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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala

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Guatemala Facts
Area:    42,042 sq. km.
Capital:    Guatemala City
Total Population:    12,008,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

Four factors increase the likelihood of future indigenous rebellion in Guatemala: persistent protest in past decade; territorial concentration; high levels of group organization and cohesion; and government policies of forcefully evicting landless indigenous peasants who have occupied lands demanding land reform. Four factors favor the containment of rebellion: Guatemala's history of democratic elections; efforts at negotiation and reform; transnational support for settlement and reform; and lack of serious armed conflicts in neighboring countries. Despite ongoing protests surrounding land distribution, the prospects for continued stability in Guatemala are very good. However, progress in the peace process has resulted less from government efforts at negotiation and reform, which have been hampered by a corrupt judicial system, than from strong transnational support for peace led by the UN peacekeeping mission to Guatemala (MINGUA), the URNG’s transformation into a conventional political party, and the momentum of three successive democratic elections. The November 2003 presidential election in particular bodes well for continued stability: the overwhelming defeat of General Efrain Rios Montt, who was Guatemala's dictator in 1982-83, is seen as another step toward peacetime stabilization and democracy.

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Analytic Summary

The majority of indigenous peoples in Guatemala are of Mayan descent and are dispersed throughout the country with the largest populations in rural departments north and west of Guatemala City, most notably Quiché, Alta Verapaz, Sololá, Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango and Huehuetengango (GROUPCON = 2). They are identified by language, with Quiche, Cakchiquel, Mam (Maya), Tzutujil, Achi, and Pokoman being the most common of the approximately 26 indigenous languages spoken (LANG = 1). As colonists and other foreign entities took control of lands held communally prior to colonization, indigenous groups moved to smaller land plots in higher elevations and were subject to indentured labor on foreign-held lands in the encomienda land system. Over time, the decreasing size of their land plots has forced indigenous Guatemalans into wage labor on non-indigenous owned lands. Today, less than one percent of agricultural producers control 75 percent of the best land in Guatemala. Indigenous peoples find wage labor through seasonal migration.

Indigenous Guatemalans experience demographic stress in the form of poor public health conditions and migration both internally and abroad. While some economic remedial policies have been instituted in recent years (ECDIS06 = 1), pervasive social exclusion, limited land access and ineffectual government leadership have inhibited these positive gains. Social practices and apathy in the government result in political exclusion of indigenous people (POLDIS03 = 3). Despite a few remedial laws passed in recent years, little has been done to improve the lot of the indigenous after the 36-year civil war, when more than 200,000 indigenous were killed and tens of thousands disappeared. Historical exclusion accounts for limited political access to civil service and high office. Political discrimination can also be seen in the restrictions of indigenous rights in judicial proceedings. Many indigenous have been recently tried in Spanish, even though they do not speak the language. Few of the people responsible for the massacre of 200,000 indigenous people during the civil war have been brought to justice. While constitutional law permits universal suffrage, the voting rights of indigenous people are limited by exclusionary social practices such as lack of transportation, tedious voter registration requirements and elections scheduled during harvest season. In 2002 and 2003 there was a rise in death threats and abductions against human rights and indigenous leaders. In particular, activists working to bring government officials and military officers to trial over the atrocities committed during the civil war have faced threats. These are not idle threats: since 2002 there have been scattered murders of indigenous and human rights leaders. Many illiterate indigenous men are forced into the military against their will, and, in a country that is 43 percent indigenous, only 14 percent of the police force is indigenous, largely due to social discrimination.

Although there is no government policy of discrimination regarding the promotion of indigenous cultural rights, and a few remedial policies and judicial rulings have bolstered indigenous cultural rights, the free expression of indigenous religion, dress, and language has been limited by a shortage of resources and a lack of political will to enforce laws and implement the 1996 peace accords. The Constitution, however, recognizes the multi-ethnic nature of Guatemala, obliging the government to respect and promote the cultural rights of the indigenous. In recent years a more serious national dialogue has commenced to improve the economic, political and cultural status of indigenous groups. More legislation and funding passed in 2004 to promote and protect indigenous languages and provide money for bilingual education (CULPO206 = 1), though the legal strides have yet to make a significant difference in quality of life. Indigenous are still drastically disadvantaged when it comes to education, wealth and political strength.

Indigenous Guatemalans’ principal grievances are protection of and access to lands being used for the advantage of other groups; improved working conditions and wages; equal civil rights and status; the location and identification of indigenous persons missing or dead since the civil war; the prosecution of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the civil war; the right to teach, publish, and deal with the government in their own language; promotion of group culture and life ways; greater political rights in their own community; less discriminatory police services; and greater participation in central state decisionmaking (POLGR04-06 = 2; ECGR04-06 = 2; CULGR04-06 = 2). Major protests by indigenous and civil society groups in Guatemala and other Central American countries erupted over the Central American Free Trade Agreements (CAFTA) in 2005. CAFTA was passed in March 2005 despite protests that turned deadly in Guatemala (REPNVIOL05 = 5).

Representing nearly half of Guatemala’s population, indigenous groups maintain a strong identity. In recent years, indigenous Guatemalans experienced scant intra-group conflict. From 2002 to 2003, several people were killed in a rising tide of political violence attributed to the reactivation of the Civilian Self-Defense Patrols (PACs) that are connected to the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). The PACs’ main role is to harass, threaten and sometimes kill human rights and indigenous leaders who do not support the FRG. The PACs are mostly made up of indigenous men, most of whom were forced to work for them during the 36-year civil war. The reactivation of the PACS in 2002 was connected to the presidential election campaign of General Efrain Rios Montt, the founder of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party. Rios Montt was Guatemala's dictator in 1982-83, during which the military and the PACs were largely responsible for thousands of deaths. Rios Montt lost the 2003 election on November 9, capturing less than 20 percent of the vote. His defeat is seen as a further step toward peacetime stabilization and democratization, and it is likely that political violence by PACs will decrease.

Indigenous rights in Guatemala are represented chiefly by the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unit (URNG), formerly an umbrella organization of guerilla groups which evolved into a conventional political party by 1998. The indigenous are also represented by the National Assembly of Representatives of the Mayan People and the National Council of Mayan Peoples. In 2004, attempting to present a unified front to the Guatemala government, the National Assembly entered into dialogue with the National Council of Mayan Peoples. Labor and land rights are represented by the National Federation of Peasant Organizations (CNOC) and the Equality Committee on Indigenous People's Land Rights. A number of small NGOs, most notably the Mutual Support Group (GAM) and Families of Guatemalan Disappeared (FAMDEGUA), have also emerged to lobby for the prosecution of human rights abuses and to locate persons dead and missing since the civil war (GOJPA06 = 2). In 2004, the Guatemalan Association of Mayan Lawyers was created to help select judges and defend the rights of indigenous peoples. Aside from the continued funding of the United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINGUA), established to ensure the implementation of the 1996 peace accords between the URNG and the government, indigenous Guatemalans have received ideological transnational support from the European Union and numerous regional and non-governmental organizations on issues including human rights, constitutional reform, and judicial access. They include the Latin American Human Rights Association, the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA), the International Indian Treaty Council, Amnesty International, and the World Bank.

In 1960, a Castro-backed rebellion attempt in the wake of the 1954 U.S. invasion set off what would become a 36-year civil war (REBEL60-96 = 7) pitting the military-dominated government against leftist guerrilla forces and suspected indigenous sympathizers. Increasing military repression and massacres of indigenous communities throughout the 1960s prompted an increase in indigenous organization in the 1970s which became militant by 1980. After the 1980 killing of 39 Mayans who occupied the Spanish Embassy seeking redress, fighting escalated between the government and indigenous groups, represented under the umbrella of the URNG, until the signing of the 1996 peace accords. No indigenous rebellion has occurred in recent years (REB04-06 = 0). Since 1996, indigenous groups have demanded the public exposure and prosecution of human rights violations committed by the government during the civil war, which claimed some 200,000 lives and caused the displacement and migration of hundreds of thousands more. The government’s efforts to acknowledge and prosecute human rights abuses, including its cooperation with a UN-sponsored "truth commission," have been marred by charges of judicial corruption in the light sentencing of human rights cases. Similarly, international praise for legislation protecting indigenous dress in schools, and for the democratic presidential election of 1999 has been weighed against criticism of unsanctioned voter intimidation during a 1999 referendum on indigenous rights. More recently, indigenous groups have protested in large numbers for more equitable labor rights; for the fulfillment of peace accords related to land distribution; and against lack constitutional support for indigenous people in Guatemala (PROT01-03 = 4; PROT04-05 = 3; PROT06 = 4). Though protests have been met with some limited force, the absence of open government repression has underscored the relative stability of its relationship with the indigenous community since 1996.

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References

Adams, Richard. 1994. "A Report on the Political Status of the Guatemalan Maya." In Van Cott, Donna Lee. Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America. New York. St. Martin's Press.

CIA World Factbook. 2008. "Guatemala." https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gt.html, accessed 7/27/2008.

Conciliation Resources. 1997. "Reframing citizenship: indigenous rights, local power and the peace process in Guatemala" http://www.c-r.org/our-work/accord/guatemala/reframing-citizenship.php, accessed 7/27/2008.

Keesing's Record of World Events. 3/2005. “Americas.” www.keesings.com, accessed 7/27/2008.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1995-2006.

Loucky, James and Robert Carlsen.1991. "Massacre in Santiago Atitlan." Cultural Survival Quarterly. Summer: 65-70.

Mendoza, Carlos A.2006. "Structural causes and diffusion processes of collective violence: Understanding lynch mobs in post-conflict Guatemala." Paper prepared to be delivered at the 2006 Meeting of the Latin American Studies Association. San Juan, Puerto Rico. http://www.nd.edu/~cmendoz1/collectiveviolencelasa2006.pdf, accessed 7/28/2008.

Minority Rights Group International. 9/1994. "The Maya of Guatemala." London: Minority Rights Group International.

Psacharopoulos, George and Harry Anthony Patrinos. 1994. Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America. Washington, D.C. The World Bank.

Swords, Alicia C. S. 2007. "Neo-Zapatista Network Politics: Transforming Democracy and Development" Latin American Perspectives. 34:2. 78-93. http://lap.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/34/2/78, accessed 7/27/2008.

Trudeau, Robert H. 1993. Guatemalan Politics. Boulder, CO. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

UN - Programme of activities of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004). 8/12/2004. “The situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.” http://www.culturalsurvival.org/resources/documents/N0445874.pdf?OpenElement

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Guatemala. 2000-2006. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006