Genocide: Guatemala

The genocide that took place in Guatemala was one against the indigenous population, who had been placed in an inferior position from the moment the Europeans invaded the area. The genocide in Guatemala is also known as the Silent Holocaust.

What came before

Before the arrival of the Europeans, present-day Guatemala was the center of Mayan culture, a flourishing civilization. With the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century, the native Indians often became slaves in their own country. At the end of the nineteenth century, a dictator encouraged the cultivation of coffee and there were large coffee plantations run by large landowners. Soon it was American investors who called the shots. The Indians did not benefit in any way from the coffee proceeds and a strong army and police force ensured that they knew their place. This situation continued until 1944 when a more enlightened regime came to power, which paid attention to the indigenous population. Education, health care was provided and even trade unions were allowed. Plans were made to declare the land owned by large landowners the property of the state and this was when things went wrong. The Americans saw their trade interests being threatened and decided to intervene. Warnings were issued about hostile communists and Guatemalans were trained in the US to overthrow the incumbent government during an invasion. From this point on, political parties and unions were banned and many Guatemalans fled their country. One military dictator after another followed, and this continued until a civil war broke out in 1962 that would last more than 35 years.


However, the Indians had learned their lessons during the short period of freedom and with the help of the Catholic Church, cooperatives were set up, swamp areas were cultivated and traditional culture and left-wing politics were not forgotten. An opposition emerged that did not use violence. But guerrilla groups emerged that did not shy away from violence and followed Marxist lines, sometimes receiving help from Cuba. Three guerrilla groups united in 1981 to form Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) or Guatemala’s United Front. That same year, a group of peaceful Mayan Protestants went to Guatemala City where they occupied the Spanish embassy to protest the government’s oppression of the indigenous population. The Spanish ambassador called on the Guatemalan government not to use force, but in vain: the embassy was burned down and the demonstrators and most of the embassy staff were killed.

Silent Holocaust

This was the moment when the Guatemalan government turned to systematic violence against the indigenous population, who were accused of preparing a communist coup. The army, together with militias who described themselves as ‘killing machines’, would commit horrific atrocities against the Indian population for two years. This is sometimes called the ‘Silent Holocaust’. The Mayan population was seen as the natural supporters of the guerrillas and therefore excessive violence was used against them, including women, children and the elderly. The entire area where the Maya lived was systematically completed, 626 villages were attacked, often while celebrations or a market were going on. The province of Quiché in particular had a hard time. The villages were surrounded, women and men separated and then the torture and executions began. Those who could not escape were murdered, others had to watch and sometimes participate. Women were systematically raped and traditional culture was deliberately denigrated. Sacred sites were desecrated, livestock killed, wells poisoned; the scorched earth tactic was employed. Both the army and special death squads were guilty of violence against the Mayans. Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum is an example of someone who lost almost her entire family during the violence. The URNG could not help the Mayans, their numbers were too small. Ultimately, more than 200,000 people lost their lives between 1960 and 1996. The peak of the violence was in 1982-3.

Role United States

All this time, the US continued to support the Guatemalan regime, with money and weapons. They also trained Guatemalan officers who were known to be guilty of human rights violations. The CIA worked with Guatemalan secret service people, some were even paid by them, despite their role in the genocide that took place in Guatemala. The US was not interested in the fate of the Indians, their interest was in keeping communism at bay. The Cold War was still in full swing.


In 1986, a new constitution was drawn up and a civilian government was established, but the military retained its power. Peace talks began in 1991, which proceeded with trial and error. In 1994 there was again a new government, this time with the national human rights ombudsman at the helm. In 1996, a peace treaty was signed by both the government and the URNG. Now Guatemala could finally try to recover from the events of the decades before. An amnesty had been declared for the war criminals, which led to much resentment among the victims of those crimes. But the policy of reconciliation was implemented in order to achieve peace.


The Historical Clarification Commission (HCC) was also set up to investigate the atrocities committed. Ultimately, the report Guatemala: Memory of Silence was published. The findings were clear, the government had deliberately committed genocide, with the victims being the local Indians. Recommendations were also made: the memories of the victims should be preserved, the victims had the right to compensation and the democratic process should be strengthened. Another report had already been published in 1998, led by the Catholic Church, known as ‘Never Again’. This report also placed almost full responsibility for the events on the government of the day. This report was presented by Bishop Juan Gerardi, a human rights activist, two days after its publication Gerardi was murdered. In June 2001, three officers were convicted of the murder, the prosecutor was immediately threatened with death and forced to flee Guatemala.