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1983 - Guatemala genocide

Genocide in Guatemala - following a military coup in 1982 that brought General Rios Montt to power, the most brutal period of the long-running civil war began, with several hundred Indian villages obliterated and their inhabitants, presumed to be guerrilla sympathizers, either killed or forced into exile

Civil war existed in Guatemala since the early 1960s due to inequalities existing in the economic and political life. In the 1970s, the Maya began participating in protests against the repressive government, demanding greater equality and inclusion of the Mayan language and culture. In 1980, the Guatemalan army instituted “Operation Sophia,” which aimed at ending insurgent guerrilla warfare by destroying the civilian base in which they hid. This program specifically targeted the Mayan population, who were believed to be supporting the guerilla movement. 


A succession of military dictators had been trying to crush the guerrilla groups, but the most emblematic was General Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power in 1982 following a coup. The evangelical Christian leader was in power at the same time as United States President Ronald Reagan, who supported the Guatemalan leader with arms and expertise. Rios Montt famously pursued a “scorched earth” policy, which involved heavy bombing of areas known to be home to guerrillas and a ground campaign that led to a string of horrific massacres against the civilian population.

Over the next three years, the army destroyed 626 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million, while more than 150,000 were driven to seek refuge in Mexico. Forced disappearance policies included secretly arresting or abducting people, who were often killed and buried in unmarked graves. In addition, the government instituted a scorched earth policy, destroying and burning buildings and crops, slaughtering livestock, fouling water supplies and violating sacred places and cultural symbols.


Many of these actions were undertaken by the army, specifically through special units known as the Kaibiles, in addition to private death squads, who often acted on the advice of the army. The U.S. government often supported the repressive regimes as a part of its anti-Communist policies during the Cold War. The violence faced by the Mayan people peaked between 1978 and 1986. Catholic priests and nuns also often faced violence as they supported the rights of the Mayan people.


Guatemala's Historical Clarification Commission determined 93 percent of the violence was perpetuated by the state, with 83 percent of the victims indigenous Maya civilians. While a majority of internally displaced people (IDP) returned to their homes shortly after they fled, a large number of IDPs remained displaced throughout Guatemala, with many emigrating to the United States to seek asylum and work.


Further Reading


Center for Latin American Studies - Guatemala: Remembering the Past, Looking to the Future

Robert Nickelsberg Guatemala’s Struggle and the Civil War in the Early 1980s

LA Times - Guatemala’s Civil War Devastated the Country’s Indigenous Maya Communities

Central American Stories - Ixil: Resisting the Army Repression

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