Guatemala, 1981- 1983

Guatemala is a country in Central America where Spanish colonial rule repressed but did not erase indigenous Mayan culture. Colonialism’s deep inequality continued after independence. A few large landowners, eventually joined by foreign multinationals such as the United Fruit Company, controlled much of the land, while most of the population struggled to survive in subsistence and debt-bound conditions. Hopes for a better future were stymied by a CIA-led coup against a reformist government, kicking off years of military rule.

In 1960, a socialist guerilla insurgency gained little foothold with the rural Maya and was destroyed by a counterinsurgency campaign supported by the U.S. When a second insurgency arose in the 1970s, its leaders made an effort to recruit disenfranchised rural populations, including the Maya. When the government ignited another counterinsurgency campaign, purported Mayan support for the guerillas put them in the line of fire. The military governments of Romeo Lucas García, Efraín Ríos Montt, and Oscar Mejía Víctores oversaw the height of the genocidal counterinsurgency campaign, which attempted to destroy the guerillas by terrorizing the rural population and remaking rural society.

In a scorched earth campaign, the military massacred 100,000-250,000 civilians, destroyed at least 440 villages, perpetrated a campaign of systematic rape, and left extensive environmental damage. Villages seen as sympathetic to the guerillas which were not destroyed outright were moved to “model villages” where life was strictly controlled. In the model villages, social and religious traditions were difficult to maintain. Due to the widespread destruction caused by the counterinsurgency campaign, survivors were dependent on the military for basic necessities. Resistance risked the loss of this support or even murder. To further isolate villages from the guerrillas, local men were coerced into joining “civilian defense patrols” that patrolled the area and sometimes participated in massacres. This complicity in atrocities shattered already vulnerable communities.

Guatemala has made some efforts to examine the past. The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) was part of a peace agreement between the government and the rebels signed in 1996. It released a report called “Memory of Silence” in 1999 detailing the genocide and confirming that the military was responsible for 93% of all atrocities. The Catholic Church also released the report “Guatemala: Nunca Más.” Although neither report has prompted much government action, both gave survivors the opportunity to tell their stories. Attempts to try genocide suspects in Spain under the principle of universal jurisdiction were followed by the Guatemalan trial of Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide. This verdict was overturned, and Ríos Montt died in 2018 before another trial could conclude. However, there have been recent efforts to bring to trial other military officers involved in the genocide.


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2017.

Jones, Susanne. “Guatemala: Acts of Genocide and Scorched-Earth Counterinsurgency War.” In Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, edited by Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.

guatemala 1981 1983