Guatamalan Genocide (1981-1983). List of Genocides of the 20th Century

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Before the Genocide: Mayan Civilisation

The Mayans are indigenous people within the southern region of North America and the northern region of Central America.

Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras were home to the Mayan civilisation which began it’s civilisation around 1800BC and thrived until the 8th to 10th century AD.

It is not known exactly why the Mayan civilisation collapsed but theories suggest that, the towns, cities and society in general was so huge and overpopulated that its became unsustainable through lack of food and resources. Other theories suggest that there may have been a rampant epidemic or revolt among the peasant Mayans, but recent studies suggest that there was quite possibly a 200 year long drought that destroyed the mighty civilisation.


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Before the Genocide: Inequality in Guatemala

Even though there was a collapse of the civilisation, Mayans still exist in their millions to this day and in Guatemala they outnumber the present day descendants of the Spanish colonists who arrived in the 16th century.

Unfortunately though, throughout history the Mayans have been treated as 2nd class citizens in their own country, where they have remained so till the present, regardless of them being the ethnic majority.

Having gained independence from Spain in 1821, broken away from Mexican empire and the later the United Provinces of Central America, Guatemala, in 1871, attempted a period of modernisation, trade increase and manufacturing led by the long time Justo Rufino Barrios, military generals and others.

They soon overthrew Guatemala’s conservative dictatorship and in 1873 and Justo Rufino Barrios became the president of Guatemala.

Barrios set up a number of reforms in the country, claiming land from the Catholic Church and removing their power, set up of a reliable police force, established public schools throughout the country, constructed roads, ports and railroads and so on.

He had countrywide reforms to modernise the country but also put major effort in coffee cultivation where he gave land free or at a reasonable price to cultivators.

Although all this modernisation and prospect of increased income seems ideal, Barrios used the native Indians, the Mayans, to carry out the labour but offered very little in return. He also gave a vast proportion of the land away to foreign investors, leaving nothing for the people.

Barrios hated the Mayans and could never see them as part of his modern Guatemala due to their supposed lack of sophistication and restraint of their culture.

Even after Barrios’s death in 1985 nothing changed for the native Mayans. For decades to come, they would merely be used as a cheap labour force by the dictator governments to develop Guatemala. None of the wealth gained ever made it into the pockets of the Mayans and they remained as peasants.


Pre Genocide: Brief Period of Change “Ten Years of Spring”

In 1944, the military dictator at the time, Jorge Ubico, was overthrown by the “October Revolutionaries” who were a group of students, professionals, military personnel and individuals who wanted change.

The instability arising after the coup and the atrocities that occurred made the people go on a general strike which chocked the country. Ubico gave up his power and Juan José Arévalo, in 1945, took power and later by Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1951.

The following 10 years, including both their presidencies, was a time of land reform, free speech, equality and political activity. Reforms were introduced which would put the needs and interests of the native people first. The Mayans were given education, social security and fair medical care. They could set up workers unions to give them political strength as well. The change even allowed women, in general, the right to vote.

Land reform was another attempted change, were unused agricultural land was given to landless rural workers. Some land was bought back from the United Fruit Company, that was an American based company who were given up 40 percent of Guatemalas agricultural lands to grow mainly banana plantations. The UFC was invited to the country by previous dictators with the idea that it could bring money and employment to the country but little profits ever made their way to the poorer people, especially the Mayans. This land bought back was to be given to poorer rural people and the indigenous Mayans.

The UFC did not approve of the payments they received for the land and didn’t like the idea that they could lose the vast control they had over the lands and thus the government, so they decide to influence the United States government back at home to take action against the Guatemalan government.

The US launched a plan to overthrow Arbenz, they invaded Guatemala and deposed him from his title. Arévalo and Árbenz’s progress was ruined and the country was taken over by a right wing military government led by Castillo Armas.In 1962, their policies resulted in a civil war that would span over 35 years.


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The Guatemalan Mayan Genocide Begins

Left wing, armed resistance groups began to form with the intention of overthrowing the suppressing government. In 1981, Guerrilla groups including the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), the Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms (ORPA), and the National Directing Nucleus of PGT (PGT-NDN), merged into one new group called Guatemala’s United Front, Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG).

The URNG got assistance, shelter and food from the poor rural people including the Mayans, but also from many urban intellectuals.

The first major sign of Guatemalan Mayan genocide occurred in this same year, 1981, while a group of Mayan leaders made their way to Guatemala City and marched into the Spanish embassy for a peaceful protest against the repression of their people.

The government responded to this, not with diplomacy or talks, but by burning down the embassy and killing every Mayan and all embassy staff inside.

Since the Mayans were helping the left wing resistance, among other poorer people and urban intellectuals, the government realised that this would be a perfect opportunity to place all the blame on the Mayan people and organise a counter insurgency against them.

The military began country wide repression of the Mayans but soon this would lead from a repression to extermination.

The army, alongside its civil patrols, who were essentially local thugs, made their way through the Mayan regions and rounded up the inhabitants of around 626 villages.

The Mayan people in their villages were murdered, tortured and beaten. Women were raped and other sadistic military actions such as amputation of limbs, impaling, setting people alight, and other occurred.

There were horrific and unbelievable reports of pregnant women’s wombs being cut open and the unborn foetuses being smeared against trees. Others report that children were often beaten to death against walls.

After these inhumane and barbaric atrocities, the villages were burned down, livestock were killed, crops were destroyed, water sources were poisoned and sacred places were violated. Any survivors were hunted down and killed. The bodies of Mayan people were dumped collectively in unmarked ditches.

The URNG was unable to help the Mayans as the army way outnumbered them, so the Mayans had no aid and were all by themselves.

All this time while being suppressed and murdered, no foreign forces came to their rescue and very strangely the US government actually helped the Mayan genocide by aiding the Guatemalan army with ammunition and guerrilla training in theUS.

Overall over 200, 000 Mayan civilians were murdered and countless towns and villages were destroyed along with their livestock and crops.

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Post Genocide Period

A civilian government ruled after the genocide and eventually, in 1991, peace talks were set up by the UN. The talks were held off for a couple of years but resumed in 1994.

By 1996, the government and the URNG established a ceasefire, ending the civil war, which had lasted 36 years.

A report, 'Guatemala: Memory of Silence' was published in February 1999. The report outlined that there was an obvious Governmental planned genocide of the Mayan people.

Till this day, Guatemala remains to struggle economically and socially, with great divides between the wealthy and poor, especially Mayans. Some individuals of the genocidal army have received convictions and punishment, but only a very small proportion, The Mayan people may never get the justice they deserve and have deserved for centuries.

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