Background - Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta

Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)



African palm plantation in Petén.

The Landscape


Guatemala is the third-largest country in Central America. It occupies 42,042 square miles, making it about the size of Tennessee. The country shares borders with Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Within Guatemala’s relatively small area are 14 distinct ecosystems found at elevations varying from sea level to higher than 4,200 meters (13,780 feet). Many people think of Guatemala as a sweltering tropical country, which is only partially true. While it does feature warm tropical coastal environments and hot lowland jungles, a rugged spine of mountains and volcanoes runs through the country’s center. In the tropics, elevation mostly determines climate, and this is certainly the case in Guatemala. Temperatures drop dramatically the higher you go in elevation, and precipitation varies greatly depending on what side of a mountain chain you’re on. All of this translates into a dizzying array of landscapes, making Guatemala a delight to explore.

The country divides rather neatly into various geographical zones. The volcanic highlands run through the country’s center going west to east from Mexico to El Salvador. Elevation tends to get lower closer to the Salvadoran border. The eastern areas of Alta and Baja Verapaz are largely mountainous but also largely composed of limestone. A curious feature of this area, found in its northern limits, is the presence of small, forested limestone hills much like those found in parts of China. East from Guatemala City toward Honduras, the terrain is largely dominated by semiarid flatlands covered in cactus.

Closer to the Caribbean Coast in the department of Izabal, the terrain once again becomes lush and largely filled with banana plantations. A small sliver of Caribbean coastline runs between the Honduran border and Belize but features white-sand beaches, swamplands, and some impressive tropical rainforests. Small mountains are interspersed throughout parts of the Caribbean coastal region.

Running roughly parallel to the highlands, to the south, are the Pacific Coast flatlands. This is a rich agricultural area once covered in tropical forest but now home to vast sugarcane and coffee plantations, the latter being on the slopes of the highland zones as they descend into the coastal plain. The Pacific Coast is also home to wetlands, mangrove swamps, and beaches of curiously dark color because of their proximity to the country’s volcanic chain.

The northern third of Guatemala is a vast Ohio-sized limestone flatland known as Petén. Once covered entirely in tropical forests, it has increasingly become deforested in its southern parts with only the northern third retaining large unbroken swaths of forest.

Here is a brief discussion of some of Guatemala’s outstanding geographic features and why they might be of interest to the visitor.


The highest of Guatemala’s mountains are actually volcanic peaks. There are 33 of them in total with a handful now active. Volcán Tajumulco, at 4,220 meters (13,845 feet), is the highest point in all of Central America, followed closely by nearby Volcán Tacaná, at 4,110 meters (13,484 feet). The most frequently climbed volcanoes include the active Pacaya near Guatemala City, the three volcanoes on the shores of Lake Atitlán, Agua, and Acatenango near Antigua. Some volcanoes, such as Chicabal and Ipala, feature turquoise lagoons, which fill their craters. Other active volcanoes include Fuego and Santiaguito.


Acatenango Volcano is a popular climb.

Among the nonvolcanic mountains, the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, near the border with Mexico, is Guatemala’s, and Central America’s, highest mountain chain. It stands 3,837 meters (12,588 feet) at its highest point. Its smooth, rounded peaks attest to years of erosion from being glaciated thousands of years ago. Other noteworthy mountain chains include the Sierra de las Minas, in the eastern part of the country. Protected as a private forest reserve, it still contains large stands of virgin cloud forest. Farther east near the Caribbean Coast are the Cerro San Gil and Montañas del Mico, which are still covered in dense tropical rainforest. Petén has relatively few mountains, but the foothills of the Maya Mountains of neighboring Belize run into the department’s southeastern corner with an elevation of over 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) at Petén’s highest point. Petén’s other noteworthy mountain range is the remote and mostly forested Sierra del Lacandón, at the far western edge of the department bordering Mexico and exceeding 600 meters (2,000 feet) at its highest point.

Guatemala’s mountain scenery comes largely as a product of its geographic location at the intersection of the North American, Cocos, and Caribbean plates, making it one of the most seismically and volcanically active places in the world. Indeed, Guatemala is no stranger to earthquakes. Among the many fault lines running through the country are the parallel Chixoy-Polochic and Motagua faults. The latter is responsible for the most recent major earthquake to rock Guatemala, a magnitude-7.5 whopper in February 1976 killing thousands and wiping entire villages off the face of the map. A series of massive earthquakes in 1773 resulted in the relocation of the Guatemalan capital from the Panchoy Valley (Antigua Guatemala) to the Valley of the Hermitage, where it remains today, better known as Guatemala City.


Guatemala has several rivers worthy of mention. The greatest of these is the Usumacinta, which is formed by the confluence of the Chixoy and Pasión Rivers, making it Central America’s most voluminous river. Guatemalan author Virgilio Rodríguez Macal, in his novel Guayacán, calls it the “father and lord of the Central American rivers.” The Usumacinta forms much of Guatemala’s border with Mexico and continues its northwesterly flow all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. On the Guatemalan side, the Usumacinta borders the relatively untouched Sierra del Lacandón National Park, which harbors dense tropical rainforests. The Usumacinta is a wild frontier and an active waterway for drug smuggling, contraband logging, and boats carrying illegal immigrants on their journey north.

The Pasión, an Usumacinta tributary, meanders through southern Petén. Much like the larger Usumacinta, its watershed was extremely important in Mayan times. Several Mayan sites lie near the river. In the arid southeastern part of the country, the Río Motagua connects the highlands to the Caribbean Sea and forms a dry river valley of agricultural importance since Mayan times. Other notable rivers include the Río San Pedro, also in Petén; the Verapaces-area Río Cahabón, which has excellent white-water runs year-round; and the Río Dulce, a lazy tropical river connecting Lake Izabal to the Caribbean.

Lakes and Lagoons

Guatemala has several lakes noteworthy for their size, recreational opportunities, and sheer natural beauty. Foremost among these is highland Lake Atitlán, called “the most beautiful lake in the world” by author Aldous Huxley during his travels through the region. The lake’s spectacular mountain scenery is punctuated by the sentinel presence of three towering volcanoes along its southern shores. Near Guatemala City, Lake Amatitlán has been a weekend getaway for city dwellers since time immemorial but industrial pollution has spoiled the once-clear waters. Still, Guatemalans have taken on the onerous task of rescuing its waters with foreign help, and the lake may soon be safe again for swimming. An aerial tram operating on surrounding hillsides has recently reopened the area to visitors, making a side trip to this tranquil spot increasingly alluring for wonderful views of the rugged mountain terrain. The largest of Guatemala’s lakes, Lake Izabal, is a tropical lake connected to the Caribbean by the Río Dulce. The Río Polochic delta, on Izabal’s southwestern shore, is becoming increasingly popular as a bird-watcher’s paradise. Petén’s Lake Petén Itzá is also a tropical flatland lake with the added bonus of tropical forests, crystal-clear waters, and a variety of accommodations from which to enjoy all of these. As much of Petén is limestone, the lake’s waters have a distinct turquoise color near the shores and from the air look very much like those of the Mexican Caribbean. Farther east toward Belize is Yaxhá Lagoon, near the ruins of the same name. The lagoon, and its aggressive crocodiles, was made famous by the Survivor Guatemala television series filmed here in the summer of 2005.


Lake Petén Itzá is one of Guatemala’s largest lakes.

There are many beautiful lagoons in the Guatemalan highlands. Some, atop volcanoes such as Ipala and Chicabal, are believed by the Maya to harbor mystical powers and are the site of rituals. Laguna Lachuá is a beautiful, almost perfectly round lagoon in the Ixcán jungle region just north of the highlands. The surrounding rainforest has been preserved, but unfortunately it is an ecological island, a green square in a surrounding sea of deforestation.

The Coasts

Guatemala has a significant amount of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, though there are few beaches to speak of. Still, there are a few places with surf-worthy waves, and the Pacific Coast beaches are exotic because of their dark sands, which are due to the proximity of active volcanoes. Among the best places to hit the beach are Monterrico and Las Lisas. Guatemala is gaining international fame among anglers for the quality of its deep-sea fishing. On the Caribbean side, there are a few pleasant white-sand beaches on the remote peninsula of Punta de Manabique as well as closer to the towns of Puerto Barrios and Lívingston. There is excellent scuba diving in the outlying Belize cayes and around Punta de Manabique.


Guatemala has a tropical climate, though temperatures vary greatly between regions because of differences in altitude. The coastal plains and lowlands have an average yearly temperature of about 27°C (80°F), with little seasonal change. Mountain valleys 1,200-1,800 meters (4,000-6,000 feet) high are usually comfortably mild. Major cities such as Guatemala City, Antigua, and Quetzaltenango all lie at these altitudes, meaning they have mostly pleasant year-round spring-like temperatures of 16°C-21°C (60°F-70°F). Higher mountain peaks and valleys sometimes have frost and average 4°C (40°F). Keep in mind that these are averages and certain times of year are markedly warmer than others. The North American winter solstice often brings the arrival of cold fronts, which make temperatures in the highlands dip below freezing on mountain summits but also in highland cities such as Quetzaltenango. If you’re traveling to Guatemala November-February, bring a warm sweater or two for the chilly highlands and a heavy jacket if you plan to climb some volcanoes. At the other extreme, March and April, coinciding with the spring equinox, is the warmest time of year. Temperatures in the Petén lowlands, Izabal, and Pacific Coast plain routinely hover around 38°C (100°F) during these months. Guatemala City and Antigua hover at around 29°C (85°F).

There are distinct dry and rainy seasons in Guatemala. The dry season runs from November to the beginning of May. If you are a photographer interested in capturing images of Guatemala’s fantastic mountain scenery, you may want to avoid visiting during March and April, when haze from dust and agricultural burning tends to obliterate any views of surrounding scenery. The volcanoes around Antigua and Lake Atitlán become extremely difficult to spot during this time of year.

The rainy season generally lasts May-November with daily showers during most of this period, usually in the afternoon. Mornings are usually sunny and clear, with a gradual buildup of giant rain clouds throughout the day, culminating in a torrential downpour. The latter months tend to be the rainiest with deluges sometimes lasting entire days. The rainy season is sometimes referred to as invierno, meaning winter, though it is officially summer in the Northern Hemisphere, where Guatemala lies. Verano, or summer, refers to the tail end of the dry season.

The Pacific coastal plain and Western Highlands receive 76-150 centimeters (30-60 inches) of rain a year, and the Eastern Highlands average 51-76 centimeters (20-30 inches). Again, these figures vary greatly from place to place depending on factors such as altitude and what side of the mountain chain you’re on. An example of this is the presence of ample rainfall and lush cloud forests on the forested slopes of the Sierra de las Minas in contrast to semiarid plains in the mountain’s rain shadow along the neighboring Motagua Valley. Petén receives 200-381 centimeters (80-150 inches) of rain annually, which falls throughout most of the year. The rainiest place in Guatemala is said to be the Cerro San Gil rainforest, on the Caribbean Coast, where warm, moist air rises from the ocean and dumps precipitation on this small mountain chain. There is really no dry season to speak of in this area.

There are sometimes breaks in the rainfall, known as canícula, for a week or two in July and/or August. Rainfall can vary substantially from year to year, which is due to factors such as the presence of El Niño or La Niña. El Niño often means a prolonged dry season, which can lead to intense wildfires in forested areas such as Petén.

Hurricanes and tropical storms sometimes hit Guatemala during the latter months of the rainy season, causing widespread damage. Much of this is due to soil saturation on deforested and waterlogged hillsides, which give way to devastating mudslides, as occurred in parts of the Lake Atitlán basin after Hurricane Stan in 2005. Hurricane Mitch also left a trail of devastation along the Caribbean Coast in 1998, obliterating much of the banana harvest and destroying thousands of homes.


Guatemala’s environmental issues, particularly in regard to tropical deforestation, can seem daunting at times. The country and its people appear to be caught in a vicious cycle that will end only when the environmental degradation reaches its peak and the consequences are fully reaped. It seems greed, apathy, poverty, corruption, ignorance, and neglect have all conspired against Guatemala’s precious natural resources. I do not mean to sound pessimistic in my introduction to this subject. I just think I’ve had the opportunity to see what’s at stake, having explored much of Guatemala during my teenage years and seeing firsthand the gradual encroachment of the agricultural frontier into what was once virgin forest. It is hoped that visitors to Guatemala, much like those to Belize and Costa Rica, will play a pivotal role in raising awareness of the abundant natural heritage with which Guatemalans been blessed, enabling the conservation of these resources to become a source of economic and moral value.

There is a long way to go to make environmental awareness a matter of national consciousness, as demonstrated by how frequently one sees garbage by the roadside or car and bus passengers casually throwing refuse out their windows. The problem of raising this consciousness is exacerbated when one takes into account the overwhelming lack of education of the general populace, with its alarming levels of illiteracy, and the fact that environmental protection always takes a backseat when it comes down to a question of preserving the forest or cutting it down to plant subsistence crops.

At the same time, there is much to be hopeful about, particularly in the three decades since Guatemala established its democracy, during which time the country has been governed by civilian presidents interested in environmental matters. In addition to establishing the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo pushed through congress much of the legislation serving as a basis for the protection of Guatemala’s natural heritage. Many valiant Guatemalans have likewise done their part to establish a genuine environmental movement in their country. Their courage is underscored by the fact that, in Guatemala, environmental activism necessarily entails standing firm in the face of death threats and intimidations. Environmental protection often conflicts with the interests of the still-powerful agricultural elites, among these: lumber barons; drug cartels using remote parks for illicit activities; cattle ranchers, some of whom have military ties; and land-hungry peasants. Environmental martyrs are many in Guatemala, much the same as the legacy of those campaigning for greater respect for human rights and better socioeconomic conditions. In these ways, environmental issues in Guatemala are largely circumscribed within the larger social issues of endemic poverty, power politics, and the rule of law.


In 2005, about 37 percent of Guatemala was still forested, down from 40 percent in 2001. Most of the country was at one time covered by forests, a fact attested to by Guatemala’s ancient Mayan-Toltec name meaning “land of the trees.” The once-forested Pacific plains have given way largely to sugarcane and coffee plantations while the forests of the Caribbean slope have been turned largely over to banana plantations. The highlands, for their part, have been under intense cultivation since preconquest times, though there are still substantial forests left in remote corners of Quiché and Huehuetenango. Most of the loss of forest cover in the past 40 years has been due to government incentives aimed at colonizing the northern department of Petén in an attempt to ease pressure for land by an ever-increasing population. The Petén thus became an escape valve from pressures for land reform historically thwarted by Guatemala’s agricultural elites. It is here that a modern-day battle is being waged over Guatemala’s remaining forests.


tropical deforestation in Alta Verapaz

It is hoped that history will not repeat itself, as the ancient Maya have a valuable lesson to teach about what happens when the forests are cut down. It is speculated that among the reasons for the Classic Mayan collapse is widespread drought caused by the overwhelming deforestation of the tropical lowlands the Maya inhabited. This may have, in turn, led to widespread warfare among Mayan city-states as populations scrambled to assert dominance over dwindling resources. The southern and central sections of Petén have been almost completely deforested, leading to local declines in annual rainfall marked by prolonged and warmer dry seasons. The northern third of Petén remains mostly intact, for now, protected as the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Pressures against the reserve continue to mount, however, with illegal land grabs and clandestine logging continuing to make inroads. There is no guarantee that the reserve’s borders will remain inviolate or that they will stave off the advance of the agricultural frontier.

In addition to the activities of peasant farmers steadily encroaching on virgin forests, the activities of contraband loggers, looters of unexcavated archaeological sites, and wildlife poachers inside park boundaries constitute an additional threat to the forests. Adding insult to injury, contraband loggers, wildlife poachers, and peasants from neighboring Mexico have been scuttling the border separating their country from Guatemala to burn forest, kill wildlife, and plant crops in cleared lands. A now-famous Landsat image appearing in the October 1989 issue of National Geographic shows the once razor-sharp border between Mexico and Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park. The border is now dotted with burned-out land parcels along much of this boundary marker as a curious extension of the wide-scale deforestation in Mexico.

A recent development is the clearing of forest to build clandestine landing strips for drug-laden aircraft coming in from South America. With the virtual absence of local law enforcement and the aid of poor peasants eager for extra income, drug lords have found a haven for their illicit activities in Guatemala’s remote parks. They have even gone so far as to acquire property by buying lands from settlers and then registering them illegally in their own names. Whether through bribes or the falsification of documents, narcos have infiltrated Guatemala’s protected lands to suit their illicit operations.

Water Resources

Access to safe drinking water is a widespread problem throughout most of Guatemala. According to figures from the United Nations Development Program, roughly a quarter of Guatemalans still lack this basic necessity. This figure becomes even more dramatic in rural areas, where it is actually closer to 50 percent. The lack of potable water in turn leads to many illnesses, including intestinal parasites and amoebic dysentery, among others. Although most cities have sewer systems, wastewater treatment is virtually nonexistent—raw sewage often flows into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Guatemala City’s sewage, for example, is responsible for polluting the nearby Motagua River with human excrement, solvents, and metallic waste. Adding to Guatemala’s water woes is pollution from petroleum-based fertilizers used in commercial coffee, banana, and sugar plantations, which openly dump wastewater into nearby rivers and streams.

Air Quality

Guatemala City is notoriously polluted by old, recycled U.S. school buses, the basis of its public transportation network, which belch out diesel fumes in the form of black clouds. A promising recent development is a revamping of the city’s public transportation system to include newer vehicles and stop older buses from circulating in the city center. In addition to auto exhaust, pollution from industrial facilities and burning garbage from the city dump combine to form a thick haze often hanging over the city. The worst days occur when thermal inversions cause the haze to hang in a low-altitude pollution gulag, much like a pineapple-upside-down cake. Concentrations of particulates, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide often exceed World Health Organization safety standards, particularly on these days. During the rainy season, the haze is washed away by the afternoon rains, after which the atmosphere is amazingly free of pollutants.

Elsewhere, smoke and ash from occasional volcanic eruptions can make the atmosphere somewhat hazy, though the worst pollution comes from dry-season agricultural burning and forest fires. When one considers that more than half of all energy consumption comes from burning firewood, the reasons behind the thick haze hanging over much of the country during March and April begin to emerge.


Sugarcane harvesting involves agricultural burning and is a major polluter.

Resource Extraction

Mining activities have made Guatemalan newspaper headlines in recent years, as mining interests have cast an interested eye upon Guatemalan lands. Although environmental-impact studies are required by law, these often fall prey to government corruption in the form of payoffs in exchange for a favorable assessment. Threats and intimidation against environmental groups often attempt to quell any opposition to these projects.

Residents of the Western Highlands town of Sipacapa have demonstrated vehement opposition to the opening of a strip mine in the vicinity of their town, bringing the case directly to the president of the World Bank and officials of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private-sector lending arm. Among the arguments against the installation of mining activities is the conflict of an open-pit mine with Mayan belief in the sacredness of the Earth.

Residents of Sipacapa held a referendum overwhelmingly rejecting the presence of a mine on community lands. In early 2005, protests against the mine’s establishment, including roadblocks, were broken up by military forces, resulting in 11 people being injured and one killed.

More than 550 mining concessions now cover 10 percent of the country. Almost 20 percent of these are for open-pit mining of minerals such as gold, silver, nickel, and copper. A gold mine operating in Huehuetenango has been the subject of particularly harsh criticism by local environmentalists and an object of contention with indigenous residents.

Petroleum extraction continues in the northern Petén lowlands and parts of Alta Verapaz, including the Laguna del Tigre National Park, although ecological organizations have long denounced its negative effects upon the environment. Oil exploration and extraction were present before the creation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and have thus been allowed to continue, mostly in parts of the buffer and multiple-use zones. During the civil war, oil pipelines became a frequent target for guerrillas sabotaging the activities of multinationals involved in resource extraction. Occupations of oil-drilling facilities were also frequent. In addition to creating roads through sparsely populated areas, the oil extraction activities have come under fire because of oil spills in protected lands.

In 2005, the Guatemalan government opened new concessions in an area along the Petén-Alta Verapaz border said to harbor an estimated 200 million barrels of oil. Guatemala’s total estimated reserves amount to about 2 billion barrels. Guatemalan oil’s high sulfur content prevents it from being used in the production of diesel or gasoline, relegating it to use in the production of asphalt.

Soil Erosion

Unbridled deforestation on steep hillsides is responsible for much of the erosion of Guatemala’s soil. Already about one-third of all land cover is considered eroded or seriously degraded, a significant amount when one considers the high degree of susceptibility to erosion of Guatemala’s soil, which is composed largely of unconsolidated volcanic ash. Deforestation and soil erosion work hand in hand and are responsible for many of the tragic mudslides in the aftermath of tropical storms such as Hurricanes Mitch and Stan. Soil erosion has also contributed to greatly shortening the useful life of Chixoy Dam, which supplies about 15 percent of Guatemala’s electricity, through siltation of the dam’s reservoir.

Conservation Groups

Many grassroots environmental organizations operate in Guatemala in partnership with international conservation organizations. Among the best-known groups is Fundación Defensores de la Naturaleza (7a Avenida 7-09 Zona 13, Guatemala City, tel. 2310-2929,, which administers Sierra del Lacandón National Park, Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve, Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge, and the United Nations National Park just outside of Guatemala City. Through private land purchases, Defensores has been able to acquire large tracts of land in Sierra de las Minas and Sierra del Lacandón with help from The Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy also works locally with the Fundación para el Desarrollo y la Conservación (Foundation for Development and Conservation), or FUNDAECO (7a Calle “A” 20-53 Zona 11, Colonia Mirador, Guatemala City, tel. 2474-3645, Together, they have bought more than 9,000 acres of tropical rainforest in the Caribbean coastal mountain chain of Cerro San Gil.

The forests of Petén are understandably the center of much attention from local and international organizations. ProPetén (Calle Central, Flores, Petén, tel. 7867-5296,, an offshoot of Conservation International, began operating shortly after the creation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and is credited with implementing innovative approaches to bridge the gap between the need for environmental conservation and the needs of communities living in or near the reserve. Among its successful programs are the establishment of a research station for the protection of scarlet macaws, forestry concessions with local communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s buffer zone, and two Spanish-language schools owned and operated by local villagers.

Another important organization is the Asociacion de Rescate y Conservacion de Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association), or ARCAS (Km.30, Calle Hillary, Lote 6, Casa Villa Conchita, San Lucas Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, tel. 7830-1374, It works to protect and rehabilitate wildlife, including sea turtles on the Pacific Coast and animals falling prey to poaching for the lucrative pet trade in Petén, including cats, monkeys, and birds.

Several organizations operate in Guatemala’s eastern Verapaces and Izabal regions. Finally, Tropico Verde (Vía 6 4-25 Zona 4, Edificio Castañeda, Oficina 41, Guatemala City, tel. 2339-4225, is a watchdog organization monitoring the state of Guatemala’s parks via field studies. In addition to local monitoring, it helps bring awareness of local repercussions of international environmental issues such as Guatemala’s participation in international conventions on whaling, to name just one example.

Plants and Animals

Guatemala harbors an astounding degree of biodiversity due greatly to the variety of ecosystems found within its borders. Its location in the Central American land bridge between North and South America means it is the southernmost range for certain North American species as well as the northernmost range for certain Southern Hemisphere species. Fourteen of the 38 Holdridge Life Zones are represented in Guatemala.


Among the cornucopia of plantlife are 8,000 varieties of plants, including more than 600 types of orchids. Of these, nearly 200 are unique to Guatemala. The rugged cloud forests of Sierra de las Minas, meanwhile, boast the presence of 17 distinct species of pine trees found nowhere else on earth. Endemic orchid species include Guatemala’s national flower, the rare monja blanca, or “white nun.” It is found in the cloud forests of the Verapaces region.

Guatemala means “land of the trees” in the ancient Mayan-Toltec language. According to 2005 figures, 37 percent of Guatemala remained covered in forest in 2005, down from 40 percent in 2001. Among the different types of forests present in Guatemala’s varied climate zones are tropical rainforest, tropical dry forests, evergreen forests, and cloud forests. In some cold, mountainous parts of Guatemala there are temperate forests whose broadleaf trees’ leaves briefly change color before falling to the ground, though not at all to the extent of the displays of fall foliage present in parts of North America.

The forests of Petén are officially classified mostly as tropical moist and tropical wet forests. Guatemala’s only true rainforests, strictly speaking, are found in the Cerro San Gil along the Caribbean Coast.

Most of Guatemala’s remaining forest cover is found in Petén, especially the northern third of the department in a huge park known as the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Verapaces, Izabal, Quiché, and Huehuetenango also have significant amounts of forest cover remaining. Many of these forests are on remote mountains that have remained inaccessible and have therefore escaped the ravages of the advance of the agricultural frontier. Significant wetlands, including four of international importance, are found in Petén, Izabal, and the western section of the Pacific Coast plains near the Mexican border. Mangrove forests are found on the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts.

Among the plants you’ll find in Guatemala’s tropical forests is the towering ceiba (Ceiba pentandra), which is Guatemala’s national tree and was considered sacred by the ancient Maya. It has a wide trunk and buttressed roots with branches found only at the very top. The ceiba can reach heights of 60 meters. You will often find them in cleared fields—one of only a few trees left standing amid grazing cattle. The most famous example is along the footpath at the entrance to Tikal National Park, where visitors are often photographed standing next to the tree’s colossal trunk.

Another common tropical forest tree is the chicozapote, from which chicle is extracted for use in the manufacture of chewing gum. Chicleros cut V-shaped notches in the tree’s trunk, allowing the sap to drip down the tree to a receptacle placed there for its collection. These days chicle goes to Japan, which still favors the traditional base for making gum. During the early 20th century, most of Guatemala’s chicle went to the Wrigley Company.

The ramón, or breadnut tree, is found throughout the tropical flatlands and was widely used during Mayan times for making tortillas and drinks, among other things. Archaeologists have linked the increasing consumption of ramón seeds to decreasing food-production cycles during Mayan times, speculating that it served as a replacement to more traditional staples during periods of drought.

One of the most curious plants found in the tropical forests is the strangler fig, or mata palo (Ficus obtusifolia), which wraps itself around its host, eventually killing it. It has thick roots and looks much like a wooden rope wrapped around a tree. It’s easy to spot; you’ll recognize it when you see it.

Guatemala’s forests contain excellent hardwoods, the most prominent of these being cedar (Cedrela angustifolia) and mahogany (Swientenia alicastrum). Much of the Petén forest has been logged, legally and illegally. Peasant forestry cooperatives operate in the multiple-use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve sustainably harvesting eco-certified hardwoods. Guatemalan mahogany is highly prized in the making of furniture. The cabinets of the Four Seasons resort on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, for example, are made from Guatemalan mahogany. Also important as a forest product is xate palm (Chamaedorea spp.), which is harvested in the forests using sustainable methods, though overcutting is entirely possible. The bright green palm leaves are used in floral arrangements throughout the United States and Europe.



Guatemala’s abundant birdlife includes more than 700 different species. Although not nearly as popular a bird-watching destination as Belize or Costa Rica, Guatemala has become increasingly well known among birders now that pristine areas conducive to the activity are no longer the site of skirmishes between army and guerrilla forces, as was the case during the civil war. This has opened new areas to bird-watching and Guatemalans are quickly taking steps to gain some ground in catering to this very lucrative tourism market.


Guatemala’s exuberant vegetation

Among the highlights of a visit to Guatemala is the opportunity to spot its rare, endangered national emblem, the resplendent quetzal (Pharomacrus mocino). The quetzal gives its name to the national currency and was revered by the Maya for its long green tail feathers used in ceremonial headdresses. Quetzals have become increasingly rare because of the loss of their cloud forest habitat, but they still survive on the slopes of the Lake Atitlán volcanoes, parts of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, and particularly in the Sierra de las Minas. A forest preserve in Baja Verapaz, known as the Quetzal Biotope, has been set aside specifically to protect the quetzal. It can often be seen on the grounds of one of the area lodges feeding on the aguacatillo trees. The larger, nearby Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve is also a safe bet. Among endemic species is the flightless Atitlán grebe (Podilymbus gigas), commonly known as poc, which was officially declared extinct in 1989. The introduction of nonnative large- and smallmouth bass into the lake seems to have precipitated its drastic decline in numbers from about 200 in 1960 to only 32 in 1983. The bass ate the young grebes as well as the crabs and fish species on which poc fed.

Endemic to the northern Petén region is the Petén ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), readily seen strutting around Tikal. It is smaller but much more colorful than its northern relatives, somewhat resembling a peacock. Other interesting birds found in Guatemala’s tropical forests include the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), a perennial jungle favorite because of its large, colorful, bananalike beak. Many of these can be seen at Tikal around sunrise and sunset flying among the temples peeking from the forest canopy. A large variety of parrots also inhabit the Petén forests. The most impressive of these is the scarlet macaw (Ara macao), which once inhabited large parts of Petén as well as the Pacific coastal plain. It now inhabits only very remote parts of the Petén forests. Conservationists are fighting to save the birds from local extinction and protected nesting sites have been established in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, specifically in Laguna del Tigre National Park. Rounding out the list of noteworthy birds is the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), a large, powerful raptor that also enjoys healthy populations at Tikal National Park.


Toucans are a frequent sight in Guatemala’s tropical forests.

Land Mammals

Guatemala’s list of native land mammals is impressive, with a large variety of exotic cats, primates, and other furry creatures. The largest of Guatemala’s cats is the jaguar (Panthera onca), found in lowland parts of Petén, Izabal, and the Verapaces. Referred to as tigre by locals, it is known to sometimes wander into chiclero camps as well as kill livestock in cattle ranches that have encroached on remote areas. Sightings of this beautiful spotted cat are rare, so consider yourself lucky if you are able to glimpse one in the wild. Its tracks are more likely to be seen on travels to the remote forests of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which can be exciting enough. Other cats include the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yaguarondi), puma (Puma concolor), and their smaller relatives the margay (Leopardus wiedii) and ocelot (Leopardus pardalis).

Among the most widely seen mammals are monkeys. You are likely to hear the roar of howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) during the early morning hours if camping overnight in Petén. Less aggressive, smaller, and ever more playful, are spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi).

The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) can often be seen in the early morning and evening among Tikal’s temples. More exotic forest dwellers include the piglike collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu) and white-lipped peccary (Tayasu pecari) as well as the hefty Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii), and the tamandua anteater (Tamandua mexicana).

Also easy to spot are some of the smaller mammals, particularly in parks such as Tikal and Yaxhá. Among these are the raccoonlike white-nosed coati (Nasua narica), which practically walk up to you at Tikal; mouselike agoutis (Dasyprocta punctata); and kinkajous (Potos flavus).

If you happen to like bats, you’ll be pleased to know Guatemala harbors more than 100 species of the flying critters. Many of these are found in the limestone caves of Petén and the Verapaces. Most of these are harmless to humans, feeding on fruits and insects. There are blood-sucking vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) flying about, though these feed mostly on cattle.


Five species of sea turtles can be seen on Guatemala’s Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, where they also come ashore to lay their eggs. These are olive ridley, hawksbill, leatherback, green, and loggerhead. Of these, olive ridley, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles nest on the Pacific shores and can be seen at the Monterrico-Hawaii Biotope. Between September and January, visitors to this park have the rare opportunity to hold baby sea turtles in their hands before releasing them to begin their mad dash across the sand and a lifetime at sea. If they survive to adulthood, the females will return to very same beach to lay their eggs and begin a new life cycle. All of these turtle species are endangered because of the harvesting of their eggs by poor coastal dwellers in search of food and a means to supplement their incomes.

Guatemala’s Pacific sailfish have become the object of widespread praise in the angling circuit with blue marlin, Pacific sailfish, and yellowfin tuna just waiting to be caught. Humpback whales can also be seen breaching in the Pacific waters. As for the Caribbean Coast, Guatemala just missed out on the Belize Barrier Reef, as it ends right at the doorstep of the Punta de Manabique peninsula. The barrier reef is easily accessible, however, along with the wonders of its corals and exotic fish. Although lacking the barrier reef per se, the waters off Guatemala’s Atlantic Coast are certainly not devoid of exotic sealife. Bottlenose dolphins readily follow motorboats as they make their way along the Caribbean Coast. The endangered manatee (Trichechus manatus), or sea cow, has become increasingly rare as the large, slow, sea grass-eating mammal has fallen prey to hunting, motorboats, and drowning in fishing nets. A small reserve in Izabal’s El Golfete is attempting to protect the few that remain in Guatemalan waters.


There are 112 species of amphibians represented in Guatemala. Guatemala is out of range for some of the colorful miniature frogs, such as poison arrow frogs, found farther south in Costa Rica and Panama, but there are still some interesting frogs to be found in Guatemala’s tropical forests; among these are the red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) and the similar Morelet’s tree frog (Agalychnis moreletti). Fleischmann’s glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni) is translucent and lime green with small yellow spots and yellowish hands. Its organs and bones are visible through the abdominal skin. All three of these prefer vegetation near rivers and streams.


With 214 species of reptiles, Guatemala has no shortage of snakes. Among the little critters to watch out for are the fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), known locally as barba amarilla. The aggressive pit viper is found in abundant quantities in the tropical forests of Petén, Izabal, and the Verapaces, though you are not likely to see one. Baby fer-de-lance can be especially dangerous as they are yet unable to control the amount of poison they inject into a bite.

Other snakes include tropical rattlesnakes (Crotalus durissus), several species of colorful coral snakes, and nonvenomous boa constrictors.

If you watched the Survivor TV series, you probably noticed there are crocodiles in Guatemala, particularly in and around Lake Yaxhá. The crocodiles seen on Survivor are Morelet’s crocodiles (Crocodylus moreleti). The larger American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) can be found in coastal areas, swamps, and larger rivers in Petén and Izabal. Many species of river turtles inhabit the tropical lowlands. Basilisk lizards and at least two species of iguana round out the highlighted list of Guatemala’s reptiles.


This subject might give some readers “the itchies,” but in addition to the myriad species of arachnids, such as tarantulas and scorpions, or plentiful amounts of mosquitoes in some places, Guatemalan lands are host to many other and more beautiful creatures. Among these are thousands of species of butterflies, including the beautiful blue morpho, which you might see flitting about the forest in an iridescent flash of blue. While hiking Guatemala’s forests, keep an eye out for the industrious leaf-cutter ants, which cut pathways through the forest and carry small pieces of bright green leaves to their nests, where they are used as compost for underground fungus farms. Butterflies and leaf-cutters are virtually guaranteed favorites among the youngest of travelers to these parts.


Guatemala’s history is complicated and fascinating, though it often reads like a tragic novel. A basic understanding of its history is a crucial element for the well-informed traveler hoping to get the most out of a visit to this mystifying land of culture and contrasts. This section will familiarize you with the basics of Guatemala’s past and what it means in relation to its present, with an emphasis on Guatemalan history in the years since the end of its civil war.


It is generally accepted that the first inhabitants of the North American continent came in waves by way of a land bridge across the Bering Strait connecting Siberia to Alaska, some 25,000 years ago. The migrants continued to make their way southward, possibly using boats to assist them, and eventually came to populate, albeit thinly, large portions of the Americas occupying a diverse range of climates. It is believed passage via the Bering Strait was intermittently open until about 10,000 years ago when the last Ice Age ended, submerging the land bridge with rising sea levels.


The people that settled the New World eventually grew in population and transitioned from hunter-gatherers to nascent agricultural societies. The developing civilizations then made a clear transition from hillside swidden agriculture to more intensive forms of cultivation, including terrace farming, the construction of drainage ditches, and the development of fertilizers, which in turn produced large food surpluses. With greater food security, the population gradually became more specialized in its individual occupations, paving the way for advances in writing, art, architecture, and mathematics. A common language and universal belief system are thought to have existed throughout the Mayan region, providing a necessary social cohesion that served as a catalyst for the development of a larger civilization.

Today, the remains of this civilization can be seen throughout northern Guatemala’s Petén region at sites such as Tikal, Uaxactún, Yaxhá, Piedras Negras, and El Mirador. The inhabitants of these Mayan cities, now lying in ruins, spent their time trading, stargazing, and fighting wars before abandoning their cities, which were later reclaimed by the surrounding jungle.


beautifully carved Mayan glyphs

Our knowledge of the Maya comes largely from the edification of large carved monuments, or stelae, which document the lives of the individual city-states’ rulers and include historical events associated with their reign, such as battles, marriage alliances, and successions. The Maya built their temples and palaces atop previous constructions; what we see today is literally the pinnacle of their progress.

Of particular note is what is sometimes referred to as the Classic Mayan collapse, giving the impression that the civilization collapsed and vanished into thin air. This is certainly not the case. The Mayan civilization proper indeed came crashing down for reasons that are becoming increasingly evident, and the Maya simply dispersed into other parts of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras while falling prey to increasing cultural and military dominance from invading central Mexican Toltecs.

The site of modern-day Guatemala City was originally occupied by Kaminaljuyú, whose commercial dominance was established largely on the strength of its strategic location for the trading of obsidian and jade.


Toltec-Mayan Yucatán cities, such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, finally gave out sometime in the late 13th century and were abruptly abandoned. At about the same time, the Guatemalan highlands were invaded by groups of Toltec-Maya, though it is uncertain whether they are the product of a mass exodus from the Yucatán cities or a new group from the Toltec heartland in the Gulf of Mexico. In any case, their arrival in the Guatemalan highlands signaled a transition from the existence of relatively peaceful, religious village societies to ones increasingly secular and warlike.

Quickly establishing themselves as a ruling elite, the Toltec invaders founded a series of competing empires including the K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil, Mam, Ixil, Achi’, and Q’eqchi’, among others. Interestingly, these and other tribes encompassing the highland indigenous groups continue to form the basis for today’s cultural landscape, with differentiation based on their individual dialects.

Among these tribes, the K’iche’ and Kaqchikel emerged as dominant forces, a rivalry the conquering Spanish would later use to their advantage. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the highland region was engulfed in a widespread power struggle between rival groups for cultivable land to feed an increasing population.


After the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire and captured its capital at Tenochtitlán in 1521, the K’iche’ sent ambassadors north to Mexico informing Hernán Cortés of their desire to be vassals of the newly established power structure. In 1523 Cortés dispatched Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala on a fact-finding mission meant to establish the veracity of the tribe’s claim. If indeed Cortés’s intentions were limited to fact-finding, he could have done better than to choose Alvarado for the job. Alvarado is described as handsome, athletic, distinguished, eloquent, and graceful, among other things, from Spanish accounts of the conquest. He was also extremely cruel.

Alvarado arrived in Guatemala along the Pacific Coast flatlands accompanied by 120 horsemen, 173 horses, 300 soldiers, and 200 Mexican warriors from the allied Tlaxcalan armies. He made his way up to the highlands, where he met the K’iche’ in battle near present-day Quetzaltenango, also known as Xelajú. An estimated 30,000 K’iche’ were unable to forge alliances with neighboring tribes to repel the Spanish invasion and faced the Spanish alone. Legend has it Alvarado met Tecún Umán, grandson of the K’iche’ ruler, in hand-to-hand combat, cutting him down.

Following these events, the K’iche’ invited the Spanish to their capital at Utatlán for the signing of a formal surrender but secretly planned to ambush them from the safety of their mountain fortress. Alvarado knew an ambush when he saw one, and so he withdrew to the city’s outskirts, followed by the K’iche’ rulers, whom he seized and later had burned at the stake. Eight days of fighting followed, with the Spanish enlisting the help of the rival Kaqchikel to finally gain the upper hand against the K’iche’. Utatlán was then burned to the ground.

The Kaqchikel alliance with the Spanish stuck for a time, with the Spanish establishing the first capital of Guatemala alongside the Kaqchikel capital of Iximché, from which they launched raids to conquer Guatemala’s remaining highland tribal groups. The campaign would last several years and was made increasingly difficult when the Kaqchikel severed their alliance with the Spanish in 1526 in response to demands for tribute. They abandoned their capital at Iximché and took refuge in the mountains, launching a guerrilla war. The Spanish then moved the Guatemalan capital, establishing the city of Santiago de los Caballeros on November 22, 1527. Now known as Ciudad Vieja, it lies near present-day Antigua.

Indigenous uprisings and resistance would continue throughout Guatemala’s history into the present day, as various groups responded to repressive policies imposed by those in power. The recent civil war has been likened by scholars, human rights activists, and journalists to a kind of “second conquest” aimed at eliminating the indigenous population through genocidal extermination attempts.

A final aspect of the conquest that bears mentioning is the work of European diseases and their hand in greatly reducing the population of the indigenous peoples who had no resistance to smallpox, plague, typhus, and measles. These diseases were responsible for the loss of more than three-quarters of Guatemala’s two million inhabitants in the first 30 years following contact with the Spanish. It is thought that a third of the population died before Alvarado’s invading army even set foot in the indigenous peoples’ Guatemalan homeland.


The Guatemalan capital required 10 years from its founding to complete and included a cathedral, town hall, and Alvarado’s palace. Alvarado died in 1541 while in Mexico attempting to subdue an uprising. The city was destroyed shortly thereafter by a mudslide that rolled down Agua Volcano after an earthquake and heavy rains combined to unleash the contents of the flooded crater.

Guatemala’s capital was then moved a few miles away to present-day Antigua. It would serve as the administrative headquarters of the newly established Audiencia de Guatemala, which included the provinces of San Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Chiapas, and Guatemala. The city of Santiago de los Caballeros, as it was officially known, would grow to become the third-largest city in Spanish colonial America, surpassed only by Mexico City and Lima. In 1776, a series of devastating earthquakes destroyed most of the city’s buildings and churches, leading to a final move of the Guatemalan capital to the Valley of the Hermitage, just over a mountain to the east, where it has resided ever since.


Guatemala’s rich colonial legacy is evident in Antigua’s ruined churches.

The colonial period is significant in that it completely transformed Guatemala’s physical and cultural landscape, establishing new cities and institutionalizing new economic and religious systems that would come to form the basis for a racist hierarchy persisting largely unaltered to this day. Guatemala’s history displays a striking symmetry throughout the years. The key to understanding many of the more recent tragedies to befall its people lies in understanding the significance of earlier events dating back to just before the conquest.

At the center of Guatemala’s new power structure was the Catholic Church, which arrived with the conquistadors and included various sects such as Franciscans, Mercedarians, Dominicans, and Jesuits. These were granted large concessions of land and indigenous people, allowing them to amass huge fortunes from the cultivation of cash crops including sugar, indigo, and wheat. This power structure was held in place by institutions established by the Spanish crown, namely the encomienda and repartimiento.

The encomienda was a grant of indigenous labor and tribute, though not necessarily of land, over a geographical area. The encomenderos holding such a grant were allowed to tax the peoples under their care and to conscript them for labor in exchange for their promise to maintain order and educate the indigenous populace in the Spanish language and Catholicism.

The repartimiento, which is essentially indistinguishable from its predecessor, is a reformed version of the encomienda system, at least on paper. It put control of the distribution of workers into the hands of local magistrates and called for the donation of a percentage of laborers from populations close to Spanish settlements, between 2 and 4 percent of the indigenous population.

Further adding to the transformation of community organization in the conquered territories was the establishment of reducciones, part of the larger process of congregación, consisting of towns founded in the Spanish vein with the purpose of congregating indigenous populations into manageable settlements and assimilating them into the dominant culture and religion. They would also serve as a handy nearby source from which to pool labor.


Guatemalan, and indeed Central American, independence came more as a result of pressures from without than from a genuine internal uprising demanding freedom from Spanish rule. This is not to say that all was well with Spanish colonial rule, as there were policies and social stratifications in place contributing to unrest among the lower strata of society. Spanish policies kept wealth and power in the hands of Spanish-born elites, or chapetones. Criollos, or those born in the New World of Spanish descent, were the next rung down the ladder, with the lowest standings reserved for mixed-blood mestizos and full-blooded Indians.


the Guatemalan flag, designed to emulate the country’s blue sky

Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 led to the imposition of a liberal constitution on Spain in 1812. When Mexican general Agustán Iturbide declared his own country’s independence from Spain, Guatemala followed suit. The reigning Captain General Gabino Gaínza bowed to demands for independence but hoped to maintain the existent power structure with the support of the church and landowning elites. The declaration of independence essentially maintained the old power structure under new management. Mexico quickly dispatched troops to annex Guatemala, and all of Central America, to establish Iturbide’s new empire.

Iturbide was dethroned in 1823, and Central America, minus the state of Chiapas, declared its independence from Mexico. This second declaration joined the remaining states in a loose federation and adopted many U.S.-modeled liberal reforms, such as the abolition of slavery. A protracted power struggle between liberals advocating a secular, more egalitarian state and conservatives wanting to maintain the church-dominated political and economic structures marked the early years of independence. The Central American Federation was weakened not only by inner power struggles within individual member states, but also by a struggle to determine regional leadership over neighboring states.


The liberals would finally succeed in 1871 under the leadership of General Justo Rufino Barrios, who, along with Miguel García Granados, set out from Mexico with a force of just 45 soldiers, gaining numbers as their approach to the capital grew closer. The capital was taken on June 30, 1871, and Granados was installed as the leader of the new liberal government. Granados made only limited reforms, and by 1872 a frustrated Barrios marched to the capital with his troops and demanded elections, which he won overwhelmingly.

Among the reforms quickly instituted by Barrios, who would go down in Guatemalan history as “The Reformer,” were educational reform and separation of church and state. Barrios was the first of the caudillos, military strongmen who ruled the country with an iron fist and sense of absolute omnipotence, mostly uninterrupted, until the revolution of 1944. He masterfully strengthened his power over the entire country with links to local strongmen in rural areas wielding power on his behalf but unable to challenge his hold because of the restricted development of secondary market centers and the overwhelming economic dominance of Guatemala City.

To further exercise his dominion, Barrios professionalized the military, creating a new military academy, the Escuela Politecnica, still in existence today. The addition of rural militia further strengthened national control over the rural hinterlands. Barrios was decidedly pro-Western and sought to impose a European worldview to suppress what he saw as a vastly inferior Indian culture. Liberal economic policies ensured minimal protection of village lands, Indian culture, or the welfare of peasant villages.

During this time, coffee came to dominate the Guatemalan economy and Barrios’s economic policies ensured the availability of a peasant workforce to supply the labor-intensive coffee harvest with its share of needed workers. Furthermore, the increasingly racist attitudes of Guatemala’s coffee elites toward the Indians served to justify the coercive means used to secure this labor force. The Indians were seen as lazy, making forced labor and the submission of the indigenous masses both necessary and morally justified. In this regard, the mandamiento, which came to replace the repartimiento, was increasingly enforced in the last two decades of the 19th century, requiring villages to supply a specified number of laborers per year.

Increasingly, however, elites found more coercive ways to exact labor from the Indians by way of debt peonage. Rural workers were required to carry a libreto, a record containing an individual’s labor and debt figures. Habilitadores, or labor contractors, were charged with advancing money to peasants in exchange for labor contracts. The contractors often used alcohol as an added incentive and took advantage of widespread peasant illiteracy to ensure many of them contracted debts they would never be able to repay. In this way, depressed rural wages from debt peonage and low-cost labor increased the wealth of agricultural elites while making the rural peasantry even poorer.


Justo Rufino Barrios died in battle in 1885 while fighting to create a reunified Central America under Guatemalan leadership. He was succeeded by a string of short-lived caudillo presidents. The next to hold power for any significant time was Manuel Estrada Cabrera, whose legacy included undivided support for big business and crackdowns on labor organization. He ruled from 1898 until his overthrow in 1920, having been declared insane. Among Cabrera’s many peculiarities was the construction of several temples to honor Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Cabrera’s legacy includes gross corruption, a beefed-up military, and a neglected educational system.

Export agriculture continued its unprecedented growth under Cabrera, thus paving the way for the dominance of two foreign groups that would come to control much of Guatemala’s economy in later years. The first of these were German coffee planters who settled in the region of Las Verapaces. By 1913 this German enclave owned 170 of the country’s coffee plantations, with about half of them in the vicinity of Cobán. The other significant foreign presence in Guatemala during this time was the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company (UFCo), aptly nicknamed “El Pulpo” (The Octopus), and its tentacles consisting of International Railways of Central America (IRCA) and the UFCo Steamship Lines. Its vast control of land, rail, and steamship transportation, in addition to Guatemala’s sole Caribbean port, Puerto Barrios, made it a political and economic powerhouse. Its political clout would be seen in the mid-20th century when, together with the CIA, it would be directly responsible for ousting Guatemala’s president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, from power when land reform policies interfered with the company’s vast land holdings.


After the overthrow of Estrada Cabrera in 1920, the country entered a period of instability and power struggles culminating in the rise to power of Jorge Ubico. Continuing in the now well-established pattern of megalomaniacal, heavy-handed leadership that would come to characterize many of Guatemala’s presidents, Ubico continued the unconditional support for U.S. agribusiness and the local oligarchy. By 1940, 90 percent of Guatemala’s exports were sold to the United States. Ubico caved in to U.S demands for the expulsion of the German coffee planters from Guatemala during World War II, evidencing the increasing U.S. hold on Guatemalan domestic policy.

Within Guatemala, Ubico embarked on various reforms, including ambitious road-building projects, as well as improvements in health care and social welfare. Debt peonage was also outlawed but was replaced by a vagrancy law enforcing compulsory labor contributions of 150 days upon landless peasants in either rural plantations or in the government road-building programs. Ubico’s reforms always had in mind the modernization of the state economy. Far from an attempt to free the indigenous peoples from coercive labor practices, the vagrancy law asserted centralized control over the national labor force while keeping the political power of the oligarchy firmly in check.


Ubico’s palace in Guatemala City, now the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura

Ubico was also obsessed with internal security. He saw himself as a reincarnated Napoleon and became increasingly paranoid, creating a network of spies and informers used to repress opposition to his increasingly tyrannical rule. Much of this opposition came from the indigenous peasant population, whom Ubico ignored and regarded as retrograde and inferior. This led to numerous revolts in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The discovery of an assassination plot in 1934 led to the execution of 300 suspected conspirators within 48 hours.


Opposition finally reached a head in June 1944 when widespread discontent erupted in violent street protests by large portions of the urban middle class demanding democratic opportunities and new economic policies. Ubico was forced to resign after 14 years in office. When his interim replacement signaled to be more of the same, young students, professionals, and forward-thinking military officers orchestrated a widespread social movement culminating in his overthrow in what has been dubbed “The October Revolution.” Elections were called for in December of that same year. In a radio address, then front-running presidential candidate Juan José Arévalo, an exiled professor living in Argentina, described the transcendental nature of the recent events: “What has occurred in Guatemala is not a golpe de estado (coup d’etat); it is something more profound and beneficial; it is a revolution.... It is a revolution that will go to the roots of the political system.... In a word: It is a revolution called to wash, to purify our political life, to quiet everyone, and to honor Guatemala.”

Arévalo would go on to win the election with an overwhelming majority and take office on March 1, 1945.


Guatemala made much progress under Arévalo, who quickly set out on the road to badly needed structural reform. Prominence was given to education and health care with the construction of new schools and hospitals, immunization programs, and literacy campaigns. A new national budget allowed for a third of government spending to go into these programs, which were further facilitated by a new constitution drafted prior to Arévalo’s taking office. Ubico’s hated vagrancy laws were abolished, and in their place a labor code was instituted establishing union representation and granting workers the right to strike. Many of the farms expropriated from German planters during World War II, now in state hands, were transformed into peasant cooperatives. Government policies provided technical assistance and credit for peasant farmers and protected their lands from usurpation by agricultural elites and foreign agribusiness.

The gains in social justice ruffled the feathers of many of Guatemala’s traditional power elites, including the church, urban business elites, the landed aristocracy, and the politicians who defended their interests. They increasingly opposed much of the reformist legislation passed by Arévalo in congress. A divided military also became the source of much opposition, with Arévalo surviving 25 coup attempts originating from conservative sectors of the armed forces. Meanwhile, U.S. business interests became increasingly unsettled by the reforms. At the top of this list was the United Fruit Company. As opposition stiffened, Arévalo was unable to fully implement the social transformation of the country he had intended and passed on to his successor an increasingly polarized political landscape.

His successor, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, continued along the path of reform, concentrating on fomenting economic development and independence from foreign intervention in politics and the economy. At the core of his economic development program was the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952, intended to redistribute land ownership by breaking up large plantations and promoting high productivity on smaller, individually owned farms. The urgent need for land reform was historically evident in the nature and function of institutions that, over time, placed Guatemalan land in the hands of a wealthy few to the detriment of indigenous peasants. It is estimated that 2 percent of the country’s population controlled 72 percent of all arable land in 1945, but only 12 percent of it was being utilized.

Central to the law were stipulations limiting expropriation to lands lying fallow. Árbenz himself was not immune to land expropriation, giving up 1,700 acres of his own land in the process. Also among the lands to be expropriated were extensive holdings by United Fruit ceded to the company under Estrada Cabrera and Ubico, which had made United Fruit Guatemala’s largest landowner. Fully 85 percent of its holdings remained uncultivated. The Agrarian Reform Law allowed for the compensation of expropriated lands based on values declared for tax purposes, which United Fruit had, of course, grossly underreported.

Unfortunately for Árbenz and his reformist policies, UFCo had strong ties to the U.S. government and, more specifically, the CIA. Among United Fruit’s shareholders were U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles.

On the home front, it was clear that Árbenz had incurred the wrath of the oligarchy and conservative military sectors. He faced increasing political fragmentation despite attempts to forge a functional revolutionary coalition of political parties to further his goals, and he looked to several dedicated, competent individuals for support in implementing the agrarian reform and labor organization. Many inside and outside of Guatemala conveniently labeled Árbenz and his supporters as communists, though how much influence the communists actually had in Guatemala is still hotly debated. In 1952 Guatemala’s official communist party, the Partido Guatemalteco de los Trabajadores (PGT, the Guatemalan Labor Party), was legalized. Communists subsequently gained considerable minority influence over important peasant organizations and labor unions, but not over the governing political body, winning only 4 of 58 seats.

In any case, the country became increasingly unstable. This instability, combined with Árbenz’s tolerance of the PGT and other communist and labor influences, caused Washington to grow increasingly alarmed. The CIA finally orchestrated the overthrow of Árbenz in 1954 in the form of a military invasion from Honduras dubbed “Operation Success,” led by two exiled Guatemalan military officers. The invading forces established Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who had previously led a failed coup against Árbenz, as chief of state. A series of military governments supported by the nascent military oligarchy partnership and conservative elements of Guatemalan society followed. Thus began one of the most tragic chapters in Guatemala’s already turbulent history.

THE CIVIL WAR (1960-1996)

With the professionalization of Guatemala’s army now in place thanks to the policies of Barrios and Ubico, the military was now poised to become the country’s dominating political force and would do so for the next 30 years. Further paving the way for military dominance over Guatemalan politics was the Cold War climate and the fight against communism. U.S. policy and military aid would assist the dictators’ rise to power and facilitate their increasingly repressive nature, all in the name of defeating communist insurrection.

Among the new regime’s first moves was the revocation of the 1945 constitution, with the consequent reversal of the reforms of the previous years. The rule of the oligarchy was firmly reestablished, and a wave of repression against peasants, labor unions, and agrarian reformers was unleashed.

Castillo Armas would only be in power until 1957, when he was shot by one of his own palace guards. Political turmoil ensued, followed by the rise to power of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, an army officer from the Ubico years now representing the National Democratic Renovation Party. His five years in office were characterized by incompetence, corruption, nepotism, patronage, and economic decline. Opposition to Ydígoras grew, with young army officers led by Marco Yon Sosa and Turcios Lima attempting an unsuccessful coup in 1960. Ydígoras was finally ousted by a military coup in 1963 with approval from Washington after Arévalo threatened to return to Guatemala to run in the next election, firmly putting the establishment in both Guatemala and Washington on edge.

During the subsequent military government of Alfredo Enrique Peralta Azurdia, Turcios Lima and Yon Sosa launched a guerrilla offensive from the eastern highlands, marking the beginning of a protracted armed conflict between leftist rebels and the Guatemalan government. Ironically, both had received U.S. military training while serving in the Guatemalan forces and now used their skills to attack local army garrisons. The battle was soon joined by another armed rebel group, the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR, Rebel Armed Forces). The PGT, meanwhile, formed an alliance with the rebels while advocating the return of Arévalo.

A self-proclaimed “third government of the revolution” came to power in 1966 under Julio Cesar Montenegro of the center-left Partido Revolucionario, who tried to continue in the vein of Arévalo and Árbenz. It was clear, however, that his hands were tied and power was in the hands of the military. Political violence escalated during his administration, with death squads killing hundreds of students, unionists, academics, and peasant leaders.

By the end of the decade the guerrilla movement had been virtually eliminated from the eastern highlands. FAR shifted its focus to Guatemala City, where it kidnapped and murdered the U.S. ambassador in 1968.

Electoral fraud and political violence, accompanied by economic decline, would mark much of Guatemala’s history between 1970 and 1990. A reign of terror became firmly entrenched, with successive governments each going to greater lengths to contain the guerrilla threat and repress an increasingly unsatisfied populace from which the movement drew its support. At the heart of the matter was a system of government that ensured the continued prosperity of a wealthy minority to the detriment of a poor, landless, illiterate peasant class forced to work the elites’ land. The demands of a growing urban middle class, meanwhile, were repressed with the help of the armed forces and right-wing death squads.

The United States, meanwhile, continued to pour money and logistical support into the increasingly bloody repression. Three years after the election of Carlos Arana Osorio in 1970, who was nicknamed “the butcher of Zacapa,” 15,000 Guatemalans had been killed or disappeared. The United States did its share by training 32,000 Guatemalan police officers through the Agency for International Development (AID) via its public safety program. Guatemala’s Policía Nacional was notoriously linked to the paramilitary death squads operating with impunity in the cities and countryside. Many off-duty police filled the ranks of these right-wing extremist groups working parallel to, but with unofficial sanction from, the more traditional forms of counterinsurgency.

In 1971, another guerrilla unit, the Organización Revolucionario del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA, Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms), was formed. The unit was led by Rodrigo Asturias, the son of Nobel laureate novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias. It operated in the vicinity of Lake Atitlán, Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, and Suchitepéquez, setting up operations in a strategically important corridor between the highlands and the agriculturally rich coastal lowlands. ORPA spent eight years recruiting local combatants, then training and indoctrinating them into its ranks. Believed to be the most disciplined of the rebel organizations, it launched its first offensive in 1979 with the occupation of a coffee farm near Quetzaltenango.

Yet another guerrilla organization, the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP, Guerrilla Army of the Poor), exploded onto the scene in 1975 with the much-publicized execution of a notoriously ruthless Ixcán landlord. It had spent three years developing political consciousness among the peasantry in the remote Ixcán jungle where it operated prior to launching its first assault. The Guatemalan military began increasingly violent reprisals against the peasantry living in remote jungle outposts, some of whom kept the guerrillas fed and supplied. In Ixcán, as well as throughout Guatemala, peasants would become increasingly caught in the cross fire between the military and the rebel groups often serving as a scapegoat for the army’s wrath.

On February 4, 1976, a massive earthquake struck the Guatemalan highlands, leaving 23,000 dead, 77,000 injured, and about a million homeless. The reconstruction efforts saw a renewed push to reform the inherent injustices of Guatemalan society with increased activity on behalf of the trade unions. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, citing increasingly gross human rights violations, cut off military aid to Guatemala.

The 1978 elections were rigged to the benefit of Romeo Lucas García, who unleashed a fresh wave of repression against the usual victims, as well as academics, journalists, and trade unionists now. The guerrilla war grew increasingly strong in rural Guatemala at this time, with the number of total combatants estimated at 6,000 distributed among the four guerrilla groups, along with some 250,000 collaborators. The guerrillas actively recruited from a historically disenfranchised peasant base, particularly in the Ixil and Ixcán regions, which only strengthened the army’s resolve to do away with the insurgency and intensified punitive measures against real and perceived collaborators. Peasants, priests, politicians, and anyone perceived to have ties to the guerrillas were massacred in the thousands. It is estimated that 25,000 Guatemalans were killed during the four-year Lucas regime.

Many atrocities were committed by the Lucas regime in a spiral of violence—making the Spanish conquest look increasingly benign by comparison—including an army massacre in the village of Panzós, Alta Verapaz, and the firebombing of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City during a peaceful occupation by peasant leaders. In Panzós, at least 35 peasants, including some children, lay murdered in the town square with dozens more injured or killed as they tried to make their escape. The occupation of Guatemala City’s Spanish Embassy was carried out by the Guatemalan military on January 31, 1980. Without regard for embassy staff or the Spanish ambassador, Policía Nacional forces stormed the embassy and firebombed it. The sole survivor was the Spanish ambassador. The victims included the father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, who recounts this and other atrocities in her book, I, Rigoberta Menchú. Spain severed diplomatic relations with Guatemala in the aftermath of the massacre, not restoring them until several years later.

In addition to the ambassador’s survival, it should be noted that one of the peasant activists also survived the tragedy, only to be murdered a few days later by a paramilitary death squad while recovering in a local hospital.

In 1982, Guatemala’s armed rebel groups—FAR, EGP, ORPA, and PGT-FA—consolidated to form the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity), which would go on to fight for its ideals as a political force, while continuing armed resistance, and negotiate a peace treaty with the government in 1996.

Efraín Ríos Montt

The 1982 elections were again manipulated by the extreme right, this time to the benefit of Aníbal Guevara, but a coup on March 23 orchestrated by young military officers installed General Efraín Ríos Montt as the head of a three-member junta. The coup leaders cited the rigging of elections three times in eight years as justification for their actions, which were supported by most of the opposition parties. It was hoped Guatemala could be somehow steered once again on the path of peace, law, and order and that the terror would stop.

Ríos Montt was an evangelical Christian with ties to Iglesia El Verbo, one of several U.S.-based churches gaining ground in Guatemala after the 1976 earthquake. Among his many eccentricities was the delivery of weekly Sunday night sermons in which he expressed his desire to restore law and order, eliminate corruption, and defeat the guerrilla insurgency, allowing for the establishment of a true democracy.

On the surface things did seem to get better, particularly in the cities, thanks to an odd mix of heavy-handed discipline and strict moral guidelines governing all facets of government operations. Montt, for example, made a regular show of executions of alleged criminals before firing squads. He also offered amnesty to the guerrillas during the month of June 1982, but only a handful of these accepted. Some later accounts of the Guatemalan civil war attribute this to communities’ being either held hostage by guerrilla occupation and unable to make the trip down from the mountains or simply too frightened and distrustful of the military.

Forced Disappearance

Among the most horrific aspects of Guatemala’s civil war were the kidnapping, torture, and murder of at least 50,000 citizens by an army bent on brutal counterinsurgency and the elimination of any and all political opposition, whether real or imagined. Parallel to the oppression at the hands of the military, death squads such as “White Hand” and “Eye for Eye” began operating independently of government forces but with their full knowledge and acquiescence. The kidnappings targeted people from all walks of life but especially journalists, union leaders, intellectuals, opposition party leaders, university students, laborers, teachers, and clergy.

In the 1970s the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a branch of the Organization of American States, began issuing a series of annual human-rights reports on countries around the world. In 1985, it issued a scathing report on the human-rights situation in Guatemala, just before the country’s return to democratic rule. As the stories of the tortured and disappeared are probably best told by the victims themselves, the 1985 report is significant in that it includes testimony from an actual kidnapping victim and torture survivor.

In addition to shedding light on the heinous crimes perpetrated against thousands of Guatemalans, the testimony is significant in that it demonstrates that the kidnappings and torture were carried out with surgical precision using methods undeniably linked to the training of counterinsurgency forces throughout Latin America by the United States’s very own CIA. This and other documented cases of abuse by military and paramilitary forces, some involving U.S. citizens, offer irrefutable evidence of U.S. involvement in perpetuating widespread oppression and human-rights abuses via military aid and training to repressive regimes. This fact was acknowledged during President Clinton’s visit to Guatemala in 1999, when he officially apologized for U.S. involvement in Guatemala’s civil war.

Clinton’s apology came shortly before the official release of a secret Guatemalan military document smuggled out by human-rights organizations that revealed the fate of more than 180 victims of forced disappearance between August 1983 and March 1985. The document’s release provided the first news many of the victims’ families had concerning the fate of their loved ones. After years of getting nowhere with Guatemalan authorities in the pursuit of justice against perpetrators of torture, murder, and forced disappearance, the relatives of 20 of the victims filed a suit against the Guatemalan government for denial of justice with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Whatever the reason, the cool response to Montt’s amnesty offer unleashed a new wave of counterinsurgency terror against the guerrillas and the indigenous peoples believed to be aiding and abetting them. Under a scorched-earth campaign, entire villages were destroyed, with survivors being resettled into a series of so-called “model villages,” allowing the army to keep a close watch on the peasantry while indoctrinating them with anticommunist rhetoric. The repression was made worse by a new system of conscripted labor in the form of civil defense patrols (PACs) composed of rural peasants controlled by the army. PACs were forced to make routine night patrols and report any suspicious activities. Failure to do so would result in their own suspicion in the army’s eyes, meaning further reprisals on their villages. In this way, two modern-day variants of important colonial structures survived well into Guatemala’s recent history, the congregación and the encomienda.

An estimated 100,000 of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan descendants fled the violence, flooding refugee camps in neighboring Mexico or migrating farther north to the United States during the reign of Lucas García and Ríos Montt.

Cerezo and the Democratic Opening

Ríos Montt was eventually overthrown in August 1983 after just over a year in power by a military coup with U.S. backing. The underlying ideal was to get Guatemala firmly on the road back to democracy. Elections were called to take place in 1985 and General Mejía Víctores was installed as an interim chief-of-state. Repression in the countryside continued to escalate under the military’s tireless scorched-earth campaign. The Ixil Triangle alone saw the displacement of 72 percent of its population and the destruction of 49 villages. Totals for Guatemala at this time included the destruction of 440 villages and more than 100,000 dead. In this context, the first free election in more than three decades took place. A new constitution was also drawn up.

Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, a Christian Democrat, won the election with an overwhelming majority of the vote and widespread hope for change in Guatemala with the country firmly on the road to democracy. It was clear that the military still held the cards, however, and kept Cerezo under a tight leash via the Estado Mayor Presidencial, a notorious military security force officially charged with presidential protection but in reality designed to keep presidential power in check. Cerezo candidly admitted that the military still held 75 percent of the power.

Cerezo sought to give the democratic opening a chance, knowing that the military’s power could not be broken in the five years his term in office would last, by taking a nonconfrontational approach to the demands of Guatemala’s various societal sectors. He kept a happy courtship with the powerful business interests, landowners, and generals. Among the latter was his defense minister, General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo, who curtailed much of the violence in the countryside and allowed Cerezo to survive numerous coup attempts.

In September of 1987 the Central American heads of state convened in the eastern highland town of Esquipulas, where they signed a treaty aimed at bringing the pacification and democratization of the region. Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias Sánchez would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing the peace plan to fruition. Esquipulas II, as it was called, would open the doors for peace negotiations between the Guatemalan government and the URNG.

Although the levels of repression and violence dropped, they by no means disappeared. The armed struggle continued in remote corners of the highlands and Petén while death squads continued their reign of terror. Formal labor organization was once again given the official go-ahead, and widespread protests marked much of Cerezo’s later years as the average Guatemalan saw little economic improvement.

Jorge Serrano Elías

Barred from running for a second term under the 1985 Constitution, Cerezo yielded power to his successor, Jorge Serrano Elías, in 1991. Also barred from running under the new constitution was Efraín Ríos Montt, though there was much speculation as to his role behind the scenes because Serrano had served in his government. The new constitution specifically prohibited anyone rising to power as the result of a military coup from running for president, a decision Montt has repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to have rescinded.

Indigenous-rights advocates, already enjoying greater freedom since the democratic opening, received a huge bolster from the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 to activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum for her efforts in bringing worldwide attention to the genocidal civil war still raging on in the countryside. The Guatemalan military issued an official protest to what it saw as disgraceful approval for an advocate of communist insurrection but removed its opposition on the wave of worldwide fanfare for the awarding of the prize to Menchú.

Guatemala’s historical problems continued to plague the nation, and Serrano’s incompetence at the helm soon became evident. The peace process stalled with the Catholic Church’s mediator accusing both sides of intransigence. Popular protests against Serrano’s government, bolstered by corruption charges involving his suspected links with Colombian drug cartels, forced him to declare an autocoup in May 1993. He assumed dictatorial powers, citing the country’s purported spiral into anarchy, and also dissolved congress, citing the gross corruption of the legislative body while calling for the election of a new one.

Widespread protests and the withdrawal of U.S. support for Serrano’s government resulted in his removal from office just two days later. Congress met and voted on the appointment of Ramiro de León Carpio, the country’s human-rights ombudsman, to succeed Serrano and finish out his term.

De León quickly set about rearranging the military high command in an attempt to purge some of the more radical elements and achieve a measure of political stability, though it was clear his powers over the military were limited. The URNG declared a cease-fire as a measure of goodwill toward the new administration. The guerrillas made some progress with the new administration, eventually signing an accord on indigenous rights and identity as well as a human rights accord establishing the creation of U.N.-mandated MINUGUA (United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala) to oversee the implementation of the peace accords once the final agreement was reached. Although optimistic at first, Guatemalans soon lost hope in the De León administration when they saw he was incapable of addressing crime, constitutional reform, and land and tax issues.

Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen

Former Guatemala City mayor Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen won the 1996 presidential elections thanks to a strong showing in the capital despite widespread electoral abstention elsewhere. Arzú, a businessman, represented the Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN, National Advancement Party), with deep roots in the oligarchy and a commitment to economic growth fostered by the development of the private sector under a free market. He quickly appointed new defense, foreign, and economic ministers and set out to sign a final peace accord with the URNG.

The agreement for a “Firm and Lasting Peace” was signed on December 29, 1996, in the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, which once served as the presidential palace. After years of bloodshed, the final death toll stood at 200,000 with about 50,000 being cases of forced disappearance. A subsequent U.N. report by the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) squarely placed blame for most of the violence in the hands of the military and the civil-defense patrols, with 80 percent of the victims said to be of Mayan origin. “The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state,” the report declared. It further stated: “State terror was applied to make it clear that those who attempted to assert their rights, and even their relatives, ran the risk of death by the most hideous means. The objective was to intimidate and silence society as a whole, in order to destroy the will for transformation, both in the short and long term.”

The ambitious peace accords marked the culmination of years of negotiations between the government and guerrillas; if properly implemented, they would serve as the basis for the construction of a completely different Guatemala. Unfortunately, the provisions set forth in the accord have yet to be fully adopted. One example of this disappointing trend was the failure to amend the Constitution via a May 1999 referendum to officially redefine the country as “multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual,” as stipulated in the accord on indigenous rights and identity. Voters stayed away from the polls in droves, and the few who did vote decided against the reforms.

The Catholic Church issued its own report on the violence during the country’s civil war, which also placed the blame for the majority of the atrocities in the hands of the military. Two days after issuing his report, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was murdered in his garage, much to the outrage of the general populace. By this time, most political killings had all but ceased, and the murder sent shock waves of indignation throughout Guatemalan society, which was clamoring for justice against Gerardi’s killers. It soon became clear the act was a reprisal from military factions intent on demonstrating their continued hold on the country’s power structure.

Subsequent investigations and attempts to bring the guilty parties to justice ended in frustration as key witnesses, prosecutors, and judges fled the country in the face of death threats. While political kidnappings and disappearances became mostly a thing of the past, the country’s security situation drastically worsened in the aftermath of the civil war. Bank robberies, murders, extortionary kidnappings, and armed robbery were at an all-time high. Using many of the same methods as in the “disappearance” of thousands of Guatemalans, kidnappers unleashed a wave of terror in which 1,000 people were abducted in 1997 alone. The country, at the time, had the fourth-highest kidnapping rate in the world.

U.S. president Bill Clinton visited Guatemala in March 1999 for a summit meeting with the Central American presidents. In a surprising declaration, he expressed regret on behalf of the U.S. government for its role in the atrocities committed during the country’s civil war, saying that U.S. support for military forces that “engaged in violent and widespread repression” in Guatemala “was wrong.”

The crime spree was largely blamed on a power vacuum created during the departure of Guatemala’s Policía Nacional and its subsequent replacement by the new Policía Nacional Civil, in accordance with the peace accords. The new police force was trained by experts from Spain, Chile, and the United States. It was hoped that a more professional police force would help bring greater security once fully established, but it quickly became evident that this was not the case. Meanwhile, political murders such as the Gerardi murder remained unresolved, shedding light on the lackluster state of Guatemala’s judicial system, a situation exacerbated by widespread lynching of supposed criminals in remote areas where the rule of law was merely a vague concept.

Security issues aside, Arzú was a gifted administrator, and government corruption remained at low levels, for Guatemala. Arzú’s strengths as Guatemala City’s mayor had always been infrastructure and public works. His time as president was no different in this regard, with various infrastructure projects being completed during his term in office. Guatemalans widely recognize his hard work backed by a concrete list of accomplishments, and he is still popular in opinion polls. He has served three consecutive terms in office as Guatemala City’s mayor. Arzú also privatized many state entities, including the notoriously inefficient telephone company, as part of a neoliberal economic approach to state participation in the economy. Guatemala’s telecommunications laws have subsequently been heralded for their contributions to vast improvements in service coverage, increased competition, and lowered prices. At the end of Arzú’s presidency, however, many critics pointed to a perceived affinity for serving the interests of Guatemala’s wealthy elite, a criticism his successor would play largely to his advantage at the polls in the 1999 election campaign.


In addition to officially marking the end of hostilities between leftist insurgents and the Guatemalan government, the U.N.-brokered 1996 peace accords established a starting point from which to address historical grievances leading to the conflict and begin the construction of a more equitable society. From the start, the agreements established a fact-finding mission known as the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) to investigate culpability for wartime atrocities committed largely against the country’s Mayan population. The CEH and an independent wartime inquiries body created by Guatemala’s Catholic Church, the Recuperation of the Historical Memory Project (REMHI), blamed the vast majority of atrocities on the army, with some violations also committed on the part of the guerrillas. Since the findings, many family members of victims of the civil war have sought to bring to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity, including genocide, torture, and illegal arrest. Because of the inadequacies of the Guatemalan judiciary, many have been forced to seek recourse in international courts, as in the case of the suit filed in a Spanish court under universal jurisdiction by the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation against eight government officials accused of crimes against humanity.

The accords also created an ambitious framework for reestablishing the rule of law as the country returned to peacetime while also seeking to address the war’s underlying causes. In this regard, agreements were reached in the following areas: human rights, socioeconomic and agrarian issues, the strengthening of civil society and the role of the army in a democratic society, and rights and identity of indigenous peoples. Interestingly, these were negotiated by the establishment of a consensus among various sectors of society working with the Guatemalan government to have their interests and demands addressed at the negotiating table.

The far-reaching accords offer hope for the construction of a brand-new Guatemala among more equitable lines. The implementation of the reforms called for in the accords, however, has been a daunting task. It can be said that the peace accords have brought some degree of benefit to Guatemalan society. Some of the agreements have been fully complied with, state repression ended, and some opening for political participation has been created in recent years. There are still, however, many lingering issues, including lack of security, poverty, socioeconomic exclusion, and a high degree of confrontation between varying sectors of society. In essence, what we are seeing is a reflection of the peace accords’ intimate connection to the process of Guatemala’s continued democratization. It is this very process of democratization that will ensure that the spirit and the letter of the accords are eventually fulfilled.


Alfonso Portillo and the “Corporate Mafia State”

During the 1999 elections, Alfonso Portillo ran on a populist ticket, hoping to lure the lower classes away from his main opponent, who was fashioned after Arzú. He promised to cut poverty by ending corruption and tax evasion. His party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG, Guatemalan Republican Front), was actually the brainchild of Ríos Montt, the mastermind behind some of the worst atrocities against Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during the army’s scorched-earth campaign of the early 1980s. He was forbidden, once again, from running in the election. It never stopped him from trying.

Among the elements of Portillo’s atrocious legacy was the solidifying of what analysts have called the “Corporate Mafia State,” defined in a February 2002 Amnesty International report as, “The ‘unholy alliance’ between traditional sectors of the oligarchy, some ‘new entrepreneurs,’ elements of the police and military, and common criminals.”

Highlighting the few achievements under the Portillo administration was the 2001 conviction of three persons involved in the Gerardi murder. Although two military officers and a priest were tried and convicted of the murder, the general consensus was that the intellectual authors of the crime were still at large. Progress was also made in the case of the long-running saga of the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, who was studying human rights violations of Guatemala’s internally dispossessed during the civil war and was an outspoken critic of the government. The material author of the crime, Noel de Jesús Beteta, is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence. The intellectual author, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2002, but an appeals court granted his release the following year. Shortly after an order for his re-arrest and return to prison, Valencia escaped while in military custody and under dubious circumstances.

Meanwhile, Ríos Montt got himself elected president of congress. From his position, he and military interests were said to run the show via the creation of a parallel power structure while Portillo remained a convenient government front man. Corruption, always a problem plaguing Guatemala’s governments, ballooned to unparalleled proportions. Scandals involved embezzlement by the interior minister as well as a highly publicized cover-up involving Ríos Montt himself.

In an event subsequently labeled “Guategate” by the local press, Ríos Montt and 19 other FRG members of congress were accused of secretly altering a liquor tax law, which had already been passed, at the behest of powerful liquor interests. The altered rate lowered the tariffs by as much as 50 percent. When opposition parties denounced the illegal changes to the law, congressional records from the meeting disappeared, while other documents were falsified. Although a popular outcry arose to have Ríos Montt and the other members of congress stripped of their diplomatic immunity to stand trial for their actions, the crime remained in impunity, as is so often the case in Guatemala.

In May 2003, the FRG nominated Ríos Montt as its presidential candidate in the elections to be held in November of that year. Once again, his candidacy was rejected by the electoral authorities and by two lower courts, in accordance with the constitutional ban on coup participants’ running for presidential office. In July 2003 the Constitutional Court, with several judges appointed by the FRG, approved his candidacy for president, ignoring the constitutional ban that had prevented him from running in previous elections. Adding insult to injury, Ríos Montt had publicly (and correctly) predicted the margin by which he would win the decision prior to its announcement. Days later, the Supreme Court suspended his campaign for the presidency and agreed to hear a complaint presented by two opposition parties.

Ríos Montt denounced the ruling as tampering with the judicial hierarchy and issued veiled threats concerning possible agitation by supporters of his candidacy. Days later, on July 24, a day known as Black Thursday, thousands of ski-masked and hooded FRG supporters invaded the Guatemala City streets armed with machetes, guns, and clubs. They had been bused in from the interior by the FRG and were led in organized fashion by well-known FRG militants, including several members of congress, who were photographed by the press while coordinating the actions.

The demonstrators quickly targeted the offices of outspoken media opposing Ríos Montt’s candidacy, holding an entire building hostage for several hours after trying to occupy it. They also marched on the courts and opposition party headquarters, shooting out windows and burning tires in city streets. Journalists were attacked, including a TV camera operator who died of a heart attack while running away from an angry mob. The rioters finally disbanded after the second day of riots when Ríos Montt publicly called on them to return to their homes.

Following the unrest, the Constitutional Court, laden with allies of Ríos Montt and Portillo, overturned the Supreme Court decision and cleared the way for Ríos Montt to run for president. A majority of Guatemalans were disgusted with his actions and the corrupt legacy of his party. They expressed their discontent at the polls, where Ríos Montt finished a distant third in the presidential race.

Óscar Berger Perdomo

The winner after a second, runoff election between the top two candidates was Óscar Berger Perdomo of GANA (Gran Alianza Nacional or Grand National Alliance), a former Guatemala City mayor who represented the interests of the economic elite but surrounded himself with a diverse cabinet. Among them was Rigoberta Menchú, who was named the governmental goodwill ambassador for the peace accords, which the government promised to take up again.

The new government’s first priority quickly became cleaning up the mess left behind by the FRG. The national treasury had been ransacked of more than $1 billion, with corruption on an unprecedented scale involving theft, money laundering, monetary transfers to the army, and creation of secret bank accounts in Panama, Mexico, and the United States by members of Portillo’s staff. Berger promised to bring corrupt officials from the FRG government to justice. Remarkably, he was able to make good on his promises, and many corrupt officials are now behind bars awaiting trial, although some have managed to escape prosecution due to the inefficiency and corruption still rampant in the country’s judicial system. Portillo was eventually extradited to the United States to face charges and even served time in a federal prison after accepting a plea bargain for a reduced sentence.

Crime and lack of security continued to be problems affecting a wide spectrum of the population. Gang violence plagued Guatemala City and numerous other cities and towns. The economic picture was severely disrupted when thousands of rural peasant farmers had their crops annihilated and their villages destroyed by Hurricane Stan in October 2005. Government reconstruction efforts in the storm’s aftermath were slow in making it to affected communities.

Despite some public opposition, Berger was able to implement many of his neoliberal economic policies, including laws governing the concession of government services and construction projects to private entities, securing mining rights for multinational mining conglomerates, and the ratification of DR-CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The judicial and legislative branches continued to come under fire for gross inefficiency and corruption charges. The existence of clandestine groups, a legacy of the corporate mafia state with links to state agents and organized crime, continued to plague the government. After numerous delays, a U.N.-sponsored commission, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was created. The responsibility for its creation was part of the 1996 peace accords, as it was clear to the international community that Guatemala would need some hand-holding in order to introduce the rule of law in the face of endemic impunity. The United States and other foreign governments offered financial support for the program, which was to be composed of expert international detectives providing material support to the Public Ministry in its investigations of parallel power structures. The creation of CICIG was approved by Guatemala’s congress on August 1, 2007.

As Berger’s presidency drew to a close, the general consensus was that his time as president was marked by mostly good intentions but also some modest gains, particularly in terms of a redress of Guatemala’s historical ills. Among the glaring omissions was a long-term, inclusive strategy to develop rural areas, where the majority of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples live. Delays in the reconstruction process after Hurricane Stan were continually cited as symptoms of weak leadership and an inability to coordinate efforts to reach a common goal.

The top two candidates in the 2007 presidential election were Álvaro Colom, a self-proclaimed social democrat of the UNE party (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza, or National Unity for Hope), and Otto Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party), an ex-military hardliner whose main campaign promise was to combat Guatemala’s rapidly deteriorating security situation with a “strong hand.” Persistent rumors of ties to organized crime continued to haunt the UNE party during the campaign, but in the end Colom’s appeals to Guatemala’s mostly poor indigenous majority won him the victory in the countryside, though he was decidedly the loser among better-educated Guatemala City voters. As is usually the case for Guatemalan voters, their choice for president came down to what (or whom) they perceived to be the lesser of two evils.

Álvaro Colom

Shortly before taking office, Vice President Rafael Espada, a well-known former Houston heart surgeon, told MSNBC that, “Guatemala is sick, very sick, in intensive care.” Colom chose Espada as a running mate in part because of his credibility with Guatemalan elites, though some had doubts regarding his limited political experience. The foreign press was generally kind in its assessment of Colom and was happy to back a social democrat with the U.S. government seal of approval. Colom told the Associated Press he was confident his government could make Guatemala more conciliatory and that he and Espada knew the country’s problems inside and out.

As usual, however, campaign promises led to few tangible results during the early days of the administration, despite a much-touted “100 Day Plan” to combat nagging grievances such as spiraling crime rates and a generally somber economic outlook. These early days were marked by a palpable lack of direction on the part of the Colom government, as it reacted (or failed to react) to one issue after another.

At about the same time, the press began reporting on a surprising element of power behind the scenes: First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom. It became a matter of public scrutiny that she was also, in fact, presiding over cabinet meetings. Torres de Colom was placed at the helm of the newly created Council for Social Cohesion, which oversees the health and education ministries, among others. The legal framework creating this mechanism granted her tremendous powers and complete control over a $282 million budget free from any third-party oversight. Torres de Colom, according to several analysts, in fact became Guatemala’s co-president, usurping powers that would normally fall under the jurisdiction of government ministers and the vice president. The Council for Social Cohesion eventually implemented a program of bolsas solidarias, or rations of basic food items given to Guatemala’s poor. Their continued distribution, however, was often conditioned by party support for UNE. The manipulated masses essentially became a platform for Torres de Colom’s future presidential candidacy.

On May 10, 2009, prominent Guatemala City lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was assassinated while bicycling in Zona 14. The next day, a video surfaced in which he plainly accused the government of orchestrating his death. In the video, recorded just days before, Rosenberg states, “If you are hearing this message, it means that I, Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, was murdered by the president’s private secretary, Gustavo Alejos, and his associate Gregorio Valdez, with the approval of Mr. Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom.” The alleged reason for the murder given by Rosenberg claimed it was a government plot to silence opposition to government corruption in Guatemala’s Banrural, including claims of money laundering and using it as a front to collect campaign funds for a future run for office by Sandra Torres de Colom. Khalil Musa had been appointed to Banrural’s board of directors, but his appointment was withheld by the government over a period of three months prior to his murder in April 2009.

Rosenberg fought valiantly for the solving of the murders of Musa and his daughter Marjorie, and he had received death threats in the days leading up to his own murder. In light of these allegations, an outraged Guatemalan populace took to the streets demanding Colom’s resignation. Colom, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing and ordered a full investigation. He also orchestrated counter-demonstrations with the UNE party affiliates, busing in supporters to the capital from the provinces. The murders were investigated by CICIG, though many of the assertions made by Rosenberg in his video were corroborated through other sources, most importantly evidence of Musa’s pending appointment to Banrural.

In January 2010, the results of CICIG’s investigation into the murder of Rosenberg were revealed. It was found that the lawyer orchestrated his own death with the unknowing help of friends and family members, who thought they were being recruited to arrange the execution of his would-be assassin. The truth in Guatemala is often harder to believe than lies.

In true Machiavellian fashion, Sandra Torres divorced Álvaro Colom in March 2011 with the intention of bypassing a Constitutional ban prohibiting family members of the sitting president from running for office. Her case would eventually make it to the highest court in the land after Guatemala’s electoral authorities rejected her attempts to register her candidacy, citing the constitutional ban. In an Oscar-worthy performance Sandra Torres tearfully appealed to the magistrates of the Corte de Constitucionalidad for permission to run for office. The court unanimously rejected her candidacy in its final decision two days later.

The much-anticipated 2011 elections eventually came down to a runoff election between Manuel Baldizón, of the LIDER party, and Otto Perez Molina. Baldizón’s platform was very similar to UNE’s, and many believed he was a puppet of Sandra Torres. He made ridiculous campaign promises that could only appeal to the poor and uneducated masses, including bringing Guatemala’s national soccer team to a World Cup showing and an extra yearly work bonus. A textbook narcissist, Baldizón had publicly (and unabashedly) stated he was a Clark Kent look-alike and seemed more concerned with his opponents’ alleged copying of his fashion sense than in seriously debating any of the issues proposed during televised debates. Baldizón campaign posters in Guatemala City began morphing overnight with clown noses spray-painted on. Pérez Molina, and his vice-presidential candidate Roxana Baldetti, offered a more serious strategy to combat the country’s drug cartels and other forms of organized crime while continuing social aid programs initiated by Colom. LIDER was quite evidently the loser in Guatemala City, where Pérez Molina won overwhelmingly with over 70 percent majority. The national results revealed Pérez Molina was the victor by a 54 percent majority. In the days following the election, Pérez Molina and Baldetti quickly set to making strategic plans and new cabinet appointments (something never before seen in Guatemala) in preparation for their inauguration on January 14, 2012. The mood in Guatemala was particularly upbeat and hopeful going in to the new year.

Otto Pérez Molina

Hopes were dashed once it became clear the Pérez Molina government was not the answer to Guatemala’s myriad problems. Crime and a number of other endemic problems continue to plague Guatemalans from all walks of life. An initial push by Pérez Molina to decriminalize drugs in Guatemala eventually fell silent in the face of opposition from Washington. In a candid interview with a South American news agency in November 2014, Pérez Molina hinted at an eventual decriminalization of certain substances before the end of his term in 2016. The reasons behind his push to decriminalize (and begin state regulation of) the drug trade, is the argument that Guatemala’s violence is largely to blame on the drug cartels using the country as a transit point. He and others have argued that Guatemala is caught in a cross fire between powerful drug cartels who hash out the national territory in a turf war for control of trans-shipment points. Border areas, such as Huehuetenango and parts of Petén have been particularly susceptible. It should be noted that military patrols of rural areas have increased substantially under Pérez Molina, and this seems to have curbed the trend toward lawlessness and control by drug cartels previously in place, as evidenced by the massacre of 27 innocent peasants at the hands of Mexican Zetas on a rural Petén ranch in May 2011.

Guatemalan society seemed increasingly polarized in 2013, as Ríos Montt faced genocide charges before a Guatemalan court. On May 10, the court found him guilty of the massacre of 1,771 Ixil peasants during his 1980s scorched-earth campaign and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Many in Guatemala thought the tide of impunity had finally turned, and it was possible to bring gross human rights violations and state terror to justice. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, citing a procedural error, eventually overturned the conviction 10 days later and ordered a new trial. The country’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, had her term in office cut short soon after by the Constitutional Court and has since left the country. As José Luis Sanz, writing for Upside Down World, put it, “…the virtual dismissal of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was the old order putting its collective foot down and demanding a return to power.” Former governance minister Carlos Menocal told the same source, “The country’s power elite thinks that if Ríos Montt were to stand trial, the general of all generals, the gendarme of the oligarchy, anyone could fall. It opened the door. It opened the dike, and the waters could drag you down. So the primary objective is to prevent the theme of genocide from advancing.”

With so many problems, it’s easy to see why many Guatemalans leave their country in search of something else. Illegal migration of Guatemalans to the United States continued its upward trend during the Pérez Molina administration. An increasing number of these migrants are children, as evidenced by an immigration crisis unleashed on the U.S. border in the summer of 2014. Gang violence in Guatemala’s urban areas is increasingly to blame, as a desperate attempt at self-preservation. Some respite was offered by the Obama administration in November 2014 thanks to an executive order granting amnesty to some of the illegal immigrants in the United States. About 500,000 Guatemalans residing illegally in the U.S. stand to benefit from the new immigration policies.

The usual charges of corruption and cronyism plagued Pérez Molina and vice president Baldetti during much of their term in office. In April 2015, a CICIG investigation revealed the existence of a criminal organization known as La Línea, which operated clandestinely to permit tax evasion to the tune of millions of dollars. Several suspects implicated in the case were rounded up. Also directly implicated was Baldetti’s personal secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas. The arrests happened as she and Monzón were traveling together in South Korea, where Baldetti was receiving an award from a university. Monzón fled justice while Baldetti returned to Guatemala several days later. Confronted by reporters, she was unable to answer questions about Monzón’s whereabouts or the circumstances of her return to Guatemala. Her statement also contradicted what Pérez Molina had said about the day and time of her return. Wiretaps released by CICIG revealed the existence of a person high up in the La Línea criminal organization still at large and referred to as “La R” (The R), “La Dos” (Number Two), and “La Señora” (The Lady). Many believed this directly implicated Baldetti, protected while in office by immunity.

An outraged public took to Guatemala’s central plaza to demand Baldetti’s and Pérez Molina’s resignations. A full-fledged citizen movement aimed at political and electoral reform began to take shape, strengthened by Baldetti’s resignation on May 8. Elections were scheduled for the fall of 2015, as this book went to press. Manuel Baldizón, the would-be frontrunner in the elections, took the brunt of citizens’ new level of disgust for partisan politics. His campaign events would be held privately after protesters stormed several events around the country. Among the many paradigms shattered during this time of awakening was that of the second-place finisher from the previous election having their turn “come up,” an idea known as te toca. A popular hashtag online and in protests during May 2015 was #NoTeTocaBaldizon. Meanwhile, CICIG’s mandate was renewed for another two years (despite Pérez Molina’s quite obvious opposition) and it prepared to make new revelations based on investigations of campaign funding just in time for the elections.



Guatemala is a constitutional democracy. The president is the chief of state, assisted by a vice president, both of whom are elected to office for a single four-year term. The president is constitutionally barred from a second term, but the vice president may run for office after a four-year hiatus from office. The Congreso de la República is the national (unicameral) legislative body, consisting of 158 members. Congress members serve four-year terms running concurrently with the presidential term. Guatemala has 22 administrative subdivisions (departments) headed by governors appointed by the president. Popularly elected mayors or councils govern Guatemala City and 331 other municipalities.


The judicial branch is independent of the executive branch and the legislature and consists of a Constitutional Court and a Supreme Court of Justice. The Constitutional Court is the highest court in the land and consists of five judges elected for five-year terms, with each judge serving one year as president of the court. Congress, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Superior Council of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, and the bar association (Colegio de Abogados) each elect one judge and the president appoints the fifth. The Supreme Court of Justice consists of 13 magistrates who serve five-year terms and elect a president of the court each year from among their members. The judiciary suffers from a poor public image because of suspicions that it has become porous to influence from drug traffickers as well as being corrupt and inefficient, though it recently gained greater widespread respect with the rejection of Sandra Torres’s presidential candidacy, in defense of the Constitution.


The current power balance is a product of the 1985 Constitution, formulated before the country’s official return to democracy in 1986. A series of reforms in 1993 shortened terms of office for president, vice president, and members of congress from five years to four; for Supreme Court justices from six years to five; and increased terms for mayors and city councils from 2.5 years to four.

Between 1954 and 1986, Guatemala was ruled primarily by a military-oligarchy alliance that installed presidents periodically via widely fraudulent elections or military coups. In the few elections considered free and fair during this period, the military quickly stepped in to assert its dominant role while ensuring that the president remained a figurehead. All of the elections from 1985 onward have been considered free and fair, though the military still holds much power in Guatemala, probably more so than in any other Latin American country. Much of Guatemala’s democratic process has consisted of a gradual strengthening of the state while trying to limit the power of the military. Other general characteristics of the democratic process have been the growth of citizen participation from all sectors of society in an atmosphere of greater freedom concurrent with the gradual strengthening of institutions having extremely limited experience with governance under a democratic system.


Guatemala’s political parties constitute a veritable alphabet soup and change from year to year depending on the capricious nature of alliances between different factions. Parties are unstable, to say the least, and no party has won a presidential election on more than one occasion. As an election approaches, a fresh batch of newly formed parties begin to make the rounds. The ruling party following the 2011 elections was the Partido Patriota (PP). Other parties include the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), Libertad Democratica Renovada (LIDER), Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), Vision con Valores (VIVA), and Partido Unionista (PU). The Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, also URNG-MAIZ) is the political party formed by the former guerrilla movement, which fought against the government during the country’s 36-year civil war. It holds just a handful of congressional seats.


There is still a long way to go in the consolidation of a genuine functioning democracy in Guatemala. The judiciary and legislative branches are badly in need of reform and have lost virtually all credibility with their constituents. The current situation is still very much like that described in 2000 by the Guatemalan Institute of Political, Economic, and Social Studies, a nongovernmental organization:

In our society, agents or former agents of the state have woven a secret, behind-the-scenes network dedicated to obstructing justice. They have created a virtual alternative government that functions clandestinely with its own standardized and consistent modus operandi. In such a context, crimes are not clarified, and those responsible are not identified. Society finally forgets the cases and becomes resigned.

If the actual material authors left evidence at the scene of their crimes, they then decide who to implicate as scapegoats. If there are actually any inquiries and if these eventually lead to any arrests, these are always of low-ranking members of the army, or at best, an official not in active service.

When they can’t pin the crime on some scapegoat, the scene of the crime is contaminated and legal proceedings are obstructed and proceed at a snail’s pace. If, nonetheless, investigations still continue, these powerful forces hidden behind the scenes destroy the evidence. And of course it cannot be forgotten that pressure, threats, attacks, and corruption are all part of the efforts to undermine and demoralize the judiciary, who, knowing they are not able to count on a security apparatus that will guarantee that the law is enforced, feel obliged to cede in the face of this parallel power.

The powerlessness of the Guatemalan judiciary has forced some people to seek remedies for their grievances in international courts under universal jurisdiction established by the United Nations concerning crimes against humanity. One example is the suit filed before the Spanish National Court in 1999 by the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation against eight former Guatemalan officials, including General Efraín Ríos Montt, for murder, genocide, torture, terrorism, and illegal arrest. The case seeks to try those responsible for wartime abuses and centers around the 1980 attack on the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City that claimed the lives of 37 peasant activists, among them Menchú’s father, and embassy staff. The Spanish court has heard other cases involving genocide and established a precedent for universal jurisdiction in the 1998 arrest of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet in the United Kingdom. He remained in custody for 14 months until British authorities ruled Pinochet was unfit for trial and let him return to Chile.

In July 2006, a Spanish judge ordered the detention of all eight accused after an unfruitful visit to Guatemala with the intention of gathering testimonies from plaintiffs and questioning the accused. Ríos Montt and General Mejía Víctores effectively paralyzed the process with a series of appeals upheld by the Constitutional Court. Menchú admitted the difficulty of getting Guatemalan officials to execute the arrest orders, calling it “a test of the Guatemalan justice system.”

As for the legislature, there is talk of reducing the number of members of congress, elected partly by proportional representation. The Guatemalan congress has suffered in recent years from a gradual erosion of confidence on the part of its constituents because of gross inefficiency, corruption, and growing suspicion of widespread links to drug trafficking. In essence, a majority of Guatemalans view their congressional body as practically useless and expensive to maintain.

Political parties, likewise, have suffered a gradual decline in credibility. The general pattern since 1986 has been one of great expectation for change prior to elections and the installation of a new government, followed by disappointment with the new government’s failure to deliver on its promises, ending in frustration and renewed hope for change with the next round of elections. The government of Álvaro Colom appeared to be no exception to this pattern after its first year in power. Opinion polls point to a growing desire to see the emergence of better leadership and an authentic political class, something Guatemala still lacks.


According to the World Bank, Guatemala’s gross domestic product in 2013 was $53.8 billion, an increase of 3.7 percent over the previous year, with a per capita GNI of about $3,340. Inflation was about 4 percent for the same year. Although it is the largest economy in Central America, large sectors of the population remain only marginally active in the economy. Guatemala is also the region’s most populous country, with approximately 15.9 million inhabitants in 2014. The economy has been growing steadily since the 1996 peace accords and has demonstrated macroeconomic stability.


Agriculture accounts for 13 percent of GDP, with agricultural exports of coffee, sugar, bananas, cardamom, vegetables, flowers and plants, timber, rice, and rubber being the chief products. Guatemala exported $8 billion worth of goods in 2008, with 75 percent of these being agricultural products. Light industry contributes to 25 percent of the GDP, and manufactures include prepared food, clothing and textiles, construction materials, tires, and pharmaceuticals. The service sector accounts for 61 percent of Guatemala’s GDP. The United States is Guatemala’s biggest trading partner, accounting for more than half of the country’s exports and 40 percent of its imports. Other important trading partners include the neighboring Central American countries, Mexico, South Korea, China, and Japan.

In terms of employment, agriculture is the largest employer, with half of the population employed by this sector. Services, bolstered by tourism, employ 35 percent of the population, and industry employs the remaining 15 percent. Unemployment in 2005 was 3 percent.

After the signing of the 1996 peace accords, Guatemala appeared poised for rapid economic growth, but a financial crisis in 1998 disrupted the expected pace. Despite gains in industry, the country’s economy still showed much of its historical susceptibility to world commodity prices, specifically coffee. A collapse in coffee prices severely affected rural incomes and brought the industry into a serious recession, though exports of this commodity have bounced back since then.

Foreign investment has remained weak, with Guatemala unable to capitalize on foreign investment to the same degree as its neighbors. A notable exception is the privatization of utilities. Potential investors cite corruption, crime and security issues, and the lack of sufficient skilled labor as the principal barriers to new business.

Guatemala’s economy is dominated by the private sector, which generates about 85 percent of the GDP. The government’s involvement is small, with its business activities limited to public utilities, many of which have been privatized under a neoliberal economic model, and the operation of ports, airports, and several development-oriented financial institutions. The Berger administration passed legislation allowing for more private sector concessions of services in 2006.

The U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) was ratified by Guatemala on March 10, 2005. Priorities within DR-CAFTA include the elimination of customs tariffs on as many categories of goods as possible, opening services sectors, and creating clear and easily enforceable rules in areas such as investment, customs procedures, government procurement, electronic commerce, intellectual property protection, the use of sanitary measures for the protection of public health, and resolution of business disputes. Import tariffs were lowered as part of Guatemala’s membership in the Central American Common Market, with most now below 15 percent. The implementation of DR-CAFTA has translated into a 95 percent increase in U.S. exports to Guatemala from pre-trade agreement levels, the region’s second-highest growth levels. In 2013, the U.S. exported $5.5 billion worth of goods to Guatemala. U.S. imports from Guatemala were $4.2 billion in 2013, an increase of 33 percent from pre-CAFTA levels.

Another major contributor to Guatemala’s economy is the money sent home by over 1.5 million expatriate Guatemalans living and working in the United States. In 2014, this amounted to $5.5 billion, which Guatemalans on the receiving end used to supplement their incomes, start businesses, and put into savings. This phenomenon has helped to widely ameliorate the country’s endemic poverty and accounts for almost 12 percent of the GDP. Although income sent from abroad shows continued growth, Guatemalans fear that ever-present deportations of Guatemalan nationals from the United States will negatively impact the local economy.


Guatemala’s economy is still heavily based on agriculture.


It remains to be seen whether DR-CAFTA will aggravate or alleviate Guatemala’s skewed wealth- and land-distribution patterns, which are already some of the most unequal in the world. The wealthiest 10 percent of the population receives almost half of all income, and the top 20 percent receives two-thirds. More than half of the population lives in poverty, with about 15 percent living in extreme poverty and surviving on less than $2 a day. Underlying these patterns of wealth and income distribution are Guatemala’s social-development indicators, such as infant mortality and illiteracy, which are among the worst in the hemisphere. Chronic malnutrition among the rural poor worsened with the onset of the late-1990s coffee crisis and devastation wrought by Hurricane Stan in 2005.


Coffee is one of Guatemala’s main exports.


On a much more positive note, tourism has greatly impacted the economy in recent years, particularly since the end of the civil war in 1996. In 2004, Guatemala received one million visitors for the first time, and increased visitor numbers have continued in the years since. In 2014, Guatemala registered 2.14 million foreign arrivals with a tourism expenditure totaling $1.56 billion. Visitor arrivals were up 7.1 percent over the previous year. U.S. arrivals were only up 0.1 percent, attesting to a general absence of Guatemalan tourism marketing in U.S. media. In Central America, only Costa Rica receives more visitors.

About 30 percent of Guatemala’s visitor arrivals come from North America, with another 34 percent coming from Central America, particularly El Salvador. U.S. visitors may be closing the gap, however, as statistics from the peak Easter travel season of 2006 show more Americans arriving in Guatemala than Salvadorans. Approximately 18 percent of Guatemala’s tourists come from Europe, and another 18 percent come from various other countries.

Much of the money generated by tourism stays in local hands, as many communities have been able to capitalize on their proximity to area attractions by catering to the demands of an increasing number of visitors. Foreign tourism investment is limited mostly to main tourist areas, and local entrepreneurs have done an excellent job of filling in the void created by the lack of foreign investment.

The state tourism agency, INGUAT (Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo) does a notoriously poor job of promoting the country’s image abroad. Have you ever seen an ad for Guatemala in a U.S. magazine or television station? I didn’t think so. The industry also largely failed to capitalize from the filming of the CBS television series Survivor in the rainforests of Petén, which aired in 2005.

The main obstacle to the continued growth of Guatemala’s tourism industry is security, and the Guatemalan government is actively working to make travel safer for visitors to Guatemala.

People and Culture

Guatemalans are a complex breed. First, there are the city-dwellers, who are as cosmopolitan as the residents of any North American city of comparable size. Social stratification, racism, and classicism also figure prominently into the makeup of many middle- and upper-class Guatemalans, in particular those living in urban areas. You may find some urban Guatemalans downright rude, though they are careful to put on their best appearances for foreigners.

Then there are Guatemala’s rural poor and middle class. Most of them are warm and friendly; you may even be the object of their gracious hospitality. However, you may have to get past some cultural isolationism, as rural Guatemalans are naturally suspicious of outsiders once you are past the informal, superficial relationships of a passing traveler. This is not surprising given the country’s penchant for violent social upheaval, class struggle, and an unfortunate more recent phenomenon, rising crime statistics.

Guatemala has its fair share of social problems. Perhaps the greatest challenges are the constant contradictions between wealth and poverty. It colors daily life in seemingly innocuous ways, such as traveling on a Guatemala City highway overlooking slums while driving to a fancy Zona 10 restaurant. It also colors day-to-day interactions with people, and you’ll see it in the myriad ways Guatemalans treat each other.

It’s no secret that the country has a legacy of violence from which it is still trying to recover. Its governments and leaders, with few exceptions, have mostly stayed in power long enough to rape the country of its resources and contribute to the wealth of fellow cronies while turning a blind eye to crime, social inequality, and widespread violence. The general populace seems resigned to live in a country where things simply happen, where governments make promises and then fail to deliver, where the rich continue to live privileged lives while the poor continue to somehow survive. Perhaps this is all the legacy of Spanish colonial government and the clashing of two very distinct cultures from opposite ends of the earth. Maybe it’s the legacy of 36 years of civil war. What is certain is that Guatemala’s cultural and sociopolitical makeup is a subject of much academic speculation, and you will certainly come to form your own opinions after some time traveling here.

I realize I haven’t painted a very pretty picture of my fellow Guatemalans. It’s sometimes difficult to spend time in such a beautiful country with so many sad contradictions. Part of traveling in Guatemala involves finding a way to live with these contradictions. It’s all part of the experience.



Guatemala’s population is one of the fastest-growing in Latin America, with 2004 census figures placing the population at just over 14 million. The annual growth rate is 2.61 percent, and 43 percent of the population is under the age of 15. The country’s population density is 116 people per square kilometer, with an urban-to-rural ratio of 38.7 percent to 61.3 percent. Population density is much lower in the northern Petén department, comprising a third of Guatemala’s total land area but harboring only about 5 percent of the population. Urbanization is greatest in the Western Highlands region centered around Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango.

Ethnic Diversity

Guatemala has an incredible wealth of ethnic diversity, as attested to by the as-of-yet-unfulfilled push to amend the national constitution to officially describe the country as “pluricultural, multilingual, and multiethnic.” The country is divided about evenly between descendants of indigenous Maya (comprising 21 different linguistic groups) and ladinos, who are of Mayan descent but have adopted European culture and dress in addition to the Spanish language. A sizable percentage of the population is a mixture of Mayan and European, also known as mestizo. A much smaller percentage of the population is of purely European descent, primarily from Spanish and German families, and they control a disproportionate fraction of the country’s wealth. Many of these are direct descendants of the criollo (New World Spanish-born elite) families dominating the country’s economy since colonial times. Indigenous Maya descendants are found in greatest numbers in the Western Highlands, with Guatemala City, the Pacific, Caribbean, and Petén lowlands being largely ladino.


More than half of Guatemalans are of Mayan descent.

Additionally, there are two non-Mayan ethnicities thrown into the mix, Xinca and Garífuna. Only about 100-250 Xinca-speakers remain, confined to a small area near the Salvadoran border. The Garinagu (plural of Garífuna), a mixture of Amerindian and African peoples, arrived from St. Vincent via Roatán, Honduras, in the early 1800s and settled in the Guatemalan Caribbean coastal town of Lívingston. Their culture is more similar to that of the Western Caribbean, with whom they identify more readily, than the rest of Guatemala.

Mayan Groups

Ethnicity and language are intertwined when it comes to Guatemala’s principal Mayan groups, which include K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil, Mam, Ixil, Q’eqchi’, Poqomchi’, Poqomam, and Q’anjob’al. By far the most numerous group is K’iche’, with nearly one million speakers. A little more than 400,000 people speak Kaqchikel, and there are about 686,000 Mam speakers.


The Oligarchy

The direct result of Guatemala’s Spanish colonial legacy granting privileges to Spanish-born elites is the modern-day oligarchy. In many cases, families can trace their roots to these colonial-era criollo families. As in neighboring El Salvador, where there is frequent reference to “The Fourteen Families,” the Guatemalan oligarchy has a strong history of intermingling to the exclusion of outer echelons of society. For the purpose of this discussion, the oligarchy will also encompass the “new rich” and the subsequent generations of landowning business elites who remain firmly in control of Guatemala’s politics and economy.

Much has been written about the Guatemalan elite’s support for right-wing governments and military policies aimed at eliminating the threat of communist subversion during the country’s civil war (1960-1996). Although the war had genocidal aspects, it was also very much related to the distribution of wealth and the 1950s-era reforms that threatened economic elites’ hegemony. In essence, the oligarchy allied with the military in an attempt to maintain the status quo.

The oligarchy also found a willing ally in the Unites States, which was happy to support Guatemalan elites in their emulation of U.S. consumption patterns and the expansion of private enterprise. Stephen Connely Benz, in his book Guatemalan Journey, provides some interesting insights on Guatemala’s oligarchy and the way in which U.S. government aid via the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) may have unknowingly exacerbated Guatemala’s inequitable social structures. He argues that capitalism, prior to the arrival of USAID, already functioned in its most brutal form in Guatemala, and he points to the history of “the conservative oligarchy and the essentially feudalistic economic system that remained the principal obstacle to a more equitable distribution of wealth.” He goes on to say that, “This oligarchy did not care for democracy, modernization, or even economic liberalism; what it cared for was the perpetuation of an extremely lucrative arrangement.... It was, in short, a segment of society that had long gotten its way and was principally interested in maintaining its privileges—reform was the furthest thing from its interests, unless by economic reform one meant lower export taxes, privatization of services, and the liberalization of price controls.” In essence, Benz argues, U.S. aid money given to support agro-industry and free enterprise went directly to the oligarchy and thus helped perpetuate the continuance of a “wildly unjust, cash-crop-driven economy that necessitated U.S. aid for the impoverished masses in the first place.”

More recently, the Guatemalan elites’ uncontested hold on the reins of power can be seen in the stalling of the 1996 peace accords. Although the accords contain many provisions that would contribute to make Guatemala a more just society, the vast majority of these reforms have fallen by the wayside. Ironically, the major economic reforms taking place since the signing of the peace accords largely involve the lower export taxes and privatization of services Benz speculated about.

On a practical level, you can see the Guatemalan elite at fancy restaurants, shopping malls, and hotel lobbies in Guatemala City. You’ll recognize them by their entourage of bodyguards, nannies to mind the children, and chauffeur-driven late-model luxury cars. They’ll greet each other in courteous fashion, and it will seem like everyone in the restaurant knows each other and is part of the same tight-knit clan. On a positive note, absent large quantities of U.S. foreign investment in Guatemalan real estate and tourism infrastructure, the oligarchy’s presence has given Guatemala the condos, office buildings, and five-star hotels it would otherwise lack.

The Upper and Middle Classes

Guatemala’s upper class has close ties to the oligarchy, and there is a bit of a gray area where the two intersect. Social class in Guatemala is very much about putting on appearances in an attempt to gain favor with the upper echelons of society. Statistically, Guatemala has the third-highest per capita private aircraft ownership in the Americas, which gives you some idea of the purchasing power of wealthy Guatemalans. The country’s wealth can also be seen in the fact that many homes that would be considered high-end in neighboring Central American countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras would be quite middle class in Guatemala. To give you an idea of how this is possible, keep in mind that the wealthiest 10 percent of the population receives almost half of all the income and the top 20 percent receives two-thirds.


Endemic poverty is unfortunately still a reality for many Guatemalans.

Some might argue that Guatemala has no true middle class, but I would disagree. The middle class in Guatemala most certainly looks different than it does in the United States and even neighboring Central American countries. It’s also proportionally smaller, but not altogether nonexistent. You’ll find most of the country’s middle class living in urban areas such as Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango.

Lower Classes

It’s no surprise that, in a country where race and social standing go hand in hand, the vast majority of the country’s poor are of Mayan descent. This applies to those living in poverty in highland villages and urban slums or trying to eke out a living in the Petén lowlands. About 80 percent of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty, with about two-thirds of that number living in extreme poverty on less than $2 a day. Guatemala’s social indicators, such as infant mortality and illiteracy, are among the worst in the hemisphere.


Religion in Guatemala is fairly complex, with traditional Mayan spirituality still very much a presence, particularly in the highlands, along with Catholicism and the more recent incursions of Evangelical Christianity. In much smaller numbers, Guatemala’s Jewish population is centered in Guatemala City. There is also a small Muslim population with at least one mosque in Guatemala City.

Mayan Spirituality

Mayan spirituality has its origins in pre-Columbian religious practices and a cosmology that venerated natural phenomena, including rivers, mountains, and caves. The soaring temples built by the Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilizations were constructed to mimic mountains and were usually built in alignment with the cardinal directions. The solstices were very important in this regard, and many of their temple pyramids and observatories were built in precise fashion so as to mark these events. Caves were also sacred to the Maya and believed to be passages to the underworld, a belief that persists to this day. Archaeologists speculate that at least one powerful economic center, Cancuén, lacked buildings of strictly religious significance because of its proximity to the massive Candelaria cave network nearby.

The Mayan calendar is still in use in parts of Guatemala today, particularly in the Western Highlands, and is pegged closely to the agricultural cycle. Maize is a sacred crop and believed to have been the basis for the modern formation of man by the gods, as told in the K’iche’ book of myths and legends, the Popol Vuh, discovered by a Spanish priest in Chichicastenango in the 18th century. Although the vast majority of sacred Mayan writings were burned by Bishop Diego de Landa in a 16th-century Yucatán bonfire, three Mayan texts, known as codices, survive in European museums. The Chilam Balam is another sacred book based on partially salvaged Yucatecan documents from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Modern-day Mayan religious practices, also known as costumbre, often take place in caves, archaeological sites, and volcanic summits. They often include offerings of candles, flowers, and liquor with the sacrifice of a chicken or other small animal thrown in for good measure.

Another curiosity of the Western Highlands is the veneration of a folk saint known alternatively as Maximón or San Simón, with a particularly persistent following in Santiago Atitlán and Zunil. The cigar-smoking, liquor-drinking idol is a thorn in the side of many Catholic and Evangelical groups, whose followers sometimes profess conversion to Christianity but often still hold allegiance to Maximón, who is thought to represent Judas or Pedro de Alvarado. Syncretism, combining Mayan religious beliefs and Catholicism, is a major player in highland Mayan spirituality.


Many Mayan people practice syncretism, combining Catholicism and Maya rituals.

The cult following of folk saints is also tied to the presence of cofradías, a form of Mayan community leadership with roots in Catholic lay brotherhoods wielding religious and political influences. The cofradías are responsible for organizing religious festivities in relation to particular folk saints and a different member of the cofradía harbors the Maximón idol in his home every year.

The Catholic Church

Catholicism has played an important role in Guatemala ever since colonial times, though the state increasingly took measures to limit its power starting in the late 19th century, when liberal reformers confiscated church property and secularized education. More recently, the church wrestled with its official mandate of saving souls and its moral obligation to alleviate the misery and injustice experienced by many of its subjects, particularly the Maya. Many parish priests, faced with the atrocities and injustices of the civil war, adopted the tenets of Liberation Theology, seeking a more just life in the here and now and officially opposing the military’s scorched-earth campaign throughout the highlands. Many clergy paid for their beliefs with their lives or were forced into exile. Even after the civil war ended, Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered in the days after his issuance of a scathing report on civil war atrocities perpetrated mostly by the military. The church remains a watchdog and defender of the poor, which is evident in the ongoing work of the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office.

Mayan Ethnolinguistic Groups

Achi’: Spoken in western Baja Verapaz, including Cubulco, Rabinal, San Miguel Chicaj, San Jerónimo, and Salamá.

Akateko: Spoken in San Miguel Acatán and San Rafael La Independencia (Huehuetenango).

Awakateko: Spoken in Aguacatán, Huehuetenango.

Ch’orti: Spoken in La Unión (Zacapa) and Jocotán, Camotán, Olopa, and Quetzaltepeque (Chiquimula).

Chuj: Spoken in San Mateo Ixtatán and parts of Nentón.

Itzá: Spoken in Flores, San José, San Andrés, San Benito, La Libertad, and Sayaxché.

Ixil: Spoken in Chajul, Cotzal, and Nebaj (El Quiché department).

Kaqchikel: Spoken in 47 municipalities in seven departments, including Guatemala, Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango, Escuintla, Sololá (Panajachel, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Antonio Palopó, Santa Cruz La Laguna, and San Marcos La Laguna), Suchitepéquez, and Baja Verapaz.

K’iche’: Guatemala’s most widely spoken Mayan dialect, with speakers in 75 municipalities spanning six departments, including Sololá, Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango, El Quiché, Suchitepéquez, and Retalhuleu.

Mam: Spoken in 55 municipalities in three departments, including Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, and Huehuetenango (Todos Santos and San Juan Atitán, among others).

Mopán: Spoken in San Luis, Dolores, parts of Melchor de Mencos, and Poptún (Petén).

Popti (Jakalteko): Spoken in parts of western Huehuetenango, including Jacaltenango, La Democracia, Concepción Huista, San Antonio Huista, Santa Ana Huista, and Nentón.

Poqomam: Spoken in Mixco and Chinautla (Guatemala department), Palín (Escuintla), and Jalapa department.

Poqomchi’: Widely spoken in Alta and Baja Verapaz, including San Cristóbal Verapaz, Tactic, Tamahú, Tucurú, and Purulhá.

Q’anjob’al: Spoken in Soloma, San Juan Ixcoy, Santa Eulalia, and Barillas (Huehuetenango).

Q’eqchi: Most widely spoken in Alta Verapaz, including Cobán, Panzós, Senahú, San Pedro Carchá, San Juan Chamelco, Lanquín, Chisec, and Cahabón. Other locales include Uspantán (El Quiché department) and parts of Petén and Izabal.

Sakapulteko: Spoken in parts of Sacapulas, El Quiché.

Sipakapense: Spoken in Sipacapa, San Marcos.

Tektiteko: Spoken in parts of Cuilco and Tectitán (Huehuetenango).

Tz’utujil: Spoken in several of the Lake Atitlán villages, including San Lucas Tolimán, San Pablo La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, San Pedro La Laguna, and Santiago Atitlán.

Uspanteko: Spoken in Uspantán, El Quiché.

Although there are many churches throughout the country, the Catholic Church often has trouble finding priests to fill them, a factor that has contributed to the explosive growth of Evangelical Christianity. Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala three times during his term at the helm of the Vatican; the last visit was for the purpose of canonizing Antigua’s beloved Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur.

Catholicism can still draw a big crowd, though, most noticeably during Holy Week, with its elaborate processions reenacting Christ’s crucifixion, and the annual pilgrimage to Esquipulas on January 16 to pay homage to the Black Christ in the town’s basilica.

Evangelical Christianity

According to some estimates, a third of Guatemala now claims adherence to Protestantism and, more specifically, Evangelical Christianity. The growth of this sect will become obvious as you travel around the country and hear the sounds of loud evening worship services, known as cultos, emanating from numerous churches, particularly in the highlands. The trend toward Evangelical Christianity dates to the aftermath of the 1975 earthquake, which destroyed several villages throughout the highlands. International aid agencies, several of them overtly Christian, rushed into Guatemala at a time of great need and gained many grateful converts in the process. During the worst of the civil war violence of the 1980s, many Guatemalans sought comfort in the belief of a better life despite the hardships of the present. Other factors making Evangelical Christianity attractive to Guatemalans include the tendency toward vibrant expressions of faith, spontaneity, and the lack of a hierarchy, which makes spiritual leaders more accessible to common people.

A notorious legacy of Guatemala’s trend toward Protestantism was the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, a prominent member of Guatemala City’s Iglesia El Verbo (Church of the Word), who sermonized Guatemalans on subjects including morality, Christian virtues, and the evils of communism via weekly TV broadcasts. Meanwhile, a scorched-earth campaign aimed at exterminating the guerrilla presence raged in the highlands, though violence in the cities was widely curtailed and order somewhat restored. He faced charges of genocide in a Guatemalan court and was even (briefly) found guilty, though it’s doubtful he will ever be brought to justice. Also disturbing was the short presidency of Jorge Serrano Elías, another self-proclaimed Evangelical now exiled in Panama after he dissolved congress in a failed autocoup, which ended in his ouster a few days later. His government faced widespread corruption charges.


Guatemala’s official language is Spanish, though as mentioned there are 23 other ethnolinguistic groups in this very diverse nation. Guatemalan Spanish is fairly clean and tends to avoid the dropping off of the last syllables in words, a common occurrence in Caribbean Spanish-speaking countries. This makes Guatemalan Spanish particularly easy to learn and understand for foreigners, a fact attested to by the overwhelming number of Spanish-language schools present in many parts of the country, but especially in Antigua and Quetzaltenango. Spanish schools are also present in Cobán, Huehuetenango, Todos Santos, San Andrés, San José (Petén), and Panajachel, to name a few. It’s also possible to learn Mayan languages in many of these schools.



Guatemala’s first literary figure was Jesuit priest and poet Rafael Landívar (1731-1793). A native of Antigua, his most well-known work is Rusticatio Mexicano, a poem describing rural customs of the times. Landívar was forced to leave Guatemala in 1767 when his order was expelled from the Americas by the Spanish crown. The country’s best-known writer is Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974), winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in literature. His most famous works include El Señor Presidente (1946), about the maniacal dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, and Hombres de Maíz (1949, translated as Men of Maize), about the Mayan peasantry. One of the characters in the latter is a guerrilla warrior by the name of Gaspar Ilom, a name that Asturias’s son Rodrigo, influenced by his father’s writings, would appropriate as a pseudonym while leading one of the guerrilla factions comprising the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). His other well-known works include El Papa Verde (The Green Pope, 1954, about the United Fruit Company) and Weekend en Guatemala (1968, about the 1954 coup that ousted Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán).

A Few Chapinismos

The following is a listing of a few more commonly used Guatemalan expressions and slang terms. A full glossary can be found in the Resources chapter.

aguas!: watch out!

a todo mecate: full-speed ahead

babosadas: lies or nonsense

cachito: a little bit

canche: blond or fair-skinned; also was a term used of guerrilla fighters during the civil war

capearse: to play hooky

caquero: arrogant or stuck-up, usually someone of wealth

casaca: tall tales or embellishments

chapparro: person of short stature

chupar: to drink alcoholic beverages

clavos: problems

(tener) conectes: to have influence because of important or powerful friends

cuates: buddies

goma (estar de): to be hungover

güiro: a child

jalón: a lift or ride (in a vehicle)

mango: a handsome man

mordida: bribe

muco: a person of low social class, usually used disdainfully by upper-class Guatemalans in reference to lower classes

pisto: money

salsa: to (mistakenly) think oneself cool and hip

sho (hacer): to be quiet (shut up)

shuco: dirty

shute: nosy

vonós: “let’s go,” a shortened version of vámonos

Modern Guatemalan authors of note include Francisco Goldman, author of several novels, including The Long Night of White Chickens, which takes place mostly in Guatemala, The Ordinary Seaman (1997), and The Divine Husband (2004). Arturo Arias is another modern-day author known for having written the screenplay for the movie El Norte and the book After the Bombs, chronicling the Arbenz period and the aftermath of his overthrow. Víctor Perera has written several excellent books on Guatemalan culture and history, including Unfinished Conquest (1993) and Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood (1986).

Visual Arts

Guatemala’s rich history in the visual arts dates to pre-Columbian times, with the painting of exquisite murals and the carving of stelae by the Maya. The colonial period also left a substantial artistic legacy, mostly by anonymous artists. An exception is the work of Thomas de Merlo (1694-1739), whose paintings can still be seen in Antigua’s Museo de Arte Colonial. Sculptor Quirio Cataño carved the Black Christ of Esquipulas in 1595, now an object of much veneration for pilgrims from all over Central America.

More recently, Kaqchikel painter Andrés Curruchich (1891-1969) pioneered the “primitivist” style of painting from his hometown in Comalapa, Chimaltenango. The currents of indigenismo ran strongly throughout the 20th century and were marked by an often-romanticized portrayal of indigenous culture, as evidenced by the murals found in Guatemala City’s Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, which are the work of Alfredo Gálvez Suárez (1899-1946). Also in this vein was sculptor Ricardo Galeotti Torres (1912-1988), whose works include the giant marimba sculpture found in Quetzaltenango and the Tecún Umán statue in the plaza of Santa Cruz del Quiché.

Perhaps Guatemala’s best-known visual artist, Carlos Mérida (1891-1984) was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso, whom he met while studying painting in Paris between 1908 and 1914. His indigenista art predates the work of Mexican muralists the likes of Diego Rivera by about seven years and sought to unify European modernism with themes more specific to the Americas. Mérida’s work exhibits three major stylistic shifts throughout the years: a figurative period from 1907 to 1926, a surrealist phase from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s, and a geometric period from 1950 until his death in 1984. Many of his works can be seen in Guatemala City’s Museum of Modern Art, which bears his name. Mérida’s murals also grace the walls of several Guatemala City public buildings.

Another artist whose work adorns Guatemala City architecture is sculptor and engineer Efraín Recinos, designer of the city’s Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias. A large Recinos mural composed of blue and green tiles was formerly housed inside La Aurora International Airport but was recently demolished as part of the airport renovation project. The large, white sculptures lining the airport’s exterior facade were also created by Recinos and have been restored and incorporated into the terminal’s new design.

In March 2007, Guatemala City hosted a sculpture festival with the participation of 12 internationally acclaimed artists working during a two-week period to create unique art pieces from blocks of marble. It was the first event of its kind held in Central America. The sculptures are now part of the city’s artistic legacy and can be found along the boulevard connecting the international airport to Bulevar Liberación.


In addition to the well-documented architectural legacy of the Maya, Guatemala is also known for its baroque architecture, found mostly in Antigua and Guatemala City cathedrals and government buildings. This style of architecture is a Spanish adaptation to local conditions, marked by the prevalence of earthquakes, with squat, thick-walled structures designed to weather numerous tremors throughout the years. Architecture in rural towns and villages tends to be rather functional, with a recent trend toward grotesque multistory concrete buildings replacing more traditional construction. Classic forms of rural architecture consist (or consisted) largely of whitewashed adobe houses with red-tile roofs.

Guatemala City has its fair share of assembly-line high-rise condominiums, though it also has some noteworthy modern architecture. If you have an interest in this topic, a recommended book is Six Architects (Ange Bourda, 2002), filled with wonderful color photographs chronicling the work of six Guatemala City architects who merged into a single firm and are responsible for several of the city’s nicest buildings.


Guatemala’s national instrument is the marimba, a huge wooden xylophone with probable African origins. You’ll often hear marimba in popular tourist regions such as Antigua, where its cheerful notes can be heard emanating from garden courtyards housed in the city’s larger hotels. Pre-Columbian musical instruments consisted largely of drums, wooden flutes, whistles, and bone rasps. An excellent place to check out the history and origins of Guatemala’s highland Mayan musical traditions is Casa K’ojom, just outside Antigua in Jocotenango.

It’s also not uncommon to hear music with Mexican influence in Guatemala, with the occasional mariachi band contracted to liven up a birthday party. Tejano and ranchera music can often be heard. You’ll also hear North American rock bands here and there, sometimes on bus rides, though the sounds favored by bus drivers seem to have gotten stuck somewhere around 1984.

On the Caribbean Coast, the Garífuna population tends to favor the mesmerizing beats of punta and reggae, with variations including punta rock and reggaeton, English-Spanish rap laid over slowed-down Caribbean-style techno and reggae beats.

Grammy award-winning rock musician Ricardo Arjona is Guatemala’s best-known international recording artist. He lives in Mexico City. Also enjoying recent success is Grammy-winning Gaby Moreno. Spanish-language pop and rock are, of course, also widely heard throughout Guatemala.

TV and Cinema

Guatemala has its very own cable TV channel, Guatevisión, which can be seen in the United States. It features a morning show based in Guatemala City as well as some fairly humorous entertainment programs that provide a glimpse of the nightlife and outdoor recreation scene throughout the country. Guatemala even had a celebrity newscaster of sorts, CNN’s former Mexico City bureau chief Harris Whitbeck, who reported events around the world in English and Spanish. One of his more recent projects is a local TV show, Entrémosle a Guate (Let’s Get in on Guate), with profiles of everyday Guatemalans who make the country a special place. He now lives in Antigua Guatemala, where he and his spouse own a restaurant. Also enjoying celebrity status is Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac, starring in the latest installment of Star Wars, among numerous other films.

As for movies about Guatemala, El Norte (1983, directed by Gregory Nava) is a classic tale of Guatemalan immigrants fleeing the civil war during the 1980s. More recently, in the summer of 2006, Antigua was the scene of on-location shooting for Looking for Palladin, a film about a young Hollywood go-getter who finds himself in Guatemala. Many folks in Antigua are hoping the film will open doors for more movies to be filmed in Guatemala.


Guatemala is world famous for the artistic quality and variety of its crafts, with weaving at the top of the list. Each village has its unique style, and you can recognize villagers from a particular location based solely on their traditional attire. Among the most fascinating handwoven pieces are huipiles, embroidered blouses worn by highland Mayan women that feature colorful motifs that often include plants, animals, and lightning bolts in a dizzying array of colors. While you are certainly welcome to buy village attire, it’s never a good idea to wear it around while in Guatemala, as indigenous peoples will find this highly offensive (or downright hilarious, at best). Many people buy huipiles to frame and hang as home decor, laying the blouse flat with the large head opening at its center or hanging it from a wooden rod. You can see examples where this has been tastefully done in numerous Antigua boutique hotels.


a Guatemalan huipil

Jade jewelry mined from local quarries is a popular item in upscale shops in Antigua. “Primitivist” paintings are popular in the villages of San Pedro and Santiago, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. For wool blankets, check out Momostenango, though you can also find them in markets throughout the country. The best wood carvings are found in the village of El Remate, in the northern Petén department, though traditional wooden ceremonial masks are still an item found exclusively in the Western Highlands.


final approach into Guatemala City