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Case Number: 15

Case Mnemonic: PETEN

Case Name: Guatemala-Maya Civil War

Case Author: Barbara Pando



1. Abstract

The Guatemala civil war has been in progress since 1954 when the Guatemalan military led a CIA-backed coup against the administration of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the country's popularly elected president. The protracted struggle ended "officially" on April 7, 1995, when the current Guatemalan government and the leftist guerrillas signed an accord to protect the rights of the 23 different Native American groups in the country. During the last forty years, the military has been levying a campaign of terrorism and genocide against these groups, most of them Mayas, in order to distribute native peoples' land among plantation owners (Rohter, Larry. p.1). The main purpose for the war's continuations centers around the issue of land use and rights. Most of the Mayan peoples with access to land plant beans and maize, the two staple crops tied to Mayan subsistence and entrenched in their culture. However, the Mayas, 60% of all Guatemalans, are engaging in a centuries-old struggle with the government and local plantation owners over use of this land. Currently, Guatemala's economy is dependent on its natural resource exports (coffee, sugar, bananas, cardamon, and beef) to its trade partners (U.S., El Salvador, Costa Rica, Germany, and Honduras) (http://cliffie.nosc.mi/~NATLAS/wfb/G/Guatemala.html). Plantation owners and wealthy landowners (mostly mestizo or ladino by ethnic heritage), will therefore continue to collude with the military to displace native peasants in an effort to use their land for export crops. Thus, the land struggle will continue between Native Americans and plantation owners until the land issue is addressed and solved.Back to Top

2. Description

The war against the Mayas begin in the 1950's when several Maya groups began to organize to fight the landowners', and by association, the United Fruit Company. Guzman, known as the "soldier of the people", had been elected in 1950 on a platform of social reform, but was ousted after trying to carry out a land redistribution that would have infringed on U.S. business interests, particularly those of the United Fruit Company. Washington's chosen successor, Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, was assassinated three years later. The military remained in power until the mid-1980's and remain a formidable power in Guatemalan politics. In fact, the civilian governments who have succeeded the generals have difficulty controlling the military's human rights abuses.

Even though the peace accord was signed, debate over land issues continues. The focal point for both sides, the Mayas and the ladino plantation owners is agrarian reform ( p.1). However, plantation owners are often better equipped academically and financially and have access to sophisticated legal tactics to acquire land, often with governmental support ( p.2). The fact that the majority of Mayans do not speak Spanish and are often illiterate often complicates their attempts to keep their land (http://cliffie.nosc.mi/~NATLAS/wfb/G/Guatemala.html p.4). This problem ties into one of the fueling causes behind Guatemala's civil war, overt and traditional racism.

One of the most salient and divisive social constructs in Guatemala today is the issue of race. Ladinos (mestizo) make up approximately 40% and Native Americans make up the other 60% of the population. Ever since colonial times, Spaniards and Ladinos alike have subjected Native Americans to legal, social, political, and economic discrimination. Since these Maya cultures do not speak Spanish, ladino landowners often forcibly evict them from their plots of land and take over. Rigoberta Menchu herself describes how local plantation owners did this to her village community, forcing them to leave their land after tricking her father, an illiterate, Quiche-speaking village leader, into signing a document in Spanish binding the natives to leave the land after two years of occupation (Burgos-Debray, p.103-4). She also describes the blatant racism practiced against her and her family both in Guatemala city and the fincas (plantations).

The ladinos (often assumed to be the agricultural elite, military, and government), cannot easily assimilate the Mayas into their culture because of the Mayas' deep commitment to preserving their own traditions. Despite the knowledge among the native peoples that to preserve and embrace their culture in Guatemala is synonymous with life-long suffering, destitution, death, hunger, and illness, they persevere as a community to maintain their practices through oral history and to reject most notions of ladino culture. One of the results of this internalized ethnic policy is that most Mayan parents refuse to send their children to public schools or to learn Spanish, because then their children become assimilated into Guatemalan culture and leave the community. Rigoberta Menchu's father, for example, did not want to send her to school even though he recognized that his daughter could learn important things there and increase her chances for happiness in life. He decided this because he said that children who go to public schools soon start dressing differently and trying to distance themselves from their Mayan communities. While this may preserve Mayan culture, it also passes down to new generations disenfranchisement through speechlessness.

El Peten & the Chicle Economy
Western and most of northwestern Peten remained beyond the reach and concern of colonial and national regimes until the 1830s. The Spaniards had little interest in the lowlands which lacked precious metals and indigo. Native populations were scattered and remote, making it difficult for the Spanish and later Guatemalan governments to properly conquer and assimilate them. Even so, these zones could not really be cultivated under a string of weak governments until the late 19th century (Schwartz, Forest Society, p.299). Infrastructure into the heart of Peten remained and remains poor (the first asphalted road inside the department was completed in 1982). Due to this and to the hot, humid climate of the region, few people wanted to chance a settlement in this backwater department (Schwartz, p.51) Few people, that is, until chicle, a natural resin base for chewing gum, was found in Peten trees.

The explosion of the chicle trade began in the 1870's in the United States. World War I was a major boom for the industry, as American advertisers called chewing gum "a relief for nervous tension, an aid to digestion, and in the absence of water fit to drink, a mitigation of thirst" (Schwartz, p.140). U.S companies began to sell their product world-wide. Most of the raw material for chewing gum, chicle, was found in the chicle tree, or Achras zapota and Manikara sapota, belonging to the Sapotaceae family.

The primary tapping areas are located in Yucatan, Mexico, Belize, and Peten. In order to be commercially productive, an area dedicated to chicle production must contain at least seven to ten chicle trees per hectare. According to the chicleros, trees should be allowed to "rest" for a period of approximately four to five years before being re-tapped. As a rule, attempts at cultivating chicle plantations have failed in Peten. During these attempts, chicleros generally kill five to fifteen percent of tapped trees. Most chicleros come from other regions of Peten looking for work in an economy that offers little other alternatives. These men are often gone from home for months on end and are either working or traveling to and from their camp-sites to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Despite these hardships, companies and landowners pay chicleros more per month than milperos (small-plot cultivators) earn, roughly US$ 10 to US $23 per month (Schwartz, p. 177). Thus, the possibility of continued deforestation and species loss, particularly the chicle trees, is still a major concern for Guatemalan ecology, Peten chicleros, and eventually Mayas who have been relocating to this department.

Beginning in the early 1960's the national government began to open Peten to land colonization and distribution. Since then, the population has grown ten-fold, of which one out of every two new Peteneros are campesinos migrating from the southern highlands and guerrilleros.(Schwartz, p.11). Most of the insurgent forces during the 1980's and 1990's moved into the Pasion and Usumacinta Rivers. These mountain revolutionaries organized against the Guatemalan government(s) because of the exploitation of Maya and other Native American peoples throughout the country.

Outright Genocide & Human Rights Abuses The civil war took a turn for the worse in the early 1980's, when the Guatemalan army, backed by the CIA, began a campaign of genocide against the Maya peoples. Several hundred Indian villages were obliterated and their inhabitants, presumed to be guerrilla sympathizers, were either killed or forced into exile in Mexico (, p.2). One of these communities, Santiago Atitlan, was abused in this way by the army, claiming up to 300 desaparecidos in all. However, they gathered together in the thousands to demand that the military leave their village and were fired upon by the army, and were able to attract international attention. Since the village was only across the lake from a popular tourist area, the international press picked up on the story. Backed by the international community, the people of Santiago Atitlan have been providing their own "security", discrediting the military's claim that soldiers stationed in native villages are there for the well-being of the villagers. These townspeople have created their own Committee for Security and Development and a "Peace Park" dedicated to preserving the memory of the eleven assassinated on December 1, 1990. In the process of clearing land for the park, townspeople uncovered a mass grave. Due to the military's quick threat to return to Santiago Atitlan, the villagers have left the grave site alone.

Solidarity among Maya tribes has increased in the 1990's and resulted in increased political activity among native peoples. Although the Mayas have not been able to gain much ground on political issues, they certainly have increased their ability to negotiate with the government over cultural matters such as language, education, tradition, and religion. Mayanidad, although already in practice for hundreds of years among the Maya, began as an officially recognized political movement in 1991 in conjunction with President Vinicio Cerezo's leave of office (Wearne. The Maya of Guatemala, p.37). One of the main threats to the movement includes power struggles among native leaders. Although there is obviously much which needs to be done to resolve this primarily socially based conflict, continued Mayan solidarity and political activism is continuing to grow and foster the hope that one day Guatemalan Native Americans will be able to live their lives according to the rules of their ancestors.
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3. Duration: In Progress (1954 to now)

4. Location

Continent: North America

Region: Southern North America

Country: Guatemala

5. Actors: Guatemala and Maya

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Habitat Loss

Due to the continued (although by now officially illegal) displacement of Maya Native Americans by Guatemalan, ladino landowners, land which was once tropical forest is being cleared for cultivation of either corn and beans or export crops such as coffee, sugar, and cotton. The chicle industry, although not as buoyant as before, continues to prosper in the Peten department. However due to an increase in Maya immigration from the highlands, the population in this remote area is increasing, contributing to the depletion of the forest and the chicle trees. The Peten is also one of the last habitats of the Quetzal, Guatemala's national bird.

7. Type of Habitat: Tropical

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Guatemala      Guatemala           Ethnic civil war in Guatemala

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Civil

Mayan displacement is directly the result of blatant societal racism between the two main racial groups in Guatemala, Native Americans and ladinos. Ladinos have always been the dominant race in the nation, subjecting all Native Americans to the lowest possible societal, economic, and political rungs. This racial discrimination and value system translates into cultural discrimination.

10. Level of Conflict: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: ??

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Another crucial issue which contributes to the land conflict dispute between Maya and Ladino is the CIA's involvement in Guatemala's protracted civil war. It was the CIA that aided the overthrow of President Guzman in 1954 and supported the military regimes through the 1960's and 1970's. The agency has also gained a reputation for sending aggressive case officers who ignored human rights abuses of Guatemalan officers on the CIA's payroll as well as the directives of US diplomats at the embassy ( 995/950410.guatemala.html, p.2). Although the CIA's involvement in Guatemala may have softened in recent years, the legacy of their support may be seen in the military, which has more power than even the civil government. Despite Maya attempts to participate politically at the national level, they must be careful not to alienate the radical right and the army, which still maintains its patrols in most Maya villages ( STILE/+000203.html, p.3-6).


Land Use & Distribution --------> Conflict <-------- Racism

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13. Level of Strategic Interest

14. Outcome of Dispute: Compromise

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

  9. CHACO
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16. Relevant Websites and Literature


Literature Burgos-Debray, Elisabeth. ed. I, Rigoberta Menchu: an Indian Woman in Guatemala. Translated by Ann Wright. London: Verso Publishing Co., 1984.

Burns, Allan F. Maya in Exile: Guatemalan in Florida. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Canby, Peter. The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

Schwartz, Norman B. Forest Society: A Social History of Peten, Guatemala. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Wearne, Phillip. The Maya of Guatemala. United Kingdom: Minority Rights Group International, 1994. ISBN 1 897693 55 9.

Wilson, Richard. Maya Resurgence in Guatemala: Q'ueqchi' Experiences. London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Back to Top http://cliffie.nosc.mi/~NATLAS/wfb/G/Guatemala.html. Guatemala. /1995/950410.guatemala.html. Blythe, Stephen. Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala-A Human Rights Victory. Peace Brigades International. The Struggle for Land: Invasions and Evictions. en igc:saiic. Land Conflict in the Ixil Triangle: On the Road to Peace. 0919ngua.htm. Preston, Julia. Guatemala and Guerillas Sign Accord to End 35-Year-Old War. NY Transfer News Collective. Menchu: Despite Everything, We Are Moving Forward. Translated by Michael Pearlman. Palacios, Jose. Guatemala Agreement on Indigenous Rights. People's Weekly World. Zapeta, Estuardo. Guatemala: Maya Movement at the Political Crossroads. Guatemala: Indian Rights Pact Signed. Rohter, Larry. A War So Long, its Origin is Dim to the Guatemalans.

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November, 1997