THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF Guatemala, a country no larger than Ohio, are descendants of the Mayan civilizations that sought to reestablish their identities and land claims after the collapse of the Mayan empire and before the arrival of the Spaniards. Their Mayan ancestors had the glory of great social and political organizations, military strength, and extraordinary technical achievements. They were a culture of uncommon accomplishments, especially in agriculture, textiles, and medical practices. Today, however, the lives of the approximately 10 million Mayan inhabitants in Guatemala—representing more than half of Guatemala's total population—are a far cry from those of their ancestors. The political, social, and economic persecution of indigenous peoples in Guatemala is unparalleled in the contemporary world.
Over 60 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in dispersed rural communities of less than 2,000 people. Health and educational services are scarce to nonexistent in most of those communities. All told, 45 percent of the population lack minimal health services and the mortality rate for children under age five was 67 per 1,000 live births in 1995—one of the highest such rates in the industrialized world. Only about 48 percent of the adult Guatemalan population can read, and in the rural areas, illiteracy rises to 72 percent. Approximately 65 percent of the arable land in the country is held by 2 percent of the population. The inequity in land ownership at least partially corresponds with the fact that 36 percent of the urban population and 71 percent of the rural population live in extreme poverty.
Such deprivations have fueled periodic rebellions and, most recently, an armed insurgency that ran from 1960 through the end of 1996. In that thirty-six-year period of internal conflict, more than 440 rural villages were razed, more than 40,000 people “disappeared,” and between 150,000 and 200,000 Guatemalans were killed. These actions resulted in more than 200,000 orphans, 80,000 widows, and the internal displacement of nearly