The Guatemalan Civil War


A man called Raphael took me across a lake. It was dawn, and the mist was rising. The hills looked like the snout of a sleeping crocodile. As he paddled into the mouth of a reed-choked river, Raphael imitated the whistles of birds and the grunts of cocodrillos. Tiny bats scattered from a rotting log. Raphael leapt onto the bank now and then to gather plants - maize and sweetcorn, rushes for making thatch, a handful of lilies for his wife. It was very peaceful. I watched Raphael’s face. He was possessed of kind, sloping features, very open, very calm. It occurred to me that it didn’t look like a face that has lived through a thirty-year war.

Guatemala’s war ended in 1996. There have been less than ten years of peace, and the country is still in recovery. The legacy of that violence shows itself in the regular army checkpoints, the armed police outside every government building, bank or supermarket, the bulletholes in walls and road signs. What is harder to see is the scars on people, other than the one-legged war veterans begging outside expensive shops. Guatemala’s tourist industry is booming - the Maya are the country’s number one tourist attraction. It is hard to remind yourself that every person you see over the age of ten has experienced, in some way, a brutal war.

The civil war started in the 1960’s, but the roots go back a long way before that - right back to the Spanish invasion and the attempted extermination of the original Maya inhabitants. Guatemalan society has long been divided into three sectors - at the top, the descendents of the first conquistadors and European settlers (who still own about 70% of the land) - in the middle, the mixed-race mestizos - and at the bottom of the political and economic hierarchy, the indiginous Maya, who still retain much of their language and traditions after five centuries of foreign colonisation.

The rule of Juan Jose Arevalo, in 1945, was what started the latest wave of conflict between the Maya and their Spanish conquerers. Arevalo was a philosopher who attempted to redistribute much of the land to benefit poorer people, but was strongly opposed by the armed forces - during his six year reign there were 25 coup attempts. Arevalo was succeeded by Colonel Jacobo Guzman in 1951, who tried to go even further in democratising the country - he broke up large private estates and then expropriated vast lands belonging to the US-owned United Fruit Company. This was too much for the USA. A CIA-backed coup toppled the government in 1954, sparking off three decades of military rule, assassinations, secret police repression and war.

The atrocities peaked in the presidency of General Rios Montt, an evangelical Christian who, in the name of stabilisation and anticommunism (this was the height of the Cold War) initiated a “scorched earth” policy that exterminated entire villages in suspected rebal areas. Over 400 villages disappeared from the map completely, and huge numbers of Mayan men, women and children were tortured and murdered. After 1983 this outright genocide died down, but the war continued, with over 100 political assassinations estimated every month. By the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, over 200,000 people - overwhelmingly Maya - had died.

Since then, thankfully, things have improved. The Maya are now bringing the Guatemalan government thousands of dollars a year through tourism. But tensions still exist, and the Maya are still without economic equality or meaningful political power.

One of the hardest hit regions in the war was the northeast El Peten district, home to the ruins of the great Mayan civilisation of Tikal. This was where I met Raphael in his boat on the shores of the lake. Raphael is in his mid-forties, so must have lived through that genocide and known war for the best part of his life. Of course, I did not ask anything about this. I don’t feel I really have the right. I have no way of knowing if he was forced to fight, or was one of the thousands of people arrested and tortured by the US-backed government troops - though as a Mayan man of “combat age” throughout that time, it is surely quite likely. Yet Raphael was one of the gentlest, calmest and kindest people I’ve met on my travels so far. And despite five centuries of foreign invasion, oppression and slaughter of the Mayan people, he welcomed me, a foreigner, unquestioningly.