1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord: Preceding History and Recent Developments

Michael Sanchez
War & Peace: The Americas in Transition

In December of 1996, Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu and leaders of an indigenous rebel group signed a seemingly landmark peace treaty ending a civil war that lasted over 30 years. The treaty called for reforms and promised improvements for human rights violations against the indigenous population. The signing of the treaty received some exposure to Americans through the media, but little was mentioned about the events or issues surrounding the long war or the events following the treaty. This lack of information is astonishing, as the United States has played a major role throughout the Guatemalan struggle. The policies of the American government had direct repercussions on the events in Guatemala.


American Foreign Policy:


After World War II and the rise of the Soviet Union, the international scene was bipolar. Two nations stood ideologically opposing each other: the United States defending western democratic and capitalist ideology and the Soviet Union defending Communist or socialist ideology. Communism challenged the economic, political, and social institutions of western democracy as a whole. The rise of communist states threatened the way of life for much of the globe. As the strongest democratic nation, the United States adopted a policy where it opposed the formation of any government with communist or socialist governments. Any actions were undertaken to prevent nations from allying with the Soviets. Whether it be covert or overt, the slightest socialist reforms were met with swift action from the United States government. After Cuba became a Communist nation, the United States feared that a second communist nation in the Western Hemisphere would threaten national security.


Economic Interest in Guatemala:


Guatemala was an important contributor to the American economy as American’s had many investments in the country. The largest example was the United Fruit Company, an American owned and operated company that exported bananas and other goods out of Guatemala. Though Guatemala was a separate nation from the United States, much of its land was owned by Americans and American influence on its economy was tremendous, as United Fruit Company was the largest employer in the nation. As the United Fruit Company was an American firm, much of the profits were not reinvested in the Guatemalan economy, but were kept by the investors. Also, the company was notorious as human rights violators. Guatemalan workers had no minimum wage, poor working conditions, and poor health conditions. As there was a ready supply of labor, the company would fire any people unhappy with the working conditions. The company did not allow for the unionization of workers. Most of the working population was made up of poor, uneducated indigenous people.


Attempts of Reforms and American Intervention:


As the indigenous population of Guatemala suffered under the violations of the government and their employers, including the united Fruit Company, they called for political and economic reforms. The popularly elected Jacobo Guzman Arbenz took the office of president and promised these changes. As a remedy to the social ills and to release the Guatemalan economy from the control of foreign hands, Arbenz’s agenda called for the expropriation and nationalization of the landholdings of large corporations that were held for investment purposes only.

As this land reform policy affected the United Fruit Company, they appealed to the United States government for aid. As the policies of the Guatemalan government threatened American Economic interests and were viewed as socialist, the Eisenhower administration responded by sponsoring a military coup to overthrow the government. This action was consistent with the American foreign policy that often placed right-wing military governments in power to oppose any leftist governments or groups.

With the reactionary government in place, the United States sent in CIA operatives into Guatemala to assess the situation and to train Guatemalan military forces. This training was to "professionalize" the army. The training took place at the College of the Americas. A part of the training included the issuing of an infamous handbook containing information on various torture tactics. The forces trained at this facility became the Guatemalan death squads.

In 1966, United States military involvement was increased with the election of Julio Ceasar Mendez. Now, monetary aid was offered and overt military aid became policy as Green Beret Squadrons were stationed in Guatemala.


Indigenous Response and Government Reaction:


With the military coup, the reforms promised by the Arbenz administration were now gone. Obviously, the indigenous population was furious. They were relegated to the nomadic life of moving to plantation to plantation and returning to the mountains between growing seasons. As the population was reluctant to accept the new military government, they organized into an opposition force. The military was swift to crush these "counterinsurgents". Initially, the government murdered over 8,000 civilians to put an end to the rebellion. After the government actions, the rebels reorganized. Facing civil war, the military government responded by assuming that all indigenous people were rebels or harboring rebels. The government rampaged over 450 villages; killing over 150,000 civilians and displacing over one million people in the western highland region of Guatemala. This type of behavior continued through the seventies and early eighties.

Military tactics began to change in the mid-eighties as they began to organize resettlement camps to watch over the indigenous population. In these camps, the government controlled the everyday life of the indigenous people. These were clear human rights violations as these resettlement camps were de facto concentration camps.


New US Policy and International Response:


With the human rights violations of the Guatemalan government rising, public awareness changed the official American foreign policy toward Guatemala. The policy was now a two-track policy, where the United States publicly denounced the practices of the government while still providing aid and taking part in these violations. International awareness also was heightened after the publication of the autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchu in 1985. This book was the account of a Mayan woman and the horrors of indigenous life in Guatemala. The book gave detailed accounts of death squad murders, disappearances, life on the haciendas, and her attempts to create change in the Guatemalan social structure. Menchu began traveling telling people of the atrocities in Guatemala. She became a major advocate of peaceful resolutions to the struggle in Guatemala. As a result, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, bringing further attention to the situation in Guatemala.

With international attention focused on Guatemala, the United Nations stepped in to lay the road to peace. In 1994, the blue prints for peace accords were signed. With these documents signed, the United Nations oversaw investigations into human rights violations with the group MINUGUA. The primary objective of the group was to verify the implementation of the peace accords. In order to accomplish this goal, MINUGUA worked jointly with the government and indigenous leaders and helped in the decline of politically motivated human rights violations. The United Nations also provided for economic assistance to alleviate the strain on the Guatemalan economy placed by the four-decade long struggle.


1996 Accords:

Touted as the end to struggles, the December 1996 peace accord was really more a cease-fire. Rigoberta Menchu’s pivotal role in the peace process was affirmed, as she was present at the signing of the accord. True peace can only be achieved after sustainable reforms have been placed. Also, justice for the various human rights violations must occur so that the nation can put the nightmare behind them.


Recent Developments:


On March 8, 1997,the International Court on Human Rights held that the Guatemalan government was responsible for bringing human rights violators to justice. This was a major development as the government was now responsible for taking an active role in assessing guilt upon violators, including governmental officials. However, the excitement over this development quickly subsided. On April 26, 1997, the prospect of peace sustained a major blow as Monsignor Juan Jose Gerardi was assassinated. Gerardi, the chief mediator in peace negotiations, had just released the results of a four-year investigation into human rights violations. His findings affirmed governmental involvement in human rights violations, concluding that the government was responsible for over 80 percent of human rights violation and for the disappearance of over 200,000 civilians. The manner of Gerardi’s murder reflects the violent history of the civil war, as he was bludgeoned to death with an 8-pound concrete block. A suspect was arrested a week later, but no conviction has been made yet. The question arises whether the murder of Gerardi will strengthen or weaken the Guatemalan resolve for peace. Will he become a martyr and fuel the fire for further peace accords like El Salvador’s slain priest Oscar Romero? Clearly, the assailant hopes that the murder will end the hopes of the indigenous for peace.

With Gerardi dead, the task of assessing human rights violations falls into the hands of Christian Tomuschat, head of the historical Classification Commission. His attempts to obtain documentation from the United States government pertaining to CIA involvement in Guatemala have proved futile. The United States keeps those documents classified as they say that releasing them would threaten national security.

The fact-finding commissions have found many mass graves with the bodies of slain civilians piled atop each other. In these graves, bodies of women and children are present. They were unjustly robbed of life by the military government. These graves are the final resting-place of many of the people formerly classified as disappeared. Literally hundreds of thousands of people were massacred over four decades. This massacre was indirectly initiated by the United States policy during the Cold War.

Though blame for human rights violations has repeatedly been established, this does not translate into convictions. For example, President Arzu has yet to press for the conviction of 27 Treasury Police agents charged in 1988 of murders. The International Court on Human Rights, Monsignor Gerardi, the United Nations, and various other fact-finding groups have all concluded that the government is responsible. However, the actions of Arzu and the refusal of the United States government show an irreverent disregard for international law and justice. If international law is being made a mockery of, is the signing of the December 1996 peace accords a significant event that will end forty years of struggle or another in a long line of broken promises?




"As US Starts Healing, US Can’t Turn Away," The National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997.


Bonner, Raymond. " Giving No Picnic in Guatemala," The New York Times, June 6, 1982.


Bryne, Hugh. "Sins of the Past: The US Should Shore Up Guatemala’s Peace." The Washington Post, December 29, 1996.


Susanne Jonas. "Dangerous Liaisons: The US in Guatemala," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 22, 1996.


Menchu, Rigoberta; trans. Anne Wright. I, Rigoberta Menchu. Verso Press. New York, NY: 1985.


Nabizadeh, Laudan. "Guatemala: A Tragedy in US Foreign Policy." EDGE Reader Volume I. 1998.


Parera, Victor. "Guatemala’s New Martyr?" The Nation Digital Edition, 1997.


Perez, Mark. "Unearthing the Horror" Times, March 23, 1997.

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