with reports that anti-insurgency campaigns were destroying Indian villages and killing tens of thousands. In 1977 the United States cut off military aid to Guatemala. After three elections widely regarded as fraudulent, Gen. Ríos Montt took power in a 1982 coup and ruled by decree; he was deposed the next year by another strongman, Gen. Óscar Mejía Victores. During the early 1980s leftist guerrillas formed what became known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) and began an insurgency against the government.

A civilian reformist, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, became president in 1985, after elections held under a new constitution, but his government did not seem to pose a substantial challenge to the power of the military. He was succeeded in 1990 by Jorge Serrano Elías, a right-wing businessman; Serrano adopted unpopular austerity measures, and in 1993, when he attempted to institute rule by decree, he was forced by the army to resign. Ramiro de León Carpio, the attorney general for human rights, was elected by the congress to succeed Serrano and won passage of anticorruption reforms.

In 1996, Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, a former mayor of Guatemala City and foreign minister, won the presidency. He conducted a purge of top military officers and, in Dec., 1996, his government signed a UN-supervised peace accord with the URNG guerrillas, who subsequently regrouped as a political party. An estimated 200,000 persons died during the 36-year conflict. The 1999 presidential elections were won by Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, a lawyer and rightist associated with former dictator Ríos Montt and backed by the Guatemalan Republican Front. In July, 2003, the government established a national compensation program to pay victims of human-rights violations that occurred during the civil war.

Óscar Berger Perdomo, a conservative former mayor of Guatemala City and the leader of the Grand National Alliance, won the presidency in Dec., 2003, after a runoff election. In the first round of voting in November, Ríos Montt made a bid for the presidency despite a ban on candidates who had overthrown a government. He came in third, and the November vote was marred by violence and intimidation that was largely blamed on his supporters.

In early 2004 former President Portillo was implicated in a corruption scandal, and he fled to Mexico; he was ultimately extradited to Guatemala in 2008. Some 10,000 soldiers were demobilized in May–June, 2004. UN supervision of the peace process ended in Dec., 2004.

Rains from Tropical Storm Stan caused flooding and mudslides in Oct., 2005, that resulted in hundreds of deaths in Guatemala. In 2006, the United Nations and Guatemala agreed to create the independent International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to investigate and prosecute illegal groups responsible for corruption, organized crime, and political violence. Established in 2007, CICIG was designed to handle cases that might avoid prosecution due to the pervasiveness of organized crime and its ability to intimidate and corrupt law enforcement; it subsequently was responsible for prosecuting former President Portillo, two former national police chiefs, and other high ranking former officials. The case against Portillo and two of his ministers was dismissed in 2011, but in 2013 he was extradited to the United States on money-laundering charges and subsequently (2014) pleaded guilty.

In Nov., 2007, Álvaro Colom, a center-left business executive running as the National Union for Hope (UNE) candidate, won the presidency after a runoff. The presidential campaign was again marred by violence. Guatemala and Belize agreed in 2008 to submit their border dispute to the International Court of Justice following national referendums, but only Guatemala has held a plebiscite, in 2018. In May, 2009, the murder of a lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg, created a political crisis when it was revealed he had made a video recording in which he accused the Colom administration of money-laundering drug money and said that if he was killed the president was to blame. The opposition called for Colom to resign; Colom denied the charges and suggested the recording was a right-wing attempt to destabilize his government. Both opponents and supporters of Colom mounted large demonstrations in the capital. Colom was cleared in Jan., 2010, by a CICIG investigation that determined that the lawyer surreptitiously contracted his own murder in an attempt to bring the government down.

In Dec., 2010, the government declared a state of siege in Alta Verapaz dept., in the N central part of the country, in order to regain control over the area's cities from a Mexican drug gang that had been operating there since 2008. A state of siege later (May, 2011) was declared in Petén dept. to the north after a drug-trafficking-related massacre there. President Colom and his wife, Sandra Torres, were divorced in May, 2011, in an attempt to circumvent the country's constitutional prohibition on the election of the president or a close relative to consecutive terms. Torres, who supervised the government's antipoverty efforts under her husband, was expected to be the UNE presidential candidate, but the courts rejected her candidacy. In the election, Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general running as the conservative Patriotic party candidate, won (November) after a runoff.

Ríos Montt was in 2013 convicted of genocide for attacks on the Ixil Maya during the period in the early 1980s when he ruled the country, but a retrial was ordered (2015) on procedural grounds. Custom corruption investigations led in 2015 to the resignation of the vice president (whose private secretary was accused of taking bribes) and led to calls that the president be investigated. After the president was stripped of his immunity from investigation, he resigned in September; he later was formally charged (2015, 2016) with corruption. Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, a judge and politician who had been chosen as vice president in May, became acting president.

Voters rejected the political establishment in the 2015 presidential contest, electing Jimmy Morales, a comedian with no political experience who ran on an anticorruption platform; his center-right National Convergence Front, however, won only 11 seats in Congress. Members of Morales's family were subsequently accused of tax fraud, and in Aug., 2017, after the CICIG accused Morales of involvement in illegal campaign financing, he ordered the deportation of the UN official in charge of the CICIG, but the constitutional court overturned his order. Attempts to bring Morales to trial were frustrated by the Congress's failure to lift his immunity.


See R. N. Adams, Crucifixion by Power: Essays on Guatemalan National Social Structure, 1944–1966 (1970); T. Melville and M. Melville, Guatemala: The Politics of Land Ownership (1971); R. E. Moore, Historical Dictionary of Guatemala (rev. ed. 1973); J. Handy, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala (1984); R. Nyrop, ed., Guatemala, a Country Study (1984); G. Grandin et al., ed., The Guatemala Reader (2011).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Guatemalan History: Selected full-text books and articles

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